First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Mikk Maal: We’re doing mostly fine. It hasn’t been too bad in Estonia thus far in terms of restrictions. It seems to worsen, but hopefully, there’s some improvement coming soon, and we won’t have to go into full lockdown like some countries in Europe.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Comistar.
Mikk Maal: Comistar is an advisory office for online entrepreneurs. We currently have offices in Estonia, Finland, Switzerland, and the US. I am managing the Estonian office, where we’re focused on e-residents and technology companies. Our staff consists of accountants, tax advisors, and lawyers. We also have two developers as we’ve built a company management software for our clients, and keep building different software products.
It hasn’t been an easy journey. I started my first business when I was 19. My parents helped me get a loan from the bank (as guarantors), but in 9 months, the money was out, and business was over. Looking back, as it was 2008-2009, I should’ve been a lot smarter. The following 3-4 years were a “lost period” for me when I tried many things, but nothing worked. As I needed guidance, I started to send out emails to companies and proposing to work for free for the CEO to learn and find someone to mentor me. Luckily, one company replied. We soon started a small e-commerce venture with that person, which we exited as it didn’t work out. We started Comistar together. He had already opened an office in Finland and asked if I want to do the same in Estonia. So that’s how it all started. He loaned me 5000€ and rented a small cubicle office in the center of Tallinn.
How does Comistar innovate?
Mikk Maal: We’re building software solutions for our clients, even though we’re in a very traditional industry of providing tax, legal, and accounting service. This year, we’ve built a company management software for our clients, we’ve created a banking marketplace, and we’re building a business proposal app for our clients as well. So we’re all in when it comes to innovation and moving rapidly to automated solutions.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Mikk Maal: We’ve been pretty lucky, I guess, as we’re servicing online businesses only and are generally doing pretty good. However, due to lockdowns and general uncertainty, the company is slower than it’s in good economic times. We’re coping well because of the structure of our services. The first tier is the accounting service, which is needed by all companies, and this gives us a stable base to cover expenses. And another thing we’ve been doing rather successfully in the last couple of years is capital allocation. We’ve got some buffer to stay afloat even if the business is slower for the next year or so.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Mikk Maal: I think entrepreneurs always have to make difficult choices. And often, it’s not about staying alive. It’s also about focus, which products to build, who to target, and how these choices will affect the company in the next X years. This is because the choices we make today will be the foundation for what will happen tomorrow. And we’ve made plenty of wrong decisions when it comes to focusing and which products we build. This has cost us a lot of money and time. The lesson here is collecting data and not operate based on assumptions. Every company has to validate their ideas before executing and spending money, which is often the default state for entrepreneurs.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Mikk Maal: Gym, writing, thinking, and reading. It gives you a lot of clarity if you spend at least 30 minutes per day thinking about what’s important and what is not. I block time for useless activities like watching Netflix for 30 minutes in the evening. I think everyone needs to recalibrate from time to time.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Mikk Maal: There are too many competitors to count because it’s a traditional service industry. Understanding that it’s all about the customer experience you create helps to be in the game. If you’re excellent at what you do and clients have an exceptional experience using your services, you will have a sustainable business. You need to understand the big picture and the key activities moving the needle for your business, like educating your market and implementing processes and software, etc.
Your final thoughts?
Mikk Maal: Covid has shown that you can’t ignore the digital world, regardless of the industry you’re operating in. You must have an online presence to compete in the next decade, and it has to be a priority for the company. Standing out and differentiation is the key. Be smart with the capital you have. Learn marketing and selling. Opportunities are abundant out there. Great companies are built right now, and Covid is no excuse. Execute!