Estonia has been globally recognized as a digital leader on many levels, from the quality of the startups coming out of the country to the government's bold acceptance of high tech solutions for everything from voting in the elections to the high profile „e-residency“ program.
After a recent visit to the capital, Tallinn, my friends and colleagues were curious to hear how Estonian startups compare to those coming from Croatia and Southeast Europe.
Well... there are differences and similarities.
As to differences ... I would say there are two main topics which make Estonia unique, to a certain degree of course. Firstly, there is a very strong national consensus about putting Estonian interests above „daily politics“ and internal squabbling. From „day one“ of their independence – at the same time as all other Central and Eastern European countries – Estonians decided to work together for the benefit of their whole society. This may sound like something every country should do – but they don't.
Next – the political and business classes recognized that digital technology could be a critical, strategic asset. Every politician in every country in the world talks about how digital is important, but in Estonia they have taken this very seriously. As a simple example – immediately after independence Estonia completely liberalized telecommunications. Competition, of course, brought better service levels at lower prices – really surprising, right? Coming back to Croatia, our „political leadership“ allowed the monopolistic dominance of Deutsche Telekom which – of course – hindered and pushed back competition and development of the ICT sector.
Another key historical driver of high tech in Estonia was a project which was in fact started not by Estonians, but by a guy from Sweden - Niklas Zennström and his Danish partner Janus Friis. The whole development team, however, was based in Estonia. The subsequent growth and (multiple times) sale of Skype, first to eBay and then to Microsoft, had a strong and lasting effect on the whole European technology community – and of course in particular on tiny Estonia. Many ex-Skypers, having made a great deal of money as early employees, founded successful startups either in Estonia proper, or in faraway places like London or San Francisco but keeping and building development teams and resources in the tiny Baltic country. The best known example is certainly Transferwise. Taavet Hinrikus, co-founder and until recently CEO was the first employee of the Skype engineering team. Transferwise is today a „unicorn“ (valued at more than 1 billion Euro) with a development team in Tallinn numbering more than 400 engineers.
Croatia had neither of these two advantages. Skype wasn't developed in Zagreb, Osijek or Zadar. Our politicians, unfortunately, have had nowhere near the foresight and understanding of the importance of digital technology for building a competitive nation, since very few of them showed any interest in building competitiveness anyway – but that's a different story.
So, yes and of course, the tech community in Estonia is far, far more advanced than that of Croatia...
On the other hand, startups everywhere share the same issues, problems, topics and discussions. Croatian startups in all kinds of sectors, from fintech to database management, are just as innovative, their engineers are just as talented as their counterparts in any other country.
Startup communities everywhere are special, „bubble“ worlds where everyone knows each other, everyone speaks the same „lingo“ which is often incomprehensible to those outside the bubble, everyone bitches about the same problems. On top of this list of problems which startpus around the world share is „we can't find enough developers“. Talk to a Croatian or Estonian or British or German founder or investor – that's very likely to be one of the first, if not the first complaint you will hear.
There are critical differences and important similarities between Estonian and Croatian startups. Regardless of all those, I would recommend to all of the readers of this blog to take the time, visit Tallin and get to know the Estonian startup crew. You are sure to receive a very warm welcome... Also, try and go in the late spring or summer – my friends from Tallinn tell me that autumn and winter can be depressive indeed.
Whenever you choose to go, however – have a safe trip and enjoy yourselves!
Note: I have written about the Estonian startup and digital community on Tech.eu in a two-part series: