'We have more in common than we realize': Hunting unicorns at sTARTUp Day

The pitching stage at sTARTUp Day.
The pitching stage at sTARTUp Day. Source: Kiur Kaasik / sTARTUp Day

For the last seven years, the sTARTUp Day business festival has been bringing all kinds of people together to celebrate entrepreneurship, creativity and inspiration in Estonia's smart city of Tartu. But what does it really mean to have a "startup mindset"? To find out, ERR News stepped into the world of unicorns, incubators and angel investors and took a look around.

The wristband I was given said "Unicorn Hunter," and after arriving at the University of Tartu Sports Hall for the seventh annual sTARTUp Day, it didn't take long for me to spot one.

Or at least what I thought was one. "Yeah, this ride is like a unicorn but it's also a zebra," says Kristiina Libe. "So, it's a zebracorn actually." Kristiina works for Tehnopol Startup Incubator. The company's growth program is designed to support budding startups, so today, they're clearly in the right place.

"Can I ask you a few questions for ERR News?" I say, keen to find out more. "Only if you have a go on it first," she answers, gesturing toward the black and white striped mechanical rodeo bull, with a solitary horn on its head – the zebracorn, which had brought me over here to begin with.

The 35 seconds, or perhaps less, that I spent awkwardly flailing around on the rotating robotic beast before thumping gracelessly to the floor, seemed to last forever. As I looked up from the ground at the small crowd of people, some of whom had played a pivotal role in encouraging me to mount the zebracorn in the first place, all I could muster was an extremely British "I'm fine," before hobbling uncomfortably back to my feet.

"Now how about that interview?"

A man rides the zebracorn rodeo at sTARTUp Day. Source: Kiur Kaasik - sTARTUp Day

"Usually, when we're talking about unicorns, we're talking about the financial value of companies," says Kristiina. "But a zebracorn is like a symbol for companies that need to make some kind of impact. It's not just their (financial) value, but the impact they're making in our environment."

"The zebracorn rodeo, that we have here today, well, you had a ride on it. How was it?"

"I managed to stay on for about one minute," I exaggerate.

"Well, you fell down," Kristiina points out.

"But then you got back up. So, it's basically the same as with a startup. You can always come across difficult moments and you may fail, I don't know, ten times, 20 times, 30 times. But you always have to get back up and try again."

"So, you shouldn't have actually come away from the rodeo. You should have gotten back on the zebracorn."

"You mean I have to go on it again?" I ask. "Yes, exactly."

Maybe Kristiina is right. I certainly couldn't be much worse second time around.

"Today, this is just for having a fun experience," she says, "Though we are actually looking for new ideas for our incubation program that have some kind of possibility to make an impact."

By now I'm starting to become aware of the impact the zebracorn has had on my right leg, so I thank Kristiina for the talk and head off to see what else the event has to offer.


sTARTUp Day officially began at the "StarLight Stage" with a troupe of dancers dressed as airline stewardesses, imploring the audience to "prepare for lift off."

Then a band dressed in fluorescent masks took to the stage, playing glow-in-the dark percussion instruments, including an electric didgeridoo. The dancers, who by now were also made up in luminous face paint, glided through the crowd, pulling a variety of shapes and poses, before eventually forming a line down the central aisle of the arena.

A man appeared. He was wearing a suit, but it didn't glow in the dark. He turned out to be Mart Lättekivi, sTARTUp Day's main organizer. Before I knew it, Lättekivi was swept towards the stage riding the crest of the wave the dancers had now formed. Once there, he proceeded to cut a ceremonial with a pair of oversized scissors.

"sTARTUp Day is where magic happens," he later told the crowd. "But first, you need to create it."

Over 150 expert speakers, 264 startups, 230 investors, and 3,200 attendees from 45 different countries had made the trip to Tartu for this three-day community organized business festival.

sTARTUP Day's opening ceremony. Source: Pilleriin Kivisikk / sTARTUp Day

In the single day I spent there, I encountered a life-sized James Bond created on a 3-D printer and drove a remote-controlled lunar rover, which University of Tartu researchers are planning to send to the moon. I also enjoyed some free ice cream, which I was told it was a perfect metaphor for the approach of the company handing them out takes to doing business.

"It's a chance to share ideas, even crazy ideas," said Tartu Mayor Urmas Klaas (Reform) as he welcomed visitors to Estonia's city of good thoughts. And what I'd seen so far had certainly given me no cause to disagree with him. Still, I had a feeling there was something more to sTARTUp Day than just zebracorn rodeos, free ice cream and a glow-in-the-dark didgeridoo.

So, I decided to speak to some of the people involved and try to find out.


"Martin Villig would be an excellent leader on the battlefield," says Combat Ready co-founder Remo Ojaste as I chat to him and fellow instructor Aleksandr Afansajev in the press room.

Villig is the co-founder of on-demand transportation platform Bolt, currently valued at an estimated €7.4 billion. On the stage below us he'd just finished telling the crowd about his personal journey from Tallinn teenager to "angel investor," who now uses his own personal revenue to support the next generation of aspiring entrepreneurs.

Remo and Aleksander have taken a slightly different path, however. Both have years of experience serving in the Estonian Defense Forces' (EDF) Special Operations Forces, including multiple deployments to Afghanistan on NATO joint missions. Now they provide private consultancy and training services for businesses. Their approach is based on the four laws of combat and the underlying principle of taking extreme ownership.

