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Estonia’s young entrepreneur of the year is starting a revolution in agriculture

Whilst most of his contemporaries are still at university trying to figure out what to do with their lives, Robin Saluoks (23), the founder and CEO of eAgronom, a company which offers European farmers digital solutions, is a young man with a vision. Having just won the Estonian Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, he talks to us about his road to success.

eAgronom is a web-based programme, the functions of which include checking that funding regulations are followed, maintaining a field log, storage management and logistics. Farmers can use the real-time field log and storage management function to check which tasks are already completed and which still need to be done. In addition, eAgronom offers crop rotation cards and carries out complex calculations that help to select the right seeds and the right amount of fertilizer. Farmers pay eAgronom one euro per hectare annually.

 

It does not often happen that the youngest employee of a company happens to be its founder and CEO at the same time. Although Robin has grown a beard, which visually makes him look older, he is brimming with youthful vigour. The fact that this is not a man who has been around the business world for decades is also betrayed by his braces.

Coming from a family of farmers in the Tartu county, Robin has grown from a school pupil to businessman in the last two years. He currently runs an international company which employs over 40 people around Europe. ‘I did not predict that it would take off so fast. The aim was double the time. We definitely had set our goals high and we were going for them, but we did not think it would take off so rapidly,’ says Robin recalling the early days of the company.

But let us go back to the beginning – the time when a computer arrived at Robin’s home thanks to the Tiger Leap programme (a project undertaken by Republic of Estonia in 1996 to heavily invest in development and expansion of computer and network infrastructure in Estonia, with a particular emphasis on education). ‘It was my grandpa who got it. Luckily for us we live in Estonia, because it is only in small countries that people in agriculture are using ICT.’

Access to the internet opened many doors for Robin. Already as a boy he got interested in the stock market. ‘I had 100 Estonian kroons once. Then I checked out the stocks of Hansapank and hoped that the price would drop under 100 kroons. I think I wasn’t even going to school then!’ Although he was interested in the business world, his thoughts were somewhere else. ‘I always liked business but as a kid I wanted to become a footballer.’

During his school days, Robin focused mainly on football, playing for a team in Tartu. Whenever he had the chance he helped his grandad with farm work. ‘My first job was digging a ditch. Then my father promoted me and I started to dry grain in the drying facility. Sometimes I drove the tractor, too.’

One day Robin got Warren Buffett’s autobiography as a present. The legendary investor happens to have the same birthday as Robin. ‘When I read his biography, I decided I would also start to invest properly. I was about 12 or 13 years old back then.’ The first place he invested in was the stock of Estonian telecommunication firm Eesti Telekom. ‘For some time I could not sell my stock, because the legislation changed prohibiting under-age people from dealing with stocks.’ Fortunately for him, the company left the stock exchange and Robin even received a small profit.

In high school Robin founded his first company together with two classmates – the science theatre “Three Piglets” – which received the Best European Student Company title in 2014. It was just a school project, but it led to the understanding that one can change the world with business. We worked on getting children interested in chemistry and physics. It was a great achievement that on the most important day of the year for them – their birthday – children invited scientists over to visit.’

The science theatre project took up more and more of Robin’s time and one day he decided to give up the idea of becoming a footballer. ‘I realised I couldn’t do business and football together. I didn’t want to play badly and I focused on “Three Piglets” instead. The science theatre is still active. Last year, 1000 children came to their science club every week and 10 000 children saw their performances. But I am no longer involved in their everyday work.’

After graduating from high school, Robin studied IT at the University of Tartu. ‘My goal was not to become an IT guy, but to be able to understand those topics. I saw how much computers were affecting the world. After a year in Tartu I went to the Estonian Business School in Tallinn for half a year, but I left there too.’ The company eAgronom, which he founded in the meantime was taking up so much of his time that it was no longer possible to attend university.

The business started from the wish to sort out his dad’s fields

‘It all began with my father’s company having about ten Excel spreadsheets and me being the guy who had to administer them. The moment dad got the idea to change something, I had to do it. Fortunately, I had already studied Java at university and I was able to start writing a programme for my dad’s company. Other farmers saw it and asked him where he got it from.’

Robin created the first programme for eAgronom himself. ‘This piece of code makes top programmers laugh today.’ Fortunately for him, Robin had friends for whom writing complicated code was a career. He brought along Stenver Jerkku, who back then worked for a US IT company as head of the Development Team, and Kristjan-Julius Jaak, who was educated in IT and psychology. The three of them began to work on the product of eAgronom.

Julius and Stenver got to work on programming and Robin visited farmers door to door. ‘We never saw it as a hobby. We were dedicated from the get-go. But in order to build an IT company you need investment and money. Investors told us that an idea costs nothing and we need to show a product and customers.’

The three young men took the seemingly impossible task of creating a programme and finding customers within twenty days, as just a small obstacle. ‘We never considered giving up. But there were difficult times. In the beginning, we just had twenty days to create the product and find clients. We invested all the money we had. Perhaps there was enough to still buy food for one month. Fortunately, my father also helped. Within the first fifteen days we also employed the first people.’

The young men got lucky and their crazy plan worked. In twenty days, they finished the product and had their first customers. But most importantly they managed to convince investors to invest in them. ‘In the first meeting of shareholders where all our investors came, they presented us with a painting which said that a bold start is half the victory. This has been definitely important for us from the outset.’

eAgronom simplifies the life of farmers. It keeps a field log, manages storage, organises logistics, runs complicated calculations and follows the regulations of PRIA funding (the Estonian Agricultural Registers and Information Board).

From the outset, the number of people using the application started to increase rapidly.

Within six months, 60% of Estonian grain producers were already using the application. Recalling those times today, Robin says they could never have predicted such success. This was their longer-term plan. There is pride in his voice but he repeatedly says that the reason for the success of the company are his colleagues.

Owning the Estonian market was not enough for eAgronom

In the spring of 2017, about half a year after establishing the company, Estonia became too small and they turned their focus outside. ‘We realised we needed to move fast. Once we made it work in Estonia, we started to focus outside. Our goal is to have all the farmers in the world use our product.’
Spreading abroad wasn’t an uncomplicated process. ‘It was easy to translate the programme, but the product has about a 5% component which varies from country to country, as national reports and some other elements differ.’

They began with Latvia, then Lithuania, then Poland. ‘We wanted to enter countries where it was likely that things would move fast and there would be less bureaucracy. There were countries where we didn’t go because of corruption. For example, Slovakia. The programme for them would have had to include a component to make it very easy to transfer money to all kinds of public officials who control them.’

Entering foreign markets has been the right thing for the company, says Robin, and a pleasant experience for himself as a person. ‘I like meeting farmers in other countries. Other people take holidays and go to the countryside to rest. But I do it during work. I visit farmers, have dinner with them and discuss how to make plans a reality.’

Currently almost two thirds of the company’s forty employees work in the office in Tartu. There is another representation in Poznan and Robin currently spends most of his time there.

‘Poland is the second largest grain producer in Europe. We are currently mainly focused on Estonia, Latvia, Poland and the Czech Republic. We have clients elsewhere but those are test countries. In some countries we do not even have a staff member. Our customer support people from Latvia, Poland and the Czech Republic who advise farmers by phone, are based in Tartu. For some people, eAgronom is the first computer programme they have used in their life. We have to be able to advise them in their native language immediately when they call us.’

Currently, eAgronom administers about 700 000 hectares of farmland. It is about 15% of the territory of Estonia. There is massive interest in them everywhere they go. ‘Our current focus is the EU. And from there, the world. We are currently checking whether it would be wiser to move westward or eastward.’

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