The truth about Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs

It sucks.

Free slaves thanks to the “Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs” program

It’s difficult to imagine that something with the “Erasmus” label could suck so much and have so many legal holes. Here I will tell you my experience, the story of a Videogame Designer badly informed by the Spanish intermediaries, cheated by Lapland Studios’ CEO, and ignored by European authorities when I informed about the situation. I was exploited and had nothing in return, because the program didn’t guaranteed my formation nor protected me at all.

Learn how is possible, under the European laws, to slave someone for 3 months…

(Spanish version here. Sorry, English is not my mother tongue. This is a finished story, so I will write it completely. And I suppose there will be no more events, so there will not be more posts. It’s a bit too long. If you want a shorter version, read the facebook page.).

Chapter 0: About the “Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs” program

Starting a company in Spain is really tough. So when I saw the “Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs” program, I thought that mother Europe was making it easier for us. I thought that another program with the Erasmus label would be a guarantee of quality. How wrong I was… I had never thought how miserable this program really was. In every level.

For starting, they are not related with the traditional Erasmus program. I suppose they take the same name for marketing purposes. I did myself an Erasmus in Norway to finish my Master in Philosophy, and it’s an experience I highly recommend to everybody. And not for the parties, but mainly for the enhancement of your cultural horizons. Sadly, this program has inherited only the name.

Flying to Finland

Chapter 1: An seedy beginning

This is the structure of the program: A company’s CEO (Host Entrepreneur, o HE) host an entrepreneur (New Entrepreneur, or NE), and assumes the responsibility to train him in business skills. The NE, in return, works for that company in tasks directly related to his formation, during a period of time agreed by both. The arrangement is managed by two intermediaries: one in the host country (HIO) and the other (NIO) in the NE’s country. This sounds nice, but the quantity of incompetence is so high that makes the program totally worthless, as we will see.

I found several NIOs in my city, and I chose Fundación Universidad Empresa randomly. The woman in charge, María José Marín (also responsible of Leonardo program), informed me vaguely about the program. We searched for a suitable company for several months. It had to be a videogame development company (this is my professional sector and the type of company I will build). Finally, we found Lapland Studios, in Rovaniemi, in the north of Finland. Its CEO was Ilkka Immonen, the HE, who was interested in the program and proposed a duration of 3 months.

The negotiations were delayed for several months, due to inner reorganizations of the company. I had to cancel several projects meanwhile. He justified it telling that the branch office I was going to do the program had some kind of problems, and he propose to stay with him, under his supervision and care. The proposal seemed good enough to compensate the delay, and I preferred to trust him.

But we started to experience the passiveness of Ilkka in several aspects: emails’ replies 40 days after, extremely slowness even in the most simple validation process of the tool, or the fact that I had to write all the necessary bureaucratic documents, even the ones that he had to do. I should had interpret all this as clues of a bad behavior during the program, but I preferred to think goodly of him, and accept his excuses of being too busy. After all, he was going to show me his company’s secrets, so it was not so bad deal for me to do all the dirty work. The program should had started in March, but finally it was from June 7th to August 21st of 2010.

Chapter 2: Spanish incompetences.

When everything accepted, and only one day before taking my plane, the first incompetence arises from the Spanish intermediaries. They told me several times about the “training”, which basically was only a brief explanation of the program and some papers about UE and Finland. They never mentioned that I had to sign a contract. And even more, I had to sign it without reading it, because the appointment was the last day at the last hour. “It’s an European program”, I said to myself, “so there is no need to worry”. I read it on the plane, and discovered several abusive clauses, which puts me (and any other NE) in clear disadvantage. In sum, if I don’t fulfill my part of the contract, I had to pay all the expenses. If the HE fails, the program interrupts and nothing else happens. And I discovered it when there was no turning back, in the plane to Germany, in where I had to sleep in the airport, then taking a plane to the south of Finland, and then a train to the north. A 28 hour trip, because Ilkka confirmed the deal just one week before, and I found no other combination within the budget.

A place you would like to avoid if you want to join the program.

I also read about the grant. At the beginning, they said the program will give me 1000€/month, not much in Finland. In the training day, they told me that they give me nothing, just cover my spends until a maximum of 1000€/month. And, in the plane, I realize that the program covered some spends, but not others. So, inevitably, the NE always losses some money.

