How a Yooper* Is Building a Borderless Society in Estonia With e-Residency
The story of a marketer from Michigan and the quest to build a digital nation
I’m chatting with Alex Wellman on the first sunny day either of us has seen in what feels like weeks. Originally from the northern United States, Alex is no stranger to cold temperatures and four distinct seasons. “I’m from kind of an obscure part of the U.S. called the Upper Peninsula of Michigan,” he says. “The climate is actually pretty similar to here.” Here being Tallinn — the capital of Estonia. What brought Alex to this tiny Baltic state so far from home was most likely not the weather, then. Instead, it was his lifelong passion for political science and dissecting how governments work. Since October of 2016, Alex has been part of the e-Residency team in Tallinn, leading marketing efforts for what is probably one of the most exciting government initiatives of recent years.
Having worked for a number of political organizations and campaigns in the U.S., the idea of working abroad had appealed to Alex for a while. “But I always thought you needed to be a programmer or have really technical skills to do that,” he says. “I didn’t think being in marketing would allow you to travel and work somewhere else.” When he spotted e-Residency’s marketing job on Jobbatical — a platform he had been following with some interest, along with other startups in a group nicknamed the Estonian Mafia — it struck him as an opportunity that was almost too good to be true.
Alex found the job through Jobbatical, but his interest in e-Residency had been piqued as far back as 2015, when he first started reading up on the groundbreaking program — a government-issued transnational digital identity available to everyone in the world. “I always tell people that Estonia is really disrupting the way we traditionally think about citizenship and residency,” Alex says. “We think of this as a government startup, which is a unique perspective.”
The innovative nature of the e-Residency program makes it a highly talked-about subject in tech circles and beyond, all around the globe. “No other country is doing this,” Alex says. “People have been really interested in the program. As we move to the next step, we’re going to be telling the story of how it has helped people around the world.”
And that’s precisely what Alex is here to do. “My main goal is to take people who have benefited from e-Residency and help them get their story out,” he explains. “One of the big groups that we talk to are digital nomads,” he continues. “They’re taking advantage of location independence, but often when it comes to running their businesses, some of the logistics they have to deal with are very difficult.” With e-Residency, they can keep their business in one place and manage it remotely from anywhere in the world. “Digital nomads are some of our biggest fans, and we’re really trying to tell their stories, because we think that more and more people are going to embrace this lifestyle,” Alex says.
Estonia might be the first country to come out with an e-Residency program, but it won’t be the last, Alex predicts. “We think that validates the work we’re doing, because other countries are seeing this and want to copy it,” he says. “We think that eventually, 10 years or so or down the road, countries will be competing for entrepreneurs to form their business there, just like companies compete for talented employees now.“
It’s a global game that takes a whole lot of global knowledge — something that’s particularly important for small countries like Estonia if they want to stand out from the crowd and stay competitive. “Our team is international, and all of our work is done in English,” Alex says. “A lot of the teams around here are international, because I think they value outside perspectives here. Even if they question why you would you come here,” he laughs.
And that brings us to the most important question — one no self-respecting Estonian will ever forget to ask a foreigner, with thinly veiled enthusiasm:
“So… do you like it here?”
“If it’s yes or no, I would say yes,” Alex replies. “If I didn’t, I would leave! But I really like my job and the program I’m working on.” Granted, Estonia may not feature on many people’s lists of dream destinations. Alex has encountered his fair share of skepticism. “Whenever I tell people, they say, “Oh, you’re moving to Europe? Where — London, Paris, Italy?”” Estonia is hardly anyone’s first guess. “Where’s that again? Is that Russia? What do they speak there? Estonian?” they might ask sarcastically. When they hear the answer, they’re taken aback — “Oh, I just meant that as a joke; I didn’t know that was an actual language!”
The language is very real, and Alex is determined to learn it. “I’ve picked up a little bit here and there, but I would like to sign up for a class,” he says.“ Having taken Finnish lessons before — his wife Kayla has Finnish roots — the vocabulary isn’t entirely alien to him. “It’s one of the most difficult languages to learn, and there’s not a lot of material out there either. But I truly believe that if you’re going to live somewhere, you need to learn some of the language eventually.”
Life in Estonia hasn’t been without its challenges. “I only got married about a month before coming here,” Alex says. “And I did have to spend my first month being married away from my wife. That was a little bit tough, but now we’re here, we’re really excited about exploring Estonia and more of Europe. Just getting the experience of doing something that a lot of people don’t get to do.”
Alex has also had ample time to see if there’s any truth to some of the common stereotypes about Estonians. “It’s lonely sometimes,” he admits. “Estonians can be a little cold. They can also be really good friends, but I think the reputation is somewhat true. People are like that where I’m from, too. Maybe when there’s snow, people become kind of cold themselves,” he muses. “If you compound that with being an expat in a new country, it can be tough to make friends. Luckily, I have really good coworkers.” And while Estonia’s customer service tends to have a reputation of being rude at times, Alex doesn’t confirm this. “I really haven’t felt that way, or had a bad experience. People here have been extremely nice to me.”
“That’s why I like Estonia. I feel like I’m just living. I don’t feel like I’m just a digital nomad and everyone I talk to is another expat. It’s a more authentic experience.”
Accustomed as he is to an outdoorsy lifestyle in the U.P., Alex is optimistic about life in the north. “There’s no bad weather, only bad equipment,” he says, echoing a sentiment close to so many Estonian hearts. “You can go cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing — there’s a lot of things you can do in the winter. You need to get out there.”
Like a true northerner, Alex has got his own tricks for keeping spirits up on those long winter nights. “I go to the sauna,” he reveals. “That’s one of my go-to things — take your vitamin D, go to the sauna. But also, you can sleep well because it’s dark,” he concludes, pointing out an unexpected benefit of the long Estonian winter.
But there’s much more to this country than saunas and skiing. “I think my biggest positive for Estonia is that there’s a mentality here that things are getting better and that you can be a part of that change,” he observes. “In the US we often think that things are kind of stagnant and only the wealthy can benefit; only some people can be part of the dream now. But here I feel like people still have this hunger. The number of startups that have come out of this country — compared to the number of people — is incredible. It’s pretty awesome.”
Having lived here for less than half a year, Alex hasn’t failed to notice the immensity of the value the experience has added to his life. “Even if you can spend just one time in your life working abroad, do it,” he says.
“I can already recognize that it’s going to change the way I think about things. I can take that with me wherever I go. I can’t put a price on how valuable that is.”
*Yooper: a native or resident of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Derived from U.P.-ers.