Estonian e-residency offers British entrepreneurs the opportunity to securely run an EU business online, even after Brexit. Meet some of the Brits who are already using it to build businesses of the future, from advanced tech entrepreneurs to location-independent digital nomads.
The future has arrived
It’s early morning on a busy London street and a small robot is weaving its way through the crowds. Occasionally, a passerby pulls out their phone to snap a photo, but the majority of Londoners seem entirely unphased by the autonomous drone making its delivery.
The robot was built in Estonia by Starship Technologies and is now being tested on the streets of London as part of a plan to disrupt the courier delivery industry worldwide.
That might sound ambitious, but the company’s founders have already disrupted one industry with Estonian technology. They built Skype, after all.
Robots are not the only futuristic idea from Estonia. Some British employees are now embracing e-residency, which provides them with full access to Estonia’s advanced digital infrastructure without having to leave the UK.
Estonia has recently been making global headlines as the world’s most advanced digital society. Estonian residents are given secure digital identities to do everything from signing documents and banking to setting up and running companies, no matter where in the world they are.
There are only 1.3 million people in Estonia to use this advanced infrastructure so they decided to open it up to the world through e-residency. Now a secure transnational identity is available to everyone, providing significant benefits in return for a small one-off cost.
Henry Harris-Burland, the head of marketing at Starship, is one of the latest to sign up. “I’ve visited Estonia multiple times after starting my role at Starship Technologies and there is a real sense of technological progress, which I haven’t seen elsewhere,” he says.
For entrepreneurs across the UK however, the benefits of Estonian e-residency are even greater.
British e-residents can establish an Estonian company online within a day, administer it from anywhere in the world, securely conduct e-banking and remote money transfers, have access to international payment service providers, digitally sign and transmit documents and contracts, and manage accounting records and declare Estonian taxes online.
As the UK is set to leave the European Union, e-residency also provides British entrepreneurs with a way to guarantee they can remain inside the world’s largest single market without having to physically relocate any of their operations.
The UK’s digital revolutionaries
While the impact of Brexit remains uncertain, British business continues to become more global. Companies both large and small are increasingly using the internet to access new markets, hire talent and buy products abroad.
Three quarters of the UK SMEs doing some form of business beyond the UK said that expanding internationally had increased their profitability, according to a study by TransferWise – which is yet another disruptive technology company founded in Estonia and now based in the UK as well.
Few people understand this digital revolution better than the British video games boss, Ella Romanos – who is now one of Estonia’s newest e-residents.
She has been part of the growth of the UK’s booming video games industry, which now generates more than £4 billion and supports 35,000 jobs, while delivering the world’s biggest titles from Grand Theft Auto to Little Big Planet.
Romanos is a serial entrepreneur, industry consultant and currently the Director of Strike Gameslabs and Rocket Lolly Games, as well as a board member for UKIE and the Creative Skillset Computer Games Council.
She also mentors entrepreneurs within Tallinn’s thriving startup community, so she first heard about e-residency while in Estonia shortly after the scheme was launched. She didn’t consider signing up herself, however, until the UK voted to leave the European Union.
“The UK has a lot of benefits to small businesses and the UK games industry is a wonderful place to work,” Romanos says. “However, as a business owner, I need to be cautious and ensure I can mitigate any problems that may occur due to Brexit.”
She currently lives in Plymouth, but is moving to France so will soon be splitting her time between Brittany and London. E-residency will allow her to more easily run her existing or future businesses online and keep them inside the EU, no matter which side of the channel she is on.
“[Signing up to e-Residency] is an easy process and with the current situation I believe it is worth considering, even if you don’t yet know if you will need to use it.”
A world of possibilities
The benefits of e-residency will extend even further in future, according to the former Microsoft boss, Peter Ferry, who is now pioneering blockchain technology from Scotland.
Ferry built Microsoft’s business in the UK as a co-founder of its Scottish operation. He is now the commercial director of a new global software business Wallet.Services, which provides business and software developers with the tools to build applications based on blockchain technology.
BlockChain is the technology that underpins the cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, because it can maintain a secure digital ledger shared across a network of computers without the need for a central authority.
The implications of this extend far beyond Bitcoin, however, so blockchain technology is now predicted to transform a vast range of sectors, including banking, payments, governance, the stock market, cyber security, real estate and many more.
The renowned Silicon Valley venture capitalist (and a huge fan of Estonian companies) Marc Andreessen says he believes the disruptive impact of blockchain will be comparable to personal computers in 1975 or the internet in 1993.
Like all Wallet.Services employees, Ferry is now an e-resident of Estonia – and for good reason. The e-residency programme doesn’t just help run their business. It also helps many of their customers.
Blockchain applications are supported by secure electronic identities such as e-residency. As a result, Ferry says that the global, entrepreneurial e-residency community is an attractive market for Wallet.Services software.
“Scotland is a small country on the other side of Europe with a strong technology sector,” explains Ferry, “but Estonia’s e-residency programme represents global leadership in digital public services and a great opportunity for our company to grow with the programme.”
The British surge towards e-residency
The world’s very first e-resident is British, too.
Over recent years, influential news magazine the Economist has reported with keen interest on the remarkable rise of Estonia as an advanced digital nation, dubbed “e-Estonia”. In response, the Republic of Estonia decided to bestow its very first e-residency card to senior editor Edward Lucas in December 2014.
