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Rainer Sternfeld: The Global Estonian

Text by Ede Schank Tamkivi / Life in Estonia, photos by Life in Estonia

Rainer Sternfeld

‘There’s not enough of us to have the luxury of being just local Estonians,’ claims Rainer Sternfeld, a founder and an entrepreneur, himself an epitome of a Global Estonian.

As if running an international company that works cross-border, and having homes on two different continents wasn’t enough hard work, Sternfeld started the eponymous podcast ‘Global Estonians’ this past summer, with the ambitious idea of interviewing one hundred transnational Estonians living across the globe as a contribution for the 100th Anniversary of the Republic of Estonia in 2018.

‘I can never sleep on a plane,’ claims Rainer, who’s just had four flights in the past two days, including a long haul across two continents, and is about to embark on a trip back the day after. He tends to be extremely productive while on a long flight: ‘I can do a full week’s work and edit a few episodes of the podcast,’ he explains.

Rainer first introduced the idea of a podcast (a web-based radio series – ed.) to a circle of friends at the time of the 98th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, in February 2016. Friends contributed the names of potential interviewees, all of whom live in various locations around the world and are all exceptional in the field they have chosen to work on in their lives, until that list far exceeded a hundred people. As of early December 2016, he has aired 10 episodes, including talks with Boston-based VC and Eesti 2.0 founder Hardi Meybaum, European Commission press attaché Irma Kaljulaid, who lives in Paris, and eclectic electronic musician Maria Juur in Los Angeles. A few people Rainer has interviewed over Skype, but most he actually tries to meet face-to-face, wherever in the world they might be.

For those who might wonder if Rainer, an engineer by training, is considering a new career in the media, he wryly responds that he does not see it as a journalistic project, but rather as an opportunity to make people think (both those he interviews as well as the listeners) and learn from each other’s experiences.
‘Never stop being curious!’ is one of his personal mottos − because life tends to offer unexpected challenges, he goes on to explain.

Being Always Occupied yet Highly Productive

As co-founder and CEO of Planet OS, a data intelligence provider for renewable energy producers, Rainer is already building his 8th organization, despite being only 34.

But the achievement he’s still probably best known for is being the originator of the cross-shaped Liberty Statue on Freedom Square, the central plaza in downtown Tallinn. He was just 24 when the statue was completed, amidst a lot of controversy surrounding it.

At the time he had just graduated from Tallinn Technical University (cum laude, of course) and was already running the Baltic business development branch for the Swiss-Swedish electrical manufacturing giant ABB. He was later in charge of designing the fast-charging infrastructure of electric cars, making Estonia the first country in the world to get to nationwide charger coverage as early as 2013.

‘I remember first meeting Rainer in Tallinn as Hardi introduced us over lunch,’ recalls Rain Rannu, the founder of Fortumo and another global Estonian. ‘He had no clue about startup life as he was fresh out of the corporate world but he was very eager to learn. He was asking a lot of questions. The next time I saw him he was already in Silicon Valley as he had managed to raise a round of investments from angel investors. He had learned tremendously in this one year, having reached a clear vision of what he wants to become and he was oozing the willpower to make it happen.’

The corporate background turned out to be a good thing: the contacts Rainer made at ABB led him to his first round of investors for a startup then called Marinexplore. They scaled up from small prototypes into big data pretty fast, and raised $1.3 million in seed capital, yet by January 2014 they were almost on the verge of closing down, after one industry giant pulled out of an investment deal on the day of signing. Despite being out of money, he declined the three fast-sale opportunities, and raised the $1 million necessary in a month, and got back to work.

‘This is what makes you humble,’ Rainer summarizes with hindsight. Humble, however, need not mean hopeless. The harsh experience gave him a good lesson that you need to take every challenge as an opportunity to train yourself to get better.

‘If there is a problem, you need to communicate it. Either to the Tax and Customs Board as the tax bills start piling up – and until this day they know us well and we are on very good terms – or to your employees, who will start sensing the angst,’ he notes, claiming to be a much more effective as a ’war-time CEO’ than a manager during placid, uneventful times.

