Interview with Timmu Tõke – Stoicism, Entrepreneurship, Engineering Growth and Innovation

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Today we’re interviewing Timmu Tõke, founder and CEO of Wolf3D, a company specialized in creating personal 3D avatars of people for games and virtual worlds using a single selfie. 

Timmu and his co-founders were named Forbes 30 Under 30 for their outstanding success in such an innovative field. I got to know Timmu’s work because of some of his insightful writings on stoicism and entrepreneurship, startups, and critical thinking.

Nonetheless, when I discovered he had a tattoo of Marcus Aurelius’s face (we both share a mutual interest in Marcus Aurelius and stoic philosophers) I knew that at my next visit in Tallinn I had to meet him somehow.

In this interview, we delve into the creation of his company and the inspiration behind the mind of one of the greatest innovators of today.

Timmu, how did you start out?

I always wanted to be an entrepreneur and I had two companies before. My parents were in business too so I guess that’s where I learned from. I was always kind of open for opportunities and I was also into tech since I was a kid. 

I bought some stocks in 3D printing and then a well-known printer. With this, I printed some stuff and decided to learn about 3D more. That leads me on to scanning people and when I saw my first scanned person I was like, “oh, my God”! But that was way too early to the market compared to now.

We set up a studio to make full-body scans of people and then pointed to a network of studios around Europe to catch scans and start building games and products on top of that data. Wolf3D all started due to curiosity about 3D and exponential technologies, I think we realized that we were too early for a lot of technology but we were building for the future.

It started with the idea and hope that scans and avatars would have become a really cool thing in the future for consumers.

What were the previous businesses about?

The first one, simply buying and selling stuff online, nothing too serious. 

The second one was a fashion company that made shirts for men that I started at the end of high school. With the beginning of university this started to overlap into what Wolf 3D would start to become and it went from there.

What are the pros and cons of Estonia as it's a hot topic in Europe for entrepreneurship and startups?

  • I think definitely, what's good about Estonia, it's the fact that it’s small and you have to think globally from day one. Whenever you build something, there is not even a chance that you build a local market and then go from here. You have to build something that is relevant in a global sphere. 
  • The second perk is that we’re starting to see always more second generation startup founders, that is built on top of those who have gone through ground zero such as Skype, Transferwise, Bolt, Pipedrive, just to name a few startups started in Estonia. There are a lot of startups here. There’s a lot of selling smaller companies to bigger ones and using that money to start a new project or join other companies. So that kind of ecosystem itself organically compounds and kind of become stronger and stronger because of the network effects, everything is continually growing.
  • It's quite affordable compared to London or New York or the big tech and finance centers. Engineers have a good lifestyle here as salaries are similar to other countries but the cost of living is much more affordable here.

How do you keep yourself accountable?

As founder and CEO, you don't report to anyone. So you have to hold yourself accountable. That means having goals and a good understanding of what you do well and not well. 

That understanding can only come from speaking to people and experience, though.

I always think about my goals and write in my journal about how I’ve made progress with them. I have a formal process for myself. 

You definitely need a system in place that you use, to make sure that you’re making progress.

Do you feel there’s a lot of diversity in Estonia and is it inclusive?

I think there should be more diversity, but there is already a lot of that in business here already. Take my own team for example, we have people from nine different nations, some from Estonia and the others from all over. Estonia is welcoming to enterprises.

Do you think that you’ve found in Tallinn, people who can inspire you enough to go to the next level? 

While I haven’t found much inspiration from most of the other local founders here, the city is full with people that understand the world in a great way, even on a philosophy side and stuff like that is a source of inspiration as well. 

What would you like to have built and be remembered for before you die?

For me, it's all about making progress. That’s my internal motivation. Just becoming better, contributing to evolution. Making better things, becoming better yourself. 

I used to think “I want to build the next big thing”. Sort of a monument to people, so that they remember it. But then again, whatever you can build in one lifetime, basically, it doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. 

On one hand, you can see it as “Oh, my God. Nothing that I create matters. Then what's the point? Why should they do anything?”  

But there’s a certain gift to knowing that everything is impermanent and nothing lasts forever. It really sets you free from indulging in things that doesn’t matter.

What do you think it’s the most exciting or positive application of virtual reality for you?

Our long term goal is similar to teleportation basically, like having a conversation with anyone in the world. You're in the same room together using this virtual reality technology. 

It can be used in business meetings or similar things and it’s like you’re right in the room with them, all without having to travel anywhere.

Motivating kids when they're in school could be another great application.

Why do you think Estonia has such a high number of startup founders?

I think it's like being an entrepreneur is cool here and maybe even too cool. Entrepreneurship shouldn’t be something you do because it’s seen by other people or yourself as “prestigious”.

Estonia is moving into the right direction and we're blessed. I was blessed to be born here.

You have two co-founders. How do you manage to get along with different views?

Easy. We've been doing this for a long time now, we're very open and we have a lot of fights like small discussions, heated discussions all the time. They become less and less over time. If there's any problem, everyone knows right away.

There's no hiding and building up some frustration. If something's bad, that's being talked about. 

Give everyone the most honest and direct feedback about what they do well and what you don't do well. I think that's an important thing. You have to solve the problems or grudges so it doesn't build up.

Do you think it worked out because you have complementary skills or just because you are just good to get along?

Well, we do have some overlap in skills. We did bands together, kids and stuff like that. We know each other well.

What are tips about hiring and building a team? 

We had a lot of bad hires for a while until we figured out that we had to have a reliable system in place for this.

What we look at is mainly if they are top performers. How they think about and what they've done before, as well, we want to see that they're good at something because they're just passionate about it. 

That's probably more like a feeling but that's something you can’t have a great system for. It was our intuition, but we just had bad luck with one of our last hired.

From here Estonia, how did you approach client acquisition when you got started?

We acquired big enterprise customer from the start, and the fact that I used to live in the U.S. certainly helped, also to understand the culture and how things were done there.

Our major acquisition channels are industry events (i.e., conferences.) We do outreach as well. 

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