Juha-Matti Santala
Community Builder. Dreamer. Adventurer.

Thank you, Startuplifers

January 2024 marked the end of a fantastic program called Startuplifers (formerly known as Startup Life, hence my use of that name later in the post):

Today marks the end of a remarkable era. Startuplifers bid farewell to more than 10 years of supporting brilliant talent to reach Silicon Valley and other startup hubs worldwide. Unfortunately, the Startuplifers organization will be sunsetting its operations in the next few weeks.

I was born too late to explore the world and born too early to explore the universe but I was born at the right time to become a Startuplifer. And for that, I’m very thankful.

Let’s start from the beginning

To understand its impact to my life, we need to rewind more than a decade, to early 2013.

When 2012 turned into 2013, I was a student of computer science and statistics who didn’t really have high hopes or expectations for the future. And it wasn’t because my view of future was somehow dark or grim, I just didn’t see myself doing anything meaningful in life.

One day, I was studying with fellow students at the basement of our computer science department when an engineering teacher called Ville poked his head into the room and very briefly mentioned something about a Capstone project and Fudan University in Shanghai and that moment sparked a tiny seed of thought in my mind.

I ended up sending an application to this project despite not really matching any of the requirements and by some sheer luck, I got accepted. I spent the most part of the year with a wonderful interdisciplinary team and gained a lot of great experiences.

That also led to me being introduced to a local student startup community Boost Turku at which point I had already gotten a spark of a dream to one day work in Silicon Valley. That community threw gasoline to the spark and got me even more excited.

And then, one day in the spring of 2013, we traveled to Aalto University with our project team and after a day of activities there, I sat at a corner of Startup Sauna, brainstorming a job application because I had gotten the idea to apply for an internship at Codecademy.

And at that moment, everything changed. Everything I’ve done since April of 2013 pretty much was caused by that moment.

Where a boy meets a future

This guy, Mikko, who I had met years before at The Union of Upper Secondary School Students in Finland, walked past and asked what I was doing. I told him I was making a job application to Codecademy. He told me to hang around as he was going to a meeting but we could grab a beer afterwards.

As we sat drinking that beer, we talked about it. Not only did Mikko have a friend working at Codecademy at that point, he was also running a program called Startup Life which sent engineering, design and business students to startups in Silicon Valley to do internships and learn about startups and the culture of startups.

I ended up getting an interview with Codecademy but it didn’t turn into a job. I thought about Startup Life a lot during the summer and gave it a proper go in their fall batch.

The booklet

On the left, a front cover of Startup Life booklet with an orange background, Startup Life logo and text “No costs. No hassle. Interns who build and ship.” On the right, the first pages of the booklet explaining the program and featuring Jori Lallo as an alumni.

During that spring I found this booklet. I can’t remember if Mikko gave it to me or if I picked it up myself from Startup Sauna but as you can see from the photos, it has lived a life during these almost 11 years.

In that booklet, they introduced the program and five alumni. While I didn’t truly believe it to be possible at the time, I kinda wanted to become like them.

My Startup Life experience

I applied to a couple of positions through the program and after failing a few interviews with other companies, on 21st of October 2013 I received a message from a startup called Chartio that they were interested in interviewing me. Things moved real fast. On 23rd, I had my first (and only) interview at 20:30 and the day later, I received an offer from them.

It took a few months to get all the visa stuff sorted but on January 2nd, 2014, I landed to the San Francisco International airport and was ready to start my adventure.

Rooftops of northern San Francisco with Golden Gate Bridge in the distance on a clear morning with a few clouds in the horizon.

On my first morning, I woke up, went to the rooftop of the place I was staying at and took this photo. It was mind-blowing to wake up to the sight of Golden Gate Bridge.

Photo of Juhis and text “Juha-Matti Santala, engineering intern, suomalainen”

When I started, we were a team of 11 people and when I left around Christmas when my visa was about to expire, we had grown to around 25 people. I learned so much from working there. Not only about software development but about company culture, the importance of great team and celebrating the successes.

A group photo of 20 people standing on a karting podium.

I’m forever grateful for Dave, Justin, Nathan, Paul, Praveen, Peter, Jess, Steven, Melissa, Natasha, Jen, Ben, Tara and all the others at Chartio for the year that turned my life around.

As I was writing this, I discovered that despite the company being sold to Atlassian since, my old blog posts that I wrote for the company blog are still up. I wrote about Finnterning at Chartio and how I used the product to create visualizations of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

The Startup Life community was amazing out there. Moving to the other side of the planet while not knowing anyone there isn’t the easiest thing to do. Luckily, we had a group of Startup Life alumni, other Finns who lived their and their new local friends to hang out with. I never felt alone there, despite a patch of home sickness around the summer.

After coming home

For a while, after I had moved back home, the alumni community was such a lifeline for me. I had quite a big trouble adjusting back home and suffered from a reverse culture shock and it was so helpful to have fellow alumni who I could chat with.

I ended up working with some of the new friends I had made there and I became one of the alumni I had looked up to in the booklet I mentioned earlier.

I wanted to help others do the same, so I ended up doing a ton of talks and presentations in universities and student events about my experience. Through that, I also got to make more friends from the changing teams of organizers of the program and all the new alumni who went through the experience.

I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for that one moment in the spring of 2013 and the year that followed from there.

Thank you, Startuplifers ❤️

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