The Developing Startup Ecosystem in Estonia

I left my home country Estonia around 5-6 years ago. The term ‘startup’ was fairly new at the time. TransferWise was still in baby shoes and E-Residency wasn’t opened up yet for the wider world. I had already been working with UK companies from Estonia for several years before leaving and it made perfect sense to continue my journey in the UK.

Last week I visited Estonia for a different reason than usually, I attended the biggest Startup Event in the Baltics ‘Startup Day’ in Tartu, which brought together around 2700 entrepreneurs, founders, experts and investors from across the world. I was stunned – about the level of commitment from the organisers team, the top level people they’ve attracted as speakers, the level of startups who pitched at the event on different tracks, and overall buzz and energy. And I was really proud to be there and say that I’m from Estonia, specifically from Tartu. So I thought I'd share some of the highlights from these three days with you.

Growing Business Angels Network and Government Support

A day before the event I had a chance to attend EstBAN – Estonian Business Angels Network 5th anniversary dinner and meet some great Estonian Angel Investors and understand their motivations and interest. I also met angels from outside Estonia and I asked what brings them to Estonia – they’ve all heard about the amazing talent and technology coming from Estonia – they trust their money here. EstBAN today has 125+ members and already expanding its network into fellow Baltic and Nordic countries. When I left Estonia, I remember they had just started. I was impressed with how much effort they’ve put into the startup ecosystem development in Estonia. I believe it’s not only the angels community or the amazing talent and startups springing up from Estonia but also the level of commitment and support from government and education that is driving Estonian startup ecosystem. The University of Tartu works even more closely now with innovators and organisations driving innovation, because education is now more important to our country than ever. Keeping up with trends and introducing practical opportunities for students early on can only benefit the growth of our talent. Kersti Kaljulaid, President of Estonia also attended Startup Day and spoke about the importance of government’s support in innovation and creating a good environment for innovators to grow, also from regulators perspective.

The Growth of Digital Nation

Of course Digital Identity is the main character playing such a huge role in the growth of Estonian startup ecosystem and the reason for us being called the Digital Republic. Every citizen has a virtual avatar which allows access to banking, healthcare, use of public services, education system and more. I personally cannot imagine how I would sign legal documents remotely or take care of my banking and business without ID card anymore. And yes, it’s now available for everyone who is not Estonian resident – it only costs 100 euros to create yourself your own digital ID through Estonian E-Residency program. It’s not a surprise for many because people I meet in London already have joined the E-residency program or heard of its benefits. Kaspar Korjus, the founder of E-Residency also introduced Estcoin, followed by insightful debate about the future of cryptocurrencies and ICOs with Peter M. Moricz and Edward Vali. But it’s not about keeping it all in Estonia. While working with FinTech companies and banks in London, I find we have a lot to learn and we have already taken steps to digitalise the UK! In fact we have launched a new growth program Rainmaking Colab and we have chosen our first theme to be Digital Identity. Throughout this program we are bringing together banks and financial institutions with world class FinTech companies because we believe there’s more to come out from collaboration between the two to make a real change. Digital Identity is the area where banks and financial institutions need to catch up here in the UK, either to simplify their customer journey or prevent fraud. We are also in talks with some Estonian FinTech companies providing relevant solutions.

It’s all about expansion!

This brings me back to the point where I’d like to talk about the expansion to the UK market. A few days before Startup Day we decided with Department for International Trade, British Embassy in Tallinn and British Estonian Chamber of Commerce to organise an educational panel for startups who are looking to fundraise and expand to UK and beyond.. We invited Piotr Pisarz, from DN Capital as well as Eamonn Carey, Angel Investor (previously MD for Techstars) to share their tips and best practices when expanding and fundraising in the UK. We also invited two Estonian companies Funderbeam and Nevercode to share their journey while they already have entered the UK market. Why did I really push to organise this event? Because I see how many great Estonian startups are springing up but there’s one thing they do struggle with – and this is expansion. The market in Estonia (population of 1.3 million people) is not big enough to grow sustainable business if your plans are to conquer the world. I don’t want anyone to take this personally but to some extent I find Estonian companies – founders to be a bit naïve when going to UK or US markets, and to be honest I was myself when first coming to London. The competition is fierce, more than you can imagine, market is much more mature than other markets, and people tend to underestimate the importance of network required. You need to grow your network, understand the culture and local ecosystem. Often this requires time - to build these connections and hire right people who know the market better and who you can trust. The biggest mistake I’ve seen to be made – you take things for granted, you believe people must give you contacts, must put you in touch with someone who gives you money. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works, no one will deliver you anything on a silver plate. First you need to prove that you’ve done your own research and you are willing to spend some time in the UK to get to know people and the ecosystem. We organise events with British Estonian Chamber of Commerce quarterly in London to present Estonian startups to people in London, either investors, potential partners or fellow Estonians who can introduce you to right people. When you are planning to visit London, make sure to be up to date with the industry events, and people you need to get in touch with, there’s a lot of pre-work and research to be made to make the most out of your stay. Don’t expect people to help you because you are Estonian startup, be open, friendly, genuine, try to create meaningful connections, leave your ego home and come back to meet these people again. It’s not a one-off, building connections takes time. You’ll be successful if you have the right strategy. These are just a few tips I wanted to get across when you are planning to expand to UK.

Failure and why no one talks about it?

On Startup Day I was asked to share my experience with failures because it’s just not always rainbows and butterflies in startup world. While having quite some baggage setting up startups I hope I managed to get some useful points across. You can find my slides here.

Failure is an interesting topic and I believe we should talk more about this. After the event I had a discussion with Märt Põder, journalist from Generaadio in Tartu. I think we planned to speak a few minutes but finally we spoke for more than 30 minutes. About what? About the mental health of entrepreneurs and founders. About how society affects our attitude towards failure, and why no one wants to talk about it. Let’s be honest when Ermo from Startup Day asked me to talk about my story, I also had a moment of hesitation. I wasn’t sure if that’s something I wanted to be associated with but then I thought if I don’t share my experience then why should I expect others to share theirs. In UK startup ecosystem, when you fail, people clap hands because you tried and encourage you to try something new again. In our society people clap their hands because you failed, just because ‘I told you, you won’t make it, go back to your daily job’ and maybe just because they didn’t have enough courage to take the risk themselves. It’s wrong, it’s so very wrong. We should be more supportive, encouraging and talk about failure as a lesson – in the end we don’t fail, we learn new ways that don’t work and we should try again – that’s what entrepreneurship is about – taking a risk – testing, playing around with ideas, implementing fast, failing fast (if it comes to that) and starting again. So our conclusion was – we should be more open when talking about failure because this encourages people to try again, especially in Estonia.

On that note I would like to wrap up and thank the organisers of Startup Day (Andrus Kurvits, Ermo Tikk and the rest of the team), EstBAN (Rein Lemberpuu and Ivar Siimar) and also British Embassy in Tallinn & Department for International Trade (Tiina-Maria Araja, Ulla Kattai, Diana Gabrielyan) and British Estonian Chamber of Commerce (Kevin Tammearu, James Oats). I hope to see more similar events coming from Estonia attracting people from all across the world to learn more about this weird, interesting, ambitious, and growing nation. Collaboration is the key, so do work together more!