Estonia has produced some superstar tech startups over the years. Skype and TransferWise are just two Estonian-born tech companies that have revolutionized the way people communicate or send money around the world.
Now there’s Taxify, Estonia’s rapidly growing answer to Uber, which launched in 2013 and now has 500,000 drivers and 10 million customers across 40 cities in 25 European and African countries. Uber, for comparison, is in 80 countries.
Annoyed at the high prices and outdated tech of taxi services in his home city of Tallinn, Markus Villig founded Taxify with a loan from his parents when he was 19. He personally persuaded the first 50 drivers to sign up to his platform, and then teamed up with his brother Martin and co-founder Oliver Leisalu to start growing the startup.
Villig, now 24, told Quartz at the NOAH tech leaders conference in Berlin that he was not daunted by the prospect of taking on Uber. “What many investors got wrong a few years ago was that they thought the ride-hailing space would be a monopoly, which is a fair assumption because that has happened to most other internet businesses before,” Villig said. “But we saw that it was more about local networks. They [Uber] might be super strong in the US, but we realized that local companies have a much better shot at this industry.”
Being located in Europe, instead of Silicon Valley, has actually been a boon for his ride-hailing platform, Villig said: It meant he was already familiar with the strict, complex European transportation regulations.
“Transportation problems are very local, so being close to our customers is a huge benefit,” Villig said. “This has helped us become the European leader with significantly less resources than our global competitors. “
Uber was already present in 20 of the 25 cities where Taxify launched, and Villig said he was often told there was no point competing with the ride-hailing giant. Nevertheless, he said, he was “very bullish” about getting into Uber-dominated markets, because he believed his company could offer a better service.
Villig, who has been name-checked in Forbes Europe’s “30 under 30” tech list, said that one thing Taxify does differently to Uber is offer “significantly better” earnings for drivers. Whereas competitors often charge drivers a commission of up to 30%, Taxify only takes 15%, he said.
Taxify has already attracted big investments from global car and taxi giants. In 2017, China’s Didi Chuxing invested an undisclosed sum in the young company. Its latest investment round in May—led by Daimler—raised $175 million, bringing Taxify’s valuation to $1 billion, and making it a rare European “unicorn.”
Showing that a young European startup can rival the might of Uber was a victory in itself. Villeg said: “Personally for me it’s pretty upsetting that when you’re a young person in tech growing up, and every single big company is from Silicon Valley, and Europe doesn’t have a single company that’s in the same ballpark.”
Taxify has surged to 500 staff in just five years (not including drivers). Villig says he’s not about to pen a management book about his secret sauce for success just yet, but he revealed one thing he wishes he’d known five years ago:
“I don’t think I realized at first how uncompromising you should be in bringing the best people on board,” he said. “They’ll pull the company forward, instead of being the ones that need to be pulled… For example, our product team is just 50 people, but having extremely talented engineers means we’re able to compete with huge companies, with teams of thousands of people.”