Tomi Kaukinen, Keynote Speaker Licence To Fail Entrepreneur Helsinki Stockholm Ironman

“Entrepreneurship is like falling in love and getting married” – Tomi Kaukinen, Founder of Licence to Fail

We learned from Tomi that burnout is real. It can happen to anyone but it’s not necessarily something to be afraid of. Since the worst moments in our lives can be the ones that make us who we are. During the interview, there were not so many questions to be made because we were blown away by his compelling story about how he made it from a construction worker to a student at Sweden’s top university, what lessons he has after founding several startups, and how he overcame depression and find meaning in life again.

My task was to pick up trash in the Stockholm metro

I have been doing well at school until 14 when I started smoking, trying to be the cool guy. I thought, at that time, having good grades was not cool. I neglected my study and did not go to school after ninth grade. I think it’s the same everywhere that if you don’t go to high school, it’s really hard to get a decent job.

So I ended up in the construction industry. After two years they upgraded me to be a cleaner. My task was to pick up trash in the Stockholm metro. I was feeling a little bit anxious all the time. I used to be good at school, and now I’m picking up trash. I was questioning myself if this is what I want to do in my life but I didn’t have the motivation to go back to school yet. One day, when I came to work, I saw one of my coworkers – a Swedish guy – who was about 50 years old. He was extremely depressed. “I think I screwed up my life”, he told me. And I was like: “What do you mean?”. He replied: “I’m picking up trash, and I’m 50, it’s too late to change.”

It was like my wake-up call – I know that I don’t want to be in his situation. There’s nothing wrong with the job he was working but the regret feeling he was having. I did not want to have that disappointment of myself in the future, so I quit my job. My boss asked me what I was going to do instead, when I told him I would come back to school, he was really happy for me and totally support my decision.

I still make use of what I learned at school today

I was really motivated and started looking for the right university. Then I found Stockholm School of Economics – one of the best schools in Sweden. Its statement – “97 percent of our students have a job within 3 months after graduation” – drew my attention. I decided that I must study there. Students would need to have all A to get in. So I told myself: “Ok, I’m gonna get straight-A’s”. So I studied like crazy every day, every weekend, for 2 years. After that, I got the result that I wanted and was approved to the university I like. I was so happy because, at that point, I knew that once I get to that school and make it, I would never have to do the cleaning job again.

Most of the students in the school have parents who are successful at least in terms of finance, while mine are regular workers. My father was a janitor, and my mother was working as an assistant in an office. I was the first academic in the family. So they were very proud of me. But actually, at school, I felt isolated and did not fit in with others. Everyone else was so smart and from a wealthy background. I tried not to let it affect my study during those four years. It was quite tough.

What I learned at school was considerably broad. I had to understand how national economics and trading work. I think all the common knowledge has built up a strong foundation for me to develop my career. Many people say that what you learn at school is useless in work life, but I don’t agree. A lot of things that I learned, especially finance, I still make use of it today.

A lot of people feel desperate at work because they don’t feel important or find their job meaningful

In 2006, I started my first day at work. It was not fun at all. All I used was Excel sheets. I was like “Have I studied for 4 years for this?”. One year later they asked me if I would like to go to Finland working for another branch of the company. I said yes and moved to Finland, continuing my boring job.

Then I asked for a raise, simply because I wanted more money. My boss told me that I have to take more responsibility in order to earn a better salary. So I was given the JP Morgan portfolio to work on. Everything started to become better since it’s more challenging for me at work. For me, doing stuff for others, like in a junior position, is really boring. I had no sense of accomplishment. I don’t have anything of my own. That portfolio made me feel more important like I was in charge of something. And now I realized that a lot of people feel desperate at work because they don’t feel important or find their job meaningful. So employers or managers have to give people a sense of ownership.

I always thought that money can give me a happy life

I did that for four years feeling quite good along the way. What happened next was this kind of weird existential crisis. Although I was having good money to buy stuff that I like, I wasn’t really happy, which was weird. I always thought that money can give me a happy life. The reality was that I had everything but happiness. Then it started bothering me to go to work because I had to get up every morning doing things I don’t really enjoy.

Summer 2011, I met an eighteen-year-old junior intern in our company who is very smart and knowledgeable. After the training ended, he shared with me an idea about an application he wanted to build. I got interested in and so from September 2011 to April 2012, I was thinking about whether or not to quit my fixed-job as an investment manager. It’s not easy because I was afraid that one day I will regret.

However, I decided to tell my boss that I will leave and start my own company. My boss was like “No, you are not gonna quit!”. She did not propose a better salary but a special offer that they will pay me a full salary in two months when I try out entrepreneurship. After that, I can come back to work again. Then we started the first startup and after two months I told my boss “Thanks, you don’t have to pay me anymore, I’m not coming back”.

