Interviews Misc

Interview with Jani Penttinen – CEO and co-founder of XIHA Life

Jani Penttinen: the Finnish who knows how to make friends!

Jani Penttinen is clearly not the kind of man who likes sitting all the evening at home watching TV and killing time. His mind seems to be always looking for new challenges and possibilities to explore, both in his private and working life. This has led him to live in 3 different foreign countries through the past years, work for some of the most acclaimed videogame developers in the world and create from scratch his own social network online, XIHA Life, together with his Chinese wife Wen. A project that continues growing day after day with new members that share common features: their passion in making new friends from all over the world, traveling and getting to know new cultures and languages. Let’s discover a bit more about this young Finnish entrepreneur who seems to disregard the word “impossible” from his vocabulary…

Jani Penttinen

Thanks a lot for attending our questions Jani! Please tell us more in detail what exactly XIHA Life is and how the idea came up for its creation.

Short and sweet, XIHA Life ( is a multilingual lifestyle community for anyone interested in other cultures or languages. It’s a relaxed community where people make friends and learn about life in other places of the world, or just have fun and play some games.

How many members does XIHA have nowadays and which are the countries with biggest representation?

As of this moment we have 525 796 members and over 1000 new members sign up every day. It’s not easy to say which country is number one, because the distribution is very flat and the top countries change almost daily, however Thailand, Turkey, Brazil, Poland, China and France are the countries usually at the top.

One of the strongest points of XIHA is being so multicultural. In how many languages is translated? Are you planning to add more?

The user interface has been translated to 42 languages and we currently support 56 languages for the content. Unfortunately many of the translations are a little out of date now as the whole year we’ve been busy adding new features and changing things around. We’re planning to soon get all the languages updated and then add some more. I think in the end we’ll have more than 100 languages, as we really want to offer the service in native language to almost everyone in the world. In fact, nothing really stops us from having much more than that, if we just find some people to do the translations for us!

Before that, you were working in USA as programmer, among other companies with the famous Electronic Arts. How was the experience there, and what did you learn to apply it in your future projects?

It was a fantastic experience! I very much recommend everyone spend some time living and working in another country at some point of their life. For many it may sound scary to go abroad but it’s not that difficult. Life in the US is not that different from life in Finland; you eat, you sleep and you work! However, the big difference is in the attitude and the way of life. I think it was in the US when my entrepreneurial spirit fully took off. While technically I was working for a large corporation, EA, I was actually working at a small company called Westwood Studios in Las Vegas, which EA had acquired couple years earlier. The founders running the company had the kind of enthusiasm I’d never seen before. It was a great inspiration to work with them.

Jani Penttinen

What was the motivation to move from there to China?

I left EA after they closed the studio in Las Vegas and asked me to move to Los Angeles. Vegas was a nice small city where everything was shiny new and I could afford living in a big house. Moving to LA would have meant paying more to live in a small apartment, in a crowded city, doing the same job I’d been doing for the past several years already. I’d already worked with some of the most legendary game developers on huge game titles, so I felt it was time for change. It was a crazy plan actually – I had never been to anywhere in Asia and I didn’t speak any Chinese. In fact, I knew absolutely nothing about China. I probably thought I knew something, but in the end it turned out how little we in the west know about the Asian countries… Anyway, off I went. In about three months I had a company up and running in Shenzhen with the first few employees hired!

Did you have in mind to create something like XIHA in the past years, or the inspiration came after meeting your wife Wen in China?

Yeah, definitely it was because of her, actually XIHA was her idea. In fact I never intended to stay in China. I had thought of starting up a satellite company in China or India and controlling the operations from Las Vegas. But meeting her changed everything – within just a few weeks I had already put my house for sale in the US and was preparing to move to China for good.
She’s from an entrepreneur family so she knew everything there is to know about running a business in China. It was because of her that starting the mobile business went so smoothly. Unfortunately though, running a software sweatshop in China was not what I had imagined and pretty soon I was looking for a change – again. It was at that point when we decided we would implement her idea of the XIHA Life community. It was meant to be just something fun we do together, but here we are, 3 years later, both running it as the full time job!

