Estonia is building a digital nation where almost anything can be done online from anywhere using our secure digital identities. But for what purpose?
Well, it’s not because we love technology. Not all of us, at least. It’s because we like the things that technology can enable us to do better and we love doing other things in the time that technology can save for us.
Paperless solutions don’t just save trees. They also enable us to spend more time in nature enjoying the fresh air that they produce. Instead of having to be in one place — such as queuing up at a government office — we can spend more time where we want with family and friends. And instead of dealing with the bureaucracy of running a business, we can actually focus on building those businesses.
We don’t think this is particularly special. If something can be done more effectively online then why shouldn’t it? Estonians themselves are often bemused by the amount of positive attention that Estonia receives around the world for being a digital nation and wonder if it is a little overhyped. That perception is usually dispelled pretty quickly though by spending time abroad and dealing with the paper-based bureaucracy offered by other countries.
I’ve built businesses myself, both in Estonia and elsewhere, so can see why people abroad want to operate online within our business environment instead of being attached to a fixed location offline somewhere else.
That led me to join Estonia’s e-Residency programme where, over the past few years, I’ve been helping Estonia to provide Estonian digital identities to citizens of other countries living beyond our borders.
Just like citizens and residents of Estonia, our e-residents can use their digital identities to establish and manage a paperless EU company in our transparent business environment no matter where they are on Earth.
The concept is radical and the technology is fairly new (well, our digital IDs have been tried and tested since 2002), but the thinking behind e-Residency is as old as the Republic itself.
The foundations for our Foreign Ministry were established prior to the Republic and it’s actually the only part of our independent state to operate continuously since then (because our diplomats remained in their posts throughout the Soviet occupation). The reality is that Estonians have always been making friends beyond their borders because this is essential for building a successful country at home, whether digitised or not. In fact, almost all countries have e-residents in their own way really because almost all countries encourage foreign investment and maintain relations with people abroad. They just don’t have the digital ID system to manage that relationship in a secure and convenient way.
Perhaps the most significant milestone for e-Residency is coming this year. The Estonian Tax and Customs Board is going to switch off alternative solutions for people who want to use their e-services without an Estonian digital ID card. This might be a little too boring to gain media coverage, yet it’s the point of no return in which e-Residency becomes essential for how our digital state functions. It means that if you are a non-resident who wants to interact with Estonia then being an e-resident is not just better for both sides. It’s the new normal.
The e-Residency programme has now reached a mature phase of development and, I think, no longer needs a ‘Chief Evangelist’. I’ve decided it’s the right time for me to leave the programme team, but in doing so I hope to make an even bigger contribution to e-Residency in future. More on that later though.
I will miss my colleagues immensely. E-Residency was the brainchild of Estonia’s former and current CIOs, Taavi Kotka and Siim Sikkut, and was then launched under the leadership of Kaspar Korjus with the support of Ott Vatter who is now leading it into its next stage of development with a diverse and highly talented team from Estonia and around the world. We also work closely with hard working partners across the Estonian state, including the Ministries, the Police and Border Guard Board, the Tax Office, and our Embassies. Thanks to all those people, as well as the e-residents themselves, this was the best job I’ve ever had.
There are now opportunities for new people to join the team and take the programme to even greater heights so if you know anyone who might be interested then encourage them to check listings here or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Most of the roles are for Estonian speakers, but they’d be interested in hearing from anyone with the right talent and passion. There will also be two new roles for Head of Content and a copywriter (which overlaps with what I was doing).
The e-Residency programme has a very supportive, startup culture and is filled with smart people who are focused on delivering the programme goals. I’m very pleased that Ott Vatter was chosen to continue this development as he’s been a driving force behind the scenes since the very start. Ironically, I’m only leaving because I believe so much in what they are doing.
I would especially encourage entrepreneurs to consider taking time away from the private sector to serve in the public sector, whether at e-Residency or elsewhere, at least for a temporary period. I enjoy building businesses, but spending time on the government side has enabled me to understand the challenges better in the context of serving the wider interest and it’s helped me and others develop immeasurably. This kind of regular exchange in talent and ideas is really healthy for the development of both government and the economy.
Joining the e-Residency ecosystem
For me though, I think now is the right time to be independent from the programme so I can go back to the e-Residency ecosystem from where I originally came.
I’m not an e-resident myself, but I connected with Estonia in a similar way to them because I’m a UK-born Estonian who started an Estonian company remotely after being given my own Estonian digital ID card for the first time. After that, I started using the services that Estonian companies were developing for e-residents and even helped grow those private services myself before joining the e-Residency programme. I’ll tell the full story another time.
So it’s important to recognise that e-Residency has always been more than a government programme. At its heart, our digital nation is built on the very simple idea that people should be able to securely verify who they are online and then sign legally binding agreements online. With that capability in place for all citizens and residents, the public and private sector have been able to find their own ways to improve their delivery of services as well as create entirely new services around it. Through e-Residency, Estonia is now scaling up this capability for more people globally and that is bringing even more opportunities for our digital nation to develop. And as more people discover our digital ID cards, more uses for them are being discovered.
