Three years ago I took a plane from Miami to San Francisco to start a new career. I had always been interested in startups, but never actually went to San Francisco where the real startup ecosystem existed. I was looking for the “real startup” ecosystem. I wanted to see where most innovative companies in the world were actually built. This was the startup culture that everyone talked about - Silicon Valley.
When I arrived in San Francisco I moved into a studio apartment in Chinatown. It was walking distance from the city center and just a short trip away from top tech companies like Uber, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
But as I began to explore the city, I noticed things weren't exactly like I pictured them. Market Street was filled with dozens of homeless people, the cafes closed early on the weekends, and I felt as though the expensive cups of coffee I bought started to bring new questions to my mind. Were people just here to look for the next startup event ? Was Silicon Valley still really worth investing my life into ? Although I had met some investors and aspiring founders, something was still missing. It didn’t really seem like Silicon Valley.
After having traveled around all the major cities in the US and finally experiencing San Francisco, I realized that the economics were becoming more difficult to navigate. The political environment was quickly changing, and the cost of living was skyrocketing. There were so many things missing from society. Even a simple solution like online identity was left to Facebook or Google to control. The education system was putting people into debt and the banks continued to profit from predatory lending. Although the innovations in Silicon Valley could change the world, the technology itself still wouldn’t fix the lack of sound and collaborative governance. I saw a crisis coming in 2017, before it even began.
One night I was going through old messages, and I found a link to a website a friend had sent me nearly a year before. The website was https://e-estonia.com/. I remembered that my friend was traveling around the world working remotely. He had always shared interesting articles and links, but this one really spoke to me. The idea of a small country working like a startup and building the most advanced technology at the government level was inspiring. From Blockchain to e-Residency, I knew that there was something unique about this country.
I always wanted to be part of a new society. One that wasn't part of the mainstream. One that was far away, and followed a sort of contrarian theory. The idea that you can try things out and if they don't work, you can still continue to your next endeavor. The idea that digitalization will inevitably become part of society, so it should be used in place of a social network for online services. And that we live in global economy where money will soon become cross-boarder, cryptographic, and entirely digital.
A few days earlier I had received a notice in my email. Since I was consulting on a project, and still looking for a job I was unable to manage the high costs of rent. The email stated that my rent was late, and I would be evicted if I didn't pay it in 7 days. I knew at that point that something needed to change. It wasn't working in San Francisco.
Over the next month, after visiting a relative in Colorado, I had an opportunity to travel to Berlin, Germany. Since things with work were going slow, it was the time for me to take a risk. It was the first time I had ever been to Germany, but I knew the opportunity at Techstars would be a great experience.
During the flight, I kept thinking of Estonia in the back of my mind. I knew that there would be one day in the future that I would explore this country.
After spending a year in Berlin, working with Techstars and consulting new marketing clients. I had successfully acquired my visa and visited all of the city’s best attractions. I did a lot in Berlin, but I knew that I wouldn't live there forever.
Since my German visa allowed me to travel outside of Germany for up to three months, I knew that I needed to finally see Estonia myself.
So I got on a plane in the middle of February, and flew to Estonia.
Within a few minutes of landing, I was already at a local bar called Brewdog scheduling my first meetup event to gather together startup founders in Estonia. In the midst of winter with the snowy streets and cloudy skies, Estonia became a magical place for innovation.
I spent the next few months exploring and meeting new people from Old Town to Teleskivi. I was amazed by how clean the city was, how accessible the transportation was, and that society seemed simple, yet functional. I knew that this was the city where Skype was founded, but when I discovered Wolt, Transferwise, and Bolt I started to become a lot more interested.
This was the new Silicon Valley of Europe. One that not only built startup companies, but had been building a startup in it’s government. The size and location of the country made it the perfect geography for low cost innovation. And as I approached my three months, it was time to leave, but I knew I would be coming back.
Nearly a year later I received a job offer from a startup in Estonia. I took a flight back to Estonia partnering with an amazing relocation company Jobbatical that helped me acquire a residence permit and settle into my first Estonian apartment.
I was so inspired. Tallinn was finally a city I wanted to actually live in. It was far better than what I found in Boston, New York, LA, San Francisco, or Miami. The culture was something unique and just what I was looking for.
Life was good, and was just beginning.
When summer finally arrived and the sun came out, the scooters began to buzz, the flowers began to blossom, and the inspiring art walls around the city kept me optimistic about the future.
The future of European startups
The startup scene in Estonia is continuing to grow and with the COVID-19 pandemic more and more people will be looking outside of San Francisco to build their companies. Founders and entrepreneurs need a place where they can work on ideas and have support from the local community. Estonia is a great place for this.
Many Estonians always ask me why I chose to come to Estonia. I always start by saying it’s because of the midnight sunsets. But that usually doesn’t convince them for long, so after we have a laugh and I make my attempts to speak in Estonian, I tell them...
kes otsib, see leiab. For now, Estonia is my new Silicon Valley.