Keir Veskiväli, CEO of Finbite and an experienced startuper, spoke with Geenius Media about his experiences with startups and his first year as the CEO of Finbite. He is critical of the Estonian start-up sector and reminds that the motto of the sector tends to be “Fake it till you make it!”. However, to be successful at running a start-up you need to remember that it isn’t a sprint, but a marathon.
Veskiväli has been running start-ups since high school, he wrote a thesis on this topic and successfully exited a start-up called Smartly in Singapore. He has been managing Finbite for a year.
You have been a startuper already since school. What’s your opinion on the Estonian startup scene? Once there was talk about Estonian Nokia, but now we have many world-renowned companies.
The talk about Estonian Nokia has become quieter over time. We are proud of our unicorns, we have a lot of them and there’s definitely more to come, but the pursuit of this status must not be the main motivation. Eight or nine out of ten startups fail. One succeeds, and gets praise in the media. This gives off the impression that every company in this field can be as successful.
I am relatively skeptical about things like that – after all, we know very well one basic truth of startups: “Fake it till you make it!“. Every time I see a startup announcing how awesome they are doing on social media, a warning light goes off in my head. In my opinion, traditional companies that employ hundreds, if not thousands of people, and whose turnover and profits are higher than 98% of start-ups, deserve just as much attention and coverage.
You have run things quite successfully at Finbite. During its first independent year, turnover increased by a quarter. How did it work out so well?
Before Finbite was established, it was a info-logistics department in Eesti Post group. Today, we are a successful public sector spin-off.
When we look at Finbite, we are out-performing 80-90 percent of startups. But we are not a traditional startup company either. We have been operating for over 11 years, previously under Omniva.
I have been with the company for a bit over a year. If you look at our activities since 2021, the success has come thanks to our hard work and the courage to ask ourselves if our services are on the best possible level, or if we can do even better.
As an independent company, we have more pressure than before to be a leading example to the Estonian public sector and show that the direction that we have chosen is right. But I’m happy to say that Finbite has again found its focus, which tends to be easily lost in the public sector and as a side business of a larger company.
Can we say that there has been unmet demand in the e-invoicing field? How does Finbite fit into the market?
When talking about the field in general, three different directions stand out. First, new companies enter the market and take apart the previous integrated service into smaller pieces.
In addition to competitors operating directly with e-invoices, accounting software providers stand out. They are expanding their product portfolios in a similar direction to ours in order to grow.
Thirdly, like all other sectors, we are facing consolidation and the first so-called super-apps are starting to appear. This allows all operations to be done on one simple platform. It is very possible that Finbite is moving in the same direction.
Currently Finbite’s main focus is our home market in the Baltics. It is a good environment to test and develop new ideas.
Last fall, we took our first steps on a global level. We applied to the Singapore Financial Technology Accelerator and made it to the semi-finals. Since we have been operating for so long, we did not make it to the finals, but we got confirmation that our vision and smart invoicing solutions have great future potential.
I have also reached out to the governments of Singapore and Malaysia to introduce them to Finbite and Estonia’s experience with e-invoices.
In Singapore, Estonia was known as a very strong IT country, but the state has made some efforts to undermine this reputation. People, who know me, know that I am critical of the Estonian state. I know how much better we can do things. Let’s bring the focus back to the matter like results and go conquer the world. Anyway, Finbite’s team is working on it.
You yourself have been active in the startup sector for a long time. If we take a closer look at your own experience, what drives you and what opportunities has Finbite provided?
I wanted to join the public sector in order to give back to the Estonian state and help improve its image in the world. Finbite has given me the opportunity to reconfirm the old knowledge that it’s easy to get comfortable with developing a business, but it’s much harder for a newcomer to get the company back in shape later on.
On a personal level, my biggest motivator is the fear of becoming comfortable and the desire to constantly improve. I still worry from time to time that one day I’ll feel like I have nothing more to give and I’ll want to sit down and take it slow. This has not happened so far. Now is not the time to get comfortable and rest on our laurels.
I’m trying to implement the same kind of thinking at Finbite. We can’t stand still, we must develop new services and solutions and be a pioneer and a leading example for the public sector.
What have been the biggest lessons during your career?
There has been a fair share of lessons, but the most important one is not to break a working engine when entering an organization until you understand 101% how it works. I’ve seen new leaders come into companies and start making changes without knowing the operations and culture.
When joining Finbite, it wasn’t my goal on the first day to say what’s wrong and how to start changing it quickly. First, I got to know the product, the people, what they do, how processes and activities are collectively understood. And you have to communicate with customers to understand their expectations and take a look at the best practices of your competitors.
When you get the full picture, then you can start moving and implementing new processes. This is a marathon, not a sprint.