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The Girl with the Big Hair and Even Bigger Ideas!

Text by Ede Schank Tamkivi / Life in Estonia. Photos by Atko Januson.

Kristel Kruustük

Kristel Kruustük.

No matter where she goes, Kristel Kruustük (27), until recently known as Kristel Viidik, the cofounder of Testlio, is likely to stand out in a crowd. ‘No matter what my last name may be, everyone will always know me as Kristel, the girl with big hair,’ she laughs and adds that a key to success is never to worry about what others might think of you.

Of course, it’s not just the hair but her shiny personality, can-do attitude and, above all, her crazy ideas that simply cannot go unnoticed. Having worked as a tester herself, and become disillusioned by how testers were treated by big app-building companies, in 2012 she came up with the idea of building a platform that would actually appreciate the work of a tester − if you find a critical mistake and draw attention to it, you are also likely to be motivated to fix it − thereby providing development teams with quality-assurance (QA) testers.

She shared her thoughts with her then-boyfriend Marko Kruustük, later her cofounder and, for almost a month at the time of writing, also her husband, and the two signed up for a London-based event, Angelhack. They made it to the top three and were flown to San Francisco for the finals, where they won the global hackathon with a seed investment of $25 000 and a first paying customer.

That first customer was Kevin, a person that made such a lasting impression that he earned his own poster on Testlio’s wall: ‘What Would Kevin Do?’.

‘I’ve never seen a more intense person in my life,’ Kristel explains the story behind the poster. Kevin, a founder of a company that was later acquired by Microsoft, different units of which make up Testlio’s core customer, had a very precise vision of what he was after. Testlio really wanted to impress their first big customer so they worked nonstop over the span of three months, and eventually Kevin admitted that they had done a much better job than their main competitor: ‘He really helped us to form our product so now we always ask what Kevin would do to reach our goals,’ says Kristel.

And on the subject of their goals, Testlio’s current aim is to become a world leader in mobile apps testing. ‘Currently we are more of a high end and a high touch product. As this business model has justified itself we can reconsider our pricing policy,’ Kristel concludes. What next? ‘We will tackle the issues once they are in front of us,’ she shrugs while giving a big smile.

Life is a Party

In early 2015 they raised a ‘party round’ of $1 million from a number of individual seed investors in Silicon Valley. But this was just the beginning. In April this year they announced a round of $6.25 million led by well-known VC-firms Altos Ventures and Vertex Ventures.

‘Over the next 18-24 months, we do not need to worry about money,’ claims Kristel, although the business was already profitable before they raised the latest round. She shares another rule-of-thumb of fast-growing companies: never raise more money than you actually need for giving an extra boost to the growth, otherwise that risks making you too lazy to look for more creative solutions.

For Testlio, it was crucial to open an office in San Francisco and to hire a sales team there. But unlike so many other startups in Silicon Valley, they have stayed true to their frugal style. Although they no longer have to live on friends’ couches − since the office in SF also serves as a crash-pad − Kristel is adamant about not spending their hard-earned money on anything that does not meet the definition of a necessity. Even her clothes she wears to rags, before she goes shopping (with Marko, who picks out the best stuff for her!).

But the big party they had promised to all of their friends, they did finally have. Needless to say, the party took place in their Tallinn office, since 34 of their 47 employees are based here.

‘Estonia is my home,’ Kristel recounts passionately, but then pauses for a moment. Looking out of the window of her office on the 6th floor on one of a few new buildings in Telliskivi which would offer a panoramic view of the tiled roofs of the Old Town on the one side, and the gleaming Port of Tallinn on the other, but for the fact that they are hidden behind grey clouds and pouring rain (in the middle of August!) she shrugs: ‘Although now you might wonder: what is going on with the weather!?’

While a typical Estonian would no doubt fall into a rant about how this donnerwetter has spoiled all their plans for the summer, Kristel lightens up: ‘But it’s still good. I love the atmosphere of this part of town, it only takes me two minutes to walk home. I have all my friends nearby. I love the small size of Estonia, everyone knows everybody and that makes us stronger together. If I need to, I can always get away and do things elsewhere but I will always want to come back.’

Kristel has long made me wonder how she can maintain such a positive attitude and is always so full of energy, while being a completely down-to-earth and humble person at the same time. She admits that she always tries to do her best and has learned to only process information that she can benefit from.

‘I have definitely grown a thicker skin over the past four years,’ she claims. ‘Building a team up from 15 to 40 people has been very stressful and has taught me a lot about effective and value-based leadership. There is opportunity in every setback. We all make mistakes, but it’s important to learn from them, not to give up, and move on. I believe I’m a much better leader and a much better communicator today,’ she goes on.

‘There is no doubt that Kristel is the most successful female entrepreneur in Estonia, actually in the Baltics,’ claims Ragnar Sass, a startup entrepreneur, who Kristel also sees as one of the main influences in getting to that stage. ‘She has immense resources of energy. She’s without question one of the hardest working and most passionate persons about her job on this side of the Atlantic. To hear her speak about testing leaves little doubt that it is the most important thing in the world for her.’

