Estonia — A Tech Mecca of New Beginnings
Tech professionals are moving to Estonia for jobs, but many are finding other reasons to stay.
When Paramanantham Harrison boarded a plane to move from Chennai, India, to Tallinn, Estonia, he was worried about the weather. The front-end developer had never experienced temperatures below 15°C (59°F), so when the forecast called for November snow, he was petrified his skin might destruct the second it came in contact with the air.
Harrison saw snow for the first time the day he arrived in Estonia, but his skin did not freeze into debilitating paralysis. Instead, he stepped into the fruitful life of a tech professional in Tallinn.
Many people don’t know the country of Estonia exists, but Harrison is one of the growing number of pioneers changing that.
Estonia’s population clocks in at about 1.3 million, which, for perspective, is roughly the same as Delaware or New York City’s outer borough, The Bronx. American geography lessons skip over the the minuscule Baltic country entirely, but for people in tech, the place is a must-know. The Telegraph recently deemed it Europe’s new startup hub and in Q1 2017, Estonia had the fastest employment growth in the European Union.
The Hockey Stick Growth of a Thriving Startup Capital
After a long Soviet occupation, Estonia re-established its independence in 1991. Unlike American babies of the 80’s who grew up with Ribbon Dancer, Gak and Ninja Turtle nunchucks, Estonians got the clothes and shoes they could get, whenever they could get them.
“We got Finnish TV piped to us illegally,” says Estonian native Dea Martinjonis, “and the government tried to tell us the yoghurts and fully stocked grocery stores we fantasized about in the commercials were fake.”
“I remember dreaming of one day eating a banana,” says Triin Kallas, a Tallinn native who has worked with some of Estonia’s most successful startups.
Kallas got that banana when she was eight years old and remembers the day vividly. “I ate it in tiny bites and it took all day,” she says with a smile.
Instead of buckling under the regime, Estonians learned to dream. Their passion, shaped by decades of oppression, is quiet and cautious but also unmatched.
When Estonians earned their independence, they relished it. They got a taste of freedom and chased after a high quality of life with ferocity.
Estonia’s restored independence is barely older than the consumer internet, but the country built a digital society from the get-go. In 1997, the country established a formal e-government and soon thereafter declared internet access a fundamental human right. People in Estonia vote online, sign government documents with their cell phones, and store their health records on the blockchain.
The people building these technologies didn’t even have the pleasure of making grocery lists when the country was under Soviet rule. Instead, they went to the store and got anything in stock, often relying on connections to get items they needed from secret storage spots underneath the shelves. Now these people are building robots that in a few years’ time could deliver everything you order online to your doorstep with unprecedented convenience.
Quality of Life in Estonia
Tech talent in Estonia is treated so royally that many of the people who first came chasing opportunity are determined to stay.
Alina Basina, traded her Silicon Valley career at companies like Google, Skype and Evernote in for a job with Jobbatical in Estonia, is considering buying property and relocating with her in-demand developer boyfriend to Tallinn for good.
“Life here is easy,” says Basina about the year and a half she spent in Tallinn. “It’s convenient and affordable, and the people are amazing.”
Estonians are notorious for deeming themselves “closed off” and lacking in emotional expression. In reality they are sensitive, sentimental and welcoming. Aside from the occasional grocery store clerk or wanderer on the street, nearly everyone speaks impeccable English.
“And of course it doesn’t hurt that the women are beautiful,” says Roberto Orru, an Italian who came for an internship in Estonia but loved it so much he worked his way into a full-time job.
Estonia produces more models per capita than any other country in the world, and stories of men traveling to Tallinn to find a beautiful woman to share their life with are common. These people, like the tech professionals transforming the fabric of Estonia, fall in love with the culture and turn Tallinn into their permanent home.
Expats in cities like Seoul, South Korea, tend to go there to escape but Tallinn is different. When Americans hear each other’s movie-like accents they rush towards each other like old friends reunited in an unexpected land.
In Tallinn, everyone knows everyone (or at least someone who knows them). Estonians befriend new faces on Facebook and use Messenger as liberally as Americans text.
Chance encounters turn into Facebook friendships in an instant, and long conversations on Messenger often become something deeper and more meaningful. In summer, these conversations can last well into the early morning hours—almost everyone is alive and buzzing when daylight spans more than 20 hours of the day.
The Country That Isn’t Done Yet
Estonians hold a deep respect for people who make the country their new home. They’re generous with their time, hungry for knowledge, and eager to talk about their latest entrepreneurial endeavor. Nearly everyone in Estonia is revolutionizing something, which is why Estonia has more startups per capita than any other country in Europe.
“One of the things I love about Estonia,” says behavioral scientist Silja-Riin Voolma, “is that it isn’t done yet.” Voolma grew up in Estonia, earned her PhD at Cambridge, and returned to make an impact on the healthcare system.
This is the kind of person Estonia attracts and ultimately, this is Estonia’s magic. The country, like our hearts, has an unlimited capacity for more.
When Estonians earned their independence again they started building government and society with ideals in mind.
Couple that determination with the taste of success Estonians earned with Skype, and you have the recipe for greatness. Estonians are keen to replicate the tech superstardom euphoria they got with Skype, but their do-it-right attitude is balanced towards government and quality of life as well.
For masters of their fate, Estonia is the place to go. Filled with opportunity, the country is in that honeymoon phase where the impossible is just inevitable.
Marketing engineer Kwun-Lok, whose girlfriend left a job at the Hong Kong HQ of an internationally recognized unicorn startup to join him in Tallinn, says it best: “I could never live without my freedom. That, above all, is why I will stay in Estonia.”
If you want to be part of Estonia’s fast growth and many incredible startups, check out some of Jobbatical and Work in Estonia’s job opportunities.