Experts widely consider Estonia among the world’s most digitally advanced nations. It ranks third behind Denmark and South Korea in the UN’s EGDI, E-Government Development Index (1). It measures a nation’s ability and willingness to implement ICT-led development.
The trailblazers of the globe’s first Digital Nomad visa allow remote workers to work and live in Estonia while traveling Europe. The nation is a soon-to-be hub for the new wave of freelancers and nomadic employees.
Here are some other notable digital outsets:
- The first e-government across the globe
- The first nation to offer digital residency to non-citizens living anywhere worldwide
- The first nation to hold countrywide elections via electronic voting
Notably, it is also the first country where Ikea first entered digitally before starting a physical presence (2).
What is even more remarkable is that Estonia has accomplished all this in a small geographic space with a population of over 1.3 million people, roughly the same number of people as Meerut, Uttar Pradesh.
The tiny Baltic country offers us a window into what the future’s e-societies will look like and how entrepreneurs worldwide can capitalize.
This article will discuss four areas that Estonians have masters that entrepreneurs can incorporate into their business.
- Ed-tech Infrastructure: Lessons from a nation in which 100% of its education institutes were using -schooling solutions long before the COVID-19 pandemic forced all schools across the planet Earth to adapt to remote learning.
- Cybersecurity: Takeaways from a worldwide heavyweight in cybersecurity and the first victim of a cyberattack on an entire nation.
- Urban Farming: Learning from a nation short on farmable land to work up food production.
- Quick-Fire Opportunities: Overviews of the three most interesting startups from Estonia, a country with the highest number of startups per capita in Europe.
What Makes Estonia Distinct
A hyper-digital focus and other trailblazing measures have driven innovation and economic growth in this small pathfinding country.
- Online Government: Citizens of Estonia mostly do their necessary business with the government over the internet. They use their e-ID cards to access the government’s e-services, including paying taxes, voting, birth certificates, schooling, registering a business, drug prescriptions, and even payments for parking.
- Foreigner-Friendly: Estonia is building a borderless, worldwide, digital society. In 2014, the country became the first to offer digital residency to non-Estonians living anywhere across the globe. Non-residents get a smart ID card that allows them to access several of the same e-services available to Estonians, such as opening and operating a business bank account and an Estonian company. It aims to have over 10 million e-Estonians by 2025 (3).
- Startup-Friendly: As per the Estonian government’s official website, ‘where business is easy, a business will grow.’ And building a business in the nation is pretty easy (4). It takes a record-breaking 18 minutes, to be precise (5). In 2017, Estonia introduced a special Startup Visa program to assist non-EU entrepreneurs in growing their tech startups.
The country’s enthusiastic digital embrace and contactless life long before the coronavirus pandemic meant that the nation, which has recorded only about 65 deaths from COVID-19, was uniquely put to tackle the crisis.
While other nations were scrambling to offer vital services in a new socially distant world, Estonia’s decades-old digital infrastructure meant that over 99% of government services were still available during the lockdown.
While the country has long been revered and hailed as a ‘digital powerhouse,’ the coronavirus pandemic will force other nations to sit up and take notes as they look for a more pandemic-resilient future.
100% of Estonian schools were using e-schooling solutions (6) long before the pandemic forced every teacher, student, and parent on the planet to adapt to remote learning.
It is also worth highlighting that Estonia made its ed-tech solutions for remote learning available to everyone for free (9) when the pandemic forced schools to close down globally.
Even though there are now plenty of startups coming up with ed-tech solutions and platforms, there are still several opportunities entrepreneurs can learn from the decades-old space of Estonian startups and companies that have created a robust infrastructure to support Estonia’s matured ed-tech ecosystem (10).
Solutions for Teachers
As per a recent European survey (11), more than 60% of teachers believe that online and remote learning will be a part of school practice post-pandemic. While several teachers recognize the benefits of teaching remotely, such as freedom to experiment, flexibility, and customization, there are still facing challenges while making the online transition.
Several Estonian startups and companies have already created solutions to solve the inefficiencies that teachers face, such as:
- Tebo: A social media portal where teachers can create and share interactive learning content with their students and use resources offered by other teachers. Apart from sharing resources and gathering followers, teachers can also use the portal to organize their digital content such as links, files, and services in one platform. The platform currently has over 11k teachers, more than 64k students across more than 3k schools.
