While they were on a business trip years ago, Helena Puhakka-Tarvainen and Maria Saastamoinen joked about establishing a company together. When Saastamoinen eventually decided to set up a company, she crossed one name after another off her list of potential business partners. Helena was the last name on the list.
Time slows down. Minutes stretch out into hours. Guests are wrapped in a warm bubble that shuts out the rest of the world. Everything becomes more meaningful. Creating real and memorable feelings. Cosy, but distinctive and unique. This is how the entrepreneur duo feel about Lietsu and, based on customer feedback, their guests feel the same way.
When Maria Saastamoinen sent a message to Helena Puhakka-Tarvainen asking her to become a partner in an apartment hotel based on Karelian traditions, she didn’t have to wait long for an answer.
– We met the very next day and made space in our calendars for joint planning, says Puhakka-Tarvainen.
– We had already developed one business idea earlier with a larger group, but it didn’t work out. Based on that experience, we created clear guidelines and used them to develop the idea. We knew each other from work and we also knew that we shared the same values and strengths, explain the two women, who had both worked at Karelia University of Applied Sciences.
– I wanted Helena to be the managing director. I knew that I couldn’t realistically do this alone – I needed a reliable partner. We’re both perfectionists, says Saastamoinen in summary.
– Maria contacted me at just the right time. I believe in the power of silent signals. They reinforce what we say out loud, even if it’s just in passing, says Puhakka-Tarvainen.
The ability to find money
The first contact was a phone call to Business Joensuu. That was followed by banks, the ELY Centre, Regional Council of North Karelia, the Chamber of Commerce, VisitKarelia, investors, acquaintances and friends of friends.
– Our greatest advantage was the fact that we had existing networks and the ability to find money. We were already familiar with many of the organisations, and we had zero threshold in terms of presenting our idea to others.
– The role of Business Joensuu was really important at the start. We probably talked with 15 different experts. That first phone call gave us a real boost right away. The psychological support as well as assistance with calculations and competitive tendering was valuable, says a grateful Puhakka-Tarvainen.
– We needed the support of each and every organisation. All of them provided us with new information that we were able to use as we built our own vision, she continues.
Some people thought Puhakka-Tarvainen and Saastamoinen, who had previously worked as a project manager and research liaison officer respectively, were too educated to be entrepreneurs. Although both were familiar with public sector financing and projects, corporate financing and development projects were a new area from the entrepreneur perspective.
– One of our financers commented that the reason for a positive decision was faith in us as entrepreneurs rather than the actual idea. It was difficult to find investors who were interested in an idea with a lower level of risk and smaller return. A tip from an acquaintance eventually led us to the right investors, says Puhakka-Tarvainen.
A network of 100 companies
A period of three months passed between the first contact and founding the company. That time was spent adjusting calculations and refining the business plan. There were some disappointments, but we dealt with the issues one at a time. Finally, the women signed a 10-year lease while one quarter of the financing was still uncertain. The following 10 months before Lietsu opened were very hectic.
– We never would have managed without our friends and relatives. They helped with childcare and with the renovations. We carried everything up here to the fifth floor – including 40 cardboard boxes full of lamps. Only the beds and washing machines were lifted through the windows with a crane. The elevator started working just a couple of weeks before the opening ceremony. During the renovation, our quality time with the kids mostly consisted of late-evening visits to the drive-through lane at McDonald’s.
– The most difficult part of planning was our lack of experience in the sector. People thought we were crazy at the time, but today they sometimes come to us for advice, they continue.
– Now we’re seen as entrepreneurs. And that’s also how we see ourselves. It’s important to separate myself from Lietsu, because the company is not just an extension of me. I’m just one piece of Lietsu – a facilitator, says Saastamoinen.
Along with business coaches and other official advisers, many people and companies helped put the pieces of Lietsu together in, for example, workshops organised by the entrepreneurs. Around 20 people with different viewpoints took part in the workshops, including representatives of a museum, the Martha Organisation, the creative sector, tourism and other areas.
– We didn’t want this to be a museum. Many of us have a connection to Karelia dating back to the time when evacuees settled in different parts of Finland. That Karelian background is now evident in many ways, explains Puhakka-Tarvainen.
– Approximately 100 companies have played a role in creating Lietsu. We wanted to choose partners that were just right for us rather than the most obvious choices. Our selection criteria were based on the motivation of the partner company, ease of cooperation and the significance of that work for us and the partner company, outlines Puhakka-Tarvainen.
– For us, it was important to ensure that the money stays in our region. Marjamailla Design from Tuupovaara created our interior decoration plan, Anna-Liisa Sorsa from Liperi bakes the pies, Bittiguru runs the server from a warehouse in Outokumpu, and these new work clothes were produced by the Ilomantsi-based company Koitadesign, list the women as they model linen tunics printed with a Karelian pattern.
– All the entrepreneurs have been completely dedicated to the project, and they’ve given us a lot more than what we ordered. Without that interaction, we would certainly have two-thirds less customers. The surrounding community provides support, also during crisis situations, continues Puhakka-Tarvainen.
The Lietsu normal
Both Puhakka-Tarvainen and Saastamoinen consider it important that their activities contribute to regional development, are part of business life, employ people, develop tourism, offer experiences and set an example for others. Another key element is thinking responsibly about issues ranging from staff well-being and the customer experience to an ecological approach.
Both of Lietsu’s entrepreneurs confirm that the feeling is most important, which means the feeling the work inspires in them and the feeling created for others. This leads people in the right direction.
– We’ll be coming back again, says a family as they make their departure.
We’ve been able to build a support network around us.
Lietsu Boutique Aparthotel
- Opened in November 2019
- Entrepreneurs Maria Saastamoinen and Helena Puhakka-Tarvainen
- Located in the old Post House in Joensuu city centre
- The hotel has 31 rooms equipped with apartment-level furnishings
- Employs 4 people