Kristel Kruustük is an Estonian entrepreneur who, aged 23, quit her job as a software tester to found, alongside husband Marko, Testlio – a one-stop quality assurance (QA) platform that tests products used by 650 million users per month. Last year a $6.25m funding round took the company to almost $7.5m of backing–a far cry from the $25,000 it won at hackathon AngelHack in 2012.
Here Kruustük talks to Red Herring about the work ethics growing up in a post-Soviet economy has taught her, hiring mistakes and how Silicon Valley’s “hustle culture” isn’t for everybody.
Growing up in Estonia, was tech always a part of your education? Did it raise any eyebrows when you chose to build a career in technology?
Growing up in Estonia, tech was always a part of my education. To put things into perspective, I was eight when the national project Tiigrihüpe (Tiger’s Leap) was rolled out in Estonia. This made computer literacy training and internet access possible to all Estonian schools. So I grew up at the birth of the digital era, you could say.
When it was time for me to decide on what to do with my life and which career path to pursue, I didn’t really know what direction I wanted to take with my studies. But luckily at the time, my sister’s friends encouraged me to go into tech and persuaded me this was where the future lay.
So I didn’t face any opposition when I chose to pursue a career in technology even though at the time there were fewer women in that field. For example, when I was studying in university, the ratio in the programming classes was 10 men for every woman. This never phased me and I can’t say that anyone actively discouraged me later either.
What were your first thoughts when you won AngelHack? How quickly did you resolve to putting as much money as possible back into the startup?
I was euphoric! Winning AngelHack was a dream come true and a sort of validation for Testlio’s model: for us there was absolutely no question of not using this opportunity to fund Testlio. As a matter of fact, thanks to that we were able to hire our first employee, who’s still with us to this day. We still have the big winning check prominently displayed in our Tallinn office!
Should all founders look to make those sacrifices? Are founders today pushed too hard towards success, or is a work-round-the-clock ethic simply what it takes to be the best?
I don’t really think there’s a one size-fits-all approach. I grew up in the post-Soviet era so being frugal is part of my DNA in a way. I saw the way my parents–as well as my friends and their families–had to get by and make things work with less. So I do think this mentality has helped us remain money-smart with Testlio.
Success demands constant work, especially as founders have to satisfy not only the expectations they set on themselves but also those from their employees, customers, investors, etc. You are constantly surrounded by the “hustle culture”, with everyone reminding you that they work 16-hour days, everyday of the week. So there’s a lot of pressure to produce good results.
With that said, I don’t believe a work-round-the-clock approach is conducive to success; rather it’s a recipe for burnout. You might end up losing sight of what truly matters.The key really is to work smarter because a good work-life balance ultimately translates into a ‘better you’: you can’t be successful and guide your team through rough times unless you take care of yourself first. Besides, when you work on something you are passionate about, none of the efforts you put in are wasted so you might as well enjoy the journey and not obsess over everything.
Did you make any major mistakes when starting out?
When it was time to expand Testlio, I did make some hiring decisions that didn’t work out. As a first time founder, I simply lacked the experience to evaluate the right fit especially considering the need for adaptability and fast pace in the startup world. Not everyone is cut out for this, and that’s perfectly fine.
One way to avoid these mistakes is to define and communicate very clear expectations from the beginning, so that everyone knows what’s needed for the company and what’s expected of them.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone gave you?
As a first-time founder, I used to stress and worry constantly about every decision: I was afraid of making a mistake, of how to best spare people’s feelings, etc. So the advice my husband gave me was to focus on my strengths and, to the best of my abilities, channel my energy into the right things.
When dealing with particularly tense situations, he encouraged me to write down the issue on paper, describe all the factors and get to its real core – the one thing that if solved would provide peace of mind. And that’s what I’ve done since. No matter how painful implementing the solution is, you just have to get on with it. Period.
What are the most difficult things to keep on top of, in such a fast-changing industry like testing?
Adapting to fast-changing technologies and devices is inherently challenging but at the same time it also creates more opportunities for us. We are not dependent on a tool or SDK, rather we depend on people and how well we recruit, train and nurture them. But next to this, we have to continuously build a platform that scales and ‘automates’ things where it makes sense. Identify insights and trends. Basically help identify issues that the customer did not even know that they had using the power of AI.
What is the most difficult aspect of scaling effectively?
Our business is all about people, so in order to scale successfully we have to be mindful of how we can maintain high quality service while increasing the number of people responsible for providing it. In this light, we’re moving towards operationalizing all our departments and automating all the manual activities that can reasonably be automated.