“I see XIHA becoming a well-known brand around the world”

How is to work together with your wife? Is the relation cool, or sometimes it is difficult to mix family and business?

Sometimes it’s pretty cool, but in the end it’s actually quite difficult. It’s hard to escape work when you have your own company, and it gets practically impossible when you’re running the company together with your wife. This is sometimes quite a strain on the relationship. Having a family business obviously has a lot of advantages too and I really like the fact I can build my schedule so that I work from home as much as possible. When your business partner is a family member, you have way less conflicts of interest when making decisions.

Do you have any fixed office for XIHA, or basically your work using the computers and Internet?

XIHA is has a virtual office – everyone works from their home or anywhere else they see fit. All our team members are professionals who love their job, so this works very well. Rather than checking the clock on how many hours everyone puts in, we care about what gets done. Quite naturally it fits my lifestyle – during the life span of XIHA I have already lived in three different countries. This arrangement also gives me more freedom to not just move around the globe but also work while traveling. In the summer we sometimes like to cruise on a boat across Lake Zurich. There are small towns around the lake, so the 3G coverage is excellent. I can basically stay online and work all time.


What are the main features that make XIHA different from other social networks such as Facebook or MySpace?

The biggest difference is that we’re an open community where you make new friendships, often from the other side of the world. So while you probably have all your existing friends in Facebook, that won’t help you much if you want to talk to locals at your next travel destination, or if you want to learn a new language. If you just want to check out what your old buddies are up to, probably XIHA won’t be very interesting to you. But on the other hand, you probably would not contribute much useful stuff to XIHA either, so it’d be a mutual mismatch. What we’re trying to build is not the biggest community in the world, but instead the best hangout for like-minded people.

What are the main sources of profit for XIHA? Are the games the most important part to sustain the network economically? Do you develop your own games, or are made by third party companies?

Games are an important part of our revenue model. Part of the reason is my background in games industry, but in general the types of casual games we offer are a very good fit to our audience. Most of the XIHA users are girls or women, from 25 to 50 years old, and this group just happens to love playing games on the internet. We don’t develop games, we’re basically a reseller. What makes our offering special compared to many others is that our users can pay for the games in their local currency and local payment systems. For example in Finland you can buy a game from us and pay for it through your own online bank, and get the game instantly. With this idea we’re taking the localization one step further – it’s not enough to translate the text, we also want to localize the entire user experience.

Is XIHA profitable? Are you thinking to implement new ideas profit-oriented?

Nope, it’s not profitable yet. In fact, we haven’t really focused on monetizing yet. We could run the service itself at profit but we are investing into development of the service. Our number one goal has been to build an excellent network where people have fun and want to keep coming back. Without that there’s not much point in thinking of how to make money, really. We’re in a good shape though, things are progressing as planned.

Are you dedicated professionally full time to XIHA, or do you participate in other side jobs?

Both Wen and I are 100% focused on XIHA. In addition to us, we also have 3 full time developers working on the project and around 10 part-timers. Early on, when XIHA was just a hobby, I was still doing some gigs for EA, participating in development of some really cool games. Unfortunately I don’t have time for that anymore.

Jani Penttinen

How do you see the future of XIHA Life, and what are the main challenges to face?

I see XIHA Life becoming a well-known brand around the world for cross-cultural communication. It will be something people use in addition to other social networks, so no matter who is the leader and what the trends are, XIHA will have the staying power and will keep on thriving.

Anything you want to add for our readers?

I’d like to invite everyone to try out XIHA Life. It’s completely free to use and we have plenty of fun and friendly people around. Given that XIHA is targeted at expats and travelers, I think it would be a great fit for many of the readers!