Four years since it was launched, e-Residency is now a growing community of entrepreneurs around the world with their own ecosystem and their own burgeoning free market economy. We recognise that these people are making a significant contribution to Estonia, despite not living here, and they do so because they are gaining real value from the programme in their own lives while living and working globally. The amount of money they pay to Estonia in state fees and additional direct taxation is already higher than the cost of the programme to Estonian taxpayers, yet by far their biggest contribution to Estonia is when e-residents simply make connections with people in Estonia and conduct business with other Estonian companies.
The success of e-Residency therefore depends on the strength of the entire ecosystem around it, which the programme has been encouraging to flourish by opening up as much choice in products and services as possible. Most notably, for example, Estonia’s Commercial Code was updated at the start of this year to ensure that all Estonian companies have the freedom to use business banking from any bank or fintech company across the European Economic Area. There are some outside the programme who argued that we should have poured taxpayers’ money into an in-house banking solution, but creating just one option wasn’t ambitious enough when there is an entire free market working on the same issue in so many different ways.
The e-residents themselves are the true experts of the programme as they are the ones figuring out the best way to use it as they build their businesses — and they want more services from the private sector. So we need more entrepreneurs, especially in Estonia, to recognise the potential of this market and build new value on top of it. Everyone has their own interests in the future of e-Residency, but the opportunities are even greater when we work together to build the ecosystem and grow the community. Some of the companies that recognised early the potential of serving the e-Residency market, like LeapIN or 1Office, have since grown at an incredible rate. Those two employ more than 100 people — from Tartu to Hiiumaa. And there are now many more Estonian companies finding their own unique ways to cater to the needs of the e-resident community.
You might think this is just more marketing. But I’m no longer telling you this because it’s my job. I believe in the future of e-Residency enough that I’m now going to follow our own advice and invest my own resources into creating new value for e-residents.
For me, supporting Estonia through e-Residency has always been personal.
I love building businesses and I love helping other people build businesses, especially if that means tearing down barriers for people elsewhere in the world. But e-Residency has always been about much more than business too — for both Estonians and our e-residents. It’s about making friends with people who share our values and have a shared interest in our future. It aligns with the most fundamental role of our state to ensure the continuation of the Estonian people and their culture.
Ironically, my grandfather Uno Rang actually carried a non-Estonian ID document for most of his life until the day he died. I don’t just mean an ID document from a country other than Estonia. After arriving in the UK as a displaced person, he was literally issued with an ID document valid in ‘all countries except Estonia’. A UK government official had added this condition in line with their foreign policy to assert that only the Republic of Estonia has the right to issue Estonian ID documents to an Estonian citizen like him. Back then though, it seemed unlikely that would ever happen again.
I often start talks about e-Residency not by holding up an e-resident ID document, but by showing Uno’s ID document. I want to emphasise that technology has come a long way, but it’s not just the technology that matters. The mere fact that Estonia is able to issue its own ID documents as a free country is remarkable itself and what’s more important for e-residents is the nature of that country and its business environment, as well as how it uses technology to empower people.
Estonia today is a remarkable success story and can offer incredible value to more people around the world. But when the international media talks about Estonia — especially in the context of e-Residency — they often start the story at the collapse of the Soviet Union, likening it to a phoenix that arose from the ashes. This is a great story, but it’s also very far from the whole story.
If you truly want to understand Estonia today, including e-Residency, then you need to look back through time to understand the story of the Estonian people over thousands of years. It’s a story that’s as old as the sauna. The factors that have influenced the development of our digital nation are rooted deep in the Estonian character. It includes a love of nature, determination to live independently, enjoyment of personal space, and disdain for unnecessary processes and interactions.
And through e-Residency, we’ve been able to tell the story of Estonia to more people around the world and ultimately help create a better, more prosperous and more secure future for our people.
As President Kaljulaid explained in her most recent Independence Day speech, telling the story of Estonia to more people is an important source of both security and prosperity. And.. “friendships must be forged when everything is fine; when you have the time and the strength to do so.”
It’s important e-residents know this because it underpins why there has been such a strong consensus across all political parties in Estonia to support the continued development of the programme for them.
E-residents have also been clear that they want to understand Estonia better and make more deeper connections, including when they make visits, even though they want to continue living and working elsewhere.
After discovering our country online, many e-residents want to discover what makes our country special offline too.
So — after discussing business — I’ve loved telling them about the smell of black bread, the sight of snow covered bogs, the taste of kohuke, the sound of a hundred thousand people singing together in the Song Festival Ground, and the feeling of jumping into ice cold water after a smoke sauna.
Using e-Residency to export Estonian culture around the world — in addition to our business environment — is at the heart of ‘e-Residency 2.0’. This is an initiative led by President Kaljulaid and developed by all stakeholders to the programme, and which all political parties in Estonia’s Parliament have committed to support. It’s included in the coalition agreement of what is expected to be the new incoming government.
We don’t expect everyone who acquires a digital ID card to want to learn more about Estonia and develop deeper connections here. Some will run Estonian companies and contribute to Estonia without once stepping foot here — and that’s fine too. But some do want to learn more about their digital nation offline. And that’s a big opportunity to be pursued.
