Despite being a small, Baltic country of only 1.3 million people and having very humble roots, Estonia is widely regarded as one of the most advanced digital societies in the world.

I helped shape Estonia’s rise as a model digital country and simplified its tax system. Access to online services for voting, banking and healthcare is very much the norm there: you can even register a company or the birth of a child online.

So what is the secret to Estonia’s success – and what can startups learn from the country?


Put business strategy first, technology second 

Estonia’s accomplishment in becoming a global digital leader can, in many ways, be compared to that of a successful startup. When this small Baltic state gained independence in 1991, it had very limited financial resources and had no legacy technology platforms to build upon. 

The only way for Estonian companies to implement IT systems was to build them from scratch. But this lack of legacy IT and funds gave Estonia a very important impetus; it drove the country to adopt a digitally-innovative and forward- thinking mindset right from the start, using technology to enable more convenient and flexible ways of living and working. 

Policymakers back then had the courage to take radical steps towards digitising the country, ensuring that internet access was a basic human right and starting the so-called ‘e-Estonia’ movement, which has resulted in 99% of public services being online. 

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This mentality of challenging current ways of doing things, being creative and using technology to become more efficient  – for example bringing in a digital system when there are no funds to set up public offices across the country, or introducing e-voting so the Estonians living abroad could also cast their vote – was quickly transmitted to the private sector too. 

This is why Estonia is such a tech-savvy nation, with so many successful startups stemming from the country and more unicorns per capita than any other country in Europe. From internationally recognised companies to more niche startups, successful Estonian businesses have looked for ways of improving processes and used technology to realise their goals.

Estonia is a digital success story not just because of its innovative use of technology but because of its ‘can-do’ attitude and ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking which are inherent traits of the Estonian culture. All too often young businesses presume that having the technology will automatically provide them with a winning strategy. 

But it’s not as simple as this. To stand out from the competition and win out, startups must develop a strategy to procure technologies that actually align with their objectives and solve their problems, ensuring that their business model has everything else in place to make the most of this technology investment. 


Keep your organisation lean and diverse

Estonia is a very small country. Compared to Germany, it’s a relative startup. This has proven to be an advantage for Estonia since it is easier to bring in change in a population of 1.3 million compared to a large federal state. But it’s not just down to numbers; critically, and possibly as a result of their modest background, Estonian businesses tend to have a flat structure compared to the traditional hierarchical structure of banks and enterprises of other European countries.

This approach, where the CEO’s door is always open and where everyone’s opinion is taken into consideration, makes for a culture of openness and innovation; a perfect storm for entrepreneurs and startuppers who dare to take risks. Together with adopting a flat structure right from the beginning, in order to stimulate the best possible growth environment, startups also need to take an open mind when recruiting people and actively look for people who have a different skill set and outlook to them.

By bringing in personnel who have different ideas, different viewpoints and different cultures – but still share the same values – they will have the best basis to innovate and inspire.  


Aim high and think globally from the start

Estonia’s success as a digital leader on a global level is also down to its inclination to take a global view. Being a small country, businesses have tended, out of necessity, to think outside of their own borders and build products for an international audience from day one. 

Arguably, some startups, above those from larger countries, may not need to look beyond their own borders to fulfil their commercial ambitions. However the practice of aiming high and thinking globally from the start is a winning tactic. 

Estonia’s ethos of looking to better itself and offer the best possible technology products and services both domestically and internationally has been a constant priority for the Estonian government and is reflected in policies such as its startup Visa that makes it easy for firms that are looking to grow to bring in the right kind of talent into the country. 

This commitment to the country’s core ethos, which hopefully Estonia will continue to prioritise, is helping the country maintain its role as a leader in digital society. For startups, aiming high and then pursuing a strategy that allows for global expansion from day one and which is reflected in everything they do, is of critical importance. 

Ultimately it’s what will help them flourish and move on from being a startup or a unicorn to becoming a successful and international enterprise.