Estonia As Home Base For Roaming Entrepreneurs

Had some great interview questions from Arkadii Zaitsev, who is writing a piece about Estonian e-residency for a Russian-languaged publication called Meduza (worth checking their design!), operating out of Latvia for freedom of speech reasons. As it took a while to get these thoughts together decided to publish them directly in English too:

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The Future That Should Be Here Now

I recently shared some thoughts on how surprisingly hard it has been to adjust to how mundane and bureaucratic everyday activities still can be in otherwise tech-advanced Silicon Valley, compared to back home in Estonia. The video from Stanford GSB YouTube channel:

This is probably the longest-prepared short speech I’ve ever delivered, as a finale of a whole-winter-quarter-long LOWKeynotes program at Stanford GSB in 2013. A text version is below the fold, and if you got anything out of watching this, I’m sure you would enjoy all of the videos from my peers in the program. All of the outcomes were worthy of the effort put in, but if you need help from where to start, try the videos from Lukasz Strozek (on digital hoarding) and Evan Moore (on not believing in God) first.

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Eesti 95

eesti95speech

Photo courtesy of Mike Barnes

I was honored to speak last night at the Estonian Independence Day reception thrown by the local Estonian society, aka Eesti By The Bay.

The below are my speaking notes, not a full transcript. Happy 95th Birthday, Estonia!

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Presidential Tweeting

The President of Republic of Estonia, Toomas Henrik Ilves has had a Twitter account, @IlvesToomas since May 2012. Not one of the first adopters among heads of states in the world, he has nevertheless taken quite a freeform and experimental approach to using this communications channel, with a rant in response to Nobelist Paul Krugman’s systematic bashing of Estonia’s austerity measures and poking fun at his aviation-enthusiastic colleague in the East creating some public controversy before. You can agree or disagree with him (and he often engages with responders), but having an elected figure step out of the expected frames is noteworthy in itself.

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A Year With Estelon

Pretty much exactly 12 months ago I made my first angel investment ever in a company that makes physical things. My entire entrepreneurial career and the businesses I’ve supported on the side have always evolved around outcome you can not really touch: would it be software or consulting and services.

On this backdrop, the magic of turning ideas into physical objects has a special appeal for me. Estelon‘s flagship speakers weigh 85kg a piece yet are delicate enough to ship with a pair of white gloves for handlers. Their distinct shape is driven as much from physics as from visual aesthetics. And when they actually perform their primary function of music delivery it is as close as it gets to engineering creating pure emotion. The kind which both justifies and makes you forget the fair value on the price tag at the same time.
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Estonian Faire in London: Seedcamp Week 2011

After I’ve missed a few events since I was last mentoring at Seedcamp in 2008 after its launch in 2007, managed to sync another London trip with being there again for Seedcamp this week – unfortunately just for the Product Day on Tuesday and a few evening meetups. You can look at full announcement, participants list and agenda here and daily summary clips on YouTube.

Besides a chance to sharpen your mind and spend time discussing their products with the cream of the crop of young European entrepreneurs, a good reason to show up was a recent invitation to join the newly formed Seedcamp Advisory Board, which got announced now. There is tons of action and tons of traction around the European startup scene and Seedcamp has earned quite a central role in this movement. I hope I can contribute to bridging that “center” with the Nordic corners of the continent, where there is tons of tech innovation action happening in my homely Baltic and Scandinavian countries – with the role model and community around Skype playing no small part.
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Summer of Startups 2011

Spent almost a full day last week in Helsinki by invitation of Aalto Entrepreneurship Society (See also: #aaltoes & on FB) to speak to 10 teams of their Summer of Startups program. All-in-all it was a worthy time investment for me, and I hope for the teams too – after a lecture on the history and learnings from building Skype I could spend about 20 minutes in a mentoring session with each of them.

Characteristically to being just in the middle of a 10-week intense effort of forming their products in such an early seed stage it is far too early to tell which one of them will actually fly as a company. It could be well just 1-2 companies and I have my hunches to which one(s), if any – won’t reveal that before their final pitches on August 10th though. Nevertheless that same hunch tells me that out of the people present the ratio of future success will be much higher, and even if their current concept fails they will find a new idea and potentially a differently formed team that will help them succeed in the future.
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Do Startup Weekends Help Create Startups?

The most recent Garage48 weekend event in Tallinn sparked some healthy discussion around the perceived and actually delivered value of this format towards the commonly accepted goal of creating more young, brave and hungry technology businesses in the country. The devoted fans of the time-constraint, playful and cutely random 48-hour hackathon were publicly questioned if their lack of attention to the big bad real world (business cases, marketing channels and Terms of Service legalese) were not accidentally misleading the youth to think that creating a real company is a joyride, lacking the need of solving the really hard problems.

Following the discussion (including further reading pointers in the end of this post) it felt like a bit more universal of a worry than just this particular event or our particular country. To share these concerns — and furthermore — seek further input from the international scene of startup support programs (and reacting to a random Facebook comment requesting the same) I decided to turn this conversation to English. And as it felt very little value add over Google Translate to start replicating the brightest arguments I decided to do something different.

