I began working on e-Residency in 2014 when it was just a wild idea in the minds of a few people.
I was 26 years old, fascinated by the potential of our emerging digital nation and had returned to Estonia through a scheme initiated by then President Toomas Hendrik Ilves to bring back talent from our international diaspora. I then received a scholarship to launch the world’s first e-Residency programme, which came with a spare desk in a back office, a small budget, and a lot of hope.
Four years later, e-Residency is part of the new normal for how our state engages with citizens of other countries living beyond our borders. We now have more than 50,000 e-residents from more than 150 countries and they are contributing to our digital nation in ways we never imagined back then — including through more than 6,000 new companies they have established here.
Taking e-Residency this far through its development phase as a ‘government startup’ has been my personal goal. This is why I think it’s the right time for me to complete my own work here and allow others to take the programme forward into its next stage of development, known as ‘e-Residency 2.0’.
To say the last four and a half years have been interesting would be an understatement.
E-Residency has been a hot topic of discussion among world leaders and policy makers from the European Union to the United Nations — and even the Vatican!
The UN is watching as e-residents break down barriers to entrepreneurship
A year after e-Residency joined forces with the UN, we’re returning to discuss how more global entrepreneurs can access…
They’ve shown great interest in the potential for e-Residency to help democratise access to entrepreneurship globally and redefine the way states operate in the digital era.
These international partnerships are really important because e-Residency is not a zero sum game. We believe Estonia gains more value from the programme when our e-residents gain more value and when the countries in which they operate gain more value. We want to help other countries digitise and launch their own e-Residency programmes because that provides more opportunities for us to work together for the benefit of everyone.
Estonia isn’t even the only country to offer e-Residency anymore and we understand several more countries are in the planning stages of launching their own programmes. We’ve demonstrated that it works for Estonia so it can work for other nations too, although each one will need to focus on their own unique strengths when deciding how they will serve the world.
Just as significantly, e-Residency has gained the attention of entrepreneurs and innovators from around the world too. We went to Silicon Valley to launch the programme in public beta mode with the help of Tim Draper and Steve Jurvetson as the first e-residents outside of Europe. Since then, we’ve travelled thousands of miles to many more events and meetings with entrepreneurs all over the planet. We’ve realised that as more people discover e-Residency, more uses for e-Residency are being discovered. For example, here’s Tim Draper demonstrating how he uses e-Residency as an investor.
You may have also noticed that e-Residency has been in the news quite a bit over the last four years. In fact, analysis from various studies show that e-Residency has become Estonia’s most recognisable international brand, as well as the most Googled topic related to Estonia.
It seems like only yesterday I was explaining e-Residency to the BBC for the first time in this interview below (in which my computer froze during the live interview!) We’ve come a long way since then.
The real story of e-Residency though takes place far from the corridors of power or the bright lights of TV studios though. It began with a scholarship awarded to me by Taavi Kotka and Siim Sikkut — who are Estonia’s former and current Chief Information Officers.
The picture that probably best sums up the development of e-Residency over the past four years after that is actually this less glamorous one:
When this photo was snapped, we had just gone live with the online application and increased interest was pouring in from around the world. However, we quickly realised that there were a few ‘bugs’ so I had to pull over to the side of the road and urgently fix them. One problem was that I had copied and pasted a list of countries from the internet for people to select their nationality when applying. Unfortunately though, I didn’t check whether those nationalities were actually recognised by our own Republic so I almost caused an international diplomatic incident!
That frantic moment reflects the crazy growth and startup agility that has defined the programme since then. Applications for e-Residency have continued to grow at ever faster rates of more than 100% per year. Perhaps more importantly, the number of new Estonian companies established by e-residents has grown at the same rapid speed — and so too has the economic impact that those companies make to Estonia.
That kind of growth is normal for technology startups in the private sector, but we’ve only just begun to realise how it can transform states too.
Since that picture was taken, we’ve made many more mistakes and had far bigger challenges as the e-Residency programme has rapidly grown and often come into conflict with the complexities of cross-border business and bureaucracy. On some occasions, people have even speculated about whether certain challenges could be the beginning of the end for e-Residency, such as a potential security vulnerability and tightening access to banking across Europe for non-residents. There were also many more risks that were dealt with behind the scenes before they could begin pose a problem.
Instead, e-Residency has continuously evolved thanks to the public and private sector working together with e-residents to find creative solutions and develop the ecosystem around the programme. At the end of last year for example, we successfully reached the end of a long process that resulted in greater freedom in business banking for all Estonian companies. This significantly reduces our biggest challenge so far for e-residents, but it also benefits Estonians too.
We’ve also been unafraid to continuously develop new ideas that could add more value to the lives of e-residents — from community features that are now under development to the proposed ‘estcoin’. We’ve also worked closely with Estonians across the public and private sector for e-Residency 2.0, an initiative we launched with President Kersti Kaljulaid with the aim to radically develop the programme even further. You can now read the White Paper for e-Residency 2.0 here.
E-Residency is succeeding because it is a national initiative. In addition to our team, the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board, the Estonian Foreign Ministry (along with their embassies) and the Estonian Tax and Customs Board have all had a major role in delivering the e-Residency programme. In fact, we no longer even think of e-Residency as a ‘programme’ because it has become an official status for people served by the Republic of Estonia, alongside citizens and residents. These three groups have very different relationships to our Republic and its territory, but they are all part of one digital nation and can benefit even more in future when there are more connections between them.
