Go Back

Ville Laakso

Born March 5, 1972, Helsinki

Master of Arts (General Linguistics), University of Helsinki

Entrepreneur, Paletti Oy, 2005–
Researcher, PhD student, part-time teacher 2000–2004, University of Helsinki

Photo: Ville Laakso
Written by Ville Laakso (Kaija Hartikainen, ed.)
Translated by Matthew Billington

Language and postcards

When I was studying general linguistics, a vital point of reference and a sounding board was the small group of linguistics students affiliated with our small major, first called Aspekti (‘aspect’), later Retrospekti ('retrospect'), where you could find a challenger and a counterargument to everything you read. This circle rose to particular heights when we were able to enjoy the sojourn of Jan-Ola Östman at our department. The change of name to Retrospekti must have been at the same time that the department had to relocate from the City-Center building and Jan-Ola continued on his merry way. As a change it was almost as radical as the contemporaneous radio channel reorganisation of the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation – and just like it, things never were the same again.

From the left, Ville Laakso, Jan-Ola Östman, Maija Urponen. Photo: Ville Laakso personal archives.

In the end, it was Jan-Ola who gave me the decisive nudge towards the world of business when he and I started organising postcard symposia during the summer break. For me, that legitimised the products of our family business as a relevant and interesting subject of research that could be treated with the appropriate lightness. This lightness turned out to be a powerful lure for me, when after a couple of years of grant-powered solo research I realised I would never be able to put together a research team for my subjects, firmly in the margin as they were, that could attract any funding.

It was obvious this research wouldn’t be any easier abroad, unless I founded a company that enabled me to expand my potential funding sources, maybe something like productised consulting on minority language issues. A much more obvious solution was to orient to the business world through an already existing organisation.

Furthermore, I had tried my hand at teaching to the extent that later, when admiring the capable and dedicated teachers in a summer class at Cambridge, I felt relieved I had never imagined I had a calling for it – in a way this was a personal service to the University of Helsinki.

So my sister, with a theatre background, and I, from the humanities, ended up taking over our family business. It didn’t take long for me to notice that living with uncertainty and comprehending and balancing disparate risks were features of business and linguistics alike. Moreover, the seminars, debates, and discussions in linguistics had been a natural training for the core of business – incessant meetings, negotiations, communication. Besides, in many ways I felt I was finding all around me the kind of long term thinking that had seemed absent during the unending fishing for grants.

Of course the price has been having to reply a new host of sceptics every day: Yes, I had noticed the postcard no longer had the position in communications it had enjoyed at the turn of the last century and yes, I was aware of the central position of social media and electronic communications today, even though I still didn’t know how to turn that into a real business. As a researcher I had viewed my academic forefathers such as E. N. Setälä and Ilmari Krohn with a mixture of respectful awe and amusement – now I had a somewhat similar pantheon of predecessors in the three previous generations of entrepreneurs who had managed to avoid ruining the family company with their experiments.

In this my smooth transition to the business world I always feel I had spiritual support from reading about the numerous bankers in the de Saussure family as well as wanderers such as Francis Poulenc and Jacques Champigneulle. In many ways I like to see my path to entrepreneurship and perhaps to future amateur research, as one of the traditional paths of the humanities, one I wish were more popular today.

I am regularly astounded by how much our way of life is dependent on all kinds of logistics and the storage of goods. Photo: Paletti Oy archives.


Go Back