Riskier, but let’s have it that way.

While studying in London, Adam Rowe (27) came to the conclusion that Finns were the best people to hang out with and have serious university fun. He’d always believed English students had a drinking problem, until he met Finnish ones. Then he realized that the English weren’t really taking it seriously. So it seems the Finns’ dedication and commitment earned Adam’s respect, because three years ago he sold all his stuff, packed up, and landed in Helsinki ready to make his ideas happen. Within five months he had set up his studio and began delivering high-powered laser jobs.

What’s your background, Adam?
I studied furniture at UCA for three years. Then, following the money, I started a jewelry business. That was really cool ’cause I came from a different perspective; not from a “fashion” or “trendy” point of view, but from a “what’s interesting” perspective, what inspired me, what hadn’t been done before; and then we got attention and that was it. The same thing happened here, there was no-one doing this, and it took off.

What we usually see happening in Finland is that young people want to go and try their luck (or further their studies) in über-cool London. Why choose to come over here instead?
It’s a personal thing, really. London’s great, but… it changes every six months! Everything changes: restaurants close down and new ones open up, bars too. Your friends change, ’cause their jobs change. International friends change universities or their boyfriends or girlfriends do, and so on. London being such a cosmopolitan area, everybody comes and goes. It’s really great for business and having fun being young, but as soon as you want to have a lifestyle where you have time for people, for family and friends, it’s just too much. There’s this joke about London that no matter where you are, it takes an hour to get there.

A matter of scale.
Yeah, Helsinki suited me more than London. It’s such a clean, quiet, nice city; I really like it. And for me it’s nice for business as well, ’cause I can… Well, I was the first to do this here when I moved in, so I had no competition. But also the lifestyle of working is really nice: the Finnish mentality of coming early to work, finish early, stop Friday afternoon, weekends free. It’s such a calmness for your head.

So what is Lasercut Studio?
Well I started it, and then Mikko (Hakkarainen) here is my first employee. He did his three-month internship thing for his university. And that’s an example of how Helsinki works. His brother is having a baby with one of my best friends from university. That’s how I always meet everyone in this country. So I got the studio and it needed the floors done, my friend told me “my boyfriend’s brother, he does that sort of thing” so he came, did the floors. Then we became friends, he did his internship here, and that was it. We have two laser machines, and everything is run by computers. It’s a digital manufacture process: you basically draw what you want on the computer, click a button, and the machine takes care of the rest. Of course there’s our human skill; we know how to make the machines do the best job possible.

I imagine there’s a lot of experimenting involved.
Oh, definitely. And here we never say no to anything. For example, one day one guy comes and says “can I laser-engrave some sausages?” And we’re like “yeah”. Another one wanted an engraving on the car door of a Mini. We also said yes even though we’ve never done it before. We have done sushi, biscuits, bread, cheese…

But you can’t eat that.
Yeah, you can. The laser just condenses light, there’s nothing toxic there. And if we’re going to put food in the machine we clean it well beforehand.

Where do the machines come from?
The first one we’ve got comes from China. I started with that because they are very expensive, and I had no money when I moved in, I had to get the cheapest I could get. I remember when I opened I only had the machine, a chair from a friend, an Ikea desk, and my laptop… Then when the jobs and the money began coming in I got other furniture, a coffee machine… There’s a pool table under this surface here… and so on. And then, once everything was going well, I submitted the business plan and my projections to the bank, they agreed with me and gave me the loan to get the big machine, which comes from Austria.

Do they do the same thing?
Essentially yes. But to make a comparison, you can get a Chinese Rolex knock-off, or you can buy a Rolex. Technically they both tell the time.

So the Chinese is the back-up.
Yeah. And also for testing purposes. With materials that aren’t very nice, or sticky, weird, or hard to clean. And in the other one we do all the precision engraving, all we need to do fast and with high-quality. It’s like three times the quality, three times the power, and double the size, so it completely changed the company once we got it. It’s phenomenal, really. And there’s only two machines like this in Finland. One is this one, and the other is at Aalto University. There are a few things to adjust here and there to keep them going, but overall their are quiet, solid machines.

What happens if they, um, break?
Then I get quite stressed and start kicking things (laughter). The Chinese one is quite good in the sense that you can easily understand everything, or stand there and work it out. Everything is open and exposed, you can see bits that go wrong and you can… play with something. Then there are parts which can’t be fixed and need to be ordered and replaced, like the main laser tube, servo-motors and a few electronic components. And because they are more or less common machines nowadays you can get the parts anywhere, really. You go online, type what you need, and find dealers all over the world, in one week or two.

