Priit Alamäe: “Our projects are shown as an example for other institutions in different countries”

Priit Alamäe has been known in Estonia as an entrepreneurial activist for more than 20 years mainly for being the co-founder and CEO of Nortal that was founded in a small university town Tartu and was to become the largest software development business in Estonia. Today the company has become the biggest international company in its field in the Baltics with more than 800 employees. Under Alamäe’s leadership, Nortal has made a significant contribution to the construction of the Estonian e-government.

How did you become an entrepreneur? What event gave the initial push?

I’ve been entrepreneurial for as long as I remember. The first, although unsuccessful, experiments were already made in early middle school. For example, I bought a ton of padlocks from an iron store in Hiiumaa on a class trip, just because I thought there’s no way I can get as good products at such great prices anywhere in the mainland. The first lesson – you have to know the market.

There hasn’t been any specific event that started the entrepreneurship road. My role-model has certainly been my dad who started one of the first Estonian cooperatives in his time and has been engaged in entrepreneurship all his life.

Looking back, what are some of the biggest lessons learned during your career? What is something you would do differently?

There have been a lot of painful lessons, but I’m thankful for even the worst ones since they tend to teach the most. Nortal is the biggest and most international company in its field in Estonia and the Baltics. We have experienced all the mistakes on our own during the past 20 years and unfortunately, haven’t had a chance to learn from anyone else’s mistakes.

I’m also quite impatient and expect results optimistically fast, which is why there is a saying in Nortal that “everything planned will happen, usually just half a year later than Priit predicted.”

You’re someone who can and will do a lot. What’s your tip to stay productive?

I get my energy from all the smart people around me. Naturally, sometimes you’re tired, but it’s liberating to admit to yourself and others that you don’t have the right answers. Of course, your family gives you energy and for me, one of the best ways to charge batteries is cooking. If you mince onions, it’s quite hard to think about work at the same time.

There is a saying in Nortal that “everything planned will happen, usually just half a year later than Priit predicted.”

What do you think have been the main factors in Nortal’s success?

Smart people work hard and do it with passion and care. It may sound trivial, but that’s how it is. Surely we differentiate with our courage to take risks and skills to include outside financing. Nortal isn’t usually considered as a startup, but there’s a beginning to every story and there has also been a seed-round, A-round, B-round, etc in our company. For us, this process just didn’t end with selling the company, but buying out the investors. We have done more than 10 different financial transactions throughout the years – investments, buy-outs, taking up other companies, integrations and so on. It’s a lot, considering it’s Estonia and this kind of experience is quite unique.

You have been in the head of Nortal for almost two decades now. What is the reason you’ve been with Nortal for so long? Haven’t there been any temptations to start another startup or a project?

Our team doesn’t take entrepreneurship as a project with a goal to get an exit. We like to build and we are motivated by challenges and growth. Every year we test ourselves doing something nobody has ever done before. Doing that, we never get bored or even comfortable – we work by constantly testing our limits and being out of our comfort zone. As far as I know, we’re the biggest Estonian capital based employer in the USA, probably in the TOP 3 in Germany and Finland. I think we’re also the only ones who have been able to firmly set roots in Persian Gulf Arab countries. We have a really cool team and it’s a challenge for everyone to discover what else we can accomplish together.

Our team doesn’t take entrepreneurship as a project with a goal to get an exit. We like to build and we are motivated by challenges and growth. Every year we test ourselves doing something nobody has ever done before.

What is Nortal’s mission? How can Nortal and other similar technology companies make the world better?

Our company is ambitious and our forward-looking mission is “we are building a seamless society”. Our goal is to build a community where everything runs smoothly and people can focus on what’s truly important for them. This means clever services in public, private and health care sectors that will simplify our everyday life. We give people enough time to focus on value-building at work and self-development, family, and friends in their free time.

Nortal is one of the oldest Estonian companies in its field. How has the field of Estonian tech companies changed during that time in your opinion? Has growing your company and staying in the competition become easier or more difficult?

There has never been an empty space in the Estonian market (as well as the world market). The market was full when we started and it’s the same right now. But there’s always room for those who can and want to do something different and better. The competition has become much more international during the last 20 years, but I think it’s rather positive because it helps and also forces companies to think outside the box. Estonian market is so tiny that it’s hard to build internationally known companies when you focus only on this market, compared to Germany for example. So that also makes our more enthusiastic entrepreneurs think internationally right away.

Nortal has lately expanded significantly in Germany and the USA. How did you get there? What do you do there?

Both in Germany and the USA we started from the blank page, did the so-called greenfield. It took around a year and a half in the USA to get the business growing and then we were ready to accelerate. We found a company that fits well with Nortal’s culture and united them with our collective. 90% of our revenue in the USA comes from developing complicated technological solutions for Fortune 500 companies. In Germany, we want to repeat the States’ development curve, but the focus is more on the e-country and health care topics.

In Estonia, e-country is a natural part of everyday life. How is this system accepted in other countries you’re moving to? What are the obstacles?

The biggest difference is the existence and distribution of base infrastructure. What makes Estonia unique is the widely used digital identity and well-implemented data sharing in the public sector. People trust e-country and are always demanding better services. This kind of situation is quite unique in the world and not having this foundation is the biggest obstacle. Fortunately, we have always held the Estonian flag high and our projects are shown as an example for other institutions in different countries.

What are Nortal’s plans for the future?

To keep on going. To reach Mount Everest you have to start climbing. When you reach the top of the first mountain you realize that there’s another higher mountain behind it. We’re entertained and we feel that we’re doing something that hits a little dent in the universe on an everyday basis and that’s what keeps us fresh.

Priit Alamäe will be one of the speakers at sTARTUp Day 2020. See the full list of speakers HERE

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