Director is bringing island ingenuity to our digital nation
From Hiiumaa to Tallinn, e-Residency’s new Managing Director Liina Vahtras on improving the onboarding experience, service quality and security for the e-resident community.
Liina Vahtras grew up on the Estonian island of Hiiumaa.
It’s Estonia’s second largest of 2,222 islands, but fewer than 10,000 people live there all year round. Hiiumaa is densely forested and accessible by ship, plane, and sometimes by car in the winter, when the sea that divides the island from the mainland freezes over and “ice roads” are opened.
The Hiiu islanders are known for their resilience and self-sufficiency. No matter the conditions, they must make do with the elements. The islanders always relied on their ingenuity to survive.
This was how things started out for the woman who would later become the Managing Director of Estonia’s e-Residency program, the nexus of Estonia’s digital nation. But that was a very long time ago, before Estonia even had digital identity cards. The Estonian state had been reborn and talk of EU accession was in the air. Things were really just beginning back then.
Both for Estonia and for Liina Vahtras.
A capital education
When she was 15, Vahtras left windy Hiiumaa and went to Tallinn French Lyceum in the city center. Opened in 1921, it is one of the top schools in the country, where French language is a cornerstone of instruction. Vahtras struggled at first to catch up, but soon she succeeded, and the capital took hold of her. And, in a way, it never let go. When she graduated from high school, she went straight into the private sector. She worked at EMT, a mobile provider which has since been renamed after the Swedish multinational Telia, its parent company.
Vahtras later finished up her studies at the University of Tartu, where she majored in English Literature and Public Relations. This choice of majors would color her career in the years to come. She moved between the public sector and private sector, serving as an advisor to Andrus Ansip, the prime minister of the country from 2005 to 2014, and also as the public relations manager for Nortal, a multinational technology company headquartered in Tallinn. In the meantime, she started a family, and then decided to go for her masters in e-governance technologies and services at TalTech, even though she only had her private sector experience.
“I had to convince them that my work experience qualified me, because I was walking in the doors with a BA in English and Public Relations,” she says. “I showed them my track record in the private sector and in tech companies and they accepted me.” She got her MSc in 2018. In the meantime, she advised the new prime minister, Taavi Rõivas. Then she joined Pipedrive.
Building unicorns (and minicorns) as Chief of Staff
“I was the first ever communications person they hired,” says Liina. Pipedrive provides software for managing sales-customer relationships. The company was founded in Tallinn in 2010 and now employs close to a thousand people across 10 offices in Europe and the US. The unicorn is, to say the least, an Estonian startup success story, and Liina held a new title at Pipedrive as Chief of Staff. It almost sounds like a position in the military, but it is an increasingly common position in tech companies.
“I was probably the first ever in Estonia in terms of the tech sector,” Liina adds. In this position, she liaised constantly with then CEO Timo Rein. She was a gatekeeper, but also eyes and ears in the organization, listening to employee concerns and feedback, all while trying to improve the effectiveness of the executive team. “It was the most interesting and educational experience for me,” Liina says of her time at Pipedrive. She worked there for five years and then held a similar position at Tuum, based in Tallinn, one of Estonia’s fintech minicorns, which offers a modular core banking platform.
These experiences gave Liina loads of experience in managing people. She believes in kindness, she says, in listening to people, and also for establishing the complex around issues. She also believes that people need to take responsibility for their actions and experiences, which includes personal reflection and honesty.
“It’s always about people and relationships,” says Liina. “If more people were aware of themselves, we would have less misunderstandings and less time would be wasted.”
Liina’s business experiences also gave her a bit of a stubborn streak, but in a positive way. She holds that it is important to revisit previous solutions to problems, but also to keep trying new methods too. “There is always a way,” she says.
Liina was Chief of Staff for a little over a year at Tuum. But change was in the air. In the spring of this year, e-Residency came knocking.
A step up, a new strategy and turning challenges into opportunities
The announcements about Liina’s appointment went out in May, but officially her start date was June 5. She took the reins from Lauri Haav, the outgoing Managing Director, who is now Chief Growth Officer at Salv, an anti-money laundering startup founded by ex-employees of Wise (formerly TransferWise).
“For me, it’s a step up,” says Liina of her new role. “I have never held a leadership position at this level.”
She also received an interesting new portfolio with the handover. E-Residency had just adopted a new strategy, and it had a team in place. In a way, Liina could just try to carry out the strategy, but there were other changes that are having an impact on the operation of the program.