"Of course, (Villig's) style is different, but he's saying the same kinds of things we are," says Remo.

Bolt co-founder Martin Villig at sTARTUp Day. Source: Pillerin Kivisikk / sTARTUp Day

"There are so many lessons that we can learn from the frontline troops," he continues. "Not only from the army but also from the medics, the hospitals, the frontline workers, the firefighters and the police."

Combat Ready's outlook certainly aligns with the ethos of sTARTUp Day. After all, as the event's website states: "You don't need to be a startup to have a startup mindset! It's about focusing on growth, working smart, not hard, having a bias towards action, and perhaps most importantly, being adaptable in situations of uncertainty."

And it's hard to imagine a situation in which this might be more true, than on the battlefield.

"In a war, all the mistakes you make are written in blood," as they put it.

I think back to my experience on the zebracorn and can't imagine Remo or Aleksander giving up after just one attempt.

Failure is good, they tell me. "We've made mistakes, a lot of them."

"So, you've lost money. Good. Now you can move on. Okay, we can learn from what we did wrong and move to the next thing. It doesn't matter what it is," Remo adds. The main thing is, "I'm still alive."

"Whatever the circumstances might be, it's no problem. One day I can still do what I want. Nobody has the ability to manipulate time."

Even after our short talk, I feel like I'm ready to take on the world. Still, I ask them, how can I stay this motivated tomorrow, next week or a month from now? Especially when the stakes in my life are nowhere near as high as the ones they've faced in the heat of battle,

"The number one thing is that you have to put yourself in the environment that doesn't allow you to be lazy. Surround yourself with people who want to do things. If you have negative people (around you), they will influence negatively. If the people around you are leaders, you will become a leader too."


Combat Ready are certainly clear about their mission. But not everyone is quite so sure they belong at sTARTUp Day. At least not at first.

Maiken Austin, from the Pallas University of Applied Sciences, admitted, that she'd had doubts about whether a school, which trains Estonia's next generation of creative artists and designers, would fit in here at all.

"Since this is our first year here, it's more like a reconnaissance mission. To see whether or not we even have a place here. Do we have anything to offer, do we have anything to gain?"

Fortunately, Maiken discovered early on that "we have more in common than we realize." And again, it all comes down to attitude.

"It's that same mentality: I'll find a way or if not, I'll make one. The same sort of thing where, I have this idea in my brain that I need to get out, I need to make it tangible. That's very similar to artists."

"You can't be so single-minded to think that you can just be an artist... I mean you can, but it's going to make your life difficult. So, you have to open your eyes to see other aspects of life, to see the innovation, to see the drive that gets you places," she says.

"I think it's super beneficial for artists and more specifically for art students. We'll definitely be back next year."

A unicorn at sTARTUp Day. Source: Kiur Kaasik / sTARTUp Day

I'd heard similar things when chatting to Liina Raus and Šelda Puķīte, director and curator respectively of Tartu's Kogo Gallery. They're running sTARTUp Day's "Inspiration and Rest Area" and I'd headed there to give myself a quick break from all those ideas being shared in the main arena.

"I think for most artists, the dream is to survive on just creating their art," Šelda tells me. "But unfortunately, they usually have to take up another job to survive. Because art is very challenging to sell, especially if you're not doing more classical mediums like painting."

They paint quite a different picture to the one Martin Villig had presented on the StarLight Stage. "Why do you do what you do?" he'd asked, adding that "if you do it better than your competition, you can win." So, I ask, where does an art gallery fit into this hyper-competitive startup universe? 

"Sometimes our worlds don't meet because it's like we're all sitting in our own cubicles or bubbles," Šelda says.

"For us, this IT world can be a bit scary, and I think it might be the same for them. Art seems scary because it's some kind of representation of the world that is weird to them and maybe not always completely understandable."

"But, we just have to kind of educate each other that it's not that horrible and that it's actually pretty fun."

"Nowadays companies talk a lot about their mission and values, and artworks carry values," Liina chips in. "If we offer some artworks or ideas to a company, then we also discuss how it connects with their values and what they're saying."

And more and more, those values seem to intertwine. "Sustainability, green economy, inclusion and diversity. There are a lot of topics that are very directly overlapping. It's just a lack of network and lack of bridges between us, which is why we think we are totally different worlds," Šelda says.

"But we are actually speaking about the same things. Everyone is just using their own specific platforms and expressions."

Interviewing Liina Raus and Šelda Puķīte from the Kogo Gallery at sTARTUp Day's Rest and Inspiration Area. Source: Edmond Mäll / sTARTUp Day

I take another look at the sTARTUp Day website and think about all the different people I've met during the day. "The startup mindset means being open to new ideas, dedication, desire, commitment, and continuous learning," it says. "It means to create something from nothing, improving yourself continuously, to think like a visionary, set goals, focus and achieve."

It really does seem, that they have more in common than they realize.

"Anyway, this is the inspiration area," I say to Liina and Šelda. "So, tell me, what can I do to be more inspired in my work and life?"

"You mean you're not already?" they laugh.

"You know, we all have to think about how we can do what we're doing more sustainably and greener, and just give out a good message," says Šelda.

"Maybe this is what we can do together."


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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