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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First Decade of #SkypeMafia

skypemafia - full plot - thumbnail

On August 29th Skype is celebrating its birthday. As it did as a small European-rooted startup, so it does as a product in the portfolio of Microsoft. This time it is a round one, too: first 10 years. Sending the best wishes to all the friends who have built and are building Skype over these years, I figured it would be a good time to give in to an idea that has been in the back of my mind for a while: what would it look like if someone somehow visualized the impact of the company Niklas, Janus & a bunch of Estonian engineers started in 2003 to the broader startup ecosystem?

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E-mail Zen

Speak of coincidences – or a pileup of pressure: over the weekend one topic came up (as it does in a recurring way) with a group of classmates, yesterday there was this article (The Anxiety of the Unanswered E-Mail) making social media rounds and to top it off, Dave & Jason were having a ping-pong on usage of auto-responders on Twitter today (also see the Quora thread for context).

By “the topic” I mean the ever-worsening pain: humans’ inability to cope with their email load (and what the cultural implications of that are). As someone whose Mail client showed the following unread counts (aka “unprocessed”, really, in my personal methodology), I am obviously part of this global problem:

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Why and How I Became a Stanford Student

Pausing one’s active career to return to school is a step outside of comfort zone. I know people who have done this as a way to “hard reset” and completely change direction afterwards, and some just hitting a corporate ceiling unless they get an MBA diploma to hang on a wall.

I don’t think I’m either of those people. Yet, I’ve decided to take a sabbatical and go back to school.

As “ahem… why?” has quickly become a recurring question from friends and colleagues who have heard the news, let me try to share some of the thought process here. Besides sharing my personal case I hope this could help someone else contemplating a similar move.

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When Annoying Software is Great

A quite a commonly agreed measure of goodness of user experience design is that software should get out of the way from what the user wants to achieve. We praise the removal of clutter and friction, admire the software makers that are brave enough to remove features instead of adding them. There is even an ISO standard that tries to define usability via effectiveness (task completion), efficiency (tasks in time) and user satisfaction.

More than 30 years (an eternity!) have passed since the first word processor and email clients, but there are still new ones entering the market iterating further to remove “unnecessary obstacles” and to get out of the way from the user’s intent: to write stuff and send it away. (See: WriteRoom or Sparrow).

Almost every time I ask a stranger about what they like or dislike about Skype software, it goes something like this:

Well, I like how I simply click on my relative’s name and then just click the green button and then she appears on the entire screen and we can just talk for an hour. It is so cool, it feels like being in the same room! Last week I was talking to my grandma, who has been living in Australia for….

See what just happened there? From the second sentence in giving feedback on software, the software dissapeared. What remained was just the human experience, the long distance relationships and stories about people. The holy grail of great software: becoming invisible, transparent for the user.

Software that Wants to Get in Your Way

Now, on this backdrop, it seems that there still is a counter-current of software that does get in the way of the user intentionally. Note that I do not mean just badly designed software here or  some godawful legacy enterprise application built in COBOL and green-on-balck terminals, eating the productivity of whiteish-blue collar insurance clerks for breakfast, lunch and early dinner.

And generally, even technologically modern and well-designed corporate applications get some slack for getting in the way of their users. After all, every organization has the ways of working it wants it’s employees or partners to standardize on and behaviours it wants to bluntly enforce. It you need a certain doublechecking to happen for SOX compliance or your software development process requires every task to be estimated before entering a sprint backlog – it is probably one of the simplest and most effective ways to knowingly build a few obstacles, nags and annoyances into your enterprise software to enforce people to do the right thing. You know, a little extra checkbox here or mandatory form field there.

Where it gets interesting if  you look at consumer internet software and mobile apps that contain those obstacles in their user experience. There is no enterprise lock-in after an expensive purchase, there is no hierarchy with top-down pressure to use those apps, there are tons of cheap of free competitors to turn to instead. And still, for some weird reason, users love some apps that distract them on their purest way of doing something. In most cases – probably despite of the nags. But in a few elite winners – for the obstacles.

