Taavi Kotka

Co-Founder of Koos.io

Taavi Kotka is the CEO and co-founder of Koos.io, a company building a new form of ownership to serve organisations who are committed to giving a true stake to their contributors.

Taavi is a serial entrepreneur and the first CIO for the Government of Estonia. Awarded the European CIO of the Year in 2014, Taavi pioneered e-Estonia, the world’s most advanced digital nation, and co-founded the world’s first e-Residency programme.

Named as one of The Brightest Business Minds in Northern Europe 2016, Taavi is an angel investor in Wise and a special advisor to European Commission vice-president Andrus Ansip on European Digital Single Market.

What is your typical day, and how do you make it productive?

It is believed that when you start your own company, you can only choose three commitments in your life out of the following: family, business, friends, self-development or exercise. You can’t have it all. My life depends on my family, balancing it with my business and keeping myself in shape. I usually wake up at 6:30 am to take my kids to school. We live just outside the capital, so it’s an 18-minute drive, allowing me to be at the office at 8 am. I usually spend the morning with different team members, except Fridays, and have various customer meetings scheduled across the week. However, I always finish by 6 pm to have family dinner around 6:30 pm and spend time with my kids in the evening, helping them with schoolwork or anything else they need.

How do you bring ideas to life?

You have to be very careful with your ideas and not settle on the very first one you have. Equally, if you have an idea, don’t start building on it instantly – let it mature and discuss it with your team several times. I don’t believe in half-baked execution – if you contribute your time and money, you need to expect specific results and keep the KPIs safe. Run a simple test to see if it works, and if it does, then you scale it. This is how I built my Unicorn Squad, a girls-only technology club – I started with 17 girls, and then after six months, it made sense, so I increased onboarding up to 150 girls. Now I take in about 800 girls per year because the idea works. Finally, you can’t have too many ideas, and it’s essential that those ideas can survive without you. If they depend on you too much, then they are viable.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I am developing an exciting trend at Koos.io – building companies with your community. It might be a broad word, so it’s building companies together with the supply or the demand, depending on which one is more important for business leaders. But, essentially, it’s a new business model where a significant amount of the company value is created with the people outside the company, which means organisations can give them back their fair share. So, that’s a trend that I’m most curious about.

What is one habit that helps you be productive?

I must always have a goal that I truly believe in that makes me highly productive. If I sense that there are too many paths to follow or that I’m not entirely convinced we will make it happen, I instantly cut it, which means that we either close it or re-think it to see whether we can remove the parts of it and try a different approach. I can quickly assess what I’m working on to see if it’s a waste of time.

I built my personal brand 15 years ago and didn’t say no to any interview requests. If someone wanted an interview, I was always willing to give them the time, no matter how big or small they were. Today, I take the same approach with any customer meeting. Halfway through, it might unfold that it’s not a 100% match with my company, but I still want to learn more. Of course, it doesn’t mean I’m dealing with all the leads, but I will join a meeting if the sales team thinks that might be interesting. I never think of meetings as a waste of time, even if there isn’t a good match with our product or services. It’s the learning curve.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would tell myself to learn more about finance. I was financially illiterate when I made my first million in my 30s. I first bought a big house with a pool and everything. I might not have bought a big car, but buying a big home also made no sense. So, I’m clever when earning money but not when saving money or growing it passively. I’m always interested in new ideas and keen to invest in them, as I did with my Unicorn Squad. We all have strong character traits and flaws; of course, you must pivot your minuses. But I also believe that if you are a decent person with a few flaws, don’t bother too much. Focus on the strengths instead. I’m educated now, but it took me 10-plus years. So, if there is one skill I could learn when I was much younger, it would be financial literacy.

Tell us something you believe almost nobody agrees with you.

Years ago, I had to do a lot of convincing in Estonia in favour of the E-residency programme. It was a huge fight. Even today, some people in Estonia can’t understand why we have this digital residency programme. But it brings hundreds of millions to the government. When I introduced the new tax fraud avoidance system in Estonia, I also encountered strong resistance, especially from the government side, which believed companies wouldn’t give the data to them. According to OECD, it’s the best tax system in the world. All my ideas always get much criticism, but eventually, they turned out to be success stories. For example, 12-15 years ago, some people said Estonia didn’t need start-ups. Fast-forward to today, Estonia is number one in the world for investments per capita, with a significant amount of the country’s GDP coming from there. We have a new industry created from nothing.

There are builders in this world, and the people who criticise them by definition are the demolishers. So, even if you are critical because you can’t understand the idea, you need to be hopeful.

What is the one thing you repeatedly do and recommend everyone else do?

Everybody should live their life like they want and not copy anyone else. For example, if you’d like to become a bodybuilder, you can’t just follow the same training and diet that they have because your bodies are different. Instead, build your own exercise programme and meal plan that works for you. So, my advice below is not to say that everyone should do what I do.

