‘Teams thrive if you treat them with compassion and respect’

14 Sep 2023

M-Files founder and CEO Antti Nivala. Image: © Alex/Stock.adobe.com/M Files

Antti Nivala discusses his company’s origins, the differences in various c-suite roles and the need for SaaS companies to show they can operate in a ‘cash-efficient manner’.

Antti Nivala is the founder and CEO of M-Files, an information management company that helps organisations easily manage their documents.

The company’s platform aims to give businesses a way to instantly find the information they need, automate business processes and enhance information control.

The company has grown into a massive entity over the years, with more than 500 employees, offices in eight countries and more than 5,000 customers around the world. Nivala said the inspiration of M-Files came from a problem his father encountered as the head of an architectural engineering firm.

“Legacy document management solutions underpinned by a single, physical folder hierarchy were creating data silos across his firm, which resulted in misplaced files and duplicate documents,” Nivala said. “After hearing about the problem, I considered how I could create a solution that provided all employees with the information they required at any given time, regardless of where it was stored.”

Nivala began working on the software in 2002 in Tampere, Finland. Fast forward to 2023 and M-Files has managed to reach ‘Centaur’ status, exceeded €100m in annual recurring revenue.

“Knowing that we have reached this level of success from such humble beginnings is an incredibly uplifting feeling,” Nivala said.

In all levels of the organisation

As well as the founder, Nivala has held various positions within M-Files over the years, being the development director in its early years, before being CEO between 2005 and 2012 and shifting to CTO and chief product officer at different points.

When discussing the differences between these roles, Nivala said that his time as a CTO involved a lot of “hands-on work”, while being CEO is “far more culture-driven”.

“When I was CTO, I had to do a lot of problem solving, but shortly after making the transition to CEO, I realised that solving every issue as head of a company is impossible. Instead, my purpose is to create an environment where employees feel empowered to take on individual tasks and really excel.”

Nivala returned to the CEO position towards the end of 2019 and has stayed there to the present day. In terms of creating the right environment, he said he tries to engage and inspire his staff by speaking transparently and honestly to create a sense of unity.

“If I’m open with the wider team, I find that this really helps people feel comfortable voicing any concerns they have or ideas they want to bring forward,” he said. “When everyone has the same insight into the business, they’re more likely to feel valued and understand that we’re all working towards the same goals.”

But despite the various roles he has held within the company, he claims to be a “techie at heart”, writing software since he was 13 years old. But it seems the different roles has taught him a lot over the years.

“If I could go back in time, I’d tell myself that soft skills are just as important as technical proficiency when it comes to kickstarting a business,” Nivala said. “I wish I’d known that time spent building relationships with customers and partners can be just as valuable as time spent developing a product.”

Pouncing on AI

The tech sector has experienced a crunch in recent years, with many big tech companies laying off staff and seeking to tighten their costs. Nivala said software-as-a-service companies have also experienced a “reset back to the realities of business” after experiencing a “growth-at-all-cost” period. This change does not appear to have fazed him, however.

“SaaS companies now need to show that they can operate in a profitable and cash-efficient manner. This suits M-Files perfectly, because we have always ensured that what we do delivers real business value to our customers.”

Like many companies, Nivala said M-Files is looking to the benefits AI can bring to the document management sector, describing AI technology as the “flavour of the month across practically every industry”.

“We’re leveraging the capabilities of generative AI to make sure the M-Files platform is as advanced and intuitive as possible,” Nivala said. “Our platform uses AI to update metadata, trigger workflows, assign permissions and intelligently act on content.”

Settling into the US

M-Files appears to be in its prime, but Nivala said the company took risks in its earlier days. The company was bootstrapped in its early years in Europe and established a US presence before getting any outside investor money, which Nivala looks back on as a “bold and even risky move, but it has been worth it”.

Nivala took a new leap himself in recent years, leaving his home country of Finland in 2019 with his family to live in the US.

“It’s been a big change for the family, including our children, and I hope they will see the value in it in the long term.”

In his personal life, Nivala said he is a “keen runner” and that he tries to complete one big marathon each year, competing in the New York City marathon over the past couple of years as part of the New York Road Runners (NYRR) Team for Kids to raise funds for the charity.

Inspiration and words to live by can be found anywhere, and Nivala said the book Good to Great by Jim Collins is a book that had a “very significant impact” on his approach to leadership.

One of the key quotes he remembers from the book is to “Mix personal humility with professional will”.

“I think this perfectly encapsulates the mindset of a great leader,” Nivala said. “It’s vital to remember that we’re all human, and the people around you will thrive if you treat them with compassion and respect.

“Many of the ideas the book explores have laid the foundation for success throughout the M-Files journey.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic