8th Jun 2022

Estonia: The Land of Unicorns

Currently Estonia gets mentioned in the news because of its NATO status, and steadfast support of Ukraine. But it is so much more than that – and as a fan of Estonia over many years, let me tell you…

I have just returned from my fifth visit to Estonia, and fourth visit to its flagship tech festival, Latitude 59. Latitude is a phenomenon – attracting attendees from around the world, including, this year, seven from Leeds Digital Festival. That included me, as a founder-director of LDF, the three other directors and three startups from LDF’s competition, where visiting Latitude was the prize. It was a great prize!

So just a small festival in an obscure country? Well, Estonia is the home to ten unicorns – companies with a valuation of over $1bn: Skype in 2005, Playtech in 2007, Wise in 2015, Bolt in 2018, Pipedrive in 2020, Zego, ID.me and Gelato in 2021, Veriff and Glia in 2022. This is the highest number of unicorns per capita of any European country. There are more in the pipeline, too. How come?

When Estonia regained its independence in 1991, it did not have the resources to create a new physical infrastructure; but it had the ingenuity to do without, as a time when it was just becoming possible to be digital-first. In Estonia, government has been paperless from the start – this is estimated to save 2% of GDP, which just happens to equate to what the country needs to spend on defence (Russia is a neighbour). Only marriage, divorce and buying land need to be done by a physical act.  Everything else – medical records, voting, document signature – can be done electronically.

Its small size – a population of 1.3 million – means it has to look outwards; the festival and many communications are conducted in English (though Estonian, part of the same language group as Finnish, is highly valued). Any business looking to scale will start in Estonia, but will then look beyond the boundaries, and ensure that language is no barrier. In a sense, Estonia can be a development sandbox. In the tech community, it sometimes feels as if everyone has a startup; at least one.  

We say that Leeds is collaborative – but Estonia is hugely so, and (again because of size) the extent to which people are connected, know each other, or can access assistance is impressive. Having become a regular visitor, I have got to know loads of people, and every time they connect me to loads more.

But when in Estonia – take off your shoes when entering a home. There will be slippers for you to put on. You have to know these things… it can be pretty mucky, especially in winter, outside, so don’t bring the street or the field into the home.

Paul Berwin is Managing Director at Berwins. If you need any advice, support or guidance on anything Commercial or Digital, you can call Paul on 0330 016 8614.

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