The disruptive entrepreneur

Atte Miettinen talks peaks, profits and bytes with Steve Coomber.

Atte Miettinen talks peaks, profits and bytes with Steve Coomber.

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Only a few hundred people have climbed the seven summits, the highest peaks on each continent. Atte Miettinen is one of those climbers. For most of us, the notion of trekking our way across the globe might seem a daunting prospect, if not impossible. But Miettinen likes to push boundaries. When he is not ascending mountains he can be found accelerating the performance of startups. His most recent project was Pryte (Prot From Every Byte), a tech startup that enables smartphone users to make more sense of the way they use mobile data. Pryte was acquired by Facebook earlier this year.

Miettinen likes to disrupt markets. “is was the fifth technology startup that I’ve been involved in and it follows a similar pattern to the previous ventures – trying to create something innovative that disrupts what exists at the moment,” he says. “It’s about coming up with new or more efficient or more customer-friendly ways of doing things. With Pryte, for example, our aim in the market was to disrupt the way that mobile operators package, price, and sell mobile data, and in doing so make mobile data more consumer-friendly.”

Pryte currently works with Facebook’s initiative to bring connectivity and affordable internet access to the world. After the acquisition, Miettinen made the decision to move on and is no longer involved with the company.


Pryte’s origins were in another Finnish startup. at business focused on services for low-end, green-screen type feature phones, predominately in emerging markets, where the use of those types of phone remains widespread.

“The mobile operators kept telling us that lots of their customers had already migrated from feature phones to smartphones, but that those customers never used data, because it was difficult for them to understand and too expensive,” says Miettinen. “at triggered the idea for a new business.”

Joining forces with a couple of members of the feature-phone startup, Miettinen helped to define and develop the business proposition and take it to market. Initially, he thought the proposition would be most attractive if it used pre-paid smartphone users in emerging markets. But the more mobile operators Miettinen spoke to in his network of contacts, the more he was convinced that the concept appealed to a much wider market.

“Everybody seemed to be excited about it, but they had different use cases,” he says. “At a higher level we realised it is about helping the mobile operators adopt a marketing approach t for the 21st century.

There’s a lot of frustration over the existing pricing models for mobile data. The operators tell customers we are going to sell a certain number of megabytes or gigabytes of data, but it’s very difficult to understand what that means in actual usage – the things that I want do on my phone – whether that’s using Skype, watching videos or surfing Facebook.”

At Pryte, Miettinen set out to turn mobile data into a proposition that is understandable and affordable, enabling the mobile operator to package data on a per application basis. Pryte’s solution means that the operator has the flexibility to package access by the day, the hour, or even the minute, so that everyone can use data, whether they have a post-paid account with unlimited credit or are a pre-paid customer with half a dollar in their account.

Commercialisation catalyst

Miettinen considers himself an unconventional entrepreneur. Rather than the traditional image of the idea-generating founder, he usually has a clearly defined role connected to commercialising an idea, transforming the original idea into a revenue-generating business.

“Often I’m approached by someone that has an idea but doesn’t know how to commercialise it,” he says. “At that point there may be almost nothing – we don’t know what we are selling, how we are selling, or who we are selling to. There’s no office, there may not even be a company. You need a specific skills set. Take Pryte as an example. It is about understanding the market, looking at technologies and capabilities, and turning the basic idea into some sort of value proposition that resonates with the market.”

It is a very important role in a new venture, adds Miettinen. If you cannot define the business model and monetise the idea, then there is no business. Miettinen helps to frame the proposition so that it makes sense for the initial customer and identifies the value for the end user. en, once the rm has established the proposition and needs to gain momentum in the market, he uses his marketing skills and expertise and his network to communicate that proposition.

