We talked to Mari Helstein, CEO of LIFT99 Tallinn Hubs, whose mission is to strengthen the global startup community and to help startups succeed by bringing founders together, both physically and digitally. This is what she said:
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined LIFT99.
Mari Helstein: LIFT99 was born on December 7, 2016, and grew out of Garage48 which I also founded.
We felt that there was a need for a place to be and grow together with other startups. Many current and former members of the LIFT99 team have been key players in building startup ecosystems in Estonia and elsewhere. Today, we have in total 10 employees in Estonia and Ukraine. The company has 22 employees, the other half of whom are involved in the company’s other business line, Salto – a platform for finding experts for startups.
The first LIFT99 center was born in the old factory building in Tallinn, Telliskivi Creative City, where the workshops of the head of the Reval railway were located at the end of the 19th century. The idea of a coworking center was started with ~ 2 employees, and local young people were involved who helped to build the center. For example, Estonian Academy of Arts students were involved in creating innovative interior design. Today, there are two LIFT99 coworking centers in Estonia – Telliskivi and RED (Fotografiska building) and one LIFT99 center in Ukraine.
How does LIFT99 innovate?
Mari Helstein: Foundations that were set in 2016, which we still follow today:
– Coworking center for startups and startup community
– First stop for (foreign) delegations
– LIFT99 as an ecosystem development spot – by founders to founders
– Members of the LIFT99 community are professionals in their field
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Mari Helstein: The corona has had a major impact on the world’s economy, businesses, workers, and employers, as well as us. We weigh the risks of COVID-19 on a daily basis and change our organization accordingly. LIFT99 has actually been quite successful in dealing with the pandemic. Throughout the corona, our coworking centers have been closed for only two months – in 2020 spring, and fortunately, we have also had a very supportive community and partners.
When it comes to members and membership packages, we have also tried to adapt to new expectations. For example, in addition to the traditional packages, we also offer a more flexible “community membership,” which essentially means for members that we offer them the flexibility to work from home and from the coworking center.
Covid also brought out the increased need for smaller team rooms. We are finding the best solutions, how to meet our members expectations regarding the new demands. Working from home can be convenient for many but working with a team in the same room provides an opportunity to communicate quickly and directly, to generate new ideas together & fast. In addition, as we all know by today, home can have many distractions that can make working difficult.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Mari Helstein: We have done everything in our power to limit the spread of the virus in our center. Today, we offer disposable masks, reusable masks, gloves, a non-contact thermometer option, disinfectants, and also COVID fast tests on our premises. Restrictions have been placed on meeting rooms and common areas to avoid excessive gatherings. Our members are used to the regulations and support it.
Nevertheless, the influence of the COVID-19 is well felt in the center – it is not physically possible to organize events today. We have canceled tours and one-time visitors to keep the members and centers safe. Instead, we offer virtual tours. People want to change the way they work, which means that we also have to think about ‘modernizing’ both centers.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Mari Helstein: We have put much more emphasis on social media to keep ourselves in the picture. We actively make blog posts, reflect on our members, offer various virtual opportunities and take part in various projects.
A large percentage of people and companies that operate in LIFT99 premises today and come to us are not locals but foreign visitors who have moved to Estonia to work, who have found or are finding a home here and want to start or continue their life in Estonia. Despite the pandemic, the movement of foreign startups to Estonia has continued, a good example being Restream.io from Ukraine, which is one of the newest LIFT99 members. For us, coworking’s most important content is community and ecosystem. Coworking in LIFT99 also means developing friendships.
Your final thoughts?
Mari Helstein: What will happen in the future? We predict that larger companies will give up their offices. Many companies have introduced the possibility of remote working, which in turn means that they can rent small office spaces or move to coworking centers. The need for socializing has not disappeared, but rather the COVID time has deepened the need to see and communicate with people and the need to be socially active in a trustworthy community.
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