4 Lessons You Can Learn From Estonia's Tech Unicorns
If you’re like most Americans, you may not have heard of Estonia or even be able to place it on a map, but you might just be using a product created there without even knowing it. Despite being a small European country of just 1.3 million people, "the government boasts it is home to more tech unicorns, private companies valued at more than $1 billion, per capita than any other small country in the world," according to CNBC.
Naturally, each of these companies began life as a startup. This is no accident. Estonia has more than a thousand startups, and it is well-known that the country has successfully fashioned itself into a digital paradise. Government services can be accessed online from anywhere using a secure digital identity that is issued to all citizens and residents, allowing a variety of activities to be done online, from taxes to voting. Likewise, an Estonian company can now be established and managed entirely online with minimal hassle and costs through the country’s e-Residency program.
The Estonian digital transformation project began two decades ago, with internet access being declared a basic human right for all citizens. These digital foundations have made a big difference and reverberated throughout both the public and private sectors. The country has a supportive culture that leads to innovation, collaboration and a willingness to take risks.
From startup to ubiquitous
Let's learn a bit more about four of Estonia's tech unicorns.
- Bolt: This is a European competitor to Uber. Users can hail cheap rides from an app on their phone or on a laptop. This startup's mantra is simple: Be the cheapest ride in every city. In May 2020, the company raised 100 million euros and is now valued at $1.9 billion.
- Skype: Nearly everyone has heard of this Estonian startup, which is now owned by tech heavyweight Microsoft. The software was originally developed by three Estonian entrepreneurs and has become one of the most popular video and voice call hosting applications in the world, able to connect you with up to 25 people at once.
- TransferWise: This online money transfer service supports more than 750 currency routes across the world, but (you guessed it) the tech was originally developed in Estonia. The founders came up with the idea while working borderless and developed the software to help combat the challenges of being paid in different currencies. The company now boasts more than 4 million customers and 11 offices across four continents.
- PlayTech: This software development company was founded in 1999 in Tartu, Estonia. Playtech provides software for online casinos, poker rooms, bingo games, sports betting and more. It is used by millions around the world every day.
Lessons from tech unicorns
Since Estonia leads other countries in its digital-first approach and in tech unicorns per capita, there are some lessons that the rest of the world can practice as we move forward in these unpredictable times:
- If you see a void, fill it. Estonian tech entrepreneurs saw that something was missing in the marketplace. In some instances, the solution was new (Skype), and in other instances the founders thought there could be a better way to do something that already exists (Bolt).
- Hire the best people, no matter where they are. Since Estonia is a small country, it’s often had to look beyond its borders to find the right people for the job. Sometimes those workers are non-Estonians who have relocated to the country to get a firsthand look at its innovative culture; in other cases, Estonians have taken their talents to other countries.
- Find a supportive network for collaboration, inspiration and innovation. Estonia has a tight-knit community of tech workers that support each other and help push others to always strive for something better or to take a different look at how to overcome an obstacle.
- Don’t get in your own way. There might be challenges in your way, either real or perceived, but that shouldn’t stop you. Estonians have had to overcome challenges at nearly every turn, from fighting for their place on the world stage to building their country back a generation ago. Estonian companies have been able to make a global impact because they believe they can succeed and they have a can-do attitude. If one way doesn’t work, they try another way. They don’t think what may be against them, they just think what is possible.
These Estonian unicorn traits might help you and your company survive and thrive in these unpredictable times.