Lucas remains a vocal supporter of e-residency, writing in a more recent article about how Estonia’s approach is gaining plaudits around the world.
“The system of e-government is low-cost (Estonia does not go for the huge big-ticket IT projects beloved of many rich-country governments,” Lucas wrote. “It works (with 15 years prove achievement). It is scalable (you can run small things or big things). It is open (even I, as a foreigner, can use it). It is innovative (new things are happening all the time). It is user-friendly. It is transparent. It is exciting.”
In the two years since Lucas collected his card, the latest e-Residency stats reveal that almost 800 other Brits have become e-residents. They currently make up 5% of Estonia’s e-resident population, although the number of applications from the UK has rapidly increased since Brexit.
In 2016, average monthly applications more than doubled immediately after Brexit and are now more than four times higher than the start of the year. In response, howtostayin.eu has been set up to help explain the benefits of e-residency to Brits.
“We have seen a jump in numbers of applications for e-residency from the UK since June,” Mare Tropp, the counselor of economic affairs at the Estonian embassy in London, says. “Given the uncertainty created by the referendum, e-residency has been considered as an option to continue doing business in the EU.”
The British-Estonian Chamber of Commerce recently led a trade mission to the UK and also encountered considerable interest in e-residency among British business leaders and entrepreneurs.
“We know many British businesses are concerned that Brexit might necessitate the need to relocate some operations to the continent, along with significant numbers of employees,” James Oates, the president of the Chamber, says. “It’s important they understand that Estonia has a solution in the form of e-residency that can avoid this, no matter what outcome in the Brexit negotiations. It can also help make British business more competitive globally.”
One of the ambitious aims of e-residency is to pioneer the concept of a country without borders and use it to help unleash the world’s entrepreneurial potential.
This is an idea that has inspired many of the newest e-residents, including Alex Bellars, who teaches French and German at Ballard School in Hampshire.
His ambition is to open his own online business for teaching modern foreign languages to students around the world and believes e-residency can help him do it.
As a self-confessed social media addict, Bellars communicates with other foreign language teachers through the hashtag #mfltwitterati. After awaking with dismay on 24 June when he discovered that the UK had voted to leave the European Union, Bellars soon noticed e-residency being discussed in his timelines as a way to stay inside the EU.
“At first, I thought applying for e-residency was a way to stamp my feet after Brexit and affirm my global identity,” Bellars says. “When I read more about the scheme though, I quickly realised that e-residency would have real benefits, especially for running my business in future. The way the industry is going means everything is online and customers could be anywhere in the world. Estonian e-residency seems to be the smartest way to set it up.”
He is heading to London during his Christmas holidays to collect his e-residency card.
“I’m really excited to become an e-resident,” he says. “I’ve got the date circled in my calendar and haven’t even thought about my Christmas shopping yet. I should probably do that in London at the same time!”
In London meanwhile, entrepreneur Dirk Singer has already collected his card and begun using it.
He first registered his digital marketing agency, Rabbit, six years ago in the UK, but has now registered his company again in Estonia to take advantage of the greater ease at which he can run his business online.
He says the process of establishing an Estonian company was easy and his new Estonian business comes with minimal bureaucracy and low-cost administration, provided by business service providers to the e-residency programme.
Remaining within the EU single market is also a key benefit for Singer who has designed and run social media advertising campaigns for customers across the continent. He believes that serving businesses in the UK without e-residency will be at a significant disadvantage following Brexit.
Rise of the digital nomads
Brits abroad are also signing up to e-residency, particularly the increasing number who identify as “digital nomads”. This new style of entrepreneurship has been the subject of increased media attention as more people use the internet to work and travel at the same time.
More than 40% of Estonia’s e-residents have signed up in order to run a location-independent business. This includes Sarah Rothrie, who is originally from Hertfordshire, but left the UK six years ago and now runs a travel food blog called TripGourmets with her partner.
Speaking from Switzerland, Rothrie says she first discovered e-residency after reading an article in the Guardian about how e-residency provides a “Brexit-bolthole” for Brits.
“When you are not sure if a business is going to fly then being able to set up one up easily and at low cost means we can experiment without taking a huge risk,” she explains. “E-residency seemed like a great opportunity and I really like the idea of a country expanding its digital borders. It’s a very modern concept and fits perfectly with us as entrepreneurs.”
From next year, e-residents will be able to open an Estonian bank account from abroad so that the entire process of setting up and running an online business based in Estonia can be completed without ever having to visit the country.
Rothrie is still on her way, however, to speak to service providers face-to-face.
“I now feel a real connection to Estonia,” she says. “I would love to visit Estonia anyway and Tallinn looks so beautiful.”
Robinson visited the Estonian embassy in London last year to collect his e-residency card and envisioned a long day of bureaucracy, form filling and queues ahead of him. However, the entire process took ten minutes before Robinson emerged back onto the street in a slight daze, clutching a package that contained his e-residency card, the e-reader USB device and sealed PIN codes.
“I thought – is that it? Was it supposed to be that easy? I’ve never stepped a foot inside Estonia and never spoken a word of Estonian, but I’m now officially an e-resident of the Republic of Estonia,” recalls Robinson.
“I remember looking up at the Estonian flag draped outside the embassy. I may not have felt like saluting, but I did suddenly feel very proud. I now feel a part of something that is special. From now on, e-Estonia is part of who I am.”