Valtteri Lindholm, founder of Varusteleka,
talks war, military gear, and human folly.

I was just looking for a good backpack. I refused to believe that, after visiting every sport store and shopping center in Helsinki, and willing to spend up to 100 eu, I still could not get exactly what I wanted. Then a friend told me about something called, an online military surplus store.

On their website not only did I find (for 40eu) exactly what I was looking for, I had so much fun browsing their products that a couple of hours whizzed by. You see, every single item comes accompanied by lovingly written texts that offer not only the default technical data, but also interesting observations and historical information that give a context to it. Intrigued by the stark contrast with other online stores that just throw a couple of photos and measurements at you, I wanted to meet whoever was behind this labor of love, not war. It turns out that Varusteleka has been around for more than twelve years, and they are one of the biggest surplus stores in Europe. And they like to have fun, often posting tongue-in-cheek videos on YouTube and performing other zany media stunts. They even tried to make Arnold Schwarzenegger visit them with the weirdly named “Make Arnold Come” campaign. He probably answered “I DON’T DO REQUESTS”.

Hi, there. Who are you?
(thinks, then belly-laughs) There’s not an easy answer to that! But I’m Valtteri Lindholm, the founder and sole owner of Varusteleka.

You “invented” this?
Yeah. I like to think that most of it is a continuation of my ideas, but I haven’t been doing it alone for a very long time. When I got my first employee in ’06, I went trucking to Germany to get more stuff, and he hired our second employee! By the end of that year we were twelve people. It’s been more than just me for a long time, and what you see today is not my sole doing, even though there’s still me at the helm.

How did it all begin?
I had an interest in the gear, and the shops in Finland were not very good. Some of them were run by, uh, not neo-nazis, but loosely linked to that kind of folk. They didn’t have a business sense, and weren’t nice companies to deal with anyway. Back in the day you could get amazing margins out of this stuff; it costed practically nothing, so it was easy money. They got their daily bread and were content with that, didn’t try to do anything else. Whereas we, whenever we do something, try to do it well, and take pride in what we do.

That’s the way I live my life, and when I decided to start a company, I knew it would have to be that way. You can’t just do things to get them done, you must get something good out of it.

What’s your background? What did you study?
I was supposed to study to be a teacher. When it was my turn to do the military service, I chose the civilian option, which I did at a school. I enjoyed being a teacher and working with teenagers, and I have always been good with languages. Then, in August 2003, I opened the company, and in September I began attending University, which lasted for three months. After that it has been shop-keeping for me.

Unlike other online shops that offer only a crappy photo and some loose technical figures, yours kept me glued to the screen for hours, because of the authoritative yet amusing descriptions of each and every product. That’s a lot of love right there.
Thanks. Some are better that others, but yes, it was important to tell people why a product matters (or not) and what’s behind it. I used to maintain a web-page about equipment for air-softers, and at the time the discussions were very limited. You could not get real information about the items; it was only “it weighs this, and it costs this, buy it”. So I began to ask people around, get reviews and opinions there.

Why was military stuff interesting to you?
It’s military gear and all the stuff around it. Every thing has a story behind it, and if you want to learn about it, it gets interesting. It’s like collecting post-stamps: the item itself may not amount to much, but when you investigate who made it, where, when, what was happening at the time, in what country, what did it commemorate… Usually there’s interesting facts to be found. Like, for example, West-German equipment: excellently made, but crappy at the same time.

How so?
The design was from the 18th century, and did not progress beyond that until the 1990s. They had nuclear weapons, jet aircraft, and all kinds of technological advancements, but the personal equipment most of the troops were carrying was bad, even though well-made. Probably because they were preparing for some sort of nuclear war, and the individual soldier would not matter much in that context, so it didn’t make sense to develop their kit. They concentrated on tanks, aircraft, and so on.

Nowadays, the threat of nuclear conflict is minimal, as is an all-out war. Combat takes place in focused areas, so personal equipment has become ergonomic and comfortable. The economics of war have changed as well. Whereas before troops were not much more than cannon fodder, soldiers today are treated as more important.

The battlefield is more humane these days.
(laughs) At least for the stronger side.

And we have lots of mercenaries today. They want to continue living and getting paid.
That’s true. But there aren’t as many mercenaries as you’d think. Soldiers today get very good training, and very good salaries. They are not conscripts just sent into the trenches, they are professionals that go for a solid pay. Finnish soldiers fighting in places like Afghanistan, for example, can get paid up to 5.000 euros per month, and they require solid equipment for the battlefield. All of this has lead to a massive development in the area of personal combat gear.