They cover what they call spends, but not investments. For example: Finland, despite its fame in social services, has an awful public transportation, at least in the north. In my 3 month period there, I saw twice a bus. And this region has one of the most dispersed population in the world. My residence was ok, but it was far from almost everything. I had to buy a bike. But that was considered an investment, so it was not covered (did they expected me to bring it with me on my 3-planes return trip?). In other words: with my contract, it was more profitable to go everywhere in taxi than to buy a second hand bike. Good, Europe, encouraging a saving mentality (specially with future businessmen).

When I complained about these issues to the Spanish intermediaries, they just ignored me. It was something they did all the time, not replying any email regarding problems.

Chapter 3: Work environment. Good people. Bad boss.

My office mates were extremely helpful from the moment I arrived. They gave me all the information related to the town, and drive me from my residence to the workplace (about 12 km. distant) every single day (thank you, Jouko and Samu!).

This good thing has a downside: the CEO, Ilkka Immonen, ignored me most of the time. He welcomed me the first day, and after that, all the interactions with him had to be done by my initiative. Everything related to the project we were going to do was done between my mates (specially Arto and Petri) and me: concepts, production plans, tools, etc. Ilkka remained in an easygoing attitude.

The only good thing about Ilkka’s passivity was that he didn’t care I sleep in the office. I know it’s not very normal, but neither is normal for a southern organism like mine the Artic Circle summer. The 24 hours of daylight created such distortion in my sleep patterns that made me impossible to rest in the sunny nights. Not only he didn’t mind about this, he also told me they had a French and Australian collaborators in the past with exactly the same problem. I was also allowed to watch the football matches of the World Cup, so I cannot complain about the work conditions. But this cannot be used as an excuse for a lack of productivity: I didn’t take any rests, not even for eating (the mentioned distortion also altered my appetite), and sometimes I was in the office up to 11 hours (because I depended on my mate’s car and availability). Also, I worked many hours on my own, in the residence, but Ilkka never understood that the creative flow doesn’t encapsulate into a office’s hours schedule. And, at the end of the period, I did my part of the agreement. More, in fact.

Picture at exactly 00.00 hours.

Chapter 4: The agreement

Let’s talk, then, about the agreement. I was supposed to work in tasks directly related with my entrepreneur formation, but he mentioned that there was no such tasks to do before we launch the game. He asked me to help them in the design and production of a videogame. But, in the end, my labor was not simply helping in the design. I had to do all the game design, and even the level design, because they had no designer in the office. He, in return, compromised to train me as entrepreneur in the second half of my stay, with the game finished, teaching me every detail in the business-related steps, like shipping, marketing, promotion, distribution and the like. In this way, we could adjust to the natural cycle of production. It made sense, and there was no reason, beyond his careless attitude, for me to not trust him. This agreement was done through email and phone, and we mentioned it several times in our meetings there.

So I focused in creating an innovative idea for a videogame, an Arkanoid-like in 3D inside and sphere. The first weeks I tried to adapt to the weird Finnish climate, in the ghost town of my residence (it was summer time for the students, and therefore it was almost empty), and trying to enjoy the wins of Spain in the World Cup only when I found open bars or when the internet connection of the residence was not down.

Full of activity during the year, and nearly empty on summer, a typical student residence.

Some weeks later, Ilkka wanted to hire me. He tried to convince me to drop my idea of creating my own company, and work for him. I wanted to interpret that movement as he was impressed with my designer skills, not as he didn’t take seriously my business project and, therefore, his obligation to train me. I think I don’t need to remark that I didn’t accept his offer.

The tracking of the two intermediaries was not so great. One email at the beginning, and that’s all.

Chapter 5: The fraud’s plot.

Weeks went on, and I realized Ilkka started to break some of his promises. In one of the few production meetings we had, he ensure that our project would count with two coders and two graphic artists. False. 70% of the time it was just a coder doing his practices in the company (Samu), and me. The rest, and specially the experts, were either on holidays or in other projects he considered more urgent. We had graphic help only in the last week of my program. I was supposed to do also project management, but this role is useless if only there is one person working apart from me. So there were several weeks without much to do: the first version of the design document was done, and I was not able to make further changes until the coder build a prototype with all the features. So I tried to kill time with videogames and internet surfing.

An small sample of the design document.

I told Ilkka about these issues. Following this schedule would not finish the game on time. And, therefore, we would never reach the stage I was there for: my business training. He told me he was not able to do much more, because of the company’s needs. But he offered an alternative plan: he would show me his company’s most secrets.

