Get ready to learn. You need to learn about everything and mostly stuff you have never heard before. Hardware manufacturing — check. Global logistics — check. Entertainment, fitness, climbing industries — check. Cloud services — check. Business habits of a random country — check. How to sell something that did not exist before, check. Taxes, legal bureaucracy — check, and check.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Raine Kajastila. Raine is the CEO and founder of Valo Motion. He has a strong background in interaction technologies and international business from a combination of both academia and industry. Previously he expanded his Ph.D. research at Aalto University into two spin-off companies, and Facebook ultimately acquired one of them. After the finalization of his doctoral thesis, Raine concentrated his postdoctoral research on mixed-reality exercise and sports training environments, which are the core of Valo Motion’s products. The research work led to the successful commercialization of the ValoClimb and ValoJump technologies. Today, Valo Motion operates in over 60 countries. In his spare time, Raine is climbing rocks around the world and endlessly innovating better (sometimes even impossible) solutions for all things that just don’t work well enough.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was a really active kid who wanted to be an astronaut when I was growing up — I was even a bit too active at school. So much so that my teacher told me to go blow off some of that steam over one weekend. What would be better (but not the safest) for that than climbing up to the top of all the trees in my parents’ backyard? So you can imagine my enthusiasm when I grew up and realized you can do rock climbing as a hobby — I was hooked immediately.
I’ve introduced many of my friends to climbing ever since, and now you could say that through my product ValoClimb, I have introduced climbing to hundreds of thousands of people. I think that’s pretty neat.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah-ha” moment with us?
My journey to combining my hobby and work started when a friend of mine, who was a professor at Aalto University, offered a position as a postdoc researcher with an intriguing research topic: “How to use technology to motivate people to do sports and how to teach them skills needed in sports.”
Then I faced the decision on which sport I’d do my research on, so why not choose the one that I already loved and have been practicing for over 15 years: climbing. I saw the technology’s potential and got positive feedback from good climbers who visited the lab.
One evening I was at the huge garage where I had built a climbing wall and had my two little kids with me. One was just a baby on my lap, and the other was two years old. I was testing one of the first ValoClimb prototypes. It was really simple, but I saw my kid enjoying it immensely and he couldn’t get enough of it. Seeing the endless joy of my kids climbing and playing affected how I viewed the importance of games to motivate people of all ages to find the joy of movement
Shortly after that, the first research videos sparked the interest of other climbers who shared the videos. Soon, climbing gym owners around the world started contacting me, saying that this would be perfect for their climbing walls, and started requesting ValoClimb as a commercial product. Not long after, the media such as Wired, TechCrunch, and New Scientist wrote about it.
There is no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
There are often no shortcuts. Having ideas is often easy, and making prototypes can be fast to do. But the tough part is to first drive the prototypes and ideas towards your greater vision and then have the courage to believe that the vision can be turned into a viable product. Before Valo Motion, I luckily had already experienced this twice with ideas taken from my Ph.D. research, which I turned into businesses.
This time it was clearer to me that I needed the right team to turn my prototype — which was already installed in a climbing gym — into a scalable manufactured product that can work on the other side of the globe without problems. After we had founded the company and the product was close to being ready, we got a stroke of luck — we posted a short game video on Facebook, and it went viral immediately with 8 million views in just one weekend: we stopped counting at 200 million views. Because of this video, media like the Discovery Channel jumped on a plane to make a story about us.
After that, it was mostly struggling with meeting the demand. We had to field so many emails and requests that we needed to stop everything and hire more people just to answer all of the requests. After we had scaled the HR side of the problem, we needed to scale the number of systems and products we could produce — and how we were going to finance that. We considered looking at outside funding, but we quickly realized that we could bootstrap the operations based on the pre-orders and have been doing so ever since, making us a bit more of an unusual “startup” in the 2020s.
Usually, you also have the issue of finding good, trust-worthy resellers globally, but with Valo Motion, we had them lining up and contacting us — we just needed to figure out how to pick the best ones. Funnily enough, most of the customers were something other than climbing gyms, such as activity parks, trampoline parks, family entertainment centers, and fitness gyms, who wanted an exciting climbing experience in a compact space.
Still, despite having excess demand, scaling globally is not a walk in a park. We are from Finland, so we needed to figure out how to make a product that’s
A) capable of being shipped to the other side of the world
B) easy to plugin, and it works without problems
C) can be updated with ease
We quickly figured out that we would need a system to monitor the devices to avoid building an extensive maintenance team across the globe, which could burn out cash unnecessarily. So, we built the Valo Cloud cloud-monitoring system to work as a platform for checking and fixing everything remotely, as well as updating new games on all the hardware we provide for our customers in over 60 countries.
We tried to be as prepared and proactive as possible in tackling problems before they appear with our customers, as not everything is good to rehearse with your customers.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
There are benefits to combining your passion, knowledge, and connections with the hobby and make a viable business out of it. If you are good at your hobby and know a lot about it, there is also a high chance you have a competitive advantage and knowledge that others don’t have.
For me, there was only one thing that was certain: uncertainty. Luckily I was pretty used to this from my research background, so the jump from doing a Ph.D. to being an entrepreneur was actually not that dramatic. University was actually a good launchpad for spinning out Valo Motion: we got funding to hire the first team inside the university, and once our video went viral, we got customers contacting us. So we avoided the ‘valley of death’ most startups face in the earliest stage when moving from MVP to an actual working, scalable product.
You absolutely don’t have to make your hobby into a profession, but if you have the knowledge and passion in place, you might want to give it a try.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
Luckily most of the aspects of my work don’t involve me actually climbing, so it’s always refreshing to go to a climbing wall. I am actually the one who might be demoing or trying a new game or prototype, and I still enjoy climbing so much that I go out to climb every week! It’s a good balance for my CEO work.
Ultimately, running a business encapsulates so many things that it doesn’t necessarily affect the passion I have for the sport. For me, it made perfect sense — why would I do research or build a company around swimming when my children and I love and enjoy climbing?
We also didn’t stop at climbing, as our second product, ValoJump, was created from our passion for uniquely combining digital games and exercise. When you focus on something that you are really passionate about — like creating opportunities for people to be active and impact their daily happiness with the joy of movement — you never really get fed up with your work. It keeps inspiring you when you concentrate on the bigger picture.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
I feel that running a business is similar to doing research. When I was doing my Ph.D., I was lucky enough to choose the topics that I was highly interested in and then worked to achieve the goals I had set for myself. Running my own business has its similarities — I can pick and choose the work I want to do and create cool things that positively impact the world that hasn’t existed before. What could be better!
Of course, there is a lot of daily bureaucracy — endless agreement reading, finances, and emailing, just to name a few. Keeping a bigger goal in mind and having a work environment and team that you like to work with makes all that stuff easy, though.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Early on, I was the one who programmed the first prototypes of the ValoClimb games, and I thought I would be involved more in the actual product development later on, too. I quickly realized, however, that I don’t have time for that anymore, and there are much better programmers than me who can work on the game development and software side. I’m still happy that I can contribute to the ideas of the prototypes and give guidelines on what would be the next great thing the company has in its pipeline.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so, how did you overcome it?
I’ve never had that feeling and never really had a “real” job in the industry. I have managed to avoid one for 40+ years. Why stop now?
I am really passionate about mixing gaming and exercise with entertainment. I feel it’s important that children and adults alike can enjoy moving without having to think that it’s dull and something you have to do. Valo Motion is all about making exercising so much fun that you don’t realize you are exhausted. Because it’s so much fun, they keep coming back time and time again. That is really rewarding for me.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There are several, but quite often, they revolve around product development. Imagine becoming a hardware manufacturer, game house, cloud service provider suddenly and jumping into industries like the attraction industry, gaming, sports, and fitness — sectors you didn’t really know anything about. Quite a lot of the learning revolves around practical matters and product design as we have been building products, services, and business cases that did not really exist before.
