Well-known Scottish IT-businesswoman escaped from Brexit to Estonia

Merike Lees
Vicky Brock was elected the most inspiring woman of the year at the Scottish technology awards ceremony for women in 2019; she was elected Scotland’s most inspiring business figure of the year in 2017 and the innovator of the year among the 2014 women’s technology awards.
Vicky Brock was elected the most inspiring woman of the year at the Scottish technology awards ceremony for women in 2019; she was elected Scotland’s most inspiring business figure of the year in 2017 and the innovator of the year among the 2014 women’s technology awards. Photo: Eero Vabamägi

Britain's exit from the EU brought Vicky Brock, a well-known Scottish startup entrepreneur to Estonia. Her latest startup helps to combat unlawful trade over the Internet.

Vicky Brock is a respected and well-known IT- entrepreneur, who has been acknowledged with several titled back home: she was elected the most inspiring woman of the year at the Scottish technology awards ceremony for women in 2019; she was elected Scotland’s most inspiring business figure of the year in 2017 and the innovator of the year among the 2014 women’s technology awards. Clear returns, one of her earlier startups won the title of Top Tech Startup in Europe from the European Commission. She is the ambassador of Scottish female entrepreneurship and director emeritus of the NXD open knowledge foundation. She has been described as one of the top female technology leaders followed by Forbes.

But why did this successful and acknowledged business figure leave her homeland and who did she happen to reach Estonia? As it happens, this was a direct result of Brexit. Brock has nothing good to say about Brexit and did not really believe that it would ever happen. Unfortunately it did happen and in a much worse way than she had imagined.

“Our clients are governments, government institutions and banks all over Europe; it would have been very difficult to run that business from outside the EU and we understood that we shall have to leave Scotland,” she said.

Where to run from Brexit?

Even though they did not believe that Brexit will actually happen, they began, just in case, to look for places where they could set up their company. They studied the legal and entrepreneurial environments of countries, the opportunities of operating freely and entering the market without restrictions. They weighed Ireland, France and Germany. Then Brock heard about Estonia’s e-residency, learned about Estonia and the Estonians and registered her firm here.

“It was important for me to be certain that this is the country where I want to make business and whether that country is interested in making business with us. They do not want it in every country. Britain is at the top of the list of such countries,” she remarked.

Brock recalls how she made a six-hour train journey to London to receive her digital ID at the Estonian embassy and how the embassy official thanked her for applying for the Estonian e-residency. Brock felt tremendously grateful to Estonia for choosing and accepting her and thanked them for that.

She visited Estonia for the first time to open a bank account here. She describes the procedure, so ordinary for us, as a very surprising and positive experience which testified to a business environment filled with good energy. “This is like Silicon Valley, only without the drawbacks of Silicon Valley, and that gave me a great energy boost,” Brock recalled.

As the greatest advantage of e-residency, she outlines the fact that this made it possible for them to continue their business activities. “If we had not spent 18 months worrying what will happen after Brexit and not done our homework, we would have stayed in the UK and would have been a small local Scottish enterprise,” she admitted. “There is no use thinking big if you have no opportunities to realise your dreams.”

Thus one could say that Scotland lost and Estonia gained a successful IT-businesswoman and her company – all thanks to Brexit. “I cannot say that I am grateful to Brexit for anything; I am not yet ready to do that;” Brock says, not hiding her disappointment. “But without Brexit I would not have become, in my age, as bold as to launch an enterprise in a foreign country, I have enjoyed the freedom of movement all my life and have never considered it remarkable before I lost it. Brexit was a stupid thing and I would have lost my chance unless I acted quickly.”

It became clear by the end of last year that Brexit would have worse consequences than feared. This meant that the couple of entrepreneurs – Brock established Vistalworks with her husband Stephen Budd and third partner Alan Murray, who still resides in Edinburgh – really had to move to Estonia.

They set up their office in Telliskivi Lift99 startups cooperation centre and began to hire people. “We have been doing and will do in the future all the nice things they expect from the e-residents – we create jobs and pay taxes. This is the real home of our business,” Vicky Brock assured.

Although the time spent in Tallinn and in Lift99 has been brief, Brock is happy with her experience so far. From her international viewpoint she can tell that startups have refreshing growth opportunities here. “I have learned more during the past year that ever before, although I have launched already five startups;” Brock says.

Scotland is still her ´homeland. It has many advantages but no global prospects. The business perspectives of a startup are narrower there, unlike Tallinn.

“Estonia’s home market is very limited and one has to look outside. It is different in other countries; entrepreneurs limit themselves with the home market and are not oriented to expand beyond its borders,” Brock explains. “It is an excellent opportunity for me to have a different approach to business. We just have to learn to cope with the time lag.”

Combating knockoff trade

The data technology of Vistalworks, the firm they established, is meant to recognise knockoff goods in the Internet. E-bay, Aliexpress and Amazon sell a number of products which are traded illegally, which should not be sold or do not even exist. These are just traps set up for buyers to get their credit card data and money. The buyer either loses money or receives a forged product. The state loses on taxes. Moreover, the state has to deal with the situation. Banks also lose then people cancel their credit card payments. This harms the states, banks and individuals.

Noticing where from the knockoff goods come from and preventing their sale can protect thousands of people instead of a single individual. Therefore the clients of Vistalworks are not the end consumer e-buyers but national tax and customer protection institutions, banks, EU-oriented organisations or institutions. The list also includes states with well-regulated legislation which protects their clients like the UK and South Korea.

“The states are the best positioned to protect themselves and combat fraud in e-business,” Vicky Brock said. “Online shops have pop-up warnings and cooperation with banks can prevent a lot of loss.”

Vistalworks currently employs 16 people in three countries: Estonia, the UK and Ukraine. There is great need to hire more within the year. Data analysts and cybersecurity specialists are especially wanted. But a person with experience of handling business at the EU level is especially urgently needed. “You have to select people carefully; a wrong person at a wrong post cannot perform the function of the job,” Brock said.

Besides her business, she brought her husband, the co-founder Stephen Budd, to Estonia as well. She also hopes to receive her parents here, who have received two vaccine shots in Scotland and are ready to visit Estonia. Brock describes herself as a full-time entrepreneur who has nothing else in her life but work. She has also learned from experience and knows that the work need not love her back – one sometimes need to take time out or the health and working capability would suffer. But she has never understood how people can share their time between work and children.

The Estonians’ silence was a surprise

Getting used to life in Estonia has taken more time due to the corona-related restrictions. Brock had thought that she and her husband are taciturn people but she learned the meaning of real silence only after settling down in Estonia.

“My husband wanted to talk to people, to communicate with them in the Rimi shop, but that was very complicated,” Brock recalls the beginning. “It took time to make friends and start conversation. Now people say hello when I go out in the morning.”

She also knows now not to ask the Estonians how do they do because they take the question at face value and think about the answer. That is why she just says hello.

She considers following the “Eesti Laul” song contest one of her first moves towards becoming an Estonian. Her first phone call in Estonia was to vote for her favourite. This was the band Suured Tüdrukud. She supported Malta during the Eurovision contest.

“As we came here I though that we shall just look from the sidelines but now I already feel at home,” Vicky Brock said. “We have a nice apartment and I planted flowers on the balcony, therefore I have already ties to the place.”