I’m reading many different articles rather than books. There are so many intelligent people with different types of new ideas, and it’s fascinating to see how they approach investors, what trends they are noticing, etc. I always put it in my context and experience to see how it supports my understanding of the world. I think it’s super important to do this learning every day, at least for half an hour.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?

I will always talk to my team. If we’ve been trying to move forward for the past three months and are still experiencing friction, I’ll sit down with my team to understand the problem and discuss tactics. For example, I have a sleeping problem, not because of stress, but because of our youngest child, who climbs into our bed every night and kicks us in his sleep. You can tolerate that for a week or two, but someone must deal with the problem after that. Sometimes my daughter will help, and sometimes I sleep in the guest room. So, the point I want to make here is that you need to talk about the problems with the people who can influence the situation and find a solution.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business or advance in your career?

There is a saying, “If you want to become rich, hang out with rich people”. And it works here, too – I’m motivated to solve complicated problems with technology in a new way, so I hang out with people with the same mindset and who want to change the world. I also believe that you can build your company with the community around you by giving them a fair share of the company they are contributing to. Historically, there have been employee options. Now organisations can introduce a broader scheme that isn’t just the employee option but community options too, and this formed the foundation of my company, Koos.io.

What is one failure in your career, how did you overcome it, and what lessons did you take away from it?

When I sold my first company, the sale wasn’t that beautiful. I had the second largest share in the company, and even though I didn’t have the title of co-founder, I felt like one since I joined the company early on and significantly contributed to its success and, eventually, sale. However, the reality was far from that, and it took me a couple of years to understand that if you do something or build something great, you shouldn’t be expecting gratitude from people. My failure was my high expectations from people who benefited from my contributions, believing they cared. So many people put themselves and their needs first, thinking it’s perfectly normal, which has really changed my attitude. Today, I don’t expect anything from anyone; I don’t expect people to remember me or thank me for my work; I am just doing things because I believe in what I do.

What is one business idea you’re willing to give away to our readers?

People might not know, but you have a right to understand what kind of data is collected about you and how it’s being used in Europe. By European law, you can ask any company to provide you with an Excel spreadsheet to showcase what data they use from you, and they have to give the information even on paper if they need to. This creates different types of data markets, and even though some data providers might be resistant initially, you can retrieve all of your data from them with solid and legal arguments. As a result, data is the new oil because it can be sold. However, how much are you paid for this data? Nothing! But it doesn’t have to be this way if people can build different types of data markets. I think it’s crucial, especially now, in the time of AI when your data becomes even more relevant to train the machine. Therefore, you should have a say in how your data is used and be paid for this.

What is one piece of software that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

This will probably not sound exciting to many readers, but I work a lot with my emails, especially Outlook – I always preferred it over Google Gmail. That’s the tool I use the most; I don’t have a daily planner – instead, I have my calendar and emails.

I am also a huge fan of Excel spreadsheets (or Google Sheets), and I use Slack for bigger teams, but only because my team demands we use Slack. I actually prefer Microsoft Teams because, to me, it’s way more organised.

What is the best $100 you recently spent?

Probably many readers would be expecting an answer like “a book or a software subscription”, but the best $100 (or Euros in my case, being in Europe) I spent recently was a ski pass for my family and me to get up the mountains during our skiing holiday in France. As you remember, spending quality time with my family means a lot to me, therefore, being able to go away with them and do outdoor activities was priceless.

Do you have a favorite book or podcast from which you’ve received much value?

To be honest, I mostly read articles. However, I also read local Estonian literature from a cultural perspective. As for podcasts, I wouldn’t say I like listening to just one podcast or following one presenter – instead, I pick my podcasts based on the topic I am interested in at that particular moment. I’d rather not dictate what people should or shouldn’t be listening to or reading, as it should depend on their specific interests and needs. For example, I am always keen to understand my thinking, so I search for topics that can help me do that. But generally, in Estonia, we have many fascinating podcasts, and, of course, I have my podcast too that I’ve been doing for the past ten years about Estonian start-ups.

What’s a movie or series you recently enjoyed and why?

I’ve been watching Fauda, the tv series about the Israeli Defense Forces, because I know some people behind the script. I also like movies and tv series about Vikings as it’s related to our history. For example, before they came to conquer England, they went to Constantinople through Russia, and ‘Rus’ derives from the Scandinavian Vikings. So, this really fascinates me.

Key learnings:

  • Be careful with your ideas, and don’t settle on the very first one you have. Equally, if you have an idea, don’t start building on it instantly – let it mature and discuss it with your team several times.
  • Live your life the way you want to. Analyse and decide what works for you rather than copying someone’s else plan and journey.
  • Don’t expect anything from anyone. I don’t expect people to remember me or thank me for my work; I am just doing things because I believe in what I do.
  • Everyone should have a say in how their data is used and be paid for their time and experiences.