We were reaching a situation that surely I would not have accepted beforehand. But there were not many options at that point. I could have informed the intermediaries about the situation, what would cancel the rest of the program with no further penalties for him. There were only some weeks left. As a creator, I really wanted to have the game finished and launched. And he presented that information as something really valuable, something that could worth it. It could save me months of organization, research or whatever, and even taught something that I would never realized in the Spanish environment. So I accepted the deal and I focused in finishing the game, waiting for those “company secrets”.

The office whereabouts during my program. Now they have moved to the city.

He made me wait for some time more with his typical excuses: trips, meetings, time he needed to prepare all the material, and the like. But there were only about 2 weeks left, and that information didn’t seem to be taught in a couple of days. Finally, we met. And those “company secrets” were a fucking 5-minute powerpoint he usually uses to describe his company to potential investors. The typical information one can find in every company’s website.

It was not a joke. He simply cheated me. He kept me working until the end with false promises, assuring I finished my job, without making his part of the agreement.

Chapter 6: Isolation

The situation was horrible. I realized I lost 3 months of my life because of that jerk. I contacted immediately with the Spanish intermediaries, to have their feedback about the problem. And all of them were on holidays! They didn’t told me they were going to be absent. María José told me about her holydays on August, and that she was going to be replaced with another one (who didn’t reply my emails). But she didn’t mention that all their bloody office was going to be out for several weeks. I contacted the Finnish ones, with the same result. My feeling of isolation was so high that I tried to cheer me up thinking that all that was the typical hidden-camera TV-show.

I tried to keep calm. I was damaged by a program organized and covered by the European Union, and they will help me with such an unfair situation.

Chapter 7: Last negotiations.

But, with no intermediary present, I tried to reach an agreement with Ilkka. There was a little possibility that he had a good will, and all that was a misunderstanding or something. In that case, he would understand my situation and help me in some way. And, if he really wanted to cheat me, he would try to avoid scandals and legal actions.

I exposed clearly my situation:

  • I was in Finland to be trained as entrepreneur, , under a both parts agreement, in exchange with my help as Game Designer.
  • I accomplished my part of the agreement: to create an innovative game concept. I did even more than we agreed, like writing all the design document, design every level of the game, and help in other projects.
  • He accomplished less than 1% of what he promised. All his formation was 5 or 6 10-minute meetings, giving very obvious tips, easily found on the internet. Ilkka may claim he meet me every time I ask for (although sometimes I had to wait days for that), but it’s not possible to have a proper formation making a few questions, in the same way that an student cannot have a degree in medicine just boarding teachers in the faculty’s halls.
  • I had no formation, I learned almost nothing new, I earned no money (in fact, I lost about 400€), and I wasted 3 months, plus the wasted months preparing the stay and the delays due to his passivity. Without counting the money and time wasted in building a company without the training I was counting on.

Clearly, that was not a win-win situation.

(The game was finally launched for Iphone, with the name “Spherenoid”. Ilkka didn’t even send me a copy of the game I created. He also promised a royalty, and nothing has been know about this).

The final looking of the game.

I asked a remuneration of 7500€, which is basically the earning of anybody with my role and experience in Finland for working 2 months and a half. I could raise even more, as compensation for he neglecting his part of the agreement. He said that this was the salary in Helsinki, but not in the north. I didn’t want to extend too much the negotiations, so I even lowered my claims to 4000€. The minimum salary for a designer, even without experience, is 2000. I could give for free half a month, for the naps, football matches and for finishing this nightmare as soon as possible. If anybody would offered me working that period for this salary, I would rejected it, because that was not my priority. But now seemed to be a lesser evil.

At the beginning, Ilkka offered a few hundred euros, what I considered nearly a insult. He said that, if he would wanted to hire a designer, he would be Finnish. It seems he forgot that he tried to hire me some weeks earlier. When I showed how ridiculous was his point, he was a bit more receptive, but he didn’t show very interested in reaching an agreement. He also refuse to write down any of his offers.

But then Ilkka said the most unbelievable declaration: He didn’t know that he had to train me!! He didn’t know the damn reason I was there for 3 months! Apart from being a not very credible claim, it was an very serious one: either the HIO didn’t inform him of something so crucial, or he was trying to fool me. Or, as I discover later, both!

In that moment I was not able to verify his version. But even if that was true, that didn’t excuse him. I informed him many times in our meetings about that, and in the mutual agreement it was clear his responsibility to train me. So, either he exploited one of the many legal holes of the program to cheat me, or he was so stupid to not learn about a program he accepts to do and to forget our agreement and our meetings. He was the only one who had benefits from this experience, so his company or the European commission had to answer for it.