For joining the XIHA experience and make friends from all over the world, you can visit:

Photos by Marianne Taylor

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Estonia’s soul singers

{mosimage}For a small country, it has a big voice – many thousands of them. While most nations measure their international prestige in sporting or economic terms, Estonia prides itself on its singing. 



he 25th Song Celebration (Laulupidu), titled “To breathe as one”, was held at Lauluväljak (Tallinn Song Festival Grounds) on 2-5 July and its importance to the Estonian psyche cannot be exaggerated. The last in 2004 attracted a crowd of over 200,000 plus 35,000 choral singers and 2,000 musicians raising their voices  in traditional and modern song. 

Fittingly, a statue of Gustav Ernesaks (1908-1993), 'the Father of the Festival', has looked down over the vast field since 2004 to the huge arched roof  under which the choirs perform. He was the event's head organiser and chief choirmaster for nearly 50 years as well as being a noted composer who put to music Mu isamaa on minu arm (My country is my love) the poem by Estonia’s pre-eminent female poet Lydia Koidula. 

“This song is very important for all Estonians, it’s the symbol of our freedom,” says Margot Holts, Lauluväljak’s Marketing Director. 

2009 marked the festival’s 140th anniversary and it has mushroomed in significance and size from its origins in the city of Tarttu, where a small  museum traces its history. Naturally, during Estonia's Russian and Soviet periods, it acted as a siren for the Estonian soul. So why was it allowed when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union from 1944 to1991? (The current TSFG was even built in 1959 although the then radical design was by Estonian architects Kotli and Sepmann

Blissful Ignorance

{mosimage}"The powers in  Moscow saw it as a cultural event only. They were so far removed that they didn’t realize it was so totemic for us,” explains Mall Oja of Tallinn’s Tourist Bureau.   

During occupation, it was held with red flag flying, while the throng defiantly sang for freedom. Before independence came in 1991, the last Soviet event attended by 300,000 in 1988 was dubbed ‘The singing revolution’. This and the subsequent one in 1992 exhaled pride and joy which was breathed in deeply by the entire nation.

Plucked young, matured carefully

Since 1934, the festival has been combined with the Dance Celebration (at nearby Kalev Stadium) that has now had its 18th edition. Over 50,000 choir and 20,000 dancing applications (from abroad too) were received, which were whittled down – only the best will do.  

Estonian choristry skims off the cream from an early age – mirroring the process of the sports world. Choristers from village to city join a major choir as young as five years old. The gifted are trialled, selected and trained at such elite bodies as the Estonian National Opera Boys’ Choir. 

{mosimage}Under the professional tutelage of ENOBC's Artistic Director Hirvo Surva and others, they are trained in breathing, singing and timing. Estonian choirs have received applause and awards abroad from the Llangollen Choir Competition and Hungary’s Cantemus Choral Festival among others. Singers and dancers this year came from North America, the Nordics, UK, Ukraine, Hungary and Russia. 

A typical participant was Feliks Mägus, Chairman of the Nordic Hotel s group who joined a choir aged 7 and then sang until he graduated, literally, to the Tarttu men's choir Akadeemiline Emajõgi. As he puts it “The Song Festival has always been a place to enjoy singing and to feel that all Estonians are as one nation.”   

But the sound and atmosphere created by 100,000 voices is unforgettable in the ten or so songs that are performed together en masse. “Our programme always includes difficult pieces which require balance and careful rehearsal,” comments Surva. “And we always start with Koit and finish with Mu isamaa on mu arm for the older generation.” 

Held every four years like the Olympics and other great sporting occasions, this mean that those who take part have an indelible experience. Although not everyone who wishes can attend in person, the volume and atmosphere produced by the ensemble when singing together means that their voices carry far beyond the sound limits and into the hearts and souls of absentees too. 

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Interview with Finnish driver Emma Kimiläinen

Finnish race driver Emma Kimiläinen is one of the most promising young car racers in Europe. In a sport ruled by men, Emma finds that there is no better way to demonstrate her quality than beating the guys on the track. Emma is also involved in politics, interested in theatre and playing piano, and always eager to give you a ride home. And on top of that, she does not lack of physical attractiveness… Who would not fall in love with this girl?

