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“Equally, work with the best people, wherever they are, right from the beginning.” With Mitch Russo & Keijo Karjalainen

Internationalization — build your solution for a customer, not for a particular market. Scaling becomes a real issue if your entire solution only works for its home market, then has to be adapted each time you enter a new place. Equally, work with the best people, wherever they are, right from the beginning. An international team […]

Internationalization — build your solution for a customer, not for a particular market. Scaling becomes a real issue if your entire solution only works for its home market, then has to be adapted each time you enter a new place. Equally, work with the best people, wherever they are, right from the beginning. An international team will help you think globally from an early stage.


As part of our series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SAAS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Keijo Karjalainen.

Keijo has been the CEO of Sympa since 2011. In 2002, after seeing a gap in the market, Keijo developed an employee competency mapping solution. In 2005 he extended the software to become the first version of the Sympa HR cloud solution and, together with his sister, Taina, founded the company. Sympa gathers all HR data in a way that’s easy to analyze to support smart decision-making and helps automate routine tasks. Keijo’s guiding principle has remained “have fun at work and grow profitably.” He is also the Sympa foosball league champion, a father of 3, and an avid marathon cross country skier.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Iwas born and raised in Finland and went on to get my master’s degree in IT at university there. During that time in the early 2000s, Finland was going through an IT-boom. However, that soon collapsed, meaning there were no more junior positions with crazy salaries available for IT students. So I decided to become an entrepreneur.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

My dad was a business consultant who had built a tool to do competency mapping in organizations efficiently. The idea was that when a company has 500 employees, it’s essential for them to have a profound understanding of each employee’s expertise and capabilities.

After meeting with a few companies, we quickly realized that they didn’t even have any basic data about their employees — not even an accurate headcount. That made us take a step back and flesh out the tool to include more basic human capital management functions. They first needed a foundation of data onto which they could build and then further develop later on, and that’s how Sympa really got started.

I also needed some help selling it. That’s why in 2005, I founded Sympa with my sister Taina — a very good salesperson with great business acumen.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

In the early 2000s, there was no real understanding of what a cloud solution was. Initially, when we approached companies with our solution, companies were slightly apprehensive. They believed that they would need a vast IT department to deploy it.

However, we have always worked to remove technology barriers from the work of HR people and companies, which is why we built Sympa as a cloud service. It took a lot of negotiating and explaining before our customers understood that we would take care of all the tech implementation with our customer implementation teams, leaving them free to focus on building great HR.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Things are good! We’re very pleased to have just recorded year-on-year sales growth figures of 45% outside of our home market in Finland.

Being a family-owned business has definitely helped us keep our culture and values as we have grown, and we have always stuck to our mission of having fun while growing profitably.

From the customer side, the value of employees has grown — people now matter more than ever to businesses. Back when we started Sympa, we had to explain the value of why it makes sense to understand your employees, but now everyone knows they need an HR system.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

When we had just started out, we didn’t have a clue how to price our software. No one was really doing the same thing as us at the time in Finland, so we didn’t have anything to benchmark against. With cloud SAAS software, there’s no limit to the number of clients you can take on, so that was also challenging when determining the price.

After some long conversations with my sister, we thought, “let’s just use our postcode as the price” and see what happens. It was a huge stab in the dark. Thankfully we won the deal, and that became the starting point for our pricing.

If you’re doing something truly new and innovative, there’s going to be a time where figuring out the market “sweet spot” isn’t always obvious. Sometimes you need to take a gamble — come success or failure, you will have learned something valuable either way.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think our culture is something that’s really special. It can be hard for growing companies to practice what they preach, especially when they go international and have employees and offices in multiple countries. Even so, we have always taken our own medicine when it comes to putting people first, and in 2018 our Swedish office won an award for the best implementation project.

