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From the production lines of the Unicorn Factory: ten success stories from the champion in founding billion-dollar startups

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🦄 10 Glia: building the future of customer service

“The future of customer service is digital, and those that have yet to take steps to modernize their support and engagement strategies are already behind,” said Dan Michaeli, co-founder, and CEO at Glia, a digital customer service provider that reached a billion-dollar valuation in March 2022.

“Our rapid growth and successful relationships with financial services companies of all types demonstrate the urgent need for digital customer service. As we build upon a decade of innovation, this capital will further extend our reach and help even more businesses across the globe reimagine how they connect with customers digitally,” Michaeli added.

Glia believes that in an age where customers are accustomed to conversing through chat, voice, and video in their personal lives, they should be able to do the same with the businesses they work with. Glia empowers businesses to easily engage their customers and members wherever they are and co-pilot them to successful service outcomes. Founded in 2012, the Estonian-based NYC-headquartered company has powered more than 10 billion digital customer service interactions. Its clients are spread across 12 countries, but the company is focusing on expanding its geographical footprint and doubling in headcount to support the growth.

🦄 9 Veriff: enabling trust online

“Organizations and consumers needed to verify identities online more than ever before in 2021 – from onboarding remote employees, to creating a safe space for gaming in the metaverse, and conducting business fully online – which makes the establishment of digital trust and transparency incredibly critical,” said Kaarel Kotkas, CEO and founder of Veriff. “The gigantic boom in digital services has increased the demand for IDV for any business online, and every person on this planet can be a user of Veriff.”

But COVID-19 has only accelerated the growth of Veriff – the business case has been there for a long time, already: While a person’s true identity might not be so crucial when selling a few books or CDs online, it becomes vital when we are talking about FinTech applications, for example. And that is where companies providing identity verification services – like Veriff – come into play.

🦄 8 Gelato: printing on-demand (and more)

In April 2020, Gelato, a company providing services to e-commerce companies, became Estonia’s eighth (and Norway’s ninth) unicorn. Gelato’s platform, with over 100 production partners in 32 countries, helps e-commerce companies link to producers close to the location of purchasers. One of the company’s founders, Mike Arbuzov, is from Estonia and Gelato also has a company registered in Estonia.

🦄 7 ID.me: exporting the main idea behind Estonia’s digital success

Digital ID-s are a big thing in the United States with millions of dollars invested in the identification businesses; one of the most recent success stories being ID.me. The company is valued at 1.4 – 1.6 B U.S dollars after its latest funding round that included participation from CapitalG, the independent growth fund of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc.

If you are a Californian and log on remotely to update your address or change registration with the local DMV, there’s a good chance you’re using ID.me. And you are not the only one as the number of people using this service is growing rapidly with about a million users added every two weeks.

Tanel Suurhans described the essence of the service he co-founded on Äripäev radio: “It lets me prove that I am Tanel Suurhans and the information I am sharing online – for example with the IRS, the tax authority in the U.S – is my information.”

ID.me was founded in 2010 as TroopSwap, a military-focused solution verifying U.S Armed Forces veterans for discounts. The Estonian co-founder and CTO Tanel Suurhans came on board in 2013 – and this was the time when things started to change towards the ID.me we know today. What co-founder Suurhans brought along besides great technical skills and experience from various software projects in Estonia (including planning and executing the modernization of the largest digital content management and publishing platform used in the Baltics), was the real-life experience of using a secure digital identity and e-signatures, solutions that are natural to Estonians and can be considered the key cornerstones of e-Estonia. And naturally, this proved useful when co-founding a service such as ID.me.

As Suurhans himself explained on Äripäev radio: “When I moved here in 2013, I had the vision from Estonia in my head.” This vision, of course, changed when met with the U. S reality, including its differences between states, state-level bureaucracy, technical issues such as the lack of a unique national ID number, etc. Suurhans quickly understood that for various reasons a country-wide electronic ID system like the one in Estonia was not going to happen in the states – but solutions for secure e-identity are still needed.

What brought along quick growth for ID.me, was the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has brought new social benefit programs to the U.S state level, which in turn has led to growth in fraud attempts – and thus the need for secure online ID services. The growth in the number of employees at ID.me has been quick during the last year – the company has moved up from about 100 employees to 800. The level of 1,500-2,000 will be reached by the end of 2021.

The future seems bright for the unicorn as according to Suurhans, under president Joe Biden, the U.S is trying to move towards a system of online federal services, similarly to (but to a smaller extent) how government-provided services have moved online in Estonia. This, in turn, means almost endless possibilities for ID.me. As Suurhans said: ID.me’s next goal is 10 B U.S dollar valuation.

