Week 1, Jincong;
More often than not, great trips are the ones that stray a little from the plan.
The best trips are the ones that go completely wild.
Emails sent out to connections, academics got no reply; government showroom tours turned out to be too costly: we got on the plane to Tallinn with barely any lead.
I could not wait to see Sambhav again after 11 weeks! When I arrived at the doorstep of the Airbnb apartment, we could hear each other but the door was locked from inside awkwardly. It took us almost twenty minutes to open the door. Finally! “Good to see you, man!” Our exploration of Estonia started here.
I found the website called “Meetup” to join meetings of local interest groups, hoping to connect with Estonians and local innovators in the IT sector. I believe one could only thoroughly understand a society and its people by interacting with them and looking at them with more than the optics of passersby. I signed up for 2 events: “Work Jam + Networking” organized by a tech interest group and “Discovering Paljassaare Peninsula”.
Sevenpeople signed up for the work jam. Among the attendees that signed up, Yang, a Chinese who studied in Tallinn, worked in the telecom industry and started a digital marketing here caught my attention. I reached out to him before the meeting. Later on, the “hello” message turned out to be the reason that secured Yang as an attendee for the work jam, when no other participants showed up. Yang was gracious and generous to take time out of work and shared with us his experience of living and working in Estonia. The co-working session turned into a cozy chat over a cup of coffee.
“I want to leave Tallinn,” unlike many others who loved boasting about their city to tourists, Yang shook his head and surprised us. “There are only two seasons here: winter and construction.” The long and dark winter sometimes has no daylight at all, freezing most of the construction projects in the country. “You guys are lucky to arrive during our longest and warmest summer. Usually, summer only lasts for a week.” He also told us that it is not uncommon for people to suffer from “winter depression”, as a result of extended dark nights.
Yang leaned forward when the topic turned to digital governance and the tech startup scene in Estonia. He showed us his ID card. The chip embedded in the card allows users to use it for public transport, tax declaration and even accumulating loyalty points of their shops. “It is very convenient. When you apply to universities, you do not have to fill in tens of pages of personal information. With just one tap, you are done,” Yang said. Not long ago, he started Modash, a digital marketing business that leverages big data provided by social platforms like Instagram, with his cofounder from Canada who dropped out of his college in Tallinn. “In Tallinn, always everyone has a side job. Entrepreneurship is deeply rooted in the birthplace of Skype. Estonia is really forward-looking in terms of technology. Estonians are more efficient compared to average Europeans,” said the entrepreneur who travelled, studied and worked across Europe.
Half a day after meeting Yang, he sent us a message: “There is going to be a talk given by Jevgeni Kabanov, the former CEO of ZeroTurnAround, at Lift99. If you guys are interested, I got two free tickets for you.” That was amazing! The acquisition of which is widely considered to be of the highest value in Estonian history and Lift99 is the most famous startup incubator in Tallinn.
At Lift99, we met probably the coolest and most enthusiastic bunch in Tallinn. There were Lis who reported directly to the Minster of Culture on EU policies while organizing tech hackathons as a part-time job; Marcus, who offered AI solutions to large manufacturers and telecom companies; Andrea, who tinkered with robotics; Mari who designed user experience of applications and websites; Bouya who came from Morocco to realize his dream of no financial friction across borders; Renata who joined a burgeoning local unicorn; Avery, the cofounder of Modash and Shaoli, a manger at an e-commerce company.
After an extraordinarily warm chat, Bouya and Renata offered to organize a tour at their unicorn companies, Transferwise and Pipedrive respectively. Bouya came from the African Leadership University and decided to take a few years off his study of finance to see how finance works in the real world. Transferwise has grown into an unicorn with offices across the globe and a diverse international team of more than 900 employees.
Pipedrive is another unicorn that originated in Estonia and has offices across the globe. It is one of the trending CRM and sales tools. I met with Külli from Pipedrive and talked about investor relationship, innovation culture and talent supply in Estonia. Due to successful Estonia tech businesses in the past, international and local angel investors are actively investing in Estonian tech startups. On the other hand, late-stage investors come from diverse background. Do you know that “Shaq” O’Neall invested in Pipedrive? Finland, the US and the UK remain as the top sources of late-stage investment. Successful precedents like Skype also act like role models for aspiring entrepreneurs and innovators. “Most of the tech companies in Estonia have some degrees of connection to Skype. Many former associates of Skype invest, work for and even cofound new tech businesses in Estonia,” Külli said. Despite widespread IT education in Estonia, there is still an unfulfilled demand for IT talents. “The government has made it super easy for international talents to obtain working VISA and settle down in Estonia. The low cost of living is another factor that draws talents inside and outside the EU to the country.” On a side note, Külli also added that in Pipedrive, many male developers joined so that they could live with their Estonian girlfriends.The amazing connections that we got from Lift99 did not stop here. Shaoli and her husband Rene offered to take us on a trip to Pärnu over the weekend, a summer escape located on the other side of Estonia. More about the weekend runaway will be covered in the next blog post.
The other local meetup, Discovering Paljassaare Peninsula, led us to know Lauri, an Estonian enthusiast of socializing; Luc, a French developer working in Estonia; Rina, a Japanese working for a gaming company; Michael, a Latvian UX designer for an online gambling company; Manu, an Indian entrepreneur that came to Tallinn to explore the EU market.
Michael told me that the low tax, open VISA policy, efficient government, vibrant startup ecosystem and low cost of living rendered Estonia an ideal first stop for many SMEs that wished to enter the EU market. Many of such SMEs offer specialized business function services to large companies that outsource their production and management. Kristi was kind enough to make a video collage to record the happy moments of the exploration in the peninsula.
I have lost count of the number of new friends that we made in the trip. Starting Day 1 with no leads in our hands and being in Day 8 with so many amazing encounters, I could not think of a better word than serendipity to sketch the wild week that just passed.