Recently, the Estonian foreign ministry decided to shutter its consulates in San Francisco and New York, for example. There is also, of course, the war in Ukraine, and now again in Israel. Estonia’s anti-money laundering bureau along with its Ministry of Interior has also initiated a draft legislation regulating the acceptance of applications from 28 countries, where it is difficult for the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board to perform background checks. This obviously reduces the pool of potential markets for program expansion but is a necessary step in terms of mitigating risks.
These are heavy times indeed, and the program is still expected to grow, even though it’s become more difficult to reach potential new e-residents. Liina however sees such challenges as opportunities.
“I have to bring in results in these conditions, but that’s what makes me tick,” she says. “It’s easy to bring in the results when the economy is growing and everything is just peachy,”
Supporting growth by solving distribution constraints
So, how can one induce growth globally, when the only two places that anyone west of the Azores can pick up an e-Residency kit may soon be the Estonian embassies in Washington, DC, and Ottawa, Canada?
Liina says that there are more opportunities in markets where Estonian e-Residency is already popular. Spain, Germany, and the UK, for instance. European entrepreneurs typically value e-Residency because of Estonia’s lightweight bureaucracy, which makes it sometimes easier for them to do business through an Estonian company than in their home countries.
Not only would Liina like to see more applications in Europe, but more firms that result from e-residents. Some do join the program, but don’t make full use of what it really offers. In her view, e-Residency offers a low risk, and cost-effective way for people to test business ideas or build startups in a low-regulation, pro-entrepreneurship country. This is a compelling opportunity in an uncertain global economic climate.
There are also vast, untapped opportunities in the US and Southeast Asia, which also happen to account, all together, for about 40 percent of the world’s total population. By targeting certain user groups who might be interested in opening European subsidiaries, e-Residency might also see growth, despite the rather gloomy international political and business climate.
“These markets are so huge.” Liina says, “And they really offer an alternative business solution there for entrepreneurs looking to expand into the EU.”
There are other opportunities, of course. One is to solve the time lag between the e-Residency application process and company formation. Allowing e-residents to start their companies earlier could help foster growth. E-Residency is currently analysing how to allow new e-residents to set up a company even before obtaining their electronic identity.
Another opportunity is to find remote alternatives to collecting digital ID cards in-person. Currently there are legislative and technological constraints, so the team is constantly looking for improved remote identity verification methods. Reducing this friction would again make it easier to bring in new e-residents, irrespective of location.
“These two initiatives are now more important than they were before, due to recent developments,” says Liina,
“We need to get new applications in and get cards out in a more convenient way that is closer to home. If I can do both of those things, then that’s a win for me.”
Exceeding community expectations by improving service quality and adding value
Liina stresses that e-Residency is not only committed to improving onboarding and experience for new e-residents. Under her leadership, e-Residency will continue to strive for quality services and value for the existing community too.
There are well over 100,000 e-residents and they’ve started over 27,000 companies since 2014. For this growing community, the e-Residency team is busy supporting their growth, experience and success.
The team continues to make sure that there are plenty of trustworthy business service providers available in its Marketplace who can help new e-residents realise their business goals.
The program will also work to improve business banking access, and to tackle the area of taxation when doing business across borders.
E-Residency has also appointed e-resident representatives to spread the word about the program and to speak to new and potential e-residents about their experiences. Such spokespeople might be tapped to talk during webinars, at conferences, and community events.
Safety is also key for Liina and the e-Residency program, which will continue its work to exclude bad actors from the program, such as those who would use it for nefarious purposes like money laundering.
Setting boundaries and stretching time to find freedom in work and life
As she leads e-Residency, Liina is also a mother and a reading and sports enthusiast. Like anyone who is a parent, she strives to set the best possible work-life balance. Workouts and reading time are scheduled into her busy days. She gets up early in the morning to get a jump on the workday while her kids are still asleep.
“It’s all about time management,” she says, “and setting boundaries.”
In terms of reading, she is a self-described “challenge junkie.” Every January, Liina decides on the number of books she would like to read in the coming year and works to reach her goal. Mostly she reads nonfiction these days, but not only.
According to her Goodreads account, she is currently reading 11 books, among them Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Kakuzō Okakura’s The Book of Tea, and Caroline Criado Pérez’s Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. She has already read 24 books this year, with nine more to finish before the end of the year, or 10 if she is feeling very ambitious.
Reading helps to slow down time, Liina says, as does returning to Hiiumaa, where she grew up.
“Everything and everyone becomes more relaxed and laid back there,” she said of the island.
She is also a regular on the Hiiumaa ice roads. They are always faster than taking a ship to get home. “I used to dream that we could cross the sea like that all the time,” says Liina, “because having an ice road gave us the freedom to choose when to leave the island or when to go back.”