At Slush event, McKinsey shows how startups can become unicorns

It takes a lot of sisu—Finnish for perseverance—to get through Helsinki’s dark, slushy winter. Perseverance or ‘getting through the slush’ is also a trait that every new company needs—so in 2008, when it came to naming a Helsinki event dedicated to startups, Slush fit the bill.

This year, Slush drew 12,000 people, making it one of the largest conventions for startups in the world, with two packed days of matchmaking, pitching, launching, mentoring, and showcasing.

Our colleagues from Fuel, a McKinsey Company specializing in startups, and Leap by McKinsey, which helps incumbents build new businesses, welcomed entrepreneurs, investors, clients, and prospects to our event space to connect and consider new insights on the best practices for startup growth.

McKinsey event space at Slush 2022
Inside the McKinsey Slush 2022 venue.
McKinsey event space at Slush 2022

For the new report, Hard choices: How Europe’s fastest growing startups become unicornsMcKinsey surveyed approximately 100 scale-stage European startups to identify key strategies that accelerate growth. These include decisions such as prioritizing product growth over geographic expansion and acquiring companies for their talent, products, and IP rather than market presence. Aspects of all of these practices were on full display at the event, according to our attendees.

The emerging startup environment in the Nordics and Baltics is vibrant and offers enormous potential, according to Kari Kulojärvi, the managing partner of our Finland office. He attributes this to several factors. “The universities encourage innovation and are developing an initial ecosystem where like-minded people can collaborate,” he says. “They are teaching their students how to set up their own companies, make connections, and test their products in market.”

Kari also points to Finland’s unique heritage in technology, whose roots can be traced to iconic companies such as Nokia. “The same specialists who ten years ago were developing smartphones and mobile phones and have deep expertise in imaging, signal processing, and photonics today are using that knowledge to build their own new technologies and companies,” he says.

Lorenzo Gulli, Sid Ramtri and Gonzalo García-Muñoz from McKinsey
From left: Lorenzo Gulli and Sid Ramtri, associate partners, and Gonzalo García-Muñoz, a partner at McKinsey
Lorenzo Gulli, Sid Ramtri and Gonzalo García-Muñoz from McKinsey

Resilience was top-of-mind throughout the week, as startups face rising interest rates, falling public tech valuations, tightening consumer spend, and other headwinds. “Funding is tighter despite ample capital. There is a lot of ‘dry powder’ available, but the bar to invest is rising,” says Tobias Lundgren, a partner in McKinsey’s office in Stockholm. “Companies should focus on prudent, profitable growth. And sustainability grows alongside technology.” 

Sid Ramtri, a McKinsey associate partner who attended Slush, said that “investors were seeing a lot of energy and ideas that will be shaping our future, especially around sustainability and health.” He cited several examples: 100 percent renewable and sustainable data centers, electric motorcycles, AI-based imaging to identify cancer, and even edible packing material, designed to help counter the environmental impact of shipping goods.

McKinsey has established a strong track record of impact supporting both startups and investors. For example, through Leap by McKinsey, we have helped 350+ companies assemble new businesses; and our Fuel practitioners have worked with 450+ startups to scale through the different phases of growth, from initial strategy setting, through pricing, go-to-market roadmaps, and funding platforms.

Large group gathered at Slush event
A McKinsey event held at Slush 2022.
Large group gathered at Slush event

“With our global expertise, we can provide insights on any functional or industry topic in the most accessible way,” says Sid. “If you have a Brazilian startup in retail that wants to expand into Egypt, for example, we can work with them on every detail. If that same startup then wants to explore opportunities in Indonesia, we can help with that as well.” 

According to Kari, working alongside these new businesses as they advance from one stage to the next is a big part of what sets McKinsey apart in the space. “It shows startups that we are actually partners with them,” says Kari. “They appreciate the chance to develop lasting relationships as opposed to just doing transactional work.”

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