News November 29th, 2018
Priit Alamäe: From Webmedia to Nortal
Our CEO and founder Priit Alamäe shares some insights on the challenges encountered while growing the company from humble beginnings in an Estonian student town to one employing over 750 people in 10 branches across the world.
In a wide-ranging interview, published in Finnish technology magazine Tietoviikko, Alamäe discussed some of the setbacks, milestones and triumphs involved in building a world-renowned player in the field of e-governance and strategy.
As a student in his early 20s, Alamäe founded his first company, Center for Sociological Studies. While the company ostensibly conducted market research and polling, Alamäe admits it wasn’t a roaring success.
“I did, however, make my first money working as a DJ and organizing parties. At the time, people partied a lot in Tallinn and Tartu.”
During the dotcom bubble of the late 1990s, Alamäe, along with co-founders Urmo Pärg and Avo Alender, launched Webmedia in Tartu. Thanks to a Lithuanian angel investor, they were soon taking their message to companies across Estonia.
“We began to travel around Estonia selling our product, which was at this point really just an idea,” says Alamäe.
We were naive and thought they would be waiting for us abroad. They weren’t.
The world may have changed and his company grown exponentially, but the core principal remains the same: “… Nortal is still selling the same idea and product. The majority of IT entrepreneurs don’t understand the business side, and the majority of buyers of IT solutions don’t understand the technical side. We want to help them understand each other.”
Their goal, as Alamäe recalls, was “… to become the biggest software company in Estonia, and we were close to reaching that goal by 2005.”
Venturing farther afield
With the Estonian market very nearly conquered, Alamäe felt it was time to venture beyond his home country’s borders, a decision that was set to present some painful business lessons.
“We were naive and thought they would be waiting for us abroad. They weren’t. In the Balkans, we fell flat on our faces. For example, in Romania, the market was already saturated.”
To compound matters, the bursting of the dotcom bubble created a huge shift in many organizations’ priorities, with small, foreign companies often first on the chopping block.
“We wrapped up in Finland and left with considerable financial losses. That was a low point.”
In 2009, a surprise visit by a Qatari government delegation changed Webmedia’s fortunes irrevocably.
“We found out that in Qatar they had heard about tiny Estonia and how it was a major player in the digitalization of government. They had personally come to find out about digital Estonia,” he recalls.
This represented a break with custom in the area, says Alamäe: “In the Gulf region, they usually turned to Singapore for these types of projects, but the Qataris wanted to find an alternative. In the end, our first large project involved building a citizens’ portal in Qatar.”
In the wake of the Qatari project, Webmedia realized that the experience gained in setting up the Estonian e-governance system was a major selling point in the developing world, and this remains an integral part of Nortal’s strategy.
Key expansions were also happening closer to home. When Alamäe got wind that Finnish tech company CCC was up for sale in 2011, he jumped at the opportunity.
“Webmedia was, and Nortal is, an opportunistic company. We take advantage of possibilities. We didn’t have any special plans regarding Finland. At Webmedia, we appreciated CCC’s competence, and CCC’s entire core team is still working with us,” explains Alamäe.
In 2012, Webmedia and CCC formally merged to become Nortal and, in 2016, the company succeeded in buying back 50% of its shares from Enterprise Investors and the pension funds of Estonian bank LHV. In the same year, another merger followed, this time with Swedish company Element AB.
So what’s next for Alamäe and the company he has guided with such great success? He is looking westward, to the world’s largest economy.
“In the U.S., we have so far focused on the Seattle region of Washington state. To accelerate the growth, we have bought a company operating in the area — Dev9 joined the Nortal family in October 2018,” Alamäe says.
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