Entrepreneurship is like falling in love and getting married

I was like a fish going to swim in the ocean for the first time after being kept in the aquarium. It was such a “weird” relief when I stop asking for permission for my decisions and nobody tells me to do anything anymore. I was fully in charge of everything. I was blown away by the fact that I can do whatever I want. The freedom for me is the best thing.


I think entrepreneurship is like falling in love and getting married. In the beginning, it’s just like paradise. Everything is nice and romantic, you enjoy every part of it, you dream about how you will grow your company. After about 4 years, it comes to the marriage stage. The bigger your company grows, the more serious it becomes. More restrictions appear preventing you from doing all the things you have been conducting. And that’s where I lost my interest.

Failure is not the opposite of success but a part of success

Our first startup failed in one year. Nobody is fond of failure. Everyone tries to run away from failure. But for me, failure is not the opposite of success, it is a part of success. For the second startup (Sportacam – a social media application focusing on sports), when we met investors, they expected us to experience failure already. Because it means you’ve lost people money, and hopefully learn some lessons from it, now you know what you’re doing. 

When we started fund-raising for that project, we didn’t have anything, neither an MVP nor mock-up, but presentation. We have ten slides in powerpoint to show to a lot of investors explaining about our plan. Eventually, we got 100,000€ investment.

The first day at work after the fund-raising was a bit confusing. We had the money in the account, now what’s next? We spent one month and a half for brainstorming ideas and strategies. Then we contacted external developers to conduct the first MVP out of our plan. We attended Slush that year with the MVP, meeting with some investors, receiving many positive feedback. After that, we started to recruit people to build a real team focusing on developing the fully-functioning product.

Never outsource hardcore software development

The biggest lesson I learned from the first startup is never outsourcing the software development, hire the whole internal team instead. Because when it comes to bug fixing after the mobile app is released, inhouse software development makes it much easier, faster and more convenient than counting on an external service. There was one experience with the second startup convincing me that having an internal development team is a wise investment. In our first deal in Spain with a football club called Malaga, we had three hours to install our system so that the video can be sent to the stadium screen for the upcoming game. Everything would be fine if there were modern computer and internet access but there weren’t only a PC window 95 and USB flash drive. It turned out that we have to build a whole new backend system that could work in offline mode. Without the help of our CTO (chief technology officer) and internal developers, the integration would become a disaster. People in our development team also owned a piece of the share, which helped them to be more committed and enthusiastic about growing the company. They could also react quickly on technical problem thanks to the deep understanding of the whole system. Overall, I would not suggest startup to outsource, maybe design or frontend stuffs but never hardcore development.

Spending time talking with people is miraculous

One important thing I always recommend people to do is to spend time meeting with others. Why? Because you will never know what would happen as the result of the meeting and how powerful it could be. I’m always open for a talk, as short as 15 minutes if my schedule is tight. Obviously, you should say no on some occasions, especially if you are already famous or have too many offers. But if you still are a no-name individual striving to become well-known, consider to say yes more often. From my own experience, if it wasn’t for the talk I had with one of my good friends, my second startup should have gained less success than it did.

We knew about the Spain market by accident. That friend told me during lunch about a conference in Barcelona where there would be all the big names in the sports industry. It was three days before the event so I had to make a decision quickly. The total cost for the business trip would be around 5,000€. We were in the middle of the fundraising so only had 10,000€ in the account. I had to ensure that we spend half of our budget for the right thing. And we did, fortunately. We met many important partners, customers and successfully closed the deal, which impressed our investors back home. Thanks to that we moved to Spain, got fund flow around and our business skyrocketed. That same year 2015, we ended up hiring the former director of Real Madrid so it was incredible. From a small startup in Finland to that stage of growth for me it was unbelievable. And the talk I had with my friend played an important role in making this successful. So try to spend time talking with people, it’s miraculous.

The two years working in Madrid was surreal. But we did not grow as fast as we wished. So we changed the strategy to B2B. Instead of selling application, we kept the core technology and provided a plugin for local media companies to install in their own app. The thing with the media industry is that if you have a media house, say a TV channel, you wouldn’t want to promote other apps. You want users to download yours and collect data from it. So this worked quite well and we earned around ten of thousands of euros per deal.

I had to stop working on my business due to the severe pain

Everything went smoothly until I experienced some stomach and back pain. At that point, I was working six years nonstop for our startup. The pain got severe and unendurable that I had to go for many health checks like ultrasound, blood test, etc. Doctors found nothing wrong with my body, yet raging pains kept coming back to me. It was a sheer torture. I just continued working for half a year until I met a psychiatrist who told me that I might be having a psychiatric pain. Meaning that the pain was not real but it felt real, because I was extremely mentally tired. At first, I did not believe it and refused to stop working on the startup that I founded. It’s so hard to give up on something which is your pride and joy. I tried some meditation did not take it so seriously. And the torment did not go away.