Chapter 8: More Spanish incompetences. Even worse.

The situation seemed so scandalous that I presented a report to the Spanish intermediary when they returned from their holidays. There was some days left before taking the plane back (I stay one week more in Finland to try to find a solution. I had to cover my expenses, because the program didn’t cover them). They didn’t reply my email of phone calls. I had to insist to have an answer, and it could not be a more incompetent one. Their two “solutions” were:

  1. “You should have informed us earlier”. Oh, yes, I did, but all the bloody office was on holidays. And, before that, I had no clue about he was going to cheat me.
  2. Their second solution was even funnier: “You should have learned something”. What kind of covering o legal protection is that? It’s like somebody burns your house, and the insurance only tells you: “well, at least you have sleep warm”.

Yes, that was the only protection they offered me, and they justified it telling that it was a pilot program still to evolve. A joke.

And you can keep the ashes!

I demanded to talk with her boss, Rafael Ataz. He only spoke once with me, through phone, telling me that he would try to solve it. After two month of waiting, I insist for a reply, and he told me more or less the same thing like the other woman: they were not able to do anything. He pointed that giving me some advices from time to time could have been the HE’s interpretation of the agreement. There was no other document, so that agreement had some contractual value. Yes, that part of the agreement I had to write entirely because Mr. Ilkka Immonen was too busy or too lazy to do his part. I didn’t put many details because I had no idea about the kind of training he was going to offer and because I’m not an expert in business things (oh, that was the damn reason I was doing this program!). The intermediaries never told me about the contractual value of that agreement, they only presented it as a simple bureaucratic process. It’s curious how Ilkka’s passiveness was finally rewarded.

Program's tool, in where his responsability was clear. If anybody else interpret this as some 5-minute advises every two weeks, please tell me, maybe the wrath avoids my mind to think clearly.

It was clear that they were not going to do anything for me.

Chapter 9: Finnish incompetences

The other intermediaries were even worse. I discover that the HIO didn’t properly inform the HE about his obligations as a host entrepreneur! Incredible. The program made the NE read a lot of documents and sign contracts that could damage him very much if he doesn’t fulfill his part of the contract. The HE doesn’t sign ANYTHING, and his main contact don’t even inform him about his duties. And the HIO was also Finnish, from that country in where everything seems to work perfectly. Anitta Sihvonen, in the case Google wants to find her.

And don’t miss the Ilkka’s version: he said he was not satisfy with me either, to counter my complains. Maybe because my skills as designer was not what I claimed on my CV? Or maybe because I did a poor game just to have my training done? Hell, no, his only complain was: I had naps at the office and watch football matches! Something he agreed on that time! I did my part of the agreement and gave him a full game, and he complaints about the naps. Ilkka was not even decent enough to admit his fault. The funny thing is that this complain had weight enough for the intermediaries, who summarize the program as not satisfying for both parts! What part of “I did my part of the agreement and he didn’t” are they forgetting?

The level of incompetence was so high that I report directly to the European commission of the “Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs” program with a detailed dossier. Their answer: none at all. They ignored me completely.

Chapter 10: The return to Spain

Ilkka was slightly interested in continue in touch with me through the internet to try to reach an agreement, maybe just to keep me calmed. I only found him seldomly in the facebook chat. He replied one out of ten times, and all his responses were: “I’m still thinking about it” and “Sorry, I have a meeting” (he didn’t tried to search for varied excuses). He kept me waiting for months. He said that email was better for comunications. I sent several emails. He replied none. The inner voice inside me telling me that maybe he didn’t cheat me was vanishing month after month.

But there was time for even one more shit from the intermediaries: THEY TRIED TO BOICOT THE NEGOTIATIONS, advising him that he had no obligation to pay!! This was really incredible. All this mess was caused by the incompetence of some subsidized intermediaries who drown in abusive clauses to a resourceless new entrepreneur (the one the program it’s supposed to help), while give total freedom to a resourceful entrepreneur. And now they say that he has no need to pay.

Firstly, I thought that the HIO was making his job, protecting his client (something that the NIO didn’t do). But later I have seen that both protect their interests, so Europe wouldn’t cut the subvention they receive for managing this program, or to avoid scandals. I hope this information here I publish will ignite that scandal.

While I was waiting for replies from the intermediaries, Lapland Studios entered a reorganization time: either it was rescued, or it went bankrupt. The perfect excuse for Ilkka to say that he cannot pay me. But he said it as he was really planned to pay me. I contacted him when I knew they exit that reorganization and, you know what?, he used the same excuse. Another attempt to cheat me? You guess.

