Alise Lezdina is one of the pioneers of the Latvian startup scene. She was CEO of the first ever co-working space in Riga and invested a lot of time and energy to build the startup community in Latvia. Now Alise lives in neighboring country Estonia and develops the first academic study program for startups in this region. By the way: It is still possible to apply.
How did it all start with you and startups?
My story of becoming active in the startup scene starts after university. I was actively involved in a student organization called BEST-Riga during studies. I got to organize local and international projects there with an aim to help students gain extra knowledge. We organized 2 week courses and other events. We as students learned how we can sometimes with very limited resources organize amazing value-added events. I was Vice President for fundraising during my board year. I learned how to talk to companies and offer the value they are looking for in exchange for another kind of support for building events.
The project based approach, volunteering vibe and hustling skills sticked with me. When I was looking for opportunities to get more involved in entrepreneurship, I came across TechHub Riga, the first co-working space in town – who were interested in finding a coordinator for the upcoming startup conference TechChill. After couple of weeks I was already fully immersed and after TechChill I took over the management of the startup community.
Soon you became one of the first CEO’s of TechHub. How was it at that time to start a project this big and develop it?
My official title changed to CEO, because responsibilities were growing. We started to look for a bigger space for both – our existing and new startups. Some of the startups meanwhile outgrew the space and found their own locations. We found a new location in the heart of old town, but the whole building needed a renovation. We embarked on a long transition period, while at the same time we organized all the traditional events and created new ones that could add the value to new startups and help them better shape their ideas in the early stage. Our team was growing as well and I had amazing people in my team who were taking care of certain areas and projects. It was the third year for me at that time when I had already been involved 24/7. After moving TechHub through the relocation and building renovation issues plus dealing with ongoing daily issues I needed to switch to a bit different pace. I took a short break.
And then you decided to join startups on your own. How did it all go?
Yes. Some of them were my own and some – joined initiatives. For example, Herbo was a startup aimed to recycle empty wine bottles and create a sustainable planter with sensor and ability to notify when the water needs to be refilled. We found out there were other solutions created to address similar needs. Our solution would be more like a craft and couldn’t be so easy to scale.
Another startup that I joined was a tool to address the issue of lost and misplaced receipts and delivering them back instantly to the bookkeeper with a simple app – Wizard.Finance. You would take a picture of the receipt, click on few buttons to mark the categories, and send away. The bookkeeper would receive a nicely organized list of receipts, and the time is saved on both sides. I joined to help develop the strategy as the co-founder, and attract clients. After a while I realized that I had much broader interests, and decided that in a long term the field would be too narrow for me.
Estonian Entrepreneurship University of Applied Sciences – how did you find each other?
One of my friends I helped setting up a local event in Riga and we travelled together to a startup event offered me to develop the startup entrepreneurship study curriculum for international students in Tallinn, Estonia. Last year the Estonian Entrepreneurship University of Applied Sciences made a pilot project and it looked promising. First year students were Estonians and so was the language. We decided to expand behind borders for this program and make it accessible for international students. It all matched with my interests of community building and helping startups grow and develop. I moved to Tallinn and since April 2016 I’m working on program development and recruitment in great collaboration with local startup scene experts.
What is the main focus of your program and why should students choose to study entrepreneurhsip?
Our main focus is to bring students through each stage of building and launching a startup. We want to provide them with practical knowledge and therefore help them learn both – from success and failure. We encourage our students to challenge their comfort zone and learn by doing.
The difference from traditional studies is that we involve many great startup entrepreneurs and experts who are willing to share their practical experience and help students to develop their own startups. We have less of the academic approach and more of the learning by doing. It has become a unique program for people interested in building startup.
We accept students who have at least some understanding on differences between traditional business and startup. They can provide their own ideas on the field they want to address problems, but we help them with ideation as well in the beginning. We have interest in two main groups of people. The first one is high-school graduates who have been already involved in some projects outside their study process. The second group of our interest – people who have been working, but see their future in building their own startup company. Our class capacity this year is 30 students. The application deadline is still open during August, but we accept students on a rolling basis. So the program could get filled even sooner.
Main benefits that last year students appreciate – the practical startup focused knowledge, the network of people they have met (entrepreneurs and mentors) and the community. Last year we had lecturers from well-known Estonian startups – TransferWise, Pipedrive, Taxify, Garage48 etc.
You have an opportunity to compare two promising startup countries that both struggle to find their way – Latvia and Estonia. How would you describe them?
Estonian startup scene has had much earlier beginnings, so they are naturally a step ahead in terms of experience with Skype being developed a decade before the startup scene in Latvia. A whole generation of experts has since then built their own startup companies and multiplied the knowledge and experience. Estonia also has very well developed support systems – the taxes for startups are friendlier (it’s possible to reinvest the profits without paying income tax). Latvian startup scene is catching up and just developing support systems. I believe there is still some work to do in terms of creating a common vision for where Latvia wants to be in 5 or 10 years. Otherwise people tend to be busy with their daily issues and they can’t focus on common goals – many of them are pulling to their own direction. I’m sure that Latvia could be more ambitious to provide value on a global scale as a country, and the local startup and entrepreneurship scene would greatly benefit. The institutions should be more aligned on this vision, and both – government and private institutions – should work together and more often communicate to build solutions together.
Estonia has managed to build logical support systems and communicate with not just startups, but all society that they are an innovative country, a place where the technologies and other startup ideas can be developed. And people are positively charged, agile and want to achieve more and create more opportunities also for others.
To sum it all up – both Latvia and Estonia have great opportunities for startups to develop. And you will hear more success stories from this region.