Evon Söderlund, originally from Malaysia, and her husband Jussi Söderlund founded Huone, the world’s first event hotel, in Finland a couple years ago. Since then they’ve hosted more than 4,000 events for smaller and larger groups in uniquely designed rooms, and won several awards.
Now the company is expanding. Evon and her team just opened their hotel in Singapore on 23 February. I talked to Evon at the beginning of February, and asked her about her business and experiences as an entrepreneur.
Being an entrepreneur can be extremely exhausting; of course, it depends on one’s character as well. Please tell us about the experiences you’ve gained so far.
When you’re an entrepreneur, you cannot differentiate between private and professional life. This is a lifestyle! You either love it, or don’t do it! Our family is in it, and we are very grateful to have our support system around us. I not only mean our family who can take care of our kid while my husband and I are stuck at meetings, but also our friends. Even though we barely see them, they help us whenever they can.
So it’s really a 24-hour job! Luckily, you have a successful company, even if you are always very modest about it. What success really means to you?
It depends on how you measure success. We aren’t perfect, we are not there yet. There are still so many things out there to learn about. But, of course, I’m pleased with everything we’ve been able to achieve so far, and very grateful to everyone who has ever supported us without receiving anything in return. I think they deserve more from us, especially our investors, since they’ve been injecting their money into our business for years now, and we haven’t been able to produce much for them.
Investors, as you say, are one of the key elements in the life of a start-up. I’m wondering how you know who the right person is when it comes to investors.
Business is all about people and trust. If you don’t have the human resources that really back you, you go nowhere. What I realised is that people can change down the road, so I decided to put values first. When you agreed on the same values at the beginning of your business relationship, you can easily align your interests in the future – whenever we talk about investors or team members.
Finding the right investors is one issue, but you also have to present a pitch to these particular people. What is the secret of a great pitch?
You definitely need to present a mix of facts and passion during your pitch. A lot of founders are circulating around facts, and sometimes their passion can’t be seen. I’m convinced that most investors invest in people and not in ideas. In today’s storytelling days you need to demonstrate who you are and what makes you so passionate about the idea. In addition to that, when people are challenging your idea, the most important thing is to be honest. Don’t pretend to know something you don’t know! Thank them for nothing on the issue, and say you’ll surely find the answer later on! Embrace the criticism, and don’t take it personally!
There are so many things to think about… What were the mistakes you made while pitching?
I spent lots of time talking to the wrong investors who weren’t interested in the hospitality industry and service innovation at all. We are sort of in a black hole in the North, because the Nordic start-up scene is keen on technology, ICT (information and communication technology), etc. A lot of VCs (venture capitalists) are very good at analysing ideas in these industries, but when it comes to us, you can’t find so many people lining up. Every time I presented I thought there was something wrong with me, because they didn’t get me. That killed my confidence a bit. So now that we’ve just concluded our 3 million financing round, I can really feel the pain of pitching.
Congrats on that! While it’s extremely important to find investors, I think, branding also plays an important role in a company’s life. Huone’s identity is quite distinctive. I’m wondering how your logo came to existence.
The logo was designed five years ago when I founded the company. Without a budget, I asked a graphic designer I knew to design something for us. I told her our company was called Huone, which means room in Finnish. I described the concept to her and the idea of the different meeting rooms. I wished the logo itself would say Huone, and I also wanted the colours to be really welcoming. Then she came up with the logo you can see now. She said as the event rooms were for people, the honeycombs were rooms for bees, and she made the letters out of them. What I really like is that each honeycomb room is different and comes in a different warm colour. This could be a bit of surprising, since we launched our business in Finland, and the Nordic colours are normally very clean and cold. However, the logo with these five strong colours embodies my Malaysian background, too.
What kind of response do you usually get regarding the logo?
People tend to say it should be redesigned, because it’s not legible enough, especially on screen. I’m fully aware of that, but I want to keep it, because it’s such a nice story how the idea was developed. It also represents how we started, and if we change it, the story disappears. We stick with it for a while, and see how it goes in the future!
You talked a bit about the different event rooms. How did you come up with the themes for each them?
We had to be very neutral but refreshing at the same time. I couldn’t choose anything provocative, a Hell Room, for instance. It’s a question of creativity, but I’d say I’m quite creative. I was pondering the feeling people might have in the rooms, and I gave my input concerning colours, themes, etc. to our interior designer. Fortunately, we have an interior designer who really listens. Designers are artists, and therefore sometimes they are not willing to compromise or sacrifice their design. Thanks to his creativity we are able to constantly produce new things. My goal is not to repeat any room twice. Let’s see if we can do that!
In Huone Finland, you’ve hosted around 4,000 events. Where do your clients usually come from?
We have an international clientele. That’s why we try to establish our business in cities that are easily approachable and have great infrastructure. This is part of our strategy. Thanks to our online booking system, time zones do not matter; people can book a room when it’s suitable for them. This is one of our strengths. Moreover, we also adapted English as our company language – of course, in Finland our site is available in both English and Finnish.
You’re about the open another Huone event hotel in Singapore, so in a place you’ve just described. Please, tell us about the journey of finding the right investors to be able to expand.
We wanted to find investors in both Finland and Singapore, and we faced different challenges in these two countries. While in Finland the lack of interest in the hospitality industry was the main issue, as I briefly talked about it before, in Singapore we were forced to find our way in a more hierarchical system. In Finland investors are easily approachable, but in Singapore we had to meet the assistant first. However, due to the significance of real estate and hospitality, I’d say there is definitely more interest in Huone in Singapore than in Finland.
Who will run the hotel in Singapore?
We’re really fortunate that a local entrepreneur joined us. She’s one of the best entrepreneurs I’ve ever met. I think – in many ways – she is better than me. Singapore has a special role in our business, so we’re happy to have someone so motivated and committed to the concept in our team. She also has a background in event management, and understands what value we’re bringing to the market and how we’re disrupting the event industry. I have huge trust in her, and I think she’ll bring Singapore a lot of excitement with the plans we have for this region.
What are the challenges you encounter now on a daily basis while preparing for the opening?
Now it really feels like we’re launching another start-up. You’re worrying about things from training the personnel, managing the suppliers, the stakeholders as well as the cash flow. One day the contractor sends you a message that the toilet is clogged, another day you need decide on the lights or whom to invite for the opening party. My mind is currently floating, because we have to be ready for everything.
What are the plans after the opening of the Singapore Hotel?
We already have plans, but I can’t tell you more at the moment. Right now we are very excited to see how the public and clients react to the hotel in Singapore. That is our top priority!