Pilots and Pivots

In the summer of 2014 Rainer and his colleagues completely revamped the company as Planet OS. Fast forward two more years, and they are going through the second big pivot into renewable energy. ‘If we had not gone through the first transformation we would not had the premise for growth,’ he says in a very content manner, not shying away from mentioning that this year has been the best year for the company.
Having signed a strategic partnership agreement to build a large-scale data infrastructure for the German power company RWE at the beginning of this year, Planet OS have now secured a five-year deal with the second biggest wind farm in the world, Gwynt Y Mor, in Wales. By April 2017, all 150 of the wind farms of Europe’s 5th biggest energy giant will be running their Powerboard product to improve operational efficiency and economics of their wind business. Renewable energy like wind and solar power are booming and since there’s so much volatility in the surrounding environment the farms operate in, there’s enormous amount of data that needs to be processed, analysed and visualised in order to make the best decisions.

‘The energy sector is not exactly comprised of early adopters of new technology,’ Rainer says, summarizing their earlier excursions into the areas of oil & gas and marine businesses. ‘But now we can help the world transition to renewable energy and make it competitive with conventional energy sources,’ he goes on.

During the past two years they have run pilots and implementation projects in such a way as to net a little over €1 million in orders. Yet the company that has so far raised almost €8 million in strategic investments says it will need to take onboard additional working capital to fund its’ growth. ‘Raising a new round will buy us extra time for long-term innovation, instead of just fulfilling someone else’s immediate project orders. Money is time that you can use wisely. To be a good CEO you need to be great at one thing: allocating capital for best long-term returns across the endless options competing for it,’ he goes on.

Yet he defies every myth of the startup lifestyle of perks in the office, endless parties and unnecessary trips. Notwithstanding the almost-inhuman amount of travel he undergoes, he only flies coach class; on the ground he drives a Prius (expecting at least every second car to be self-driving by 2030) and leads an otherwise frugal lifestyle. ‘Every time I visit Rainer and his family’s home, I take a mental note of their “as little as possible and as much as necessary”-lifestyle,’ gushes Monica Kaukver, a family friend in Palo Alto, California, where his family now lives.

Closet Buddhist

‘I know I have a light case of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder),’ Rainer says while casually shuffling napkins on the dinner table into neat piles. ‘And I’m dealing with it,’ he notes, while giving the stack of tissue paper one final pat.

There is no doubt that he is a very systematic person. He himself stresses that there is a difference between being systematic and being overly in ordnung.’When your table is empty, it will not even get out of order,’ he states, sharing one secret of creating a system. ‘Also, there needs to be a system which complements your habits, so you can focus on things that matter; your life shouldn’t comprise of high maintenance low-value activities.’

And yes, since having the Germans on board, having to go to Germany regularly and because of getting constantly mistaken for a German because of his name, he’s actually started learning German on Duolingo. That will be an almost expected addition to his fluent command of English, Russian and Finnish. Not to mention his native Estonian, and a knack for languages thanks to being brought up in a bilingual family (his mother is an Estonian-born Ukrainian).

Rainer is also very systematic about food, knowing the exact amount of proteins, fats and carbohydrates he needs to consume daily. Once a week he will allow himself to have a ‘cheat day’ and eat anything he craves and as much as he likes: ‘Your body needs a little shock every once in a while in order to not start to feel too comfortable, which can stifle metabolism,’ he explains.

Rainer calls himself a ‘closet Buddhist’, though there is no hiding of his obvious desire for the balance of mind and body. The skills he learned from boxing, which he did for six years, come in handy in business too: ‘If you lose your focus and nerve, you will lose the match. It’s all about psychology and being able to contain yourself. The way I see it is that no one else has the right to get me worked up; this can only be myself if I let it,’ he goes on.

Following the famous quote from George Bernard Shaw: ‘Never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it’, Rainer is much more eager to have a meaningful conversation with a person different from himself, in order to keep up the motivation to learn new things.

Besides updating the list of the persons he wants to get for an episode of ‘Global Estonians’, he has started a file called the ‘Book of Ethos’, comprising quotes that have affected or changed his life. ‘Every quote has a backstory as to why it was important for me. I’m guessing that I will publish them as a book some day. At least for my kids,’ he concludes.

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