Andrus Viirg: If you want something done, do it yourself!
October 08, 2017
Getting investors in Silicon Valley interested in one country's startups is not an easy job. Why would they care? It turns out they do care and for this, we have to thank one tireless representative of Enterprise Estonia in Silicon Valley - Andrus Viirg.Combining technical and economical knowledge with a salesman attitude and a patriot passion - he is the bridge between Estonian startups and the US market. Meet our sTARTUp Day 2017 speaker Andrus Viirg, who for over a decade, has helped startups survive Silicon Valley.*
For decades already, you have helped Estonian companies find US clients and enter the American market. Why do you think the US market, in particular, is the most intriguing, compared to Europe and Asia?
When talking about startups and tech companies with global ambitions, then operating in Silicon Valley is a “gold standard” in the tech sector, and not in US only. It is the most recognized tech innovation hot-spot in the world, providing the best opportunities for the so-called disruptive innovators. All the key players in the tech sector are present here, are they from Europe, Asia or other parts of Americas. If you are visible in Silicon Valley then you are taken much more seriously! For example, some Estonian companies have found even Nordic investors and clients in San Francisco, not in Europe!
Great startups can be found everywhere, yes Estonian startups stand out with technological execution and user interface. Is this hypothesis something that we often too blindly like to think or is there some truth in it?
Estonian startups do stand out from the crowd! One thing is, of course, the per capita ratio! The other reason is definitely the Skype phenomenon. Skype really put Estonia on the Startup World Map and served as a training launchpad for the next waves of Estonian startups going global.
It is also interesting to note that it was Dave McClure from 500Startups (one of the most famous accelerators in Silicon Valley) who coined the Twitter hashtag #EstoniaMafia because of a large number of Estonian startups getting noticed at the various demo and pitching days! And then it was Marc Andreessen who tweeted that "Few factors get us as excited as Estonian founders," after leading the investment round to Transferwise!
Since Skype, there have been numerous exits and successes with Estonian tech companies. Is there a success story where your hand was in play? :-)
My job is mainly `connecting people` - making intros and organizing networking events. I am also acting as a sort of a filter between the investors (VCs and accelerators) and Estonian startups! Thanks to our, Enterprise Estonia presence in Silicon Valley, I can name some of the companies that have used our services and succeeded: Modesat (acquired by Xilinx in 2012), Fortumo, import2. Funderbeam, Jobbatical, Transferwise have had the first pitchings to investors at our organized events. Last but not least, Latitude59, where I have been one of the main organizers from the beginning, has also served as an excellent networking platform for investors!
One of the most important tasks that you have is to introduce Estonia to foreign investors and partners. Compared to 10 years ago, do now hear more often “Oh, I have heard about this little country!”?
Yes, as I already mentioned, Estonian startups and founders can easily get noticed thanks to the good track record. And it is also easier and easier to get investors to come over to Estonia, for example, to attend our startup events like Latitude59 and also Tartu's sTARTUp Day!
Now we are seeing that students and high school kids are getting more entrepreneurial and starting their companies very early. What would you say to them?
Usually, the ideas for the products/services start from one´s own pains or observations what is missing in the market. The tough part is to explain your idea clearly and shortly. Try it out with your grandparents! If they understand what you want to do, then you are ready to go out and explain this to your potentialö customs, get their feedback and then pitch to investors! The first questions from the investors usually how do you monetize, where does the money come from? You have to be prepared for this, not so much on explaining the technical details.
How hard is it really to enter a new market? What would be the first step?
The `devil is in the detail`! And this is the product – market fit! If you are successful already in one market it does not mean that you can copy and paste the success to a new market. It is crucial to get a first-hand feedback from a potential client how your service or product could fly in a new market. Traditions and thinkings do vary between Americas, Europe, and Asia. But what is good about the US market, it is one language – English and one currency – the dollar!
sTARTUp Day 2017 will be held in Tartu, away from the capital and our Nothern neighbors. Do you think there is a difference for a startup to be located either in Tallinn or in Tartu?
My view is that when you want to scale and go global then at least part of your executive and marketing teams have to be close to your clients and potential investors. International investors are sort of lazy and stuck in legacy traditions meaning that there are only a few legal & regulatory systems in the world where they are ready to invest (i.e. Delaware company in the US; UK and Luxembourg in Europe). Unfortunately, Tallinn nor Tartu are not yet the places to grow a global business.
I believe that the only exception here is Jobbatical that has raised international funding to their Estonia registered company. This means that you must have distributed teams – product development in Estonia and marketing & sales & fundraising close to global hots spots. When raising funding to one´s US or UK incorporated company does not mean that these companies are lost for Estonia. The majority of the raised funding is anyway used in Estonia as salaries for product development and for office space. Look at Pipedrive and Transferwise new office buildings in Tallinn and how many people they employ!
You have worked with very successful Estonian companies. What are some of your funniest/best moments with them?
One of the funniest moments was when Fits.me was presenting/pitching on stage and the question from the investor panel was: `when do you plan to have a female body type robot as well?` And the answer was: `the female body is very complicated. It takes time to model it!` This was followed by a roar of laughter from the audience and Fits.me was declared the winner of the pitching competition!
The theme for sTARTUp Day 2017 is “From Zero To Hero”. Who is the Hero in your life?
The US tech sector has seen a couple of real Heroes starting from Zero! Nowadays the Hero is Elon Musk and his disruptive ideas in mobility: EVs, hyperloop, tunnels, rockets! And these rockets will make humans `multi-planetary species`. But more importantly, the same technologies can be used to move people anywhere on Earth under one hour!
What is your life motto?
Being a one-man show for so many years, my motto is: `if you want something done, do it yourself` (from the movie "The Fith Element")!
* Andrus Viirg is going to give his insights on "How to survive in Silicon Valley?" on the Spotlight stage on the 8th of Dec, at sTARTUp Day 2017 business festival.
Get to experience this and other exciting tracks by getting your Early Bird tickets here!