Eventornado blog Building Unicorns: Pipedrive, Skype and Hackathons

Building Unicorns: Pipedrive, Skype and Hackathons

Written by

Martin Henk

Co-founder and CTO at Eventornado

Estonia claimed its 5th unicorn when Pipedrive was valued at around $1.5 billion. For a country of only 1.3 million people it’s quite an achievement. As one of the founders of Pipedrive I might have some insight into why that is. Hackathons had a huge part in the early stages of Pipedrive. Which definitely influenced me when deciding to co-found an online hackathon platform next. 

The Skype effect

Much has been written about it already and it’s hard to underestimate the impact Skype has had on Estonia over the years. While the effects are many, the main two things I’d point out is belief and experience

As a business-savvy tech person in Europe it’s pretty easy to decide that the true unicorns are only built somewhere else. Startup blogs are heavily skewed towards covering Silicon Valley and the US in general. But if a small company next door suddenly gets hundreds of millions of users all over the world and is subsequently sold for billions of dollars and multiple times, it really shifts one’s world view. 

I’m pretty sure a lot of people in Estonia got the message “if these guys can do it, so can I”. And while there was a lot of entrepreneurial spirit in the country already before Skype, it probably shifted the ambition levels several orders of magnitude higher than before. 

The other part was experience. Hundreds of people that worked at Skype at one time or another got direct access to world class operations and carried it with them to their next destination. We certainly benefited tremendously from a large number of ex-skypers on all levels of the organization at Pipedrive. They brought the skills and knowledge of human resources, engineering and management in general. 

We also need to acknowledge the foresight of the Estonian government in the 90s that decided fiber was more important than highways and got the whole country covered with high bandwidth Internet early on. And even though our current government is busy destroying much of the good stuff created in the last 30 years there is some inertia left from the great decisions in these early days. Skype simply couldn’t have been built in Estonia without the amazing pool of talent available. And I doubt Transferwise, Bolt or Pipedrive would exist in their current form without it. 

Hackathons energize and accelerate

Hackathons are amazing. You put a group of talented eager people together for two days and the results can be mind blowing. Constraints foster creativity and nothing is more constraining than being short on time. Only having a number of hours to complete a prototype really pushes you to find creative shortcuts, cut unnecessary features and forget about procrastination. 

As mentioned before, hackathons were transformative in the early days of Pipedrive. We would regularly gather for these intense weekend getaways to Peep’s summer house in the middle of a forest in Western Estonia. And we would work ourselves to the bone. Some planned out pricing and business strategy, others coded new features non-stop. 

One of the best memories I have from these early days is one night at around 4am when we were still up with Martin Tajur coding side by side and listening to Kings of Leon. He was creating a new features page for our marketing website. I was building the first super simple statistics page in the Pipedrive web app.

Neither of these things no longer exists of course. Big teams were put together over the years that have properly rebuilt pretty much everything we made during these intense weekends. And for good reason. The constraints lead to a lot of corner cutting and heavy technical debt. 

There is still something magical about Timo and Urmas drawing a picture on a whiteboard one morning and having this functionality live the next morning. It takes more time to find a mutually convenient meeting time and have the first discussion in a 600 person company than it used to take to build the entire thing in a 6 person company. Ragnar got such a jolt from these early hackathons that he co-founded Garage48 on the side which has organized hundreds of hackathons since then. 

So whether you want to jumpstart your new company or re-energize innovation in a larger company, organizing hackathons can be a good option. Building prototypes in a couple of days and validating them on real users is invaluable. 

Here’s to hoping that the current unicorns will spawn at least 4 world class companies each in the next decade. There are already some notable ones. Veriff grew out of Transferwise. And there seems to be at least 7 startups that have been founded by ex-Pipedrivers. Out of which Klaus and Outfunnel have already taken long strides towards success. 

If building the next great success story sounds exciting, maybe it’s a good time to pick a hackathon from our Events page and roll up your sleeves. 


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