The Conversation: Karoli Hindriks
Though just 31 Karoli Hindriks has already hit a number of career peaks in the business world. At 16 she became the youngest patent holder in Estonia, inventing a pedestrian reflector that sold thousands of units in northern Europe. She then turned her attention to broadcast media, helping to launch MTV Estonia, becoming the country manager in 2009. MTV Estonia’s sales blossomed under her leadership. Next Karoli founded her own media sales agency, working with Fox International, eventually helping to start six Fox channels in the region. Her latest effort is Jobbatical, a company that seeks to bring high value employees to meaningful short term work adventures. Tallinn Arts spoke with Karoli about her heady time as a girl genius, why the media landscape has changed so much and how work as we have known it will never be the same.
Your CV is steeped in accomplishments yet you are still quite young. What inspired you at such a young age to invent things and reach for goals?
Both my mother and late father were very entrepreneurial and that certainly supported my choices in life. My mother is a social entrepreneur and active in the NGO field. When my brother and I came home from school with those enormous bags full of heavy books, my mother decided to do something about it. She took the weight of the bags in proportion to our body mass and sent bags full of rocks to the President and the Prime Minister of our country (weight in proportion to their body masses). Now there is a law, which says how heavy the books can be. That is my mother. My father was a small entrepreneur, who against all odds and without prior experience or know-how (living in the Soviet Union, where there was no real business) started a company when Estonia regained independence. His attitude was that the sky is the limit and if you have an idea or a dream then go for it.
Tell us about being a successful teen inventor. That must have been exciting.
I remember a teacup conversation when I was 16 years old and told my dad about a business idea I had for our school student company. Probably in a normal family the conversation would have ended with a suggestion to concentrate on the studies and not on nonsense. But my father’s answer was: “I wonder if you could patent it?” The next day I walked to the Patent Office and asked. Sad that we did not have Google Glass back then because the surprise in the patent lawyer’s face was priceless. And the answer was yes. Therefore I applied for my first patent and my father lent me the money to get things started. I paid back every penny of it after the first business success.
How was it working in the rough and tumble world of corporate media? Did you find it to your liking after the creative work of invention and being your own boss?
Part of the time in the television business I worked from my own agency and had the freedom to build up the channels and brand from scratch locally. I loved it though of course in the middle of the deepest recession it was also damn hard. But when we joined the corporation then of course the way of work changed remarkably. I loved the people and know-how I got from there. Understanding the way corporations work is something very useful in building up Jobbatical’s business today. It also made me realize I do not have the patience for a corporate environment.
With all the changes presently afoot, where do you see the media landscape heading?
Today probably nobody can deny anymore that media is user driven. When talking about the television business where I come from then it is still surprises me how many of the big players are trying to stick to the old ways of doing television. Today I have hard time convincing myself to watch entertainment from a linear television program – a program that somebody has tailored for a generic crowd. It is the ‘on-demand’ I believe in – to watch when I want and what I want. If great content is released then everybody should have paid access to it in whatever region they live in. If the access is not granted then the viewers find their own ways to watch it. A great example of the fact that people would actually be happy to pay for the great on demand programming if the possibility is given was when Netflix launched in Canada and the traffic to BitTorrent in Canada fell 50%.
Tell us about your new start-up Jobbatical. How did this project come about?
Jobbatical is based on my belief that working as we know it is broken and is changing. Come to think of it then there is a similarity to television business. Work also has been linear – a company hires a person and the person goes to work at certain times. The linear way of working is like an on-going program where some of the content is useful and some of it a waste of time. Similarly to television, work is changing to an on-demand model. Both individuals and employers want to increase their flexibility and therefore professional contractual working is becoming the name of the game.
Jobbatical actually started from my own experience. I decided to take a break from doing television business in the Baltics and broaden my outlook. I discovered that despite the fact that mid-career breaks and flexible working are becoming more and more popular that nobody is actually using that talent pool. I would have loved to jump on a team and help to build up a television channel in Kenya for example having all the competence to do it. As I had also been sitting on the entrepreneur and manager side of the table then I saw real value in a platform where companies could access talent ready to jump in for the short term to solve certain problems matching their competence without having the whole hassle with the hiring process.
What do you feel Jobbatical is aspiring to be as a business? Do you feel it has the legs to be a long-term effort for decades to come? Do you think you will stay with it for the duration?
I believe that in 3-5 years many people will be working on a project-to-project basis and across borders. In many cases competence is what matters and it does not really matter where the person is from. Intuit’s research in the US forecasting that by 2020 60 million Americans will be freelancers supports that thesis. Jobbatical wants to be part of that change.
The business climate in Estonia is touted as a start-up haven, but is this really case? Estonia is not the richest of countries and the human capital often flees abroad.
I think there are two sides to it. On one hand many Europeans and Americans would be amazed how easy it is to do business and be a citizen in Estonia. I do not honestly remember when I last saw a state official since we do everything online with an ID-card or Mobile-ID. Income tax declaration = 10 minutes of work online. Signing documents = 1 minute. Participating in elections = 1 minute. The layer of bureaucracy is thin and that time can be put into work and productivity. On the other hand the Estonian market is small and therefore the aim is to get to the international markets. And often that means also that it would be reasonable to move at least part of the operations into the biggest markets to be close to the clients. Therefore talent leaves not because it is bad to live in Estonia – I am quite sure most of them long for the simplicity our state offers. They leave because a small country cannot really fulfill their ambition. It is the big fish in a small pond vs small fish in a big pond dilemma. If the flight connections to Tallinn would improve then it would make it easier to live in Estonia and run a global business.
As a “serial” entrepreneur are any other start-ups on the horizon?
If there is something I have learned over the past thirteen years then it is the importance of focus, focus, focus.
Any patents up your sleeve?
I have two utility models (one form of a patent) and several design solutions up my sleeve.
In the world today, who do you really admire?
You know how in the music industry the long tail has in many ways taken over the industry - there used to be superstars and now are thousands of stars. I think this change has happened in all fields and there are so many amazing people to follow and learn from that pointing out few is difficult. I certainly admire people like Elon Musk and Richard Branson, who have been crazy enough to think they can change the world and in the process have actually done it. But the person I admire the most is my husband (tech investor Allen Martinson), whose ability and devotion to work and curiosity about the world and knowledge is just mind-blowing. I look at him and that in many ways inspires me to try to be better every day.