War! What is it good for?
He, he, yeah. Pentti Linkola, the legendary green politician and ecologist, thinks humanity is destroying the planet, and suggests that population should be reduced. First he offered that wars fulfill this role, but then he came to the conclusion that actually it wasn’t so, because big wars, after they are over, cause over-population (people tend to breed more after wars, he thought). And war kills a high number of young men, but you don’t need as many young men, you need many young women, and sadly for Linkola, war doesn’t kill that many of them. When Green Peace first came to Finland people were radically nature-oriented and he was a prominent voice in the media. He’s still alive, but few listen to his rants anymore.

Why do we find war fascinating, you think?
There are horrible things out there, but they are still fascinating, and we find them attractive. Like a hawk, or a Panzer tank, or things that are made to kill. I have thought a lot about this, and would like to develop all these ideas in graphic novels, or something like that.

The Japanese are really good at exploring that, through manga and anime.
Yeah, they get a really good balance between the coolness of war machines and pacifist messages. There is this anime called Jin-roh, in which Japan is already becoming a totalitarian state, and a rebel movement rises against it. The government uses nazi weapons, which are drawn with tremendous attention to detail, but the story is about how war is bad.

Do you like guns? Do you own any?
I don’t have a license to own guns, but sometimes I shoot friends’ guns. A lot of people here are into guns, and in my bachelor’s party we shot Suomi sub-machine guns, fully automatic. Lots of fun.

Is there always a pacific solution, in your view?
I don’t think there’s a simple solution to all the problems. It’s a case-by-case scenario. With my company I believe we don’t compete aggressively. We do our thing, and don’t look at what the others are doing, or scheme against them. Even when they attack us from time to time.

Yeah. There are some who saw our business was profitable and began to sell the exact same brands, taking notice of what we sold the most, and offer those same exact items at lower prices (everything else was more expensive, though). While that may be a common practice in the business world, we don’t do that kind of things.

Do you see Varusteleka as a game you play?
Partly, yes. It is a game, a hobby, and a way to express myself. Something I don’t do is play with numbers. I don’t look at deals, or papers, I don’t do the “normal” things that people running a company normally do. I got people who can do that for me, so we are a very special company in Finland. I still own this thing, and I’m here every day, and I command supreme power. But we also have a CEO who has supreme power, so I can concentrate on the creative side of things, and let other people manage the business side.

How do you express yourself through it?
Most of our social media is run by me. Successful social media marketing is based on what we do, but the thing is, we don’t have a strategy, we make it up as we go. And we don’t jealously guard our strategy. I have five to seven people who have access to all our social media outlets and they don’t need to show to me every little thing they post online. They just do it. In everything we do we have people in charge, with the freedom to do it their own way.

How is the company organized?
Nowadays it’s fashionable to have fluid hierarchies, but here we have a very strict one, with a very clear sense about who commands who. I am not within this structure, though; these days I only give suggestions, which people may choose to ignore. And then we have the CEO, who takes care of the practical stuff. I remain the owner and the biggest authority, but I’ve never had to use it, because we get along so well.

How many people work here at the moment?
It kinda depends how you look at it. When we pay wages we pay to fifty people or so. When we give Christmas presents to the staff, we give seventy-five presents. And then there’s the interns. There’s this guy who developed a system by which somebody who has never been here before can learn the basics of the business in fifteen minutes. So for example we get 15, 16 year-old kids who are, understandably, not very good employees, hard to work with -there are exceptions, of course- and they can be productive right away. We also receive people who are disabled, or in some difficult phase of their lives, and give them jobs. In 2014 we had 160 such people working here.

How do you find them?
Word-of-mouth. Offices and schools and friends know about us, and that we can take people in, so we get a steady flow of them. Also we don’t hire people. Most of the trainees just stay here after their training ends. We keep the best of them, and employ them.

How do you select what products to distribute?
We have a big chain of suppliers (at least one-hundred active suppliers) so it can be a hassle. But there are a couple of big ones who hoard most of the surplus that comes from European armies.