Final Chapter: Publishing all the story

I should have just published all this on that time. But there was something inside me that still wanted peace. So, as a last good will gesture (and a bit naive from my part, I admit), I offered to Ilkka one last offer, the half of my previous request, 2000€. Less than one thousand per month in one of the most advanced countries in Europe for doing a job not many Finnish people could have done (he told me several times about the difficulties of finding Finnish game designers). Less than one thousand per month for making a funny and innovative videogame. A shitty deal for me, but it would be a symbolic gesture that would me feel less cheated. Guess what happens… He ignored me. Completely. Even if he really has the intention of cheating me, this agreement would at least save his honor, avoiding all this to be known and damaging his reputation to everyone who searched for his name on the net. And he ignored me. I sent him several emails and facebook messages (the only way to contact him), with ultimatums to show I was serious about publishing everything if he didn’t fix the situation he created. And he kept ignoring me. I realized his tactic: he keep the people with hope under false promises. He did it in my time there, to be sure I finish my job, and he was doing it now, to minimize the damages. As you can see, Ilkka Immonen, I don’t ignore your shameful attitude. And I write it here with all the details, for you not to forget it. Oh, and, if possible, for being found by your future clients or investors.

I searched for legal information. Maybe the intermediaries offered me some legal covering with a lawyer specialized in European business topics? Maybe it was an European Commission aid, as the only way to help me in this problem? Not at all. It was my cousin, with a degree in law and economics (thanks again, Carlos, for your help!). He recommended me not to demand him or the program itself, because all those legal holes only benefit them. And, even when I could win this on a court, as an European affair it could take years and thousands of euros. This shit has taken too much time and energy from my life, and I don’t want to extend it not even one minute more. I want to publish this and forget about it. At least, he assured me I can publish all this without being accused of defamation, because there are witness and documentation of everything I have mentioned. If with all this story I dissuade anyone to enter this program, or having any business with the intermediaries, or being cheated by Ilkka Immonen, I would be satisfied.

Vengeance is a dish best served cold.

Epilogue: Outcome

Do I what, then, to sink Lapland Studios? Not at all. One of the few good things of my stay there was meeting so nice and talented people such as Arto Mikkola or Petri Hannula, and I desire no harm to them. They helped me all the time, and I don’t forget Samu or Jouko for the transportation. But, from here, I tell them: You don’t need Ilkka for anything. He is ballasting you. You also could be cheated by him. You have talent and knowledge more than enough to build your own company. And I have no doubt that you will treat employees much better, and make better games that you do now.

The paradigm of exploiter business man should be something from the past. Let’s bury the few relics left. Let’s show them that this attitude could work in the American or Chinese ultra-capitalism, but we Europeans love too much our social rights to let that banks or business people to trample us. We want a world with companies like Google, not like Microsoft or, inside the videogame environment, like Electronic Arts. Not anything goes to generate profits. So, Finnish investors, don’t trust your money to Ilkka Immonen. Instead, give it to anything that Petri or Arto would do.

And, about the “Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs” program, my advise is clear: if you are a business man who wants a free slave for several months, and if you are lucky that this slave has not read this, go for it! It’s even more profitable than those scholars you underpaid. The only thing you risk is not being able to have another slave, but at least you have the work of the first one.

If you are planning to build a company, don’t fall in the trap. Maybe your experience could be good, maybe you HE is somebody of good will and wise enough to train you. But there is a not so small probability that you are exploited in a program that doesn’t protect you, but in which he is untouchable. Too risky. And you have too risk in trying to build a company. Unless they change the program’s laws. But seeing how the commission has ignored this case, I doubt it.

Spanish entrepreneurs have too much to deal with that accepting a program that is more a burden than a help.

So, friends, the end line is clear: avoid this program and do business with the actors of this masquerade:

  • European commission of “Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs”, for doing a program with too many legal holes and abusive clauses for precisely the part they were supposed to be helping: the new entrepreneurs.
  • Ilkka Immonen, for cheating me.
  • María José Marín and Rafael Ataz, for not informing correctly and for doing nothing against the abuse I suffered.
  • Anitta Sihvonen, for not informing Ilkka about his obligations, and for boicoting any possible agreement.

And, if you want to help me, spread this page, to prevent anybody else to be damaged. And the different versions: The original (Spanish) page, this translation and the facebook page. (You can also follow my twitter).

And big thanks to all who have reached this last line! 🙂

July 5, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | 9 Comments