- Clanbeat: It is a virtual teachers’ lounge enabled with well-being tools that allow school staff to connect at a distance. It started as a teacher onboarding tool and space for principals to conduct personal development reviews. However, it has now evolved into a community where teachers can share their challenges and successes and crowdsource help from their colleagues. The company had secured 1.2 million USD in 2019. It works on a yearly subscription model with paying customers from Europe and Southeast Asia.
There are opportunities for businesses to emerge with similar intra- and inter-school platforms to help over 9.4 million teachers in India connect and offer online teaching resources.
Some additional features can include:
- A marketplace where teachers can charge others for lesson plans, worksheets, activities, and assessments they offer.
- Bring together a teachers’ community who can share innovative ways to tackle learning difficulty areas.
- A search function that can bring up that section or create a new area for spaces that are not yet logged by others.
- For instance, ‘place value’ is a notoriously challenging concept for a student to grasp. However, teachers have now started to approach it through games.
- The high-tech field trip, which is quite stressful to plan, often expensive for parents, and quite a nightmare for teachers, is also going virtual (12). While current options are not curriculum-aligned or specific. It allows you to develop new and exciting virtual options which are tailored to schools or states. You can also offer a full package service, rental options for VR headsets, and supplementary follow-up worksheets for each trip.
- You can also offer cross-curricular integration, known to increase learning effectiveness (13) but pretty challenging and time-consuming to implement. Such subjects integration often falls by the wayside, which offers an opportunity to entrepreneurs to build an app that connects teachers within a grade and tracks the opportunities for subjects integrations. It can also allow teachers to collaborate on projects that span more than one subject and can also share these approaches and subjects with others.
Solutions for Special-Needs Students
Remote learning does not lend well to individualized attention. It means that already at-risk students are highly likely to be left behind. One of the several challenges teachers face is the inclusion of children with special needs, learning difficulties, and socially disadvantaged backgrounds.
In Estonia, Rahaleidha e-counseling is a government-backed countrywide network that offers remote educational counseling and services for students with behavioral and learning issues. The network employees, psychologists, speech therapists, special education teachers, and social pedagogues act as personal supervisors for at-risk children.
There is an opportunity to build similar solutions to serve all students (about 6.6 million) in India who needs special education services (14).
Some ideas include:
- Converting content and offering a service that helps teachers adjust online content that caters to special needs students. It can include adjustments like simple and short sentences, larger fonts and line spacing, more videos and illustrations that students can replay, more use of coloring and underlining and coloring, tasks that concentrate on one skill, and additional guiding questions.
- Teachers for special needs students need practical hours and experiences. Colleges can offer virtual competition of this need through a platform that connects them with students and offers virtual material.
- Businesses can also develop a community platform that connects parents with others who have special needs children.
- Entrepreneurs can also address the tech cost barrier by developing a rental platform to offer affordable options such as pay-as-you-go tech subscriptions (e.g., Grover).
Cybercrime is a big business. Notably, cybercriminals netted over 3.5 billion USD in 2019 (15).
Estonia has learned the hard way is that being a digital society means more significant exposure to cyber threats.
In 2007, the country fell victim to the first-known cyberattack in the entire country (16), resulting in online services, including banks, government, and media outlets, being taken down or providing sporadic service for weeks.
It acted as a wake-up call to the nation, and since then, Estonia has established itself as a global heavyweight in cybersecurity.
The look at the Estonian cyber tech startup landscape shows plenty of lucrative opportunities.
In coming years, the demand for trained security analysts will surge as the adoption of cloud services by medium and small businesses continues to skyrocket. There are estimations that the total addressable market for training cybersecurity pros is currently 2.5 billion USD (17).
RangeForce, an Estonian startup, secured 16 million USD in July last year to grow its simulation-based cybersecurity training platform. The cloud-based training program includes modules based on real-life scenes. It charges an annual subscription fee and has grown over 30% per quart, and has witnessed a 2,700% y-o-y increase in its annual recurring revenue.
Additionally, there is an opportunity to offer training to non-technical employees who must know the basics of protection against cyberattacks since 91% of breaches happen because of phishing attacks targeting employees (18).
Eventually, cybersecurity concerns will touch every industry and business as they will need to battle-test their online offerings by security experts before they launch to the public.
Some startups and small companies that don’t have the budget or need to hire a full security team or an expensive consultancy will use talent matching services that connect them with ethical hackers who can test their online offering.
Entrepreneurs can offer cloud-based, on-demand penetration testing services and solutions to smaller companies.