Do you get surplus from the Finnish army?
The Finnish government doesn’t release surplus, so we are mostly an import company. It’s funny when you think Finland’s army, in per-capita terms, is the biggest army in Europe, or close to Poland’s. In war-time numbers it’s twice as big as Germany’s, even when their population is fifteen times bigger. But we have a border with Russia, and they don’t. Sweden doesn’t have an army anymore, and Norway’s is made of about 20.000 combatants.

How do you feel about Russia?
They are our neighbors, and we should keep good relations with them and avoid problems. We visited Porkkala last week, with the executive group of the company to plan our strategy, and it was a curious place to be in. After the war it was given to the Soviets, and fifty years later they gave it back. The reason was that at first there were huge cannons on the coast, artillery that could easily reach Helsinki. But later on Russia developed nuclear missiles. Porkkala was useless to them, and so they gave it back. The defense line is still there, like the one in Hanko.

Why do we work so hard at destructing ourselves?
We put a lot of effort in everything we do, I guess. We now have the Music Hall (Musiikkitalo) in the middle of Helsinki, for example, which is meant for only a small, selected group of people. And that is not a clever use of resources, I think. But that’s what the human race does. Also the offices that are being built there, by the railway station, are all private. There are a few restaurants at ground level, but the rest is private space, that’s it. Isn’t it funny how the best spaces in town are taken by private companies? At least they don’t try to open another shopping mall… But what we do with Varusteleka is to take away the money from Helsinki into the suburbs. Did you know this warehouse used to be a candy factory?

It still is.
(laughs) Yeah, in a way.

Why is military gear attractive to Finns?
Practicality and effectiveness. While other companies sell exclusively to air-softers, hunters, and out-door people, we sell stuff to civilian people. It tells a lot about the Finnish people’s mindset, that they are happy to use military clothing and equipment for everyday use.

I think the interest exists in every country, but the fact that in Finland we have a mandatory military service may lower that interest. People are so immersed into military life during service that afterwards they’re not as much into that. But it used to be different before, in the fifties and sixties. The pacifistic movement back then made people very anti-war, anti-military, and anti-guns, and that lasted for a long time. I was a kid in the eighties, and it was forbidden at schools to play with toy guns. Kids had to play in secret, if they wanted to. The general mindset in Finland was that war was evil, and that if you were interested in it you were evil yourself. And this began to change fifty years after the winter war, when people decided we were not successfully invaded by the Soviets.

Why did Arnold not come when summoned?
Oh, that… It was good that they made the video, and people generally liked it, but I personally hated it (it was not my idea). I thought it was a stupid way to try to get such a public figure to visit us. I thought it was brown-nosing of the worst kind. There was no reason for me to be particularly interested in Arnold, and it would not have made me feel anything to have him here. But bottom line, his time is expensive, and he decided not to use it by coming here (he was in Helsinki at a business forum). The people who made the video got to talk to him in person. We could have landed a helicopter in front of the place and flown him in here, but he is a very busy guy.

What are your plans for the future?
We’ll do what we do. We will stay here, and not take any new product lines other than military / outdoor, just like we have been doing for the last twelve years. I’m not in this to be rich, even though this is a type of company that will make me rich eventually, but that has never been the point. That’s the reason why we do things our way, all the time. We are not really afraid of the public opinion or anything like that. But we will expand. We will triple in size, money-wise. And this year we’ll invade Sweden.

(laughs) We’ll get into the Swedish market.

Are you going to open a store there?
No, no. Through the net. Varusteleka is essentially a web-shop. The showroom here is just a side thing, so people can physically come and see and touch the merchandise, but we are mainly web-based. And this year we are targeting the Swedish market by offering good prices and competitive shipping. We also have the pages in good English, and we will translate them into Swedish, and also buy some marketing space.

What is your everyday motivation?
We have a slogan in Finnish saying that we are the “good-side” guys (hyvien puolella). It’s a bit difficult to translate the pun, because it intentionally sounds stupid, but it implies that just not being bad (a passive thing) is not enough. You must do something to be good. In other words: don’t be neutral, be proactive; be good because you fully choose to.

I also don’t believe in blindly doing things “the way we have always done it”. I have a certain disrespect for authority figures, in their many forms. I have respect for contracts. I respect the law, because it’s a contract we all abide by. But I don’t like the idea of someone up the ladder telling me “this is what you have to do” without negotiation. I also think most people don’t use their own brain, they want someone else to tell them what to do. They should listen more to themselves to find what makes them happy.

Varusteleka’s warehouse is in Ruosilantie 2, Helsinki, or you can visit their online store.