Ott Jalakas: Being part of a national business delegation is a sign that the state is prepared to put its reputation on the line for you
Ott Jalakas was one of the co-founders of Lingvist, a technology company operating in the field of education. He says that Lingvist’s mission is to make learning faster and more accessible. “At Lingvist, we develop algorithms that facilitate learning,” he explains. “We focus on language training because people are travelling more and more and knowing foreign languages is becoming increasingly important. But I’m sure we could use the same algorithms in the long term for the acquisition of other skills.”
He’s been part of national business delegations on visits to the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom. “The tactic we’ve chosen is that we don’t go on visits all that often, but we target our markets precisely,” he reveals. “If we can see that there’s not enough time to prepare or we don’t have enough to offer on a specific market in terms of a product, we don’t go.”
Go on visits with a vision
Jalakas says that if an entrepreneur lacks connections abroad, then a visit can help to establish initial relationships at a high level. “People will hear you out, which is extremely important, especially for entrepreneurs who are only just starting their business,” he says. “Visits are great in terms of finding an audience who’ll listen to you.”
He points out that entrepreneurs going on visits need to have a clear understanding of what they want to achieve as part of the business delegation. He is convinced that visits are more beneficial if the company already has something to present because potential partners usually want to try out a product or service straight away. “If you don’t have anything to show them, they lose interest and ask you to contact them again when it’s actually ready,” he cautions. “Since entrepreneurs tend to meet very high-level people during these visits, it makes no sense to waste their time.”
Being part of a business delegation increases trust
The primary markets of Lingvist are outside of Estonia, which is why they actively work to break through onto foreign markets every day. There are several ways of increasing your visibility on foreign markets. For example, you can foster contacts and arrange meetings with the help of your social network. “Entrepreneurs can always ask their colleagues or acquaintances if they’ve made any connections on one target market or another,” Jalakas explains. “Or they can ask if it would be possible to be introduced to an important person.”
An alternative is being part of an Estonian business delegation. Jalakas says that since Estonia is small, it’s significantly easier to make it onto a delegation than in some larger countries. “The screening process that companies in large countries have to go through to be included in a delegation is intense, so it’s a huge opportunity for Estonian entrepreneurs,” he says. “Despite Estonia being so small, the understanding of what a delegation is and does is the same when you go abroad as part of an Estonian delegation. Being part of it is a sign that your company has jumped over some major hurdles, which makes you more trustworthy. It means the state is prepared to put its reputation on the line for you.”
Jalakas adds that being part of a national business delegation opens doors. On the one hand, entrepreneurs can participate in the programme’s activities, but on the other, it’s also easier to arrange personal meetings. “If you say you’re visiting with the prime minister, for example, and that you have an hour free that afternoon for a meeting, it significantly boosts the chances of the meeting happening,” he explains. “It makes your company seem more credible and shows that you’re to be taken seriously.” He adds that being part of a business delegation has long-term effects. “For example, there’s a picture we use in our Lingvist presentations in which Taavi Rõivas, myself, my fellow Lingvist co-founder Mait Müntel and Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani are at the opening of our office in Tokyo,” he says. “Whenever we give this presentation to Japanese audiences, everyone’s amazed. It shows that you’re taken seriously at a high level.”
From personal experience, Jalakas believes that state support is important for entrepreneurs in the cultural space of Asia in particular. “Figuratively speaking, when you’re part of a delegation you don’t have to build up relationships from scratch,’ he says. “Instead, you get to talk to someone in a high position straight away. If they’re interested, they’ll then introduce you to the right people from their organisation. And since the introduction was made by a high-level person, which is very important in Asia, you’ll be taken more seriously in the talks that follow.”
However, state support is important in other areas as well. Jalakas recalls that on a visit to the USA, being part of a national delegation helped pitch Lingvist to local investors. “A local Estonian organised a reception at home during our visit, at which there were lots of technology investors with lots of influence,” he recalls. “It was an honour to talk to them face to face. It was all possible thanks to the state’s support.”
Visits have a long-term effect
In addition to visits leading to new connections in the destination country, they also broaden the network of connections within the delegation. “A visit is a great opportunity to talk to other Estonian entrepreneurs and find out whether and how we could be of benefit to one another,” Jalakas says. He’s gained several useful contacts among members of delegations who he’s later worked with.
Entrepreneurs also get the opportunity, for example, to grab a coffee with the prime minister and talk about the challenges facing their companies and the direction they want their businesses to go in. “By sharing information you put yourself on the radar, which enables people to better help you with the development of your business at a high international level,” Jalakas explains. He adds that situations in which important contracts are signed during visits are rare. However, knowledge of your company’s prospects helps high-level state officials showcase your company more effectively. “Perhaps the prime minister meets an international entrepreneur and suddenly recalls that Ott from Lingvist has a solution to their problem,” Jalakas smiles.
He notes that Rakuten is the largest investor in Lingvist. That specific investment came about because the CEO of Rakuten was at a conference in Helsinki and was invited to Tallinn by President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. “Alongside everyone else he met on that visit, he met the Lingvist team,” Jalakas explains. “And from that meeting, which from our point of view happened largely by chance, began a partnership that’s lasted for four years.”
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