It all started in a random queue.
A queue obviously long enough, to begin a conversation about another life change.
All Harri wanted was to grab some salad from the buffet in the middle of a busy conference day, but Tuomas had other ideas.
Their common friend was running an online store for ethically produced clothes by bringing the whole market under the same roof. And the idea just didn’t leave Tuomas alone.
Finally he couldn’t even wait to sit down at the table, but decided to step up in front of the salad buffet.
“I think there should be a similar service for higher education and universities. But the university rankings would be based on students’ opinions and reviews. Would you find this interesting?” he asked Harri.
Knowing his best friend and best man from afar, Harri knew exactly what he was talking about.
“Are you asking me to be your partner in a new business?” he replied.
And that was exactly what Tuomas was asking for.
“If you are in, I think we should start building a team.”
He was in, the team was built and Study Advisory was launched barely a year after that conversation.
At the time of writing (May 2016) Study Advisory is running with full steam and going global with the help of an Invesdor crowdfunding campaign.
Old sayings die hard, but they do
The journey of Study Advisory began from that actual salad buffet, but the story of Harri and Tuomas goes much further back in time.
Had there not been a friendship of 20 years and shared entrepreneurship of seven years, Tuomas would probably have chosen another scene for his first move.
“We had run a prominent company together for years by that time, but were still constantly looking for new business ideas. I think it tells a whole lot about our character and friendship,” he says.
“We have been able to produce life-changing experiences for thousands of students already. That kind of common agenda and entrepreneurship has glued us together.”
Hence the old saying of “best way to ruin your friendship with someone, is to set up a company together” turned out to be mere empty talk.
“I dare to say, that our friendship wouldn’t be at the same level without having a company together,” Harri confirms.
Shanghai and Madventures connection
Harri and Tuomas were already good friends in elementary school in the Finnish city of Nokia, but it was just after their own exchange experiences in Shanghai, when everything clicked.
Harri was working for Hewlett-Packard in Helsinki and Tuomas got hired for PriceWaterhouseCoopers in the same city just after his graduation.
He slept for the first months of his stay on Harri’s sofa and then, slowly, they began to share their experiences in China.
“We also started to think about entrepreneurship, what would it be like? We were both big fans of Madventures and loved their attitude and what they were able to do,” Harri says.
“We thought that we could help other students do the same as we did, and help Asian universities get international students at the same time.”
The idea turned out to be a huge success, as both students and Asian universities grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
Biggest in the world
Asia Exchange was founded in 2007 and a year later Harri and Tuomas ditched their promising careers in big multinational companies in order to chase their shared dream.
Seven years after opening the business, they suddenly realized they had grown to be the biggest study abroad organisation in the world, focusing on Asia.
By May 2016 they had helped thousands of students from more than 350 universities and 45 countries to Asia.
“It’s amazing to see how our own small dream has come true and has gone much further than we ever dared to dream of,” Tuomas says.
“We established our first company in 2007 when the global financial crisis kicked in. In these difficult times we have been able to grow steadily, hire many talented people and even set up a new company. It’s so rewarding,” Harri continues.
Life-changer for students and founders
While Asia Exchange has been able to give life-changing experiences to thousands of students, it certainly has done the same for the founders.
If it wasn’t for that one visit in Kuala Lumpur couple of years ago, Tuomas would have never met his wife Helen.
Or if it wasn’t for Harri’s coincidental stay in the Koh Lipe island in Thailand, their paths with his wife Susanne might have never crossed.
“That’s the absolute reward for running this company. We both had a chance to meet the women of our lives. Asia Exchange has brought both of us families, it’s unbelievable,” Harri says.
For the past three years, Harri and Tuomas have been split by 7861 kilometers between them. Tuomas lives in Hong Kong with his family, while Harri moved the company headquarters and his family to Tampere in Finland.
“Tuomas is still the person I see the most excluding my family. It is a fantastic opportunity, that one of us lives there. Our understanding of the business in Asia improves at the same time,” Harri explains.
Coca-Cola of university searches
With Asia Exchange, they quickly realized their partnership strives from their different personalities. While Harri lets his visions fly, Tuomas has his feet firmly on the ground.
They might not think similarly about many things, but there is always a common path, that both of them are happy to follow.
“It has been clear from the beginning, that four lobes of the brain make better ideas than two. Even if I don’t get my way in everything, I know the paths we choose are great, because Tuomas is of certain opinion,” Harri says.
And having grown a world’s biggest business together once, why not give it another shot. With Study Advisory they want to revolutionize the traditional university rankings and give a voice to the students and their experiences.
The ambition is to impact millions of people, instead of thousands they do now.
“We want to take the position that nobody holds at the moment. Ask anyone on the street, what is the equivalent to Coca-Cola in university searches, and no one knows,” Tuomas says.
The passion for education soars not only from their will to help students, but to change the world at the same time.
“In our opinion, education is a key to many global problems. By internationalizing education, we can affect the deepest problems in the world: terrorism, poverty and pollution. It goes without saying, that we want to carry our social responsibility in everything we do,” Harri says.
Tuomas Kauppinen is a co-founder of Asia Exchange and Study Advisory. He works as an Academic Director for Asia Exchange and as a Director for Study Advisory.
Harri Suominen is a co-founder of Asia Exchange and Study Advisory. He works as a CEO for Asia Exchange and as a Sales Director for Study Advisory.