Corporate intelligence, playing UK politics, and eternal life: an interview with tech entrepreneur Allan Martinson
Estonian entrepreneur Allan Martinson founded a Baltic news organisation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He worked with one of the first VCs in Russia; was COO for a robotics company; and is in the process of launching his next venture, Xolo.
From corporate intelligence to eternal life, Allan Martinson has an extraordinary range of interests and ventures. Here he speaks to BLM about where he’s been – and where he’s going.
Can you give me an overview of your career prior to joining Xolo?
My background is in the information and news business. I have worked in more than ten tech and media companies in my career. This includes founding the Baltic News Service that became a leading regional news organization, being the COO at Starship Technologies and now, leading the team at Xolo. All of these companies have had one thing in common – a quest to disrupt the status quo, create new industries from scratch or change the way things are being done. I strongly believe the companies I join must have an answer to the question “Why.”
Can you tell me about your work with MTVP? What were some of the highlights and challenges of managing a venture capital company in the Baltic states, Russia and Ukraine?
MTVP was one of the early Venture Capitalists (VC) in the Baltic States, and the first proper VC to be funded in this region. It was also one of the 3-5 VCs in Russia. We were a very early-stage bunch of capitalists in this part of the world. Back then, it was the wild west, especially when compared to what it is today. 15 years later, it’s a totally different environment. There were 2 types of companies then:
1. The deep tech, Soviet engineering-based technology companies, and;
2. The copycats of Western business models being copied to the Eastern European market such as social media, e-Commerce and advertising
The latter was not a bad business idea but it lacked the aspect of innovation.
A key lesson I learned is that it boiled down to people, especially in the early environment where you couldn’t really have a track record of what people did in the past. As a VC then, you really needed to check their backgrounds and understand what drove them. I’ve seen super professional, humble entrepreneurs and managers, and I’ve seen people who have super high opinions of themselves and ended up bankrupting the company. We ended up in the negative with a few of them so I’ve been through the full spectrum. I’ve found humbleness to be the best predictor of future success.
Can you tell me about your interest in corporate intelligence? What activities do you do in that area?
While my background is in information and news business, I’m passionate about corporate intelligence and I try to have an element of it present in each of my companies. Sometimes, this even means having a dedicated person doing this. What corporate intelligence means, basically, is to be as informed as possible about what’s happening on the market, what your competition is doing and so forth.
Most information is available if you know how to run your search. It’s very similar to running an intelligence organisation, to how the CIA does it: they spend around 80% of their time reading the media and the rest goes to real intelligence. You also need to ensure you have human intelligence, or ‘humint’, which involves talking to people, listening to gossip and filtering out good information. I believe that’s important as you need to be the best informed in order to stay competitive.
Is there anything that links your many areas of interest? What drives you when it comes to choosing a project?
Curiosity is what links my many areas of interest, and what drives me to choose a project. I’m simply a very curious person. Just like the multiple roles I’ve taken up in my career, I’ve taken turns in different directions. If I wasn’t a curious person, I would go straight to a normal job.
I also like building things. I enjoy looking back and saying, “Hey, I helped build something that is still there.” Architects and other people build buildings, I build companies.
How much has politics – domestic or international – impacted your business choices and activities?
Politics affects everything to some degree. You may even need to have a public affairs component in certain places. Starship Technologies, for example, do robots. They were not able to operate without regulations put in place. Learning how to run public affairs in different countries, from the US to Europe, and how to make laws happen, were important aspects of the job. If you are in a somewhat regulated environment or are somehow dependent on the public sector, you need to follow politics and sometimes try to influence it and predict what’s coming up.
I’ve learned a fair degree of differences between politics in the UK, the USA and Germany. The UK is very different from the rest. Germany is super process-based and regulated. The US has somewhat cowboy tactics where you can get things done really quickly, for example, you can get a law done in the US in 3 weeks if you want it. In the UK, it’s very personal, meaning everything is possible but nobody really knows. There are so many different shades of grey in the UK and that’s amazing. You need to know how to navigate the UK’s politics.
What is the vision behind Xolo? What are you hoping to achieve with the company?
Xolo is the go-to solution for any freelancer or any independent professional in the world who wants to start or run a business. We want to be the #1 solution in their minds when they think of how to run the business. There are millions of them worldwide and we aim to be their ultimate friend in business.
What do you think the future has in store for independent workers?
It certainly is a very bright future because independent workers are the future. Independent work is on the rise and I believe that at the end of the day, we’ll all end up being free agents of the market. Being a free agent of the market, you need a bank and you need somebody to help you start a business – that is exactly where we, Xolo, come into play.
How does a location-independent business differ from a traditional business? What are the benefits and drawbacks?
It’s about freedom – the freedom of movement. Location independence means you are free from your location and you can run your business wherever you want. This doesn’t mean you stop interacting with people. Location independence means freedom of movement, but it doesn’t mean absolute freedom in terms of being able to do anything you want. You still need to interact with other people, you still have to run and manage a business, you still have to do banking and you still need to pay taxes. But most of all, it’s having the freedom to live your life where and how you want.
What other sectors or projects are you interested in exploring in the future?
I am passionate about hardware, online media, professional news and corporate intelligence, consumer-facing services, tech investments, aerospace, and green-tech but one of the latest interests I’m exploring is eternal life. This is something I am extremely interested in, but in a digitised form. In the future, we will all be uploading our personalities and memories to the cloud and it will live there. It’ll happen; I’m not kidding!
What are your values as an entrepreneur?
I believe in frankness, being open and direct, integrity, out-of-the-box thinking and curiosity. If there is a way to do things differently, you should always try to do it differently and you may stumble upon something really interesting. There are people who continue doing what they did yesterday and they are happy with that. I am the complete opposite. Both strategies might be successful, but I believe in mine.