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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Ingenious Motivator for Tech Investments

Had a pleasure to meet Harry Jaako, the Honorary Consul of Estonia in Vancouver, but also the Co-CEO of Discovery Capital, a venture capital firm operating in British Columbia.

He shared a very interesting and bold incentive concept that the British Columbia (not even the whole Canada) government has introduced to motivate private investments in small technology startups. Per every dollar invested, the government will pay you 30% back at once. The conditions include holding your investment(s) for five years minimum and a yearly cap of 200,000 CAD total.

So in other words, when you invest 10,000 CAD in a software startup, you get a 10,000 CAD share of equity for the price of 7,000. Or, as an alternative scenario, a private investor can keep investing their capital gained from a previous exit at a rate of 200,000 CAD per year, taking an annual cashback of 60,000 CAD out for their own living expenses as opposed to paying themselves salary.

This scheme is applicable to both direct investments and private investors participating in VC funds, such as the ones Discovery builds.

The results? The district of 4 million people that has been heavy on mining and forestry industries now hosts 70,000 people in tech sector (that’s almost 10x more than Estonia, half the size; comparable to Czech Republic – but their total population is 10M), 8 locally focussed VC funds (larger ones with 500M CAD funds), 8000 mostly small and medium tech companies…

I just love the simplicity as well as braveness of this lever and can only imagine the type of political opposition introducing it could have caused.

I wish Estonian government would spend some time seeking out similar ideas from the world… and implementing the best ones fast.

It is scary HOW thin the startup layer really is

Small and medium businesses form a dominant part of any economy. Countries, governments – in some more progressive corners in the world, whole societies – work hard to create fertile environments where new startup companies could spawn from. Just a tiny percentage of them will become the next [insert your favourite global brand here]. But we couldn’t live without even those who don’t. As a random example, SME’s give over 50% of the jobs and turnover of the UK economy – and the UK is supposed to be the most “large corporate” one in Europe.

Given this, it is no wonder that you hear the “we need more startups!” rally cry, especially in innovative and more value generating fields promising a brighter future. Depending who you talk to, there is always a different benchmark to look up to. Estonians feel that we should get to Finnish level. Finns feel that they don’t have as many startups as in Sweden or Singapore. Anywhere in Europe you can’t escape the discussion on when and how we get to where Silicon Valley is without startup culture and volumes.

And now a scary though from Silicon Alley, in the context of the MSFT-YHOO acquisition:

For $44 billion, Microsoft could buy every Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley venture-backed start-up in existence. That includes Facebook at $15 billion. It includes Slide, RockYou, and every other elemental company. It would be a Moe Green kind of scene like at the end of the Godfather when Michael Corleone takes out all the heads of the five families. It would turn Microsoft’s Internet business around overnight. It would be the ultimate coup.

Just $44 billion (well, I know it’s no pocket change, but remember the times when AOL paid about $182 billion for Time Warner? and US dollar has become a lot cheaper as well since then.) and for a second there are no more startups in the Valley? Nor the Alley. That is scary.

At the same time, the venture capital market looking to invest in those startups is better financed than ever. VC investments reached $40 billion globally in 2007 (why does this number look so familiar?), high since 2001. And the result? Sellers market, of course.

Paul Graham‘s essay The Venture Capital Squeeze from 2005 is a must read now. To understand why having rich employees is a benefit, how post-Enron SOX rules are suffocating the IPO market and how VC industry has gone head to head with corporate acquisitions.