Silicon Old Town
in Tallinn, Estonia on 2nd June, 2012


After spending three months traveling around Asia on a career break I arrived here in Tallinn. I'd heard from numerous people here how there is a startup scene beginning to grow here. I'd been coming to Estonia on business since 2005 but never staying longer than a month or two at a time.

In my first month here I spent €1,920. The biggest expense was moving into my flat next to the Old Town. The first month's rent was €310, there was a 1 month's deposit and finally, the estate agent, whom is the wife of Estonia's former ambassador to Canada, took another €310 for herself.

I spent €355 on food, €82 on utilities and €20 for a 3G internet stick service. But one of the bigger shocks was the cost of clothing here. A pair of jeans, a dress shirt, a jumper and a pair of shoes set me back €240. The same items back in London would have cost around €120. I'd learnt to haggle for everything in Asia but here that only brought me 5% discounts at most.

The remaining ~€300 went on socialising, drinking and other various expenses which will probably come up later in this blog.

In my first week I setup shop in a large office in the Old Town. The company which rented the office was based in the UK and the local office manager rented some desks out to a friend's digital marketing agency for whom I was working for (read: volunteering). I helped them with a few pitches, some coding and interviewing for a couple weeks. It was good to feel like an employee again after months of traveling but I felt my time would be better spent working on a company of my own.

A friend of mine who runs an Ad network here in Tallinn invited me over to his office one afternoon. Next door was Garage48's hub. He showed me around. Both offices looked like fancy homes. His office looked more formal but the Garage48's hub wouldn't look out of place in any of the startup-centric parts of the world.

I returned to the hub for an 'open coffee' event a few days later. There were about 35 people in the main room. I met some people who'd taken funding, some product people and some seed investors.

Within a week of the open coffee event I found myself renting a desk in the hub for €25 / month.

The evenings in Tallinn were being quickly filled up with hacker meetings, pitching sessions and more informal meetings in the Old Town. During one HTML5 night I met up with some founders who'd had their businesses seeded by Startup WiseGuys, an accelerator based here in Tallinn.

A few days later I attended a BBQ and sauna party in the Old Town. There I met one of the main players at WiseGuys and got myself an invite to visit their office. When I arrived a few days later I realised I'd already met a lot of the different firm's founders at various events. I spent 45 minutes walking from desk to desk shaking hands and seeing what everyone was working on before I met with my host.

At a lunch a few days later I sat down with a friend who's a diplomat at the British Embassy here. He mentioned that they've been given a mandate to help any Estonian wanting to setup shop in the UK and help any Brit wanting to setup shop in Estonia. He was nice enough to pass my details on to a woman working in the Embassy who's focus in is in this area. I'm not 100% sure how they can be helpful but it's good to know that everywhere I look people are offering encouragement and support.

I was inspired by what I'd seen so far but I was low on product ideas to implement. I was also in need of a newer project for my CV as I'd done mostly client work with the stack I currently favour. While in Asia I had a hard time finding shesha (hookah) cafes so I decided to build sheshapip.es. I spent ten days working on it using mostly jQuery Mobile, Django and a host of geolocation libraries.

With sheshapip.es built I presented it at a pitching night. I had three slides.

The first was of a photo I'd taken in Dubai with my hand photoshopped in the foreground holding an iPhone. The phone's display showed the home screen of the app and some text asking "Where's a shesha cafe with free wifi?". The second slide was a few pieces of feedback I'd solicited from friends, the top one read 'This is epic!'. The third slide simply stated my cv's url marksblogg.com/cv.

I announced that I'd built the site as a project for my CV and personal need and that I was looking for a team to join. I'd hardly stepped off stage before three groups jumped on me. That night and in subsequent evenings I quickly learnt that there are very few programmers available for paid work, let alone unpaid, equity deals. Coders here are in serious demand.

Sifting through the various ideas being pitched to me it seemed a few traits were common among them. (1) They were all small ideas, none would generate enough revenue to pay for three or four members of staff. (2) They didn't bring any game-changing aspects to the established markets they were hoping to join. (3) No one had any idea how hard or expensive it is to make a website popular and used regularly enough to impress potential investors. (4) Founders rarely included any industry experts, programmers or people with substantial marketing experience.

It's frustrating to see a real lack of imagination in these ideas. In the evenings I sit on hacker news and numerous other portals and see really creative and promising startups being announced. I saw some videos on youtube from startup sauna in Finland and I'm sure at least two of their teams they're accelerating will do well in the long run. There is only one startup I've seen in Tallinn (who's founders are Dutch) that I believe will pick up traction and take off.

After a month of looking I've settled on a single team. I don't want to go into a lot of specifics this early on but I will share this: There are (at least) four of us: a Backend Developer (myself), a Mobile Developer, a Front End Developer and a Product/Fundraiser/HR guy. We're working out of the Product guy's flat in the Old Town most days and use facebook messages for our group chats when we're not in the same room.

In July our American product guy will fly back to California to meet with potential investors. Each one of us is in a different financial position. Some of us can spend 100% of our time on this and don't need a salary, others have a family to feed and can't give 100% at the moment. Hopefully a funding round will be able to bring us all on board full time.

Tallinn is an interesting place. It's on the periphery of more well known countries but attracts (in my opinion) some very interesting foreigners. There are a lot of self-made people living here with no local income. There are also nomad programmers which run one or two websites that earn them enough money to live here without working more than 5-10 hours a week. I'm meeting more wealthy seed investors here in a week than I'd meet in a month in London. It might be that this is a town of 400,000 and it's hard to hide for long.

When I first landed in Tallinn back in April I stayed at a friend's house for the first few nights. Little did I know then that my friend would become my girlfriend and move into my new flat a month later.

The thought of having to go back to London to earn some more money contracting doesn't please me like it once did. Estonia gets really cold winters but growing up in Canada I was used to them (but not enjoying them) anyways.

Hopefully this current venture takes flight and Tallinn becomes our centre of development.


    Recent Posts