Testlio, an Estonian startup, aims to solve the quantity vs. quality problems common in crowd-testing platforms. It thoroughly screens testers and works by hours to find and report errors in their client’s code. Their clients include some prominent companies such as CBS, American Express, and Microsoft.
Cobalt, a German startup, raised 29 million USD in August last year to expand its PtaaS platform, which disrupts the security consultancy space by connecting ethical hackers directly with companies who need to test their offerings before releasing it to the public.
When it comes to the food industry, Estonia has no other option but to innovate, as per Ragmar Saksing, the green-tech manager at Science Park, Estonia (19).
The country uses one-third of its farming land for livestock farming, another third for animal feed. It leaves only the remaining third for food production. And the need for innovative solutions in food production has offered fertile ground for several Estonian food and ag-tech startups. They have increased their revenues by 36% in the first half of 2020 compared to 2019.
However, the issue of limited land for food production is not unique to Estonia. Researchers believe that by 2050, there will not be enough food to feed the world (20).
Notably, vertical urban farming can produce yields hundreds of times more than conventional agriculture. There is no surprise that the sector has raised more than one billion USD since 2015 (21).
Hydroponics and urban agriculture have exploded globally. There are forecasts that the international market for vertically farm produce will grow from 709 million USD in 2020 to 1.5 billion USD in 2030 (21). While it is often associated with large-scale urban farming, there are also opportunities in smaller-scale, modular urban farming.
Natufia, an Estonian startup, has developed the world’s first fully automated and integrated hydroponic kitchen garden that allows people to grow almost any microgreens, herbs, and vegetables from the comfort of their home all year round. Each garden unit sells for 13k USD a pop and produces the equivalent of 1 to 2 salads per day.
Entrepreneurs can hop in early on the at-home DIY agriculture trend powered by advanced hydroponic tech. While several big players like Ikea are bringing their hydroponic kits to the market, there are still capitalizing opportunities.
Moreover, businesses don’t need to create hardware to play in space. Finland’s iFarm secured a 4 million USD seed round last year to grow its Growtune SaaS platform (22) which automates and monitors crop care for 120 varieties of vertically grown products. Its fees range from 0.75 USD to 1.50 USD per square meter monthly.
As urban farming comes close to home, everyday consumers will need help in producing their greens. There will be a need for a solution that educates amateur farmers, remotely monitor their crops, and alert them to changing conditions. It would make urban farming more accessible for people who can not even keep their houseplants alive.
Some other ideas, such as subscription service offering tailored monthly DIY hydroponic boxes, including educational content, seeds, fertilizers, and recipes. There is also an opportunity to offer retailers and even restaurants with mini urban farms for consumers to self-harvest their greens.
Estonia has the highest number of a startup per capita in Europe (23). There are several Estonian companies from which businesses can draw inspiration for their ventures. Here, we will highlight the most interesting three.
Cachet is an on-demand insurance provider for ride-hailing platforms’ drivers. It considers hours driven instead of forcing part-time drivers to pay the monthly insurance’s full price. Drivers who use the platform pay as little as 3x for insurance compared to conventional providers.
Drivers on ride-hailing apps are not the only online platform workers who look for cheaper insurance. Over 10% of workers rely on ‘gig work’ as their main income source. The expanding gig economy builds opportunities for businesses to create tailor insurance offerings for delivery drivers, vacation rental market places, caretakers, cleaners, and babysitters.
Whatifi is a story hacking platform that launches films with a combined 80 different storylines and endings for viewers to explore. The company is constantly looking at adding more content. Anyone remember the ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’ interactive episode on Netflix, which allowed us to make decisions for the main actor?
The choose-your-own-adventure is getting popular with interactive podcasts and apps already here. But what more can you do with it? Online training and education will surely jump on the bandwagon to offer immersive and interactive educational content, allowing students to learn via their decision-making.
Xolo is looking to simplify starting and handling microbusiness run by solo founders. It allows freelancers and entrepreneurs to run their businesses remotely via a single service provider from banking to accounting to tax. Their monthly package service includes accounting, invoicing, reporting, payment gateway integration, company registration, and freelancer management services.
And considering that India is considered among the second-fastest freelance market globally with more than 15 million freelancers (24), the trend will only accelerate amid the pandemic.
Companies that cater to the freelancing communities enable a smooth transition to solopreneurship and will stand to win big in upcoming years. In addition to service providers such as Xolo that offer administrative assistance, there is also an opportunity to offer support via mentorship and community platforms.