This award meant a lot, as it was voted for by customers and the fact that they won because of our strong customer focus, internal cultural values, and building something that works for the customer validated our mission. We can still be us as our company continues to scale, which is a great thing.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

It is really important to have fun when you work — if you don’t enjoy what you do, you will soon become demotivated. Another vital thing is to surround yourself with great advisors you can talk to when you come to challenging times in your business. The option to speak to someone who has already been through the challenges you face is a major help.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are two people, both of whom are family members! My father and sister have been incredibly important in getting Sympa off of the ground. I’m forever grateful to them for their passion, trust, and often quite frank feedback! My passion for people combined with the sales acumen of my sister and my father’s business experience was a valuable early lesson for us in building teams of different people with different talents and personalities.

As a business consultant, our father has worked with thousands of small and medium-sized businesses to develop their company strategy. It was his competency mapping tool that built the foundation of our software suite, so that was our major starting point. Since then, he’s helped us out as an advisor, but he never told us what to do or how to do it — that’s always been up to us.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

Our software is currently used by more than 700 organizations in over 100 countries, with an average use of 650,000 times every month.

When building our customer base, the first step we took was to focus on the problem — not the technology. We knew that our product had to bring direct value to our clients immediately. Once we had established the problems they faced and what they needed, we then built the solution and the tech to meet those needs.

The next step was to ensure every decision was scalable and, most importantly, profitable. Cooperating with some Nordic partners helped us to accelerate our growth and provide scalable customer implementations that were profitable from the beginning. The core business has to be profitable.

Finally, our culture has been a key driver of our growth. We want to help customers, not sell solutions. This comes through in our sales and marketing, which has helped us to work with all the customers we partner with today.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

We charge an annual fee for the value created based on the organization’s size, number of employees, or other personnel such as subcontractors whose processes are handled in Sympa. In most cases, all of them will be active Sympa users.

We tried out different strategies in the early days of the company. One of those strategies included module-based pricing where we had different fees for human resource management (HRM), onboarding, talent management, and so on. However, HR and leadership are and must be changing all the time, and we soon realized that the best approach is to have one fee for the full suite. A module-based structure slows down these changes if HR needs to agree with the vendor before changing their processes or coverage of the service.

Our ultimate aim in everything is to exceed our customers’ expectations and keep them satisfied.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SAAS? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Scalability
  2. Create instant value for your clients
  3. Internationalization
  4. Hiring the right people from the start
  5. Profitability

Scalability — this should be at the core of everything you build. Can your solution grow with your customers? Can you meet demand easily?

Value — if your customer has to go through several months of painful implementation with no positive visible results, they will quickly become disheartened. Make sure your service delivers instant value — it can be focused around a core function, but you can build out from there.

Internationalization — build your solution for a customer, not for a particular market. Scaling becomes a real issue if your entire solution only works for its home market, then has to be adapted each time you enter a new place. Equally, work with the best people, wherever they are, right from the beginning. An international team will help you think globally from an early stage.

Hiring — make sure you hire the right people from the very beginning, as it will be a problem later on if you need to change your focus. Having a robust hiring system and a strong cultural identity will make this process easier.

Profitability — you need to create value fast when you’re growing fast. If the client finds value and you find profit right from the beginning, you can build long-term customer relationships and retain all your clients. Yes, you can burn money when needed, for instance, when you open up a new country, but when you close a deal, it must be highly profitable for you.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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 believe we already have started a movement — to place people, not customers, at the center of organizations. By helping managers become better leaders in organizations and fully understand the true value people bring to your organization, they will naturally take care of your customers and look after your business.

We aim to remove the boring tasks and unnecessary tasks for employees and also ensure they only use technology that’s easy and efficient to maintain and use. Additionally, getting to know your employees and taking the time to find out what they actually want to do is really important. This gives people a sense of ownership of their jobs, and they feel empowered to make hard decisions.

Finally, I would love to see an end to people working long hours and wearing it as a badge of honor. At Sympa, if you’re still at the office by 5 pm, you’re probably the last one there!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

They can follow me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/keijokarjalainen/. You can also follow Sympa HR on all social channels.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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