E-Residency is a new idea, but the truth is that Estonians have always reached out beyond their borders to make valuable friendships around the world with people who contribute to our shared prosperity, opportunities and security. In fact, all countries have relationships with people who are neither their citizens nor their residents. Through e-Residency though, Estonia now officially recognises that relationship and provides the tools needed to operate within our digital nation from anywhere — just as citizens and residents do using their own digital ID cards.
I’d like to end my time here by saying thank you to the people who worked especially hard (and smart) to develop e-Residency this far. I’m not able to mention everyone, but I want to thank some key people.
As mentioned, e-Residency is the brainchild of Estonia’s former and current Chief Information Officers, Taavi Kotka and Siim Sikkut, along with the then acting Deputy Secretary General at the Ministry of the Interior, Ruth Annus. Their guidance, support and unwavering belief in that original vision has been invaluable ever since. It was Pirko Konsa who then took the bold decision to approve the scholarship as head of the Estonian Development Fund.
By the end of 2014, the first e-Residency card was handed to Edward Lucas by then Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and interest from around the world then began the climb that continues to this day. A few months later in early 2015, then Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas’ cabinet approved the creation of an e-Residency programme team to build on the early success.
The early team includes people still working on the programme today — such as Ott Vatter who originally joined the programme on a temporary basis to see if it was really possible to build a ‘government startup’. He’s since earned his way up to Deputy Director (and also now interim head of the programme). It’s thanks to Ott that I managed to sleep peacefully at night over the past few years! The early team also included Katre Kasmel, a skilled communicator who devised our messaging and made e-Residency famous, and Victoria Saue, a legal expert who has overseen our compliance and has been the driving force behind the legislative changes needed to transform our state for the inclusion of e-residents.
As the programme grew like a startup so too did our team, not only with Estonians but also people who came from around the world to help us build our digital nation.
Silver Siniavski joined next to oversee product development, Alex Wellman — an American who had previously worked for the US Congress — came to handle marketing, Arnaud Castaignet — who previously worked in the Palais de l’Elysee for French President François Hollande — came to handle PR, Aet Veski came to look after ‘customer’ support, and Alexey Voronkov in Ukraine became our first country manager. I’ve also insisted that Adam Rang, our ‘Chief Evangelist’, thank himself here and point out that he has been responsible for turning my thoughts into these blog posts!
In the past year, we’ve been joined by new team members with even more diverse skills and experiences to help take the programme to the next stage of development: Joel Burke, Julia Barrett, Heidi Havam, David Griffith, Astrid Lohk, and Reelika Virunurm. We’ve also had valuable support externally over the years from Daniel Vaarik.
Each team member brings a very different perspective and set of talents, but they were also all chosen because they believe deeply in the inclusive power of e-Residency to democratise access to entrepreneurship and ultimately help build a better future for both Estonia and the world.
During this time, Estonia had both a change of Government and a change in our Head of State so some speculated about whether this too would lead to a change in the state’s support for e-Residency. Quite the opposite. Both President Kersti Kaljulaid and Prime Minister Jüri Ratas have a clear understanding of how the state needs to evolve in the digital era and I want to thank them both for their incredible leadership and support, including in the continued evolution of e-Residency. Most recently, they have both been instrumental in the development of the e-Residency 2.0 White Paper
I also want to thank the former and current Ministers of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology Urve Palo and now Rene Tammist. E-Residency falls within their remit and both have made valuable contributions to the growth of the programme.
Many others have been immensely supportive across the Estonian public sector too, especially including Viljar Lubi, Deputy Secretary General at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication, and Dmitri Jegorov, Undersecretary for Tax and Customs Policy at the Estonian Ministry of Finance.
We also have an Advisory Board for the e-Residency programme, which was organised by one of our earliest international supporters, Toby Stone. We’ve been very grateful for all the valuable time and expertise that both Toby and the rest of the board have donated to support our development.
The value of e-Residency also depends heavily on the vibrancy of the private ecosystem around it so a huge thanks also has to go to all the companies that have built or adapted products and services for e-residents. A very special thanks goes to the Startup Leaders Club and the wider #estonianmafia community. That’s the nickname we use in Estonia for the Estonian startup community. Despite being a government agency, they accepted us as a startup and brought us into their club, providing invaluable support along the way.
The biggest thank you of all goes to the e-residents themselves though. Many had never started a company before and some had never even heard of Estonia! Yet they joined the programme at this early stage before everything had been made smooth for them and are now collectively making a significant contribution to our country. Thank you for helping us and thank you for helping other e-residents.
And finally, I have to reveal my secret adviser who has provided me with invaluable support and guidance every day and through every challenge — my wife, Karen. It’s our new son Ruufus who has become the ultimate inspiration for everything we do, as I explained in an earlier blog post:
The next big industry to face digital disruption will be our nations
Children born today will grow up with a radically different understanding of how governments should serve them.
There will be many more opportunities and challenges as the world continues to be transformed by digital disruption over the years ahead. Technology by itself is neither good nor bad nor neutral so it’s up to all of us to work together and figure out how to use it to build a better future through greater inclusion and transparency.
If we can do all this with e-Residency in four years then just imagine what we can do next.
Thank you, once again, and goodbye.