One funny occasion was installing the first prototypes in a climbing gym. The first projector we were using to project the games on the wall died in two weeks. Then the second projector died in four weeks. In the end, we learned that the magnesium climbers use to keep their hands dry when climbing has particles so small that it gets everywhere in the electronics. We had to design a fully dust proofed and HEPA-filtered enclosure for the product. We luckily learned this while still prototyping and not after shipping to the customers!
My main realization was to test things as early as realistically as possible! Everything can work well in theory or in a lab environment, but putting products into real use is always different.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
Founder and CEO of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard. He is not only a pioneer in developing climbing in Yosemite but has challenged the whole industry to change its way of thinking about sustainable business practices, preserving the environment, and making companies flexible places to work. Patagonia has also been developing products to be long-lasting and repairable. He has written a book about these called “Let my people go surfing.”
I want to follow in his footsteps — so we at ValoMotion are always pursuing the most environmentally friendly option when we can. For example, we have done things like donating to conserve primeval forests in Finland to preserve biodiversity and have been compensating the company’s carbon footprint. For me, it has been very important to also develop a company atmosphere where everyone feels welcome, like part of a family.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
People often don’t move enough or don’t pursue an active lifestyle, and that is a growing problem globally. Valo Motion exists to create active experiences that empower people to find the joy of movement. In our products, sports are combined with games in a fun but challenging way. Parents tell us how their kids, who normally spend their day playing Fortnite, get excited when playing our trampoline games to the point of exhaustion, and repeatedly coming back just to play more of our games. This makes me think that we are really doing something great here.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
I luckily had some experience from the previous two companies I founded to take forward when founding Valo Motion. Here are five things I’ve learned and put into use:
- Build a team that you like to work with. You are going to spend your days with anyone you hire; why spend your time with someone you can’t get along with?
- Get ready to learn. You need to learn about everything and mostly stuff you have never heard before. Hardware manufacturing — check. Global logistics — check. Entertainment, fitness, climbing industries — check. Cloud services — check. Business habits of a random country — check. How to sell something that did not exist before, check. Taxes, legal bureaucracy — check, and check.
- Hire the right people. You don’t have to do it all by yourself, and neither do you need to do it with just whoever is available. In the beginning, it’s crucial to have people on board who won’t slow you down and can do almost anything.
- Learn to say no and focus on what you like to achieve. We could have branched the company in 100 directions. Unfortunately, you’ll have time only for a fraction of the cool ideas you could do. Select what you are passionate about and say no to rest.
- Get ready to make decisions — lots of them. Unfortunately, decisions will be mostly based on educated guesses or just an idea of what you are aiming at. Don’t stress about everything you decide on, as everyone is doomed to sometimes get it wrong.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’m hoping Valo Motion products are inspiring current and future generations to move more, and I believe that we are already making an impact there. However, there isn’t a more urgent thing than stopping global warming: it will cause so much agony and problems in the world in the future that it’s better to fix it now.
We can all contribute to eating less (or no) meat, traveling less, buying less stuff, and buying things that last.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Here I would need to go with the classic “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” Several times during the journey of the company, I thought, “whatever happens next, it’s been worth it already. I’m already happy with what we have achieved,” but probably we are just in the first part of the journey with the company. There are a lot of great things in our plans and where we are aiming to go with my great team!
I have always loved to travel, and more often than not, the journey is much more rewarding than the destination. I enjoyed traveling most via land, like traveling from Helsinki to Beijing by the Trans-Siberian railway or going from Mexico to Brazil, just traveling by land and sea. What could be better than spending three days straight on a train with a Russian or Chinese person and with whom you don’t really even share a common language? But you still find a way to communicate and get to understand their view of the world.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I wouldn’t mind having lunch and chatting about climbing and the state of the environment with Yvon Chouinard.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.