Let me give you a few examples:

  • (UPDATE) Twitter‘s notorious 140-character limit. From one side it is a limit derived from SMS (160char minus room for @username), but on the other hand there are no such external limits on messages transported over internet. SMS compatibility could have been addressed by other means, such as truncation and thus this global limit on messages was a design choice by Twitter that has influenced their DNA massively.
  • Path, a mobile photo sharing app which artificially limits max number of your contacts to 50. In the rat race between social networks for who gets to grow their users’  connection graphs the fastest, it was an eyebrow-raising move, but their users love them for the purity of sharing pictures with just their closest ones. And the pressure to think twice before accepting someone in.
  • GMail has a few tongue-in-cheek dialogues built in that, if you look from the UX purists’ point of way, get right smack in the way of doing the core thing people come to a mail client for, sending a message:

Call for Discussion

Firstly, I would love if you can think of additional examples and submit them in the comments!

For example, one immense area to think about is advertising inside web apps (not just content sites) and in mobile apps. Slapping a banner with animated penguins in front of the “OK” button user intended to press is bad for the experience. On the other hand, Google’s search users are known to confess that text ads often enhance their experience to find what they’re looking for. What makes advertising part of the experience?

Trying to generalize it seems that while a piece of software that in its entirety gets in a way of the user attempting to achieve their goals can not be considered a good user experience, carefully picking the moments to get in the way of the user on the feature level can actually be a good thing.

How to recognize the those moments? From the few examples above one might say that the motivation is to avoid something negative, to protect the user from acting silly (aka being human) – like confirming every incoming contact request as their “friend” to avoid insulting anyone. And it would be likely that there can be cases of positive motivation too – helping a user to achieve more than they expected.

What do you think?

UPDATE: Realized this could be a Quora question too and added it. So wherever you’d like to chip in.

Välisinvesteeringud, väljamurdmine maailma ja Mikser

Reedel toimus Eesti Tööandjate Keskliidu iga-aastane Tuulelohe Lend, kuhu ma kohale ei jõudnud, aga olen pisteliselt lugenud sealsetest esinemistest tekkinud uudisnupukesi.

Näiteks Äripäev vahendab Allani seisukohta, et otseinvesteeringud kipuvad meile tulema väärtusahela alumisse otsa ja seetõttu peaks nende peibutamise asemel riik neist enam stimuleerima Eesti oma kapitalil ettevõtete maailma murdmist.

Oluline teemapüstitus. Mina arvan, et meil on 5-10 aasta perspektiivis veel kindlasti mõlemaga vaja aktiivselt tegeleda. Kuniks Eestisse registreeritud peakorteriga startuppe maailma suurimaiks inkubeerime ja stimuleerime (vt Eesti Startupijuhtide klubi, OpenCoffee Tallinn, Garage48, MKM Startup Estonia jne) on Eesti majandusel ilmselt jätkuvalt rõõmu ka Skype’i, Playtech’i jt välismaiste peakorteritega, aga suuresti Eesti ajupotentsiaali baasil kasvavate tehnoloogiafirmade siia toodud töökohtadest, maksudest, võrgustikust ja kogemustest. Ja kardetavasti ka natuke kibedat kurbust kui Barclay’s või IBM oma targad töökohad hoopis Leetu loovad.

Küll aga paluksin lugejatelt, eriti neil, kes viibisid Tuulelohel kohapeal ja/või kuuluvad Sotside toetajate sekka, pisut tõlkeabi samast sessioonist. Isegi näpuotsatäie soola abil, mida on õpetanud tarvitama meie online-ajakirjanduse keskmine tsitaadikvaliteet, ma lihtsalt ei saa aru, mida see parteijuhi seisukoht tähendada võiks programmi mõttes:

“Oma investeeringutel põhinev Skype oleks veel tobedam kui välismaised otseinvesteeringud,” arvas samas rahvusliku majanduse diskussioonis sõna võtnud Sotsiaaldemokraatliku Erakonna esimees Sven Mikser.

[UUENDATUD: tobeduse-müsteerium lahendatud]

Jätkates eelmise postituse valimiseelseid mõlgutusi: kujutlege ette skaalat, mille ühes otsas (1) on aktiivselt meelitatavad välisinvesteeringud ja teises otsas (10) on eesti-keskselt formeeritud (asutajad, kapital, registreeritud peakorter, maksuresidentsus, töökohad) “meie oma” ettevõtlus.