🦄 6 Zego: creating a digital revolution in insurance and offering better prices on the way

One of the investors of Zego and a member of its advisory board, Taavet Hinrikus (that is also co-founder of unicorn #3 – Wise) has said: “I saw that the insurance sector is facing the same as other areas – a quick onslaught of technology creating ten times better services.”

That seems to be true, looking at the way Zego handles its business – and how it has grown into a unicorn. “While most traditional insurers price their insurance products based purely on factors such as age and vehicle type, and while others may use telematics-based driver behaviour data too, Zego is able to price policies based not only on traditional factors, but also driver behaviour data and working habits data,” Zego’s CEO and founder Sten Saar told TechCrunch. “In fact, overall, the information Zego can collect amounts to five times more data per vehicle than competitors, or 50 data points per second. This means that we have a much more comprehensive understanding of risk than competitors, enabling us to provide best-value insurance coverage, from policies ranging from one hour to one year”.

To date, Zego has provided more than 17 million insurance policies and covered more than 200,000 vehicles in five countries – and as the Insurance field becomes more and more digital, further growth is expected for Zego.

🦄 5 Pipedrive: for those who sell from those who know how to sell

First, we must say that we are happy customers and huge fans of Pipedrive at the Estonian Investment Agency, as the digital sales processes at our United Nations awarded agency have largely been built around it. Thanks, Pipedrive!

Founded in 2010 by Timo Rein, Urmas Purde, Ragnar Sass, Martin Henk and Martin Tajur, Pipedrive’s main selling point has been that it’s a highly intuitive sales software built by salespeople for salespeople. According to the company, 100,000+ organizations across the world use their solutions.

About 14 years ago Pipedrive’s co-founder Ragnar Sass ventured into entrepreneurship with his first startup, United Dogs and Cats. Simply said, it was supposed to be a Facebook for … you guessed it – dogs and cats. “When it became clear that United Dogs and Cats will not continue then in the spring of 2010 Purde and Rein contacted me about their CRM idea. Their main problem was that over half of CRM software was not actually used or catered to the needs of people doing the actual selling,” Sass told Life in Estonia magazine.

After exchanging emails with Purde, he discussed the idea with Henk and Tajur. The parties involved decided that the concept was valid, and they would go ahead as equal partners.

“Purde and Rein had both been in sales for many years. They started off with door-to-door sales. They had a clear vision in their heads of what kind of CRM and to whom and why they wanted to build it. They had even asked someone to draft a 50-page technical spec for what they wanted to build. We decided not to use that, so we would not limit ourselves,” Sass said.

What cannot be underestimated, is the influence of Estonia’s previous unicorn builders on Pipedrive, most importantly the influence of ex-Skypers. It is an interesting coincidence (or maybe not) that one of the backers of Pipedrive was Swedish billionaire entrepreneur Niklas Zennström that also backed Estonia’s first-ever unicorn Skype, Pipedrive being his second-ever investment in Estonia.

We can expect that in the same way as the sale of Skype triggered a frenzy of starting new companies in Estonia, the sale and unicorn status of Pipedrive will have the same effect. First success stories are already becoming visible.

🦄 4 Bolt: saying goodbye to “Kitty”

“We might have decreased the number of old-school taxi call-centres − meaning dispatchers and taxi company owners − but we have given tens of thousands of drivers an opportunity to offer their services on our platform,” Markus Villig, co-founder of Bolt told Life in Estonia magazine.

Bolt (formerly known as Taxify) is a ride-sharing platform that operates in 40+ countries in Europe, Africa, and South America with thousands of drivers and millions of passengers signed up.

In 2012, Markus’s brother and another co-founder of Bolt, Martin Villig, was organising an event in Kyiv, Ukraine, and tried getting a taxi online, which turned out to be quite a hassle. He then came up with the idea of how to make ride-sharing much easier.

Markus picked the idea up and plunged into it. According to his own account, he discovered he had a lot of time on his hands during his high school final exams, so he decided to build a platform to ‘get this taxi business in order in Tallinn’. There were 30+ taxi companies in Tallinn at the time, all operating old school call centers, with an operator, often misogynistically referred to as ‘a Kitty‘, mediating the rides.

The early start was quite promising. Markus did a Google Docs survey in his school to which he received 600 answers, 90% out of which responded that there is an acute need for a new taxi platform. Nobody had even heard of Uber yet.