So in April 2018, when the situation had become intolerable, I had to stop working on my business. It was weird for me because I have been an entrepreneur for such a long time, everybody knows me as a businessman and at that time I only stayed at home doing nothing, could not even go training because of the nerve damage. I felt miserable and questioned myself all the time – “What’s going on here”, “Who I am”, and “What I’m gonna do”.

I saw people not necessarily living in the best circumstances but still have a strong drive to do good things

Finally, I thought that I need to talk with people so that I might find out what I want and can do next. So I went to The Shortcut, telling them my background and experiences, asking if there were any activities for me to join in. They called me a couple of weeks later telling me about the opportunity to go to Nigeria and Kosovo for some startup programs.

I came to Nigeria first to meet and mentor the local startups. It was an amazing experience. I saw people not necessarily living in the best circumstances but still have a strong drive to do good things. It helped me to feel energetic again. Same with the experience in Kosovo, the young local entrepreneurs there were so enthusiastic and passionate about what they’re doing. I was totally amazed and impressed because I couldn’t see anything like that in Finland.

“Really? People pay me to talk?”

In the meantime, I was also writing down my experience and know-how about entrepreneurship and published it on my blog “License To Fail”. Then suddenly I received a call asking me to have a talk at Slush about managing entrepreneurial pressure. After that came some more speaking invitations to large corporations in Finland. I was confused because it sounded strange to me that people were willing to pay to listen to my story. I started working with My Speaker agency to do more public speaking.

All of a sudden I became a speaker, which is totally unplanned. However, I think this is how life should be. Only now that I believe what they say about you should never quest money, chase your passion and the money will chase you. I wish everyone would find their passion and their passion would actually “employ” them. Meaning that people don’t work for money to survive but doing things they love for a living. Imagine it would be such a wonderful world to live in.

One day she just started crying in the office and realizing this was not for her

It doesn’t matter what you do as long as it makes you happy. Your work does not have to sound fancy or professional or highly appreciated by the public. Only you, not the majority, have to see the joy of working for the job you choose. I met a girl who was running her own tea shop here in Helsinki. I was amazed by just looking at her enjoyably doing her job. She was very passionate explaining to me about tea and urged me to smell different products there.

She told me her story that she used to work for Nokia in Tokyo. The job gave her the chance to travel around the world, which was really glorious. However one day she just started crying in the office and realizing this was not for her, she wasn’t doing what she truly wanted. She started thinking earnestly about what really matters to her and decided to establish the tea shop. And now she is there, happy and shining.

I don’t want to just be happy, I want to find my life meaningful

I read a lot, 30 books a year on average. I try to read more classical literature to learn about life wisdom and how to deal with problems. There was a book by Jordan Peterson called “12 Rules for Life” which changed my perspective on happiness. The idea is that we should look for meaningful things to do instead of happiness. The word happiness sounds considerably abstract to many of us, so if we keep hunting for happiness, we might never get there. I don’t want to just be happy. I want to find my life meaningful by doing works that matter and are in alignment with my values and beliefs.

Then I read another book called “The other side of happiness” by Brock Bastian. He talks about, for example, we need to experience challenges and hardships in order to feel happy. He takes, for example, the miracle of giving birth. Everybody you ask says it’s a big moment. But giving birth to a child is extremely painful. So happiness lies somewhere between difficulty and success. You will notice that the moment when you feel the most excited and delighted is when you have just overcome something burdensome and tough. That also changed my mind a bit because I spent 3 months at home almost doing nothing. That was my lowest point and after that when I started doing meaningful work, engaging with people, I felt happy again.

And I think the people of substance like multimillionaires or Hollywood stars having everything can be really depressed. Even though they can always get the best house, their private jet or go to the moon, they have nothing to fight for. My philosophy is that life would be extremely boring if I don’t have anything to strive for anymore. That’s why I think the rich seek for an experience like donating or flying around the world with the air balloon. The majority may wonder “Why they are still working when they’re already really rich, they can just live comfortably without any worry” but I don’t think it’s fun just playing golf for the rest of one’s life. So working and helping people is the best way to find the meaning of life.

The three pieces of advice I would like to share with people

1. Use a Pomodoro timer or use tools that don’t encourage disturbances. Efficiency suffers and you lose focus.

2. Start and end days with meditation for 10-20 to clear your mind of distractions.

3. Move. Utilize your body. Walk, run, yoga or do strength training. With movement, you become smarter. That is a scientific fact.

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Tomi was an entrepreneur establishing several startups for six years before burnout manifested in his life. After the severe depression, he now finds true happiness by sharing his unique experience and know-how as a keynote speaker and writer through his blog Licence To Fail. Tomi is also an enthusiastic and active mentor for startup specializing in finance.


Ha Nguyen
Ha Nguyen
Co-founder of EoF - Ha is a social entrepreneur & writer who cares about children, education, fairness, the environment, and sustainability. Connect with Ha here:

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