Our next plans
Together with my partner, Anni Oviir, we are going to create new value for e-Residency by building our own business services in Estonia tailored to the needs of e-residents.
We’ll run it in our own unique style. We’ll be personal, we’ll be straight-talking, and we’ll help e-residents build their businesses the Estonian way. We want to select companies that we think we can add most value to, but we’re also planning wider activities that can involve anyone in the e-resident community.
This will, in both cases, involve saunas.
I’m leaving the programme at the end of this month then we’ll get started on this project after that — so I’ll tell you more another time. For now though, I think it’s important to explain that this won’t be a startup.
Estonia has awesome startups, which have brought world fame to our business environment and will both enable us to build our business and help other people build theirs. In fact, the e-Residency programme was itself launched as a ‘government startup’.
But not every company — in Estonia or elsewhere — needs to scale up as a startup in order to be considered successful. Instead we need to focus first on what’s important for us and our clients, and ultimately what best contributes to making our country and our world a better place.
So although we won’t create lots of jobs, I think we can make a wider positive impact in Estonia if we can show other Estonians how they can take advantage of the same opportunities as us and create the jobs they want for themselves too.
We want a homely, family business that gives us and our clients more time to do what we enjoy in life, like going to the sauna.
Speaking of saunas..
Anni and I are also going to keep building another business of ours — and soon start tailoring that to the e-resident community too.
I also think it’s important that if we are helping e-residents build their businesses then we should also be building our own too at the same time. It means we are practising what we preach and learning first hand with them about the best ways to grow Estonian companies.
This business is very non-digital, but it also has the potential to give e-residents a deeper connection to Estonia both when they visit Estonia, as well as when they travel the world.
Like many Estonians, Anni and I enjoy going to the sauna and believe it to be an essential part of living a good life. And over the past few years, we’ve travelled around Estonia and beyond together to find weird and wonderful saunas, while researching the history, designs and traditions of Estonian sauna culture as it has been practised through the ages.
The sauna is a cherished innovation in Estonia that enables us to connect with more people. It’s similar to the digital ID card in some ways.
The sauna happens to be a great place to make lasting business contacts, but you can also learn a lot about Estonians through their saunas because these have both shaped Estonian history and been shaped by it.
So our mission is to help make Estonia world famous for its sauna culture too — both as a destination and an exporter of traditions. To do that, we’re working to help spread knowledge of Estonian sauna culture as well as make it more accessible.
In the past year alone, we’ve opened the first smoke sauna in Tallinn, competed in Estonia’s sauna marathons, organised pop-up sauna events, reported on saunas for the Estonian media, and become the first people to both start a company while having a sauna (pictured below) and vote in national elections while having a sauna.
We’re already starting a weekly event in Tallinn called how to sauna the Estonian way, which includes a discussion about sauna culture. And, as you might have guessed by the amount of articles we produce on this subject, we are also currently writing a book about Estonian sauna culture which we hope you’ll get a chance to read one day.
When we opened our own smoke sauna, Anni and I understood clearly that we were not in competition with other saunas.
That’s not because we have the best sauna in Estonia. Far from it. It’s because we opened a very homely sauna for people who otherwise would not have this kind of experience. We reached out to people who simply wanted something interesting to do while visiting Estonia and we made sure our sauna was welcoming to people who might ordinarily feel too daunted to visit a sauna.
So our real competition was ‘not going to the sauna’ and, as a result, we’ve worked closely with sauna owners all over Estonia to help them get visitors too. This is also the thinking behind Estonia’s now infamous ‘European Sauna Marathon’, which was started by sauna owners working together to get more people in their community and beyond to discover their saunas for the first time.
We actually see e-Residency as an opportunity in a similar way. We are not going into competition with other people offering services to e-residents. In fact, we would love to get to know them even better because we complement each other and all benefit together if there is a more vibrant ecosystem for e-residents.
The real competition is ‘not being an e-resident’ or even ‘not knowing about Estonia’. We need to work hard to ensure that more people around the world understand our country and how it can enable them to do things better online — like access entrepreneurship.
The opportunities for everyone are as big as we can make them.
I’m not sure if enjoying more saunas is quite what Taavi and Siim envisioned when they first came up with the idea for e-Residency — but there really are no limits now to how Estonians can connect with e-residents.
So I’d like to say a final thank you to everyone who I’ve worked with over the past few years and provided these opportunities — especially Kaspar Korjus and Ott Vatter who led the programme to where it is today, Alex Wellman (who originally brought me onboard), and Taavi Kotka and Siim Sikkut (who have continued to support the programme ever since they came up with the idea).
Let’s stay connected
We won’t start any of these plans until I’ve left my job at the programme at the end of this month. In the meanwhile though, you can check out our sauna business and we’d love it if you can follow us there.
Estonian Saunas on Medium: Anni and I have our own blog just about Estonian saunas, which covers everything from old folklore to the latest technology, as well as the fun adventures we have along the way. You can check it out at medium.com/estoniansaunas.
Finally, you can email us about anything to do with saunas at email@example.com.