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Taavi Kotka, CEO and founder,

Taavi Kotka is the founder and CEO of and understands the role that self-belief has played in his business journey so far. He took some time out to speak with The Industry Leaders about this powerful state of mind.

Firstly, can you give us a little bit of background about your business journey?

I am an Estonian serial entrepreneur and digital transformation advocate. Last year I founded – a company enabling communities to become co-owners of companies they love, creating a culture of shared success by issuing virtual shares. I began my career as a programmer and soon became the Managing Director of the largest software development company in the Baltics, WebMedia — now known as Nortal. Since then, I have worked in both the public and private sectors. I held the position of the first CIO for the Government of Estonia, overseeing the nation's rapid growth in the digital space. My accomplishments include co-founding the world's first national e-residency program and working on initiatives such as data embassies and country-as-a-service (CAAS). Additionally, I served as a special advisor to the European Commission's Vice President, Andrus Ansip, on the European Single Digital Market. One of my most rewarding endeavours was founding a girls-only technology school, Unicorn Squad, in 2018. Fully supported by my family, this initiative has expanded to multiple locations throughout Estonia, providing tech education for over 3 000 girls. To me, there are no boundaries to learning and excelling in technology; obstacles like a shortage of teachers or funds should not be acceptable excuses. I am also very proud to hold a position as Head of Jio Research Center in Estonia (Reliance Jio Infocomm is an Indian telecoms provider), helping the company enter the European market and work on exciting new technologies.

What role has self-belief played in your journey as a business leader? How has it influenced your decision-making and overall success?

If there is an idea that I'm passionate about, I pursue it - I don't care what other people think. If it’s an honest opinion and it makes sense, then I understand and listen to it. However, if it’s a simple criticism for its’ own sake, I tend to ignore it. As an engineer, you see things differently, which means that it's not obvious to other people instantly. Instead, it takes time for them to understand what you mean, and that’s okay. I firmly believe that execution is everything, and ideas are nothing without it. The challenges and experiences I've faced, including a battle with cancer at a young age, have shaped this philosophy and continue to drive my desire to improve the world through digital innovation.

Can you share a specific moment or challenge in your journey where your self-belief was tested? How did you overcome it and what did you learn from that experience?

Setting up the E-residency project in Estonia is a perfect example. For three years, nobody understood why we were trying to launch it. Today, after hundreds of millions of euros made and more than 100,000 residents adopting it, no one doubts that this was a good project. When a project takes time to take off, it obviously has an influence. Of course, people don’t mock you in your face or anything, but many people want to point the finger at you. Therefore, the satisfaction you have afterwards when seeing your name in the newspapers and knowing you’ve achieved it, despite the fact that people didn’t believe in you, is immense.

How do you cultivate and maintain a mindset of self-belief amidst the inevitable ups and downs of life?

The fact that not everything can go well is definitely an important thing to understand. There will be moments when you will lose, and you need to be open to the idea of losing. For example, I had a great idea for Oxford University, where we created several grants to incentivise and cultivate a broader view of digital societies. We didn't want to influence their academic work – instead, we wanted them to think more about topics related to digital society globally. Although this idea worked in Estonia, this collaboration didn’t work as well as we expected in the UK. So, you have to be always open to the fact that you can lose and that there is a higher probability of losing. And if you have that mindset, you can always stop at a point where you see something is not working and instead choose to change your approach. This mindset gives you freedom. But of course, you must have enough success stories to back you up too. I don't know many start-up founders who have had two successful success stories in a row.

Are there any specific strategies or practices you follow to boost your self-confidence when facing uncertainties or setbacks in your business?

I always make sure to talk to my team. If we've been trying to progress for the past three months but continue to face obstacles, I'll discuss the issue and strategies with my team and see how we can move forward.

How do you handle self-doubt or negative self-talk that may arise as a business leader? Do you have any specific techniques for reframing negative thoughts?

I have a fantastic wife who supports me no matter what. That’s a good technique!

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs who struggle with self-belief? How can they start building a stronger sense of confidence and belief in themselves?

Knowing you have enough in your balance sheet to allow for errors and trials is always good. If you fail, you need to have enough money to survive until you get your next challenge and motivation. I have seen too many founders launching their first start-ups and giving away everything to try to survive on, say, 1000 euros per month for years. It's a tough picture and a complex issue. There are also so many parties involved, like your family and people around you. So, pushing hard always has limits, and I think it's an open debate. For example, if you're stuck and you don't have the self esteem to progress, talk to people around you and listen to them. I understand that there are thousands of stories where founders would do one final push, and things would work out just like in a movie. But there are tens of thousands of stories where it didn't. So, if you are going to fail, make sure you have everything you need to keep yourself going afterwards.

Have you ever encountered external skepticism or negativity regarding your business ideas or decisions? How do you stay grounded in your self-belief despite external influences?

All my ideas have always faced considerable criticism, but in the end, they have proven successful. E-residency, girls only approach, automated tax fraud controls etc. But it is not happening just with me, it is a common problem for all tech-entrepreneurs. For instance, 12-15 years ago, some people insisted that Estonia did not need start-ups. Today, Estonia ranks first globally for per capita investments, with a large portion of the country’s GDP coming from this sector. So, we have managed to create a new industry from scratch. In this world, there are creators and critics. By definition, those who criticise are destroyers. So, even if an idea seems challenging to understand and you find yourself critical, it's essential to remain hopeful.

Are there any books, podcasts, or people you'd recommend checking out for anyone who wants to change to a more self-confident and belief-rich mindset?

I love reading biographies of different sportspeople. They are always such great stories because discipline and persistence are the secrets to their success. That’s what you learn from athletes the most.

Finally, what are some practical tips or exercises you can recommend for entrepreneurs to strengthen their self-belief and mindset on a regular basis?

Putting yourself on the stage in front of people and talking about your ideas is what has helped me a lot. You get instant feedback when you are on stage and have to describe your thesis or ideas publicly. For example, you're talking complete nonsense if they pull you out. But if the audience asks questions, engages with you and follows up with you after, you can polish your story to become increasingly better. So, look out for these kinds of opportunities. You can start small – perhaps discuss your ideas with friends and family first, or join a club where you speak in front of an audience. Good storytelling skills are also essential; you can’t learn about it from books or a podcast. You have to practice – that’s what makes it perfect.

Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with us here! Where should people follow you to find out more about your work?


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