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The Natural: Entrepreneur Sami Inkinen

  • By Courtney Baird
  • Published Jul 22, 2012
  • Updated Jul 23, 2012 at 4:48 PM UTC
Photo: Nils Nilsen


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While Inkinen’s focus on specificity and recovery in training was important to his success in 2011, there was another part of the triathlon puzzle that Inkinen knew he would have to solve if he were to ever really knock it out of the park at Kona or Vegas.

That other part was heat—as a bulkier athlete, Inkinen would always be at a disadvantage in hot weather compared to skinny runner-types, who are able to get rid of excess heat more easily.

“Just physiologically, at 185, 183, or whatever, at that weight, you generate so much more heat than a 160-pound athlete,” Inkinen said.

Inkinen approached the heat problem like he would any problem, including one in business. First, he talked to world-class experts, then he read as much as possible, and finally he tested what he had learned on himself and adjusted, just as a scientist would.

Through this process, he discovered that pace control was the key to performing well in the heat—and in Hawaii.

“Ali’i Drive is ridiculously hot for someone like me. I could go out in 6:45 miles, but if I run 45 minutes at that pace in that heat and there’s no wind, I’m totally toast,” Inkinen said. “I’ve tried it once and it’s done. So the pace control is the No. 1 thing.”

In other words, when Inkinen reaches a particularly hot section of the course in Kona or in any race, he holds back a bit. When he gets to a cooler section, he pushes the pace a bit. In fact, he won the overall age-group race at the 2011 Hawaii 70.3 by pushing the pace a little too much on the bike in the morning, when the air was cool, and then walking up the run course’s short golf course hills, which were naked to the scorching sun.

“Anything that was exposed and sunny and uphill, I just walked,” Inkinen said. “And it’s kind of funny because people were like, ‘You can do it! Keep running! You can do it!’ And I’m like, ‘No, actually, I’m not. I’m just going to walk.’ And I won the whole thing.”

He used a similar approach to win the age-group world title in Las Vegas.

Inkinen also manages the heat through hydration, insisting that he drink enough on the bike so he hasn’t lost any weight by the time he starts the run.

“I always take as many water bottles as I can at every single aid station. I know how much I need to hydrate,” Inkinen said. “I start from the first aid station onward. So it’s not like I wait until I feel hot.”

When he’s riding up a steep hill, he pours water over his white arm coolers, and when he’s running, he periodically fills the arm coolers with ice.

“Some of the scientists say that you shouldn’t put ice on your skin because it actually reduces the blood circulation on your skin. I know scientifically what is right, but anecdotally and experimentally, it seems to help me,” Inkinen said.

Inkinen’s scientific approach extends beyond heat training, as he uses his massive Excel spreadsheet—the one where he’s been noting daily workouts and recovery markers since 2004—to analyze any speed bumps he’s run into during his training.

“There was one year where I used to get sick a lot,” he said. “I could go back and totally see the pattern—I wasn’t sleeping enough. I felt I wasn’t training a lot, but in fact I was training very hard in a sense that I may have taken a red eye to New York and then said, ‘I’m going to do 45 minutes on the treadmill and do 5 x 5-minute intervals, and then the next day I’m going to do a 60-minute indoor spin class and go all-out all 60 minutes.’ And then, come Friday I’m sick. Why did I get sick? You can go look back, and you can see the pattern.”

If you know Inkinen, you wouldn’t be surprised by his passion for solving problems through science or his meticulously kept Excel spreadsheet, as the man is a professed data geek and scientist at heart.

He grew up in a small Finnish town near the Russian border in a home that was run a little like a farm, with its chickens and guinea pigs. His mother oversaw a cafeteria at a paper factory and his dad was an electrician, and Inkinen didn’t really have a concept of how you could live your life any other way. Nevertheless, as a gifted student in math and the sciences, Inkinen knew he could leverage those talents, which is why he chose the Helsinki University of Technology for college. While there, he earned his master’s degree in engineering, applied math and business strategy through the physics department.

He also developed an obsession with tracking data in school, and since then he has tracked everything from employee happiness, to how he spends his time while working (he used to waste too much time on meetings), to how much glucose his body can absorb (he accomplished this with the help of a blood glucose monitor for diabetics that he purchased at Walgreens).

“It’s not normal,” said Ken Shuman, Trulia’s head of communications, with a laugh. “We always joke that he’s a robot and that if you were to open him up, he’d bleed blue and not red. He’s a scientist at heart. At the end of the day he’s a physicist, and his brain works as in, ‘If you track it, you can improve it.’ So whether it’s happiness at the office, the amount of pushups you’re doing, or how much time you’re spending on e-mail versus the phone versus in meetings, if there’s a way to track it, he does.”

Meticulously tracking all this data requires discipline, something Inkinen is in no short supply of.

“I used to work three hours every night from 9 to midnight, and I wasn’t sleeping enough. I’ve kind of tried to cut that out,” Inkinen said dryly over dinner.

While he was still working as president of Trulia, he would wake up around 5:30 a.m., work for about an hour, get in his workout, travel to the office from his home in Oakland on public transportation, which allowed him to work en route, arrive about 9 and leave around 6 or 7. On Sundays he would work from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m.

“I think he’s just able to stay very disciplined,” said Peter Lee, a friend of Inkinen’s and a Stanford Business School classmate. “I think for us mere mortals, there’s always that lazy Sunday, and that’s just not him.”

This disciplined approach has helped him and his business partner, Pete Flint, build up Trulia from an idea on how to solve the “massive consumer problem” people were having when trying to search for a home to a company that is growing rapidly, employs more than 300 people and has raised $33 million in venture capital funding. (Inkinen declined to disclose the company’s revenue numbers.)

Trulia is the second company he has built from scratch. In 2002, before he came to the U.S. to study at Stanford, he sold the company Matchem Ltd., which employed about 20 people, for an undisclosed sum. It was a software company he founded with Finnish physicist Juha Huttunen and which gave TV shows the ability to display interactive graphics.

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