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OpenOcean
November 28, 2017
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A story from OpenOcean Poker Night: How a demoralized startup founder turned things around by winning a high-stakes poker game

  •  Niko Karstikko attended a Finnish startup conference in 2014 in hopes of garnering interest in his recently developed fitness app, Sportsetter.
  • At the time, Karstikko was struggling to make ends meet and Sportsetter had yet to generate a viable cashflow. On the last evening of the conference, Karstikko participated in poker tournament attended by a number of influential investors. 
  • Karstikko won the poker tournament and was given the opportunity to deliver a speech; he used his platform to pitch his app and caught the attention of several investors, which later led to the app’s acquisition by a high-profile tech company. 

A down-on-his-luck startup founder hustled up a remarkable change of fortune at a Finnish startup conference in 2014, so we asked him all about it.

Niko Karstikko is co-founder of Sportsetter , an app that’s fairly approximated as “Uber for fitness,” and in 2014, the company’s situation was dire.

“We were running on fumes after a failed investment round earlier that year,” he says. “The short version of the story is that even though the papers were signed, the money never showed up. I was running a team of 15 people, and we were about to run out of cash. It was not the best circumstances, but my one chance to make it happen was with Slush.”

Slush is a startup conference by day turned festival by night in the Finnish capital of Helsinki. Event attendance is smaller than similar startup conferences around the world — 17,500 will show up for this year’s edition , for example — but it is attended by a highly influential crowd nonetheless.

“Slush attracts a lot of high-quality people, from rock stars to royalty to top investors to big-time international entrepreneurs,” says Tom Henriksson, partner at Finnish VC firm OpenOcean. There is rumor of a first-class jet that flies direct from San Francisco to Helsinki, every passenger a venture capitalist attending the event. For the conference’s three-day duration, there is perhaps more investment cash up for grabs in Helsinki than in all of Silicon Valley.

Karstikko of course expected to use his company’s Slush attendance to swing meetings and form the new relationships that would preserve his company’s future. Then an employee got sick, leaving him to fill in on low-level promotional duties.

“Instead of meeting investors, I’m sorting stickers. I didn’t close anything and was absolutely demoralized,” Karstikko recalls. He was in the car on the way home when a colleague convinced him to turn around and enter the OpenOcean poker tournament, taking place that evening at Slush.

“We have about 150 to 200 people each year, and the guest list is about half-and-half entrepreneurs and investors,” says Henriksson, who hosted of the 2014 tournament where Niko made his appearance. “The premise is to have good people meet each other, and to have a poker tournament as the cream on top.”

A down-on-his-luck startup founder hustled up a remarkable change of fortune at a Finnish startup conference in 2014, so we asked him all about it.

Niko Karstikko is co-founder of Sportsetter , an app that’s fairly approximated as “Uber for fitness,” and in 2014, the company’s situation was dire.

“We were running on fumes after a failed investment round earlier that year,” he says. “The short version of the story is that even though the papers were signed, the money never showed up. I was running a team of 15 people, and we were about to run out of cash. It was not the best circumstances, but my one chance to make it happen was with Slush.”

Slush is a startup conference by day turned festival by night in the Finnish capital of Helsinki. Event attendance is smaller than similar startup conferences around the world — 17,500 will show up for this year’s edition , for example — but it is attended by a highly influential crowd nonetheless.

“Slush attracts a lot of high-quality people, from rock stars to royalty to top investors to big-time international entrepreneurs,” says Tom Henriksson, partner at Finnish VC firm OpenOcean. There is rumor of a first-class jet that flies direct from San Francisco to Helsinki, every passenger a venture capitalist attending the event. For the conference’s three-day duration, there is perhaps more investment cash up for grabs in Helsinki than in all of Silicon Valley.

Karstikko of course expected to use his company’s Slush attendance to swing meetings and form the new relationships that would preserve his company’s future. Then an employee got sick, leaving him to fill in on low-level promotional duties.

“Instead of meeting investors, I’m sorting stickers. I didn’t close anything and was absolutely demoralized,” Karstikko recalls. He was in the car on the way home when a colleague convinced him to turn around and enter the OpenOcean poker tournament, taking place that evening at Slush.

“We have about 150 to 200 people each year, and the guest list is about half-and-half entrepreneurs and investors,” says Henriksson, who hosted of the 2014 tournament where Niko made his appearance. “The premise is to have good people meet each other, and to have a poker tournament as the cream on top.”

That year, the prize for winning the tournament was a painting that included the code to 3.1415 bitcoins — “one pi’s worth.” But Karstikko was more interested in the networking opportunity. He took a seat at the first table and started playing poker.

“Everyone’s wearing a blazer and I’m still wearing my promotional gear,” he says. “I recognized some of the top VCs of the world, some partners from Accel, and then 15 minutes later I won the first table.” That evening he proved to be unstoppable, winning hand after hand until he was the only founder at the final table. He was playing against top financiers of the world, who could easily change Sportsetter’s future. Then he won the final hand, and with it, the tournament.

When he was asked if he wanted to make a speech, he said, “No, I wanna pitch.”

“I gave a three-minute pitch on what Sportsetter was doing and I got 15 meetings out of it,” Karstikko says. “It was a slow process, but those contacts led to me closing an investment round the following year.” Over the next 10 months, Karstikko’s bitcoin winnings would more than double in value, so he used them to pay his last rent while waiting for the round to come in. His poker tournament experience was high-stakes in every sense, and this time it couldn’t have ended better. SportSetter was ultimately acquired in 2016 by a Nordic Benefit Programs conglomerate called The Orange Company.

 

 

Henriksson said OpenOcean holds this tournament at Slush each year because they want to do something a little different and attractive. “We are engineers and computer scientists, pretty capable with numbers and math,” he says. “The subcultures of tech entrepreneurship and poker fuse nicely, so we throw this party with no strings attached. We want people to have fun and make new connections that matter.” Those new connections surely mattered to Niko.

“Slush is awesome,” he says. “That thing saved my ass.”


Originally published in Business Insider

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