Miettinen has operated in the mobile space for many years, tracking its development, driving disruptive innovation and establishing a network of contacts with well over 170 mobile operators in almost 100 countries. “I can take a proposition and say let’s look at the entire market, let’s figure out who we need to target and who are likely first buyers of this proposition, and then start making the calls to create commercial momentum,” he says. “Once the doors are open, once they have bought into the strategic proposition, then our sales people will drive the process of getting a deal signed and taking a product to market.”

The role that Miettinen describes requires a deep understanding of the dynamics of the market you are operating in. For example, he understands the way purchasing works in the mobile market. As he explains, it is not necessarily a case of talking directly to the mobile operators.

Instead you might talk to industry analysts, because you know that the operators will listen to the industry analysts.

Another challenge for the early-stage venture that Miettinen can help with is ensuring that the rm attends to the right matters. “ere is a huge amount to do, but there are usually limited resources,” he says. “It’s crucial to figure out what the critical things that need doing are and what is noise that we can live without for the next months, because we can’t afford to get those things done.

“It helps having been there before. Knowing what is relevant and critical doing business in Africa versus Europe, or Latin America, or Asia. It’s all different. It shortens your sales cycle and enables you to get moving more quickly.”

Along the way, he has taken time out to study for an Executive MBA at London Business School. It might seem a strange choice for someone with his successful business track record and rich business experience, but he was keen to bolster his theoretical knowledge. “In Finland most people go to university and get a masters degree. I had a very international childhood, we travelled a lot, and I ended up in an English undergraduate programme for business at the Helsinki School of Economics,” he says.

“Then the way my career evolved at Hewlett Packard meant that I ended up in quite senior roles very early on and there was a lot of learning by doing. I’d always wanted to take a break at some point, to go back and make sure that I know the theory and not just have the practical experience. I just didn’t get the opportunity until 2010 and I completed the programme in 2011.

Peak performance

Besides his career as an entrepreneur helping to commercialise startups, Miettinen is also forging a career as a business speaker, primarily as a result of his passion for adventure. Knowing that he enjoyed travelling, a friend said he might like to climb a mountain.

Never afraid of a challenge, Miettinen started with Kilimanjaro in 2003 and then, in 2009, set out to complete the seven summit challenges – climbing the highest peak on each continent. He completed the task in 2012 with the Denali in Alaska. It is a dangerous pastime: he could easily have died on Everest when his oxygen mask broke above 28,000 feet. So why does he climb? Miettinen sees parallels with his love of startups.

For a start there is the excitement of the journey. “I enjoy all the planning and preparation,” he enthuses. “The more mountains you climb, the more you realise it’s not dramatically different from business. It’s easy to talk about a company and what it has achieved when it is profitable, but I enjoy solving the problems involved in getting to that point. You may not need to physically train so much to start a business, but you need certain skills and expertise. To build a team with the necessary capabilities, you need to plan strategy and prepare.

There is also the process of testing yourself: “Starting or building companies is not an easy process. You have to work hard, invest unreasonable amounts of your free time at the cost of your friends and family, get something moving quickly and build momentum because you have limited resources. But there’s also that sense of achievement when you start seeing things develop. Climbing a mountain also gives you a real feeling of achievement. It gives you the power to take on the next challenge.”

After the last of his seven summit challenges, Miettinen began talking to audiences about his adventures and relating them to business and work. It helps managers look at risks and strategies in a different way, he says. He has also been working with a colleague who has an employee engagement consultancy, building programmes that can embed the lessons from his climbing experiences into the work practices of organisations.

His time has also been taken up with his involvement in an education-related social venture. “Increasingly, I’m looking forward to leaving an impact on the world. For example, I’ve put a lot of energy into a project my wife initiated. We are helping to run a school in Nepal. We’re not just here to make money, or to fulfil our own ambitions. If we can help make somebody else’s dreams come true, that’s even better.

For the moment, though, Miettinen is firmly focused on helping other entrepreneurs achieve their goals and wants to share the wisdom he has picked up over the years; helping others scale the peaks he has achieved – a new mountain to climb.

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