The other machine, the Austrian, is different. You can look at it, but you can’t do anything, if something goes wrong we have to call the engineers. So far (knocks on wood) it’s been one year without problems. It’s like a Mercedes: it’s expensive but rarely breaks. Cheaper cars break all the time, they are expensive to maintain.

And then there’s human error. We put materials in, we are not too sure about. Is this fabric going to catch fire? Sometimes the surfaces are not flat enough and get bent, stuck inside the machine. We like to pretend that we are super-professionals and we do everything perfect, but… we’re not Germans. Things go wrong every now and then, you know! But we get the job done. The worst I’ve ever done is missing the deadline for two hours.

Do they emit anything dangerous?
Not really. In my first company we had one like it, and I was worried because the studio was very small, and I spent most of my time working on my computer ON IT. Like, actually leaning against it. And I was thinking “my internal organs are kinda pressed up against this red box made in China, and it has lasers in it…” But, you know, I’m still here, not pregnant.

Where does the waste of the process go?
Nothing leaves this room. No toxins, no smells. In the back we’ve got a filtration system that sucks up all of the smoke and everything, because when you’re cutting with these materials it creates smoke (it’s like burning stuff, basically). The carbon filters condense everything, and we only need to regularly dispose of the filters properly. That’s why we can be here in the middle of Helsinki and other companies have to be in like, Vantaa. Some universities have also this type of machine, but they pump all of the waste off their roof and into the open air.

And how often do you have to change the filters?
It depends on how much work we’ve been doing. When we first started it was once every six months. Now it’s close to once per month. I guess it’s an indicator of how much work we have. Sometimes it comes as a shock to me: change filters again? No… Oh wait, yeah.

What else do you offer besides the laser-cutting and engraving?
We get people coming in all the time, and they want want something like what we do, but… a little different. So we have techniques that we do alongside the laser cutting. We have a vinyl cutter, so we can stick vinyl into things, a heat bender, we also do wood staining, and so on. So we can offer a bit more than just the “normal” cutting. Also from my background in jewelry I know where to get all the components much cheaper than in Finland, so we have people who come to us to make it for them. They are eco-friendly, design-oriented companies that like our products because they’re made in Finland, with plywood, no toxins, inexpensive. They know we work well.

How’s continuity? Do customers come back?
I’d say our customers are seventy percent business-to-business (big companies wanting things with continuous orders every couple of months) then thirty percent are just people from the street: small designers wanting things done, wedding invitations, people wanting business cards for themselves, a bit of jewelry for some party they’re gonna do. But the thing is, we find everyone comes back. I can’t think of one person (unless maybe they are not in the country any more) who hasn’t placed an order, got one thing done –something small, a gift for someone– and then, six months later come back like “now I want this, now I want that, and I’ve been thinking of making these and selling them…” We have seen quite a few companies grow from ordering ten samples of something, then coming back and go “right, fifty more” or “two hundred”. It’s actually nice to see small, independent designers of Helsinki grow. We work a lot with boutiques, restaurants, design shops, coffee shops. We can do small signs and stickers, things on walls and stuff. We work with all types of different companies.

Does it ever get boring?
Nooo… This is crazy. We have seven, eight different jobs a day coming in, so it means every day is different. Like, I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow, literally. We have a list of things we need to do –the list of things cutting– but that will run out tomorrow morning, so unless I get some emails today, I’ve got nothing to do tomorrow. But I know I WILL get emails today, so it’s continually changing. Not good for my stress levels, ’cause I know I’ve got to pay the bills, but we get there eventually.

Adam is distracted for a moment, looking through the window. I turn and notice it’s… snowing. At the end of March, when they have already cleared the street of the anti-slide pebbles (hiekka). We are both amused.

Life in Helsinki.
I love it. Even though it’s snowing here and in London it’s already eighteen degrees (laughs). But I could talk all day about how much I love it and why. It’s just perfect for me. Right size city, nice people here. Finnish people are very honest. They have this stigma that they’re very quiet and boring but they’re not. It’s just that they shy away at the beginning, but once you get to know them they open up. People are so genuine here, that’s why I like it. In London… people are not genuine. They say “hey, it’s really nice to meet you” but they don’t really mean it.

