Lessons Learned: Even Unicorns were Babies Once

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April 24, 2018
Ichiban Commercial Solutions Procurement Advice and Tender Writing Lessons Learned

Lessons learned from E-Estonia: Even Unicorns were Babies Once

A while ago, I had the privilege to meet the Ambassador of Estonia, Andres Unga and listen to him deliver his keynote presentation at the WAITTA INCITE Innovation Excellence Lunch forum.  Estonia went on an incredible digital growth journey since becoming independent in the early 90’s.  Andres Unga shared many lessons learned on how Estonia approached its journey.

Estonia’s journey is not so different to that of many businesses.  For many businesses, the journey of both success and failure take many years and many turns.

Estonia did not choose to become a victim in their story. And as such it is not in their success that left an impression on me personally.

It is the Estonian government’s focus on hard work, resilience, persistence and the fact that they work on the basis of building trust that left the biggest impression on me.

E-Estonia

Estonia is one the smallest countries in the world, with only 1.2 million people – certainly not densely populated.  Following the Soviet Union’s departure, the government was not very rich – to put it kindly.  They did not have many choices. Very few indeed.

Thus the decision to go digital.

Now, fast forward two decades later.


Ichiban Commercial Solutions Procurement Advice and Tender Writing Lessons Learned


These days the Estonian government delivers all services through one government portal. The world watches, listens and learns with intent and curiosity.

Changes such as using a digital, e-signature created savings or more importantly allowed Estonia to use the funding elsewhere.  Estonia calculated the productivity saving created equated to 2% of their GDP. Estonia’s military budget is 2% of its GDP.

Over the past two decades, Estonia became one of the world’s most advanced digital societies. A unicorn amongst the world of bureaucracy and politics. A government daring to experiment and learn from its mistakes. And the end is not near, the journey is still continuing.

I certainly encourage you to watch the presentation, it is down to earth, educational, entertaining and leaves food for thought. I certainly will not regurgitate the presentation – but I will share with you the three key insights I gained from this event.

Lessons Learned from E-Estonia

Politics and business may not always go hand in hand.  And we may not always think that there can be many things in common.  However, lessons can and should be learned by both. The Estonia journey can show both politicians and business the lessons learned from Estonia.

One solution does not fit all problems

When I looked at the journey and Estonia’s road map over time, it looked easy enough to think that other countries can follow a similar path if they wanted to become an online government.

Yet, Estonia does not try to sell their way or process to anyone as the solution and the way forward for every country.

Initially I thought  – sweet, it would be so easy to map the process. Replicate and duplicate.

But then in talking to the ambassador, I changed my thinking because  Andres said every country is unique. When I thought it about it some more, I realised that this made sense.

Estonia had no real choice but to make the best of what little assets they had when they started out – beggars can’t be choosers.  But not every country is in the same position. Australia as a first world country has first world problems. A position of luxury almost.

In business, it is the same.  Not every business is the same or is in the same position.

The context is different, the starting position is different. The problems are different.

One solution does not fit all problems.

But whether we are a small business or a large multinational business, we can still choose what we want to achieve, map our journey and tackle the problem, bit by bit.

We can choose not to be whiners and victims but to chip away and become leaders.

Trust delivers outcomes

How refreshing to see a government where you have freedom and control over your own personal information.  And can see who looked at your information.

Estonia does this – you can see who looked at your personal information and moreover, you can ask why. And you have to get an answer.

Thus when Estonia started its journey, it may not have had lots of money or resources.  Yet, it succeeded. Why?

Because Estonia built trust. Estonia recognises this as an important lesson learned for its success:

“trust has proven to be one of the fundamental components of a reliable and efficient digital state.”

In too many organisations, people are just numbers.  Headcount in a financial statement.

In the businesses where the leadership builds and earns trust, we see results.  We see motivated people who work away at changing outcomes and achieving results.

Trust forms the cornerstone of success.

Even unicorns were babies once

These days Estonia stands out in the world of technology and in many governments for its E-Estonia government, delivering the majority of its services online.

Estonia is acknowledged as the most advanced digital society in the world.

But it did not start out as the most advanced in anything.  Or did not get recognised for anything much in 1992.  Estonia started small. Took its time.

Its overnight success took decades to build and there is more to come.

Now Estonia is regarded as a unicorn.

But, this unicorn certainly used to be a baby once.

Their idea of becoming a digital society was an idea once.

In business, many people have great ideas.  However, in many businesses there is no ability to seed these ideas, to nurture is and to see it come to fruition. Change is slow and constrained in red tape, process and procedure.  Thus many great opportunities end a stifling death.

Business kills the unicorns – even before they are babies.

How do you treat the baby unicorns in your business?

I am leaving you with some food for thought.

Will you take the time to listen and learn from Estonia?  Will you consider the lessons learned from E-Estonia?  I hope you do.

I suggest that you sign up for Estonia’s newsletter.

But for now, I am leaving you with a few questions to ponder:

  1. As a leader in your business, do you build trust?
  2. Do you nurture and foster an environment where people feel that they can contribute and make a difference?
  3. How do you map the journey of your business success?
  4. Do you allow room for failure?
  5. How much time do you make for lessons learned?

And finally:

Do you kill the baby unicorns that will in the long run deliver business success and growth?

Until next time, hope you have a great day!

Celia Jordaan


Celia Jordaan has 22 years international and corporate experience and worked in the areas of procurement, tenders, supply chain, contract management, law and risk. She works with business, procurement leaders and teams to develop and implement strategies to boost business performance, make tendering easy and improve bottom line performance.
To learn more about Celia Jordaan, please click here.
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