Testers in the Cloud

Her husband Marko seconds that notion: ‘While talking to investors it’s always Kristel that gets the attention first with her optimism. Most people probably wonder how anyone can possibly talk about testing with such passion!’ Marko admits that as a much more structured person himself, he has learned a lot from Kristel’s outgoing personality. But their double-act works perfectly just the way it is − once Kristel has caught everyone’s attention, Marko will introduce the numbers and their plan to tackle the market.

‘Every day I wake up I think of my mission to offer best jobs for testers around the world,’ claims Kristel. ‘It’s not so much about the number of testers we have but to have the best qualified testers in the network,’ she goes on. There are currently around 200 testers on their payroll in places as diverse as the UK, Ukraine, Estonia and Pakistan, some of whom can earn as much as €4000 a month.

‘I always think of the story of a Ukrainian guy who became one of our best testers, and thanks to his job could move away from the war zone currently raging in Ukraine,’ Kristel says, giving a sobering example of how it’s not just fixing the bugs of software that’s at stake, but actually making a difference in people’s lives.

To become a qualified tester on Testlio’s platform, candidates need to pass a test on a test app with built-in bugs (‘I built it, but have never reached a score of 100% even myself,’ Kristel testifies). Then they sign up for a webinar for half an hour in time. And as a final test, candidates need to work on a project over a weekend, the so-called ‘eat your own dog food’ which aims to filter out the people who are not really passionate about testing. The best people get voted top by ratings from QA managers and the community.

It’s unlikely that Testlio will ever run out of work, since there is no such thing in the world of software as a product without bugs. Testlio tests big apps that have millions of users and pay attention to those bugs that have been noted the most. Being not merely a testing factory, Testlio actually helps to improve those products by trying to give feedback within 48 hours, because most stable clients like to do their development during the week and use Testlio’s service over the weekend, so they can start a new week with a ‘clean sheet’ with no bugs.

Building a Unicorn with a Horse

Kristel still likes to do some hands-on testing herself, besides talking to investors and running the everyday business, while Marko is in charge of constantly upgrading the platform as well as financial matters.

While they originally thought that being a couple might be seen as a setback on the startup-scene, the truth has been quite the opposite. While pointing to several factors that helped him make the decision to invest in Testlio, Yee Lee, an angel investor and startup founder from Silicon Valley, also explains that: ‘I like companies where the founders have worked together to build, validate, and iterate on the product.’

Obviously the two make a formidable team, complementing each other in their personal traits while sharing the same passions. ‘I could never imagine doing this with anyone else but her,’ recounts Marko, who originally built the platform and still fixes bugs at nighttime. ‘If you are building a company together it also helps you to be on the same page with the values. Sometimes we don’t really need to say things to understand what we mean, there is a complete trust: if one of us is silent, the other person will know not to bother her/him,’ he explains.

Ragnar Sass also adds that Kristel has become an inspiring role model for hundreds of women who are now willing to try their hand in IT and even dream about becoming entrepreneurs and leaders: ‘I’m most certain that thanks to Kristel we will be seeing more and more women as founders in startup entrepreneurship,’ he avers.

In accordance with what Ragnar says, it reminds me of a youth conference in Tallinn last spring, where Kristel was invited to speak on the main stage to inspire youngsters, mostly girls, to try their hand in technology, inspired by her own experience. While she was holding the limelight on stage, I noticed Marko standing in the crowd, holding on to Kristel’s handbag. This gesture was both very selfless and also indicative of the complete trust and support between the two.

Marko tells me that there is no hidden rivalry inside their relationship and he feels no envy when Kristel gets more attention than he does. ‘She is our covergirl,’ he admits. ‘We need to see the bigger picture here of setting a good example for upcoming generations,’ he goes on.

This unquestionable trust does not mean there is no room for an element of the unexpected. For their wedding for instance, Marko surprised Kristel with a new horse. A real, living animal! ‘That was definitely the sweetest moment of the wedding,’ relates Ragnar, who was among the small circle of friends to attend the event. ‘This was a complete surprise for both Kristel and all of the guests alike,’ he recalls.

Kristel had been considering getting back into the horse riding she had had to quit as a teenager when her parents split and she simply could not afford any hobbies any more. It’s apparent that having to make it on her own from very early on has yielded for her an outstanding self-discipline and a strong urge to succeed. Not surprisingly, she names her 90-year-old grandmother as one of her biggest role models in life: despite all the hardships she has had to endure in life, she’s still a redoubtable person.

Whenever Kristel feels down or simply needs time to think things over, she likes to play the piano. ‘Playing the piano is like being an entrepreneur,’ Kristel says, making a valid comparison. ‘You will not be very good at it as you start and it will take a while to excel. You need to practice a lot and learn it by doing, sometimes going slower and then adding speed if needed,’ she sums up.

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