Kõhutunde järgi ütleks, et täna on Eesti selle skaala välisinvesteeringute-meelitamise otsas, nii 2-3 kandis? Kus me aga sellel skaalal peaksime olema, Riigikokku püüdlevate erakondade ja kandidaatide arvates? Ja milliste aktiivsete meetmetega nad skaalal sinna punkti jõuda plaanivad?

Vastusepakkumised ja diskussioon on väga teretulnud.

Has Your Job Expired?

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OpenForum Europe

I spoke at OpenForum Europe conference last Friday, on the topic of open internet (aka net neutrality) and Skype’s negative experiences of the lack of it, like Deutche Telekom’s recent agressive blocking of our iPhone application.

The event featured an enlighting list of speakers and I truly enjoyed most of the day. However, instead of full-scale notetaking as I’ve sometimes done before, I decided to give live tweeting a try (as @seikatsu). From one end the 140 characters don’t leave much room for analysis and force you to cut even the original thoughts. But on the other hand these notes were available to anyone in real time and even sparked some discussions right away.

Anyway, the cleaned-up full list of my tweets is below. You can see quite a bit more from other people too when you do a Twitter search for the tag #openforum. And the original presentations are online here.

  • Dinner with “father of the internet” Vint Cerf and Commissioner Vivian Reading. Lots of great things said out loud.
  • Ziga Turk: remember that the moon landing footage was as bad quality as youtube today
  • Ziga Turk: we’ve shifted investments from industrial to conceptual economy (value in meaning not function)
  • Vint Cerf: power corrupts. Powerpoint corrupts absolutely.
  • Cerf: it is absurd how we got away with opening the tcp/ip specs completely… in the middle of the cold war.
  • Cerf: proposed motto: if its not open, you can’t call it internet [service]. it is against the original design.
  • Cerf: cloud computing is where internet was in 1973. It does not exist in the sense of vocabulary for using it universally.
  • Turk: if we didn’t have the Lisbon strategy, we wouldn’t even know how much Europe is lagging behind
  • Structural issue in browser competition – you have to win the SAME users over and over again from recurring IE defaults.
  • Mitchell Baker: 30m users today guarantee you nothing, no financial success, ipo, getting bought..
  • Anthony D Williams of Wikinomics fame on stage
  • Williams: passed traffic already in 2006
  • Williams: P&G has 1.8m external researchers networked, on call (9000 full time internally)
  • Williams: The Guardian DataStore – open access to the facts journalists have gathered
  • Graham Taylor: a person too old to be a digital native can live happily as a digital immigrant
  • People think standards are always good. They also often slow innovation and hide vested interests.
  • Two Web Masters: Spiderman and Obama.
  • Matt Asay/Alfresco, former student of Lessig asked “why have so many European open source projects left for USA?”
  • Minueesti? RT @PaulHofheinz: If ppl dont see public institutions solving problems, they will form other orgs to seek solution.

On Skype and European Innovation at Stanford

I had an honor to speak at Stanford University on March 9th, as part of their European Entrepreneurship & Innovation Thought Leaders seminar series (see web site and Facebook group). I truly enjoyed the experience, meeting students, faculty and guests and joining a dinner in a smaller circle later for fascinating follow-up conversations around entrepreneurship.

Skype's Sten Tamkivi
(Photo courtesy of Steve Jürvetson, click on it for his notes from the audience)

Here are the slides I used:

As you might notice, my slides were just a light framework this time and most of content was oral and followed by interactive discussion. Unfortunately it is slightly more complicated with video this time. Please follow the instructions here, but beware that you need to create an account with the Stanford SCPD site (which you will hopefully find useful for accessing any other free seminars content they offer) and the videos are served using Silverlight, which may or may not be compatible with your choice of operating system or browsers, like Chrome.

Presidendid omavahel

Täna hõigati maha uudis, et kuu aja pärast, 19. märtsil, toimub Tallinnas Tehnopolis Presidendi Kärajate egiidi all avalik vestlus Eesti Vabariigi presidendi Toomas Hendrik Ilvese ja Skype’i presidendi ja juhatuse esimehe Josh Silvermani vahel.

Räägitakse muidugimõista innovatsioonijuttu.

Kiirematele võib õnnestuda veel leida paar kutset, palun andke märku. Ja kuna kõik soovijad kardetavasti saali ei mahu, on plaanis teha üritusest ka videoülekanne internetis.