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Unicorn prediction by Martin Villig: Estonia’s future startup success stories must have sustainable business models

We only have one planet and many investors are keen to help preserve it. Bolt cofounder Martin Villig believes Starship Technologies and Veriff have the potential to be Estonia’s unicorn startups.

It can be tricky finding the right partners when building a startup. No one knows this better than Martin Villig.

His first experience of startup life was at Skype, which was a medium-sized Estonian business just a couple of years old when he joined back in the summer of 2005. Villig was the leader of its web backend team and the 60th employee. In his first few months working there though, Skype acquired the status of Estonia’s first ‘unicorn’ when its valuation exceeded $1 billion. Just two years later, another 600 people had joined.

That was a rocket ride, Villig recalls, and it gave him both the confidence and contacts to build his own startups from scratch. After leaving Skype though, things don’t go as smoothly as he hoped.

His first startup failed to reach its full potential because, when the financial crisis hit, his cofounders wouldn’t leave their well paid corporate jobs to focus on it full time. His next startup also failed, partly due to a conflict of values with his new cofounders.

During this time, however, Villig was also planting the seeds that would help Estonia flourish as a startup hub and also later sprout his own unicorn startup. He cofounded the Estonian Startup Leaders Club and also an organisation to support founders called Garage48, which specialised in hackathons and coworking spaces. At one hackathon he had organised in Kyiv, Villig was struggling to organise a taxi when he realised, together with the Estonian high school student next to him, that this is a common struggle almost everywhere in the world and one that a startup with the right platform could solve.

Together, they sketched out a vision and the high school student set off to turn it into reality. That included wandering around taxi ranks in Tallinn knocking on windows to ask drivers if they’d like to join the new platform. A large percentage simply told him to go away, often in less polite terms.

The platform they built, Bolt, now has 1.5 million drivers signed up, serving more than 50 million customers in 40 countries. It’s the leading European transportation platform and the fastest growing in the world. In addition to ride hailing, they also provide scooter sharing and food deliveries. And it’s now a unicorn.

Without the right partner, Bolt would not have become the success story it is today. Without Estonia’s vibrant ecosystem to nurture talent and ideas, Villig would not have found the right partner. That’s despite the fact that Martin Villig’s right partner was close by all along. It was his younger brother, Markus Villig, now CEO and cofounder of Bolt.

Skype and Bolt are now two of FIVE unicorn startups born in Estonia. The others on that prestigious list are Playtech, TransferWise, and now Pipedrive. Beyond that, Estonia has a thousand more promising startups – nearly five times the European average per capita – eager to be the next Unicorn. Villig didn’t just create two unicorn startups here. He’s also a big part of the reason for how Estonia as a whole transformed into a unicorn factory. So we asked for his perspective on what we’re likely to see coming out of this factory next.

Estonia’s next unicorn

Villig attributes the success of Estonia as a startup hub to a combination of work ethic, combined with the explosion of talent and capital that result from the success of Skype and subsequent startups.

“Estonians are hardworking and determined,” he adds. “They don’t give up.”

When considering a startup’s potential, Villig still believes the most important part is the founder themselves.

“A strong founder sets a base for success by being sharp, logical, ambitious and visionary, understanding their industry and able to build great teams,” explains Villig.

So which Estonian startups best fit this description and have the potential to be Estonia’s next unicorn? Villig names two: Starship Technologies and Veriff.

Starship Technologies is a robotic delivery company founded in 2014 by Skype’s cofounder Janus Friis and Skype’s founding developer Ahti Heinla. They’ve built a network of smart, six wheeled delivery robots to solve the problem of last mile delivery, which is always the most expensive and hasslesome part of any delivery, whether your package has arrived from the opposite side of town or the opposite side of the planet.

Veriff uses smart technology to provide remote identity verification online. This enables businesses to smoothly onboard customers and reject potential fraudsters, which has been a major pain point for a wide range of companies growing in the digital age.

Increasingly, Villig also looks at how sustainability has been intertwined with the business model. “More investors are starting to consider the effects on our planet next to a strong team, product and traction.

On this, the Estonian startup community is ahead of the curve. Over 30 prominent Estonian startups have signed a ‘Green Tech Pledge’ to become climate neutral by 2030. Bolt, despite its massive impact on one of the most challenging sectors for the environment, is a leading supporter of these efforts. Their ride-hailing service has been carbon-neutral across Europe since 2019 and their e-scooter services aim to be climate positive by the end of 2020. As part of this, Bolt launched its own custom-built, eco-friendly scooter earlier this year. Relationships with local regulators, once viewed as combative in the ride-hailing industry, are now more commonly based on close cooperation to help achieve local environmental strategies.

“We have only one planet,” Villig points out.

If you want to invest in a startup that could be the next unicorn, step inside Estonia’s unicorn factory and meet the founders hard at work here.

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