Does this apply to you also?
Yeah, yeah (laughs). No, actually the Finnish-ness is starting to rub off me, I’m starting to be honest to people…

But it’s so nice to just get out into the country so quickly. Like when you have a bad day at work in the summer… just go fishing. You walk by yourself ten minutes and you’re on a beach. It’s so nice, it has such huge benefits for a city so small.

Can you communicate with the Finns easily?
Well, my Finnish is terrible, and I hope to attend some lessons at some point, when I have time and money… But I can get by in bars and shops and… everyone speaks English. And since this is an affluent area (Punavuori) even the older generations speak it. It scares me sometimes when a 70 year-old senior down the street asks me a long phrase in Finnish and I’m like “anteeksi, en ymmärrä suomea…” and they go “oh, no problem, I was just wondering, do you know at what time that shop closes?” Why, how did they learn to speak English like that? Of course they are very well educated. I totally respect the Finnish culture and mentality. People respect each other, the business is honest…

Winter? Do you suffer the darkness?
The darkness sucks. But I like the snow and the ice. I tried ice-hockey this winter, liked it a lot. And there’s so much to do in winter as well. It’s like we have three different cities here. The winter one, the spring / autumn, and the summer one. In summer everyone’s super-happy, outdoorsy, partying and drinking. Springtime everyone’s wandering around, going to coffee shops, and then winter is like “let’s cook things at home and watch movies, or go ice-skating…”

Was it difficult to integrate?
When I first moved here I had friends who wanted to show me everything, spent all the time with me, and they were like “hey, meet this new English guy!” and so on. Then reality set in and I realized everyone has a job to do. I was working here alone, and things got a bit miserable in winter. But then you go through it, you start finding new friends and spending time with them, enjoying your work more, having a positive outlook on life.

How has your family reacted to your leaving England?
My mother was a bit sad, but she said “it’s going to be a good experience for you”. My dad was like “where is Finland again?” In England three years ago no-one knew about Finland. Everyone thought Nokia was Japanese. Nowadays Finland is perceived very positively in the media, because of the childcare and healthcare system, the education. Suddenly England loves this place, so my family are more understanding of why I’m so happy here.

Have they come to visit?
They are coming this summer. As they are English, they cannot deal with winter (he laughs). I mean, Finland is incredibly comfortable, but it’s very difficult for them to see it like that. For example, we talk on the phone and they ask me what the weather is like, I tell them it’s -25 here, we’re having a blizzard, and I haven’t seen daylight in a week, so they go “oh, my GOD!” They don’t understand how warm houses are here. Sometimes I need to open a window ’cause I can’t sleep at night, it’s so warm.

The country is more prepared for winter than for summer.
Probably because they don’t do anything in summer, everyone goes on holiday. We actually have to shut down in the end of July, because there’s no work, everyone flees to the countryside. Which is another nice thing as well. It makes Finnish people quite humble and down to earth because it reminds them we are all human, doing the same things. For one month a year people go to their summer cottages, chop their own firewood, warm the sauna…

You like sauna?
I love it. Even though it’s a… weird concept for the English attitude, because we are not the most outgoing, happy-to-be-naked people in the world. But you adapt when you understand the practicality of the custom, it makes sense when you do it. And it’s another example of the Finns’ honesty and openness: the way they are with their bodies is the way they are with their personalities.

How do you see gender issues?
It’s amazing here. I mean, Finland was the first country to give women the vote, right? Finnish business-women are so strong here, on par with men (if not stronger sometimes). They are very driven, very controlling at what they do, and they’re very good at what they do. I just don’t see the difference between men and women. From my experiences in England, if the guys said “hey! let’s all jump into the sea naked!” the women would say “no no no, we don’t do that”. In here women would be the first to jump in the sea. They have a strength to them that’s admirable. Perhaps because they have never been the suppressed people, on the contrary, they have been at the center of the household, the strong force. And their influence is what has made the health and maternity system what it is today.

So, have plans for the future? Getting more lasers?
Yeah, we do. I can see where things are going, and because it’s been going so well, I need to move with it; I can’t just stay still. We’re still paying for the last machine, but, when the time comes, we’ll do the same thing, get a loan, etc. The bank looks at your cash flow and knows how much you can and cannot pay. And I don’t want to go down the finance or investment route. I’ve had problems in the past with business partners and this time it’s all me. If it goes wrong then yeah, it’s my fault, but then if it goes right I get the benefit. Riskier, but I rather have it that way.

Lasercut Studio is located in Merimiehenkatu 22, at the center of all things creative in Helsinki. Some of the amazing stuff they do can be seen on their website.