Hello Emma and thanks for attending the questions of FREE! Magazine. How did you start to compete in car races?

Well I already started the racing career at the age of 3 when I was big enough to drive a little go-kart. It was a family hobby for really long time. However, I drove my first race when I was 5 years old.

What have been your biggest achievements as a racer through last years?

I was 3rd in the Formula Radical Elite championship in 2007. I won the Formula Ford Cup in 2006, got silver in the NEZ (Nordic European Zone), that I lost with only one point and Finnish Formula Ford championship in 2006 and 2005. I’ve been elected as the best female driver in Finland in the years 2007 and 2005. I have also been elected as the best racing driver in Finland in 2005. And Motorsport Aktuellet (The most read motorsport magazine in Germany) readers voted me the second best junior driver in the whole world after Nico Hülkenberg, who won the Formula 3 Euro cup championship

Jani Penttinen

What are your plans for 2009?

The plans for 2009 aren’t quite clear yet. So I can’t say so much about them at the moment. But I can tell it will be something interesting.

Which is your favorite track around the world to compete?

Good question. There are many nice tracks in the world and the opinion of the coolest track changes all the time because I’m visiting new tracks all the time but I like fast tracks a lot, so at the moment I have to say Assen, NL.

Why there are not more women competing at top motorsports at the same level than men? Is it impossible due to physical features to be at the same level?

No. it’s definitely not impossible. If people say that women can’t drive F1 because it’s too hard due to physical features, why can there female astronauts or fighter pilots? There is lot more G-forces than in F1 car. The cars are more developed nowadays and it isn’t hard to drive one.I think the problem is that there are not so many woman drivers in the world. I claim that if you put as many girls as guys in a go kart at the age of 3, for example, later on there will be as many talented girls as guys. Everybody has to remember that there are also a lot of “bad” guys. Only few of them all are talented. So it makes quite difficult to find many talented girls because there aren’t many in this sports in the first place.

“Other pilots try sometimes to hit on me, but I try to keep it professional”

Have you found that people treat you differently at the tracks for being a girl (when competing against boys)?

Of course I have. It’s quite funny that I’m always the target to push off at the track. Most of the guys can’t handle the fact that a girl can be a faster driver. But it only gives me more strength. Unfortunately no matter if I have had good results in past years, when I go to a new series and team nobody believes I can go fast. There are always people saying “well she had some luck last year, there is no way she can do it again”. So year after year, I always need to prove myself as a racing driver to the new team, drivers and public. It’s hard work, no chances for mistakes.


You are quite a pretty girl. Do the other pilots try to hit on you (outside the track)?

Hehehe, well yes they do try sometimes. But I keep it professional.

What is usually the boys’ reaction when you first tell them you are a car racer?

“NO WAYYY, really?? How cool is that!” Then they start to ask more and most of them are really happy for me and thinks it’s great that I beat the guys.

When you go out at night with friends, are you always the one on charge to drive?

Well actually, I am. But because I want to. Nowadays everybody knows I’m always by car so then they want to have a lift home….


Are you planning to continue your career as professional racer, or do you have other goals in your life?

My priority in life is racing, so of course I’ll do whatever it takes to be a professional racing driver, remain one and to develop all the time as a driver and person. But of course I have other things in my life as well, which I think is really important. I’m into politics. I’m part of the Sports Board of Helsinki and I belong to the biggest party in Finland called Kokoomus. But I’d love to study acting in the theatre academy of Helsinki. But I need to find out if I have the time for it.

What have been the best and the worst moment of your racing life so far?

The best moment was when I got invited to an Audi DTM- test in December 2007. I had the chance of my lifetime to show that I’m talented driver, and I did it! The worst moment must have been the whole last year because of the difficulties I had with my team and all the bad luck, including really heavy crash.

What does Emma enjoy doing when she is not competing?

I enjoy especially singing, but also dancing and playing piano.

If you would have to choose one: Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton or Kimi Raikkonen?

Lewis Hamilton, no doubt! ;)

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