Markus started going through the taxi stops and things started going a bit astray: “Of course I had no platform to show yet and being a 19-year-old kid disturbing the drivers from reading their newspaper…” 8 out of 10 taxi drivers would yell at him to get the hell out of their cars. Also, he soon realised that his initial budget of 200 euros was simply not feasible to actually develop an online platform. A developer he had found ‘somewhere from the city’ was asking for 7,000 euros just for a prototype…

The bumpy road continued, finally taking the company to unicorn status. “My ambition from the very beginning has been building one of the biggest technology companies in Europe,” Markus Villig was not shy to announce after the big announcement was finally made. And Bolt’s ambition does not stop there – be it in making the services more user-friendly, safe to use and provide, or sustainable.

🦄 3 (Transfer)Wise: Europe’s most valuable Fintech ready for further growth

“Ten years ago, Taavet [Hinrikus] and I set out to fix international money transfers for all of us who’d been overcharged and underserved by banks,” co-founder of Wise Kristo Käärmann wrote in the TransferWise blog when announcing the rebranding of one of the most valuable startups ever founded by Estonians. “We named our idea ‘TransferWise’ — because our early customers were ‘wise’ to know their banks were charging hidden fees in exchange rate markups. Today our name catches up with who we’re already building for — a community of people and businesses with multi-currency lives.“

But what is behind Wise’s success? Co-founder Taavet Hinrikus explained us a few years back at technology conference Latitude59: „There is something in the soil in Estonia, which makes the Estonian people much more capable of making something great!“ He added that Estonians are used to doing things with little means – Wise being just one example of a company having been created with relatively little means but grown into a global business.

2021 will be a year of further expansion for Wise, including hiring 165 new employees for its Tallinn office. On April 1st, Reuters also announced that Wise is on course to launch an initial public offering in May 2021. The news has yet not been confirmed by the company yet, though. What we know is that Wise is not aiming to be ‘just’ a money transfer company anymore, the recent name change highlighting the company’s expanded portfolio of services.

🦄 2 Playtech: becoming the world’s largest online gaming software supplier

Playtech is the world’s largest online gaming software supplier, founded in Tartu, the second-largest city of Estonia, in 1999. The mastermind behind the start of Playtech was Cypriot-Israeli entrepreneur Teddy Sagi that wanted to bring together the best minds from gaming, technology, and multimedia to create a company without a rival. Naturally, he chose Estonia for the company’s location.

It only took two years for Sagi and his team to launch the company’s first casino – but this was just the beginning as several technologies and media usage trends were taken advantage of on the way, innovating the way online gaming software is run through and through.

Just over two decades later, Playtech is on the FTSE 250 Index and listed on the London Stock Exchange. Playtech now owns over 300 gaming brands, has more than 150 global licensees, and runs its offices in 19 countries around the world.

One of the key success factors for Playtech in recent years has been its ability to hire and retain top-class talent from Estonia and abroad. The employees just love Playtech – one big reason why there seems to be a bright future ahead for the gaming software supplier.

🦄 1 Skype: changing the calls – and the game

The co-founder of Wise, Taavet Hinrikus told in an interview with CNBC a few years back that he sees the founding of Skype as one of the pivotal chapters in Estonia’s digitalization as well as its rebirth as a haven for tech startups and entrepreneurs.

The influence of Estonia’s first unicorn, as well as its numerous alumni, is visible throughout Tallinn’s bustling startup scene and by now, in many other parts of the economy.
Why Skype is important in the context of FDI? It is one of the early hugely successful foreign investments in Estonia’s startup ecosystem. Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis could have gone almost anywhere with their idea, but they chose Estonia where bright minds, Ahti Heinla, Priit Kasesalu, Jaan Tallinn, and Toivo Annus among others, helped to make their idea a reality. The sum of 2.6 billion U.S dollars that Skype Technologies was sold to eBay for, was huge – especially in the context of Estonia in 2005.

Today, almost everybody knows what Skype is and its current owner Microsoft still has a part of its team working on messaging and video conferencing software in Estonia.

In 2021, the president of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, awarded one of the co-founders of Skype, Niklas Zennström, a state decoration for his persistence in his activities and loyalty to the contemporary Estonian values of openness and democracy, knowledge and entrepreneurship, caring and noticing.

‘To skype’ has become a verb in English, Estonian, and many other languages, meaning making calls over the internet. Of course, looking back at how things have gone, we could also consider another meaning for the verb: to start the production lines of a unicorn factory.

* – Unicorn with Estonian founder(s), headquarter, or a significant part of R&D based in Estonia.

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