Let’s try to visualize this conflict.
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Estonian State Budget Visualized

Garage48.org guys had another one of their weekend hackathon events, returning to homely Estonia (after Helsinki and before Riga and Stockholm events – check them out) to focus more narrowly on building working apps that address some public service need.

There has been some fair coverage already, on the high quality output from the event (see the project list here) and some of the impediments the event revealed about things like government providing access to data freely for all kinds of app developers. (if you speak Estonian make sure to read Teller and Memokraat).

But more specifically I wanted to share a few thoughts on a special prize I got to hand out – for the state budget visualization app MeieRaha.eu (OurMoney in Estonian):

MeieRaha.eu

Why do I think it is important to visualize something seemingly as boring as a state budget?

First and foremost, it is definitely one set of data any country has to have that while touching every single person in a country is almost completely detached from any comprehension by those people. The reasons are multifold:

  • access to data – frequently checking some spreadsheet files on Ministry of Finance webpages as a pasttime, anyone?
  • volume of data – apparently the 2011 budget of relatively tiny Estonia is about 500 pages
  • bureaucratic structure and terminology – regular people have mental models derived from their own life (kids/health/work…) rather than government structure or department responsibilities (different ministries, state vs municipal, etc)
  • just too large numbers – a normal person can freely count money in the scale that they receive monthly on their own bank account, and maybe avoid major mistakes in the range of their annual income. (To argue for anything beyond look at consumer behavior before your average mortage crisis). For too many a million, 100 million or a billion blend together into abstract “a lot of money” that they are not able to grasp pragmatically, let alone have a comparative discussion around.

Understanding the dynamics of our budget, keeping it balanced, the relative scale and interconnections between income and expenditure items becomes double important before the elections (such as the ones we are in right now, to close this Sunday). Every party pays top dollar to put forward oversimplified promises in heavy pre-election advertising – but it is very hard for a voter to understand what the real cost (or alternative cost) of “free higher education for everyone”, “4-lane road from Tallinn to Riga”, “higher pensions for mothers” or rather silly “citizen salary for everyone” would be.

Taking the above thinking and some recent examples by New York Times Budget Puzzle or The Guardian’s Spending Review or Where Does My Money Go? (really, all worth checking out!), we were chatting with a few friends about a month ago on how to create something similar in Estonia before the March elections. As a citizen and technologist I am a huge supporter of anything that creates more transparency, better understanding, less populism and ultimately – more educated decisions in democracy. But as usual, everyone in that particular Skype chat though feeling very much the same played the always handy “I’m really busy this week” card and while at it I also added that if someone gets it done I’m happy to put some money in.

Though Garage48 events are never about the prospect of pay I was extremely glad that some people (namely Rene Lasseron, Tanel Kärp, Helena Rebane, Konstantin Tretjakov, Martin Grüner, Reigo Kinusar, Hegle Sarapuu, Henri Laupmaa – let me know if I’m missing someone!) came along with the idea and actually made it happen – and I got to keep my promise.

The site today works showing the actual approved 2011 budget for Republic of Estonia. You can fold items apart and together, resize the bubbles to see cross-dependencies, drag in comparison items (those gray bubbles on the bottom) and attempt to push the budget out of balance (the scales in the middle). Yes, there are a bunch of glitches here and there, but hey: what was the last piece of working software you delivered in a weekend?

On this baseline I hope at least part of the team will stick together and leverage some more organized support from research bodies like Praxis, one of the most prominent policy thinktanks around here (disclaimer: I happen to sit on the board there). There is a bunch of obvious improvements to prioritize and deliver now:

  • translations to Russian, English and other languages
  • automated and ordered data exchange with the government to manage updates (both budget changes inside a year as well as annual regular updates)
  • improved engine for budget item interdependencies, to answer questions on what could happen if unemployment rates change and thus the actual tax collection goes up or down inside a year
  • support for budget item “bundles”, for example to layer a number of budget item changes (like a certain party’s promises all together) on top of the baseline
  • figure out the social possibilities on top of this data – how do people want to customize, record and share their versions of budget changes created by a tool
  • tools for mainstream media to use this tool as a standard way to illustrate the impact of any ongoing public policy discussion
  • … — please do leave more ideas in the comments!

 


Using Your Voice

With Estonian parliamentary elections coming up on March 6th, I agreed to participate in the “Minu hääl” (“My Voice”) TV ad campaign by the Electoral Committee, featuring a bunch of celebrities (from music, theatre and such) and a few people from the street (like some elderly and your’s truly).

These are not party ads, e.g not urging you to vote for anyone in specific, but to just remind you to go and vote. Especially as with our notorious e-voting (with both chip-enabled ID cards, but also mobile ID’s as a new thing this time!) it is just a 3 minute effort from wherever you happen to be.

I liked the wordplay they built this thing around – the Estonian word “hääl” meaning both “voice” and “vote”. See all the ads in the series here.