TechChill is one of the leading Baltic and Northern European startup & tech events, this year celebrating its 10th anniversary. Usually held in February in Riga, Latvia, this year TechChill is postponed to May and moved to a fully digital format. This means that for the first time, anyone can attend the event without needing to travel or look for accommodation.
TechChill is a community-led event that’s organized by a non-profit of the same name. To mark its 10th anniversary, we spoke to two TechChill founders and asked them to name ten interesting facts from a decade of tech chilling at TechChill.
Not many people know that the first TechChill event was actually a birthday party for TechHub Riga – a local branch of a global community for tech entrepreneurs & startups (TechHub’s main branch in London recently filed for administration due to the impact of Covid-19). This first event had around 100 participants who were mostly TechHub members. From then on, the number of attendees doubled every year.
TechChill’s co-founder and member of the board Ernests Stals (on the right side of the photo) remembers 2012 in Latvia when there was still no startup association, no business angel or venture capital organizations: “Nobody really cared about startups back then, TechHub was the only non-profit organization comprised of enthusiasts who were promoting the local startup ecosystem.”
The first gathering that we now call TechChill was actually a regional event in the TechCrunch event franchise. Ernests explains: “After 2011, TechCrunch changed ownership, and we were no longer allowed to call ourselves TechCrunch Baltics. But we still had the TCBaltics.com domain so we had to find a new name that would fit with it.”
Ernests remembers that the team was brainstorming about what’s special about the event: “It was going to be held in February, the coldest month in Latvia. But we couldn’t call ourselves anything to do with sauna culture, because Startup Sauna already existed. The Finns had also already claimed “Slush”, which we thought was perfect. It was quite a brainstorm but eventually our first volunteer Julia Gifford had an idea. Combining the cold weather with the “TCBaltics” domain we had, the TechChill name was born.”
TechChill has often been the facilitator for startup connections in the Baltic region, uniting people and putting the spotlight on tech innovations. Over the years, countless startups have used this opportunity, and several have risen to astonishing heights. For investors, TechChill is the best place to meet unicorns before they become unicorns.
Ernests tells us: “Most unicorns from the region visited TechChill before they became unicorns. Latvia still hasn’t seen its first 1B success story, but we’ve hosted Estonian unicorns like Pipedrive, TransferWise, and Bolt, long before their big success. For example, Martin Villig, co-founder of Taxify (now Bolt) came to TechChill when Taxify was just starting in Latvia. He was personally walking the streets of Riga and distributing discount vouchers for taxi rides.”
The TechChill board and core team stand out with a very high representation of women. TechChill itself had 46% female attendees in 2018 and also had kids’ rooms to welcome parents of both genders and to encourage the next generation of founders.
Marija Rucevska, co-founder and chair of the board at TechChill Foundation, says: “The tech industry is infamous for lack of diversity. To me, the low percentage of women in tech represents a huge investment opportunity not only in the Baltics but in Europe in general. We are now aware of the fact that diversity is the key to a successful business (outperforming all other aspects); thus whenever we hire, we make sure to act on it.”
TechChill was born in a time when conferences were rather stiff industry events. To emphasize the informal and chill vibe, a couch was placed on the stage, and all discussions happened in a laid-back manner. The blue couch became the symbol of TechChill – and part of the event’s logo.
Last year TechChill reinforced its chill reputation by serving afternoon beer instead of coffee. Ernests tells us: “For some years, people were telling us that they feel an afternoon slump, and sometimes in conferences, you feel like you’re overdosing coffee. So, last year we decided to switch coffee breaks to beer breaks after 3 p.m.”
At the same time, TechChill is a chill event that’s taken seriously on a state level. Organizations, embassies, and official institutions are present; state officials always give speeches and participate in sessions.
Many startup events across the world were small and cozy before they became big and, sometimes, vague and boring.
Ernests says: “TechChill is still “the right size” – when you have an agenda but still have free time to meet new, sometimes, random people and make new connections. For example, you can sit in a corner drinking a beer and meet the person next to you who’s doing the same, and they turn out to be a big-name investor from the other side of Europe.”
If Slush is a student-started event, TechChill is driven by entrepreneurs who know very well what startups are going through. It’s also part of the event’s policy to make itself more accessible to the next generation of entrepreneurs – startups and students – by offering friendlier prices for entrance passes. “We want students to see alternatives to sending CVs to large corporations after they graduate. Our aim is to inspire them that they can also start something of their own.“
Co-founder Ernests reveals that TechChill’s small organizing team consists mostly of people with an entrepreneurial mindset who have a “get shit done” attitude towards things, with no place for hierarchy and bureaucracy: “If we want something to happen, we have to do it ourselves. And I mean everything – from funding the event to finding people for it, organizing it, and finally getting on the stage to speak or moderate.”
TechChill is proud to have many international friends and partners, and Finns are special. Every year they bring an authentic sauna from Finland, which has become an indispensable element in TechChill parties.
Ernests shares details about the iconic sauna: “It’s pretty big, it has two-story shelves and a small hallway to prevent heat from escaping. The sauna takes up the size of a lorry on the ferry from Finland to Tallinn. Then someone with a special driver’s license brings it all the way from Tallinn to Riga, driving at a maximum speed of 80 km/h. And that someone for years has been startup coach Mike Bradshaw. Hats off!”
2021 will be the first year without TechChill’s famous sauna, but let’s see if the organizers come up with a digital sauna version.
Every year, around 120 volunteers help to make TechChill happen. Some are even coming from abroad just to help at this community-led tech event and be part of the vibe.
TechChill’s co-founder Marija says that this event is a launchpad for young people who want to become part of the startup and tech community: “It’s an invaluable opportunity to see how different stakeholders work, from startups and investors to corporates, state, and ecosystem organizations.”
Also, TechChill’s board and founders are 100% volunteers. Ernests says: “We are trying to create a pipeline which turns volunteers into volunteer leaders and then into members of the TechChill team. Some of our volunteers have already become part of the TechChill core team.”
Ernests also reveals that the TechChill team still owes a thank you party to last year’s volunteers. It couldn’t be organized last year because universal lockdowns were enforced shortly after TechChill. And that brings us to the last fact…
TechChill 2020 took place on February 20 and 21, shortly before the coronavirus started spreading in the region. However, talk of the virus was already in the air, and TechChill organizers had placed disinfectant bottles all over the venue. “Nobody used them, but they later proved very useful to us because there was a nationwide shortage of disinfectants only a month later,” Ernests says.
“After the event, many people from across the world wrote to us that TechChill 2020 was the last startup event they attended, even up until now.”
While Latvia has its first unicorn on the horizon, TechChill continues to foster entrepreneurship and create fertile grounds for promising startups to be born. All organizers are convinced – as long as the Baltic startup forge continues to work, more unicorns are bound to come out of it.
This year TechChill took place digitally, on May 20 and 21.
Sure, it wasn’t the usual TechChill no in-person mingling, crazy parties, and networking in the sauna. But the Fifty Founders Battle, networking options, and powerful keynote speeches were still there and will be available in a more flexible format.
Ernests says: “It’s a new context and a new medium, and it’s not what we’re used to. While we are looking forward to meeting in person next year, we also see benefits of the remote format, and we can experiment with new tactics.”