This is the story of how Bitfiner was born and how it transformed from my freelancer’s dream into a design studio into a digital eCommerce powerhouse that is now well respected and trusted by customers from over 20 countries. It is a quick overview of the freelance times, studio times, agency times, and why we now call Bitfiner a digital eCommerce powerhouse and value a flexible and remote work culture.
In 2011, before founding Bitfiner in 2014, I thought it was a good idea to quit my marketing career that was going pretty well. The plan was to design websites that make businesses generate more revenue. The dream was to do it remotely while traveling.
Did I have proper education, training, or a detailed plan? No.
And before reading any further, you should know I once applied to a local art and design school in Tartu and did not get in. I wandered off from design for around five years, graduated from a university, and earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences. Eventually, all the roads led me back to design and digital - and well, here we are.
This is the story, how to do it the hard way. And how hard-learning and persistence can have an impact.
Well, that’s how it started. Remote freelancing began in 2011, and somehow the idea of designing not just business-card style websites but designing them using various tactics and psychology attracted several customers from Estonia and Finland. The first websites were proper “pearls” and are now shared only with a few people who can handle such a throwback.
There are a few still out there
The freelancing times brought many connections in 2014, and, besides freelancing, II went on a few startup journeys as a co-founder. The trip took me to London Seedcamp and New York and on many other adventures. They were eye-opening experiences for sure. This quickly shaped me up for what’s to come.
As the startup adventures gave less return than expected, I decided to focus on the web and marketing business and carried on with freelancing. But the client list had grown, and it was tough to manage everything alone.
With no big plans or clear roadmap, Bitfiner was born. At first, the idea was to be a cool design studio that crafts awesome websites to help clients grow faster. So I hired the first employees and opened up an office in Tartu Science Park.
With little experience and learning on the go was no concrete plan 😀 Bitfiner somehow attracted more clients and some abroad. We even opened a small photo studio and made 360-degree photos for well-known brands—the first ones in Estonia.
Time went by really fast, and there were some dream projects, and some of the opposite kind, as well. Luckily, the trend was upwards. Bitfiner was joined by a new shareholder and partner, Paul, my brother, in need of more power. Paul had just finished a political election campaign for the Estonian celebrity and TV host Mihkel Raud – who won a seat in Estonia’s Parliament, by the way.
Tartu Science Park was the hub for many startups, but we felt it was time to move into a more appropriate building. And that we did. We moved to Veski Street and into the lovely historical and beautiful Sakala House. The team grew, and their skills grew even faster. It was the place where our designs matured. It was the place that gave birth to many outstanding projects. We had some excellent times there!
As our appetite increased, we needed bigger office space for our design studio/agency model. We found a perfect spot in Tartu’s Old Town. The third floor of a former bank building, which was built in the 1800s. The problem was that it was super ugly on the inside. So we hired a contractor, tore down some walls, and fully renovated the place. It came out pretty well. 🙂
The year 2018 was more than acceptable to us in terms of recognition. Local design awards such as Kuldmuna (Golden Egg), winners of the Baltic E-Commerce Summit, European Design Awards finalists, a nomination to the German Design Award 2019, etc. It just kept on coming, as did some cool projects and clients.
I was thrilled - because as you could read from the beginning, the local art and design school in Tartu did reject my submission to learn there, I do not have the proper education when it comes to design, and I learned everything about UX/UI design and conversion rate optimization from the Google almighty.
The USA, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Singapore, China, Bulgaria, Romania, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, Germany, Iraq, Lesotho, Rwanda, Netherlands, and a few more countries. These are the places where our clients do business and where we have designed different projects. It’s pretty cool to get this level of experience from so many different perspectives. It seems that we have been quite busy and have traveled a lot. 🙂
The year was good! The German Design Award 2019, a nomination for the European Design Award 2019, an honorable mention from the Awwwards, and we had some exciting and challenging new projects. Who can complain!?
It’s been quite a journey, with freelancing, studio and agency life, etc. Since Bitfiner turned 5 in 2019, I decided to make some significant changes based on some big plans. Based on my learnings and the demand I saw, I decided that Bitfiner will not be a studio or a typical agency – instead, the goal was to transform it into a digital powerhouse. A hybrid.
