When did you arrive in the United States, and why did you come?
I came in 1991 on a tennis scholarship. I was a tennis player in Finland, and one of the top juniors there. I played at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for four years.
Title/Company: Chief executive, TradeUp Capital Fund, an investment firm in West Hollywood
At the time, did you intend to eventually return to your home country?
No. I’ve always felt quite at home in the U.S. We had players on my tennis team from all over the world, and practically everyone went home. I was the only one who stayed behind. Nothing against Finland, of course, but I just felt more at home in the U.S.
Why did you start your business in the United States instead of back home?
It was never even a consideration because I had spent so much time in the U.S. and all my professional contacts were here. I had left Finland such a long time ago and I was a U.S. citizen. It’s kind of my home now, and it has been for a long time.
What’s the worst thing about starting a business here?
When you’re starting out, you make a lot of mistakes. You don’t learn it from a book or going to school. No matter how good of an M.B.A. you have, you still have to learn by doing. It’s tough when you’re used to working with a corporation that has a lot of resources, and then you start on your own and you have to do everything.
And the best thing?
Nobody else gives you the go-ahead but yourself. That’s wonderful, especially if you have an independent streak like I do. You can be creative and agile because you don’t need all those layers of approval. You can come up with an idea today and it can be out there tomorrow, and it’s all up to me.
What have been the biggest surprises?
How much I don’t know. I went through very rigorous training, but there’s just so much out there that remains to be unknown. When I started, I thought that with my background and training I knew a lot. But I realized over time that there’s just so much to learn.
Would you tell someone from your home country to start a business here or there?
Finland is an exceptional place because it has a very advanced economy and it’s very high tech, so it’s almost difficult to say someone should go here instead of there. But at the same time, it’s a very small market. We have a great consumer base in the U.S., so anybody who is ambitious should come here. If you make it here, you can make it anywhere.
What advice would you give someone from your home country about starting a business here?
Be ready to work hard. Everyone is working hard. Competition for market share and for capital alike is fierce.
Do you go back often?
Yeah, I go once or twice a year, typically to see my parents over Christmas and perhaps in the summertime for a little while.
What did you know about the United States before coming here?
I don’t think I knew much more than what I had seen in the movies. I really didn’t know anything.
How did that match with reality once you arrived here?
The movies you see, that’s not really what life is. You realize that ordinary people live their lives in America as hardworking people. In general, what you learn about the U.S. is people are quite similar everywhere. At the end of the day, we all want the world to be a better place for our children.
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you as a foreign-born entrepreneur?
Three times a day on average, for the past 20 years I’ve been here, people ask where I’m from. On the phone, when they don’t see me, people ask if I’m from Brazil or Pakistan or France. I’ve gotten everything under the sun.
– Cale Ottens
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.