Estonian Mafia: A Technology Powerhouse that Influences the World


Two years ago, I knew nothing about this small European country. Then, I started working with the Estonian Mafia. It changed how I think about innovation.

A No-limit Country

We are our own limits. Marcus Aurelius said it very well:

“The mind knows no obstructions, except those from within.”

Estonians decided that limits weren’t a good idea. So they used digital technology to get rid some limits:

  • Kazaa popularised peer-to-peer download;
  • Skype made flying for a meeting out of fashion;
  • Playtech changed what going to casino means;
  • TransferWise transformed how transferring money abroad is being done.

All these success stories have influenced the world.

And that’s not it.

The rest of the country also embraces this view.

An Innovative Ecosystem

The Estonian Mafia has one of the leanest, fastest innovation ecosystem.

They have an incredibly tech-savvy government. The most recent achievements were the introduction of digital ID cards, the e-Residency, the way to incorporate a company online in less than 18 minutes, and the ability to vote online. [1]

They provide you with password-free access to wifi in bars, hotels, and restaurants. [2]

They have the ambition to help others build startups. The Garage48 Foundation has hosted hackathons for more than 7,000 participants in countries with emerging tech scene like Moldavia or Ukraine. Latitude59 and sTARTUp Day are two flagship business conferences that welcome thousands of startup enthusiasts every year. [3]

They think global first. They know the Estonian home market is not enough. Exporting is key. This “no-limit” mindset has helped them to build an influential #EstonianMafia. [4]

They have a peculiar sense of humor.

They’re seen as having strong business and digital acumen by world-class investors. [5]

The Estonian Mafia? Only 1.3 m nationals. And so much innovation.

Well done!

[1] This is far from being an exhaustive list. And these digital initiatives are not just experiments. They’re part of the daily life of the Estonian Mafia. For instance, in the 2015 Parliamentary Elections, 30.5% of voters did it online. (More facts about e-Estonia). The New Yorker called Estonia, “the Digital Republic”.

The country doesn’t believe in the old way of thinking about borders. Foreigners can now open a bank account and start a company in Estonia thanks to the e-Residency programme.

[2] It may sound like a minor thing. But it makes the customer experience so much better. Free wifi everywhere is a welcoming gift.

[3] Estonians know how to build startups. According to The Economist, the Estonian Mafia holds the world record in startups per capita.

[4] International organisations trust Estonia for its know-how in IT and security. The country hosts both the Cyber Security Centre of NATO and the IT-agency of the European Union.

[5] Top tech investors are aware of the potential of Estonia.

Estonian startups have made a name for themselves for years. Dave McClure, founder of 500 Startups, coined the term “#EstonianMafia”. The reason? He was impressed by the number of Estonians in the Seedcamp finals in London in 2011.

Other investors agree:

“If I see a company coming out of Estonia I am reasonably assured that it will be executed well. For its size, Estonia is generating more high quality startups than you would expect.”

Naval Ravikant, Founder of AngelList

“Few factors get us as excited as Estonian founders!”

Marc Andreessen, Investor at Andreessen Horowitz

[I recently attended a great business event, sTARTUp Day in Tartu, Estonia. Go there next year if you want to change how you think about innovation.]

Estonian Mafia: Guerric de Ternay at sTARTUp Day (Tartu 2016)