Estonia is one of the world’s leading tech countries, and the ambition was for Estonia to shine even more brightly. My small dream is that Estonia and Bitfiner will be one of the first places that ambitious businesses will turn to if they want to exceed their customers’ expectations and, at the same time, improve their business.
So Bitfiner moved from Tartu to Tallinn, and I made a significant shift towards a flexible and remote lifestyle. It felt so right.
We expanded our team from outside the country and inside. If a person wants to work from home, the office, garage, beach, or Alaska – that is perfectly ok. If they prefer to be on the payroll or like to invoice Bitfiner – that’s perfectly ok too! We have goals and deadlines and use metrics to measure the outcome. Bitfiner works with people and partners who share our values and deliver results with a smile on their faces every single time.
It is the outcome and work that matters, not chair time in the office. And I don’t care about the region a person is from or lives. If passion and skills are in place - it is all good.
The first few months went with the speed of light. Bitfiner was fortunate to start and complete several pleasing projects recently from Estonia, Sweden, Lithuania, Germany, the USA, UK, and even South-Africa.
And then came the COVID … Kind of changed many of my plans and changed the business for good. For better, of course. If to sum up the year with one word, it would be - roller-coaster.
The year was so packed with challenges and new plans, so I think the best way to summarize the key events that helped me to shift to eCommerce more aggressively would be the following:
Bitfiner won an award at the German Design Award 2021. I’m incredibly proud of our designers, who took it to the next level, and pretty happy myself too as the art director of this project. Please don’t tell anyone. Bitfiner also secretly has an award-winning design studio.
Other than that …
The majority of my energy has gone to rebranding and rethinking Bitfiner. As eCommerce will be our main focus point - a lot needs to be done, step by step. New business models, value proposition, USPs, products and services, people, agreements, systems, website, brand, legal documents - and the list goes on. The days are long, but it is all worth it.
2021 will be the year where Bitfiner starts its journey to become a premium household name in the world of eCommerce.
Will the team and I make it? I guess we will all find out soon. Stay tuned!
Edit: November 2023
Well, it was a hell of a ride. Bitfiner won the European Design Awards Silver, Golden Egg, and a few other prestigious holdings. Not bad, not bad they say. Also, Grow with Google series asked Bitfiner, and Lauri, to join their Estonian mission, and hold a series of online courses and workshops. In short, it was one of the best years so far.
While dopamine was kicking in for every possible angle, and all went pretty well, the mind kept wondering. Is this the best we can be, is this the purpose of our life, what else can we do with our time. And the focus was especially on time, because one can always make money, but its currently impossible, to turn back time. So every minute you spend, should be spent wisely.
Agency life is fast-paced, you start in the early morning and all of the sudden its evening. Dopamine, dopamine, dopamine .... damn it felt good.
But such a life style leaves little time for other activities, family and hobbies. Long story short, 2021 was the best year, and it was also the year I decided to make a switch in my life, step by step. The first thing I did was close down the office at Rotermanni, and went all in on remote life style.
The second thing I did was a big decision, agency is not the long term plan. It felt frightening, why would you think such things after those dopamine hits and clear signs you are doing great!?
During the years, the thinking has evolved and it was clear, that in order to have a greater work-life balance, more impact, and feeling of purpose - skills should be used at greater scale. And as a digital-human I thought, digital products can be the key.
So the mind started to wonder.
Let's keep it short? The year started with interesting ideas, and once they get in the head, it is hard to get them out. Being quite free in terms of where I spend my time and energy, I took my family to Canarey Islands for almost three months, and it was not planned at all. Estonian winter is tough, and I can confirm, it is much warmer on the Canaries. Having been there quite several times, it was easy to pick a place where to relax and work-a-bit.
After all - why not? Corona, crazy world, remote work ... new ideas. Check and done. To keep it short, being out from the office and home, was a bliss. Such great memories, and even though I worked full-time on some projects and product concepts, I had plenty of time for other activities too.
After coming back to Estonia, just before summer, the plans had been cooking, sunbathed, and the world turned greener. Wunderfront was founded, a brand created to explore how eCommerce can be simplified and made a whole lot enjoyable. I still had quite a lot to do in bitfiner, but step by step, I decided to bring it to bare-minimum. And the reasons could not be more obvious. It was time to go on a mission, and done.
How did 2022 end up, how is 2023 coming along .... stay tuned! ;)