The Capital interviewed Mikk Maal, founder of Comistar.
Can you give us a brief introduction to you? What is your story, dating back as far as you wish?
Well, I started my first business when I was 19 (didn’t go too well), and failed with pretty much all projects until I was around 23–24. At the same time, I studied law at university, but my focus was always on entrepreneurship. When I was 23, I got involved in one e-commerce project with a couple of Finnish entrepreneurs. After exiting this business in less than one year, we pretty much started Comistar together. At first, our core focus was on taxation matters, and it’s still one of the core areas of expertise for us, but we’re heavily focused on licensing and the blockchain industry nowadays.
Why did you get involved in the cryptocurrency industry, and where do you think the industry will be in 5–10 years?
My first exposure to cryptos was around 2015-ish if I remember correctly because some of my friends were mining bitcoin and other cryptos that existed at the time. I never got into mining, but that was my first introduction to space. Then, in early 2017, I started to meet with more and more crypto entrepreneurs due to Estonian crypto-friendly regulations, and it became one of our focus points as a company. I also started blogging and wrote a few e-books about bitcoin and tokenization in due course. In time, we’ve become so ingrained in the crypto space that we’re not simply a service provider, but part of the community.
That’s amazing, Mikk Maal. Now can you give us an introduction to Comistar and its history?
Yes. Comistar has been providing tax, accounting and legal services in Estonia for seven years. We also have offices in Finland, where the first office was opened, and in Switzerland and Los Angeles, but each office has a slightly different focus. Our goal has been to deliver a wide array of support services to clients, and it seems we’ve been pretty good at it.
So how did you get started with Comistar, and why? Early on, did you see an opportunity to fill a void in the market?
I would say that it was rather a coincidence for me. Due to the large network of Scandinavian entrepreneurs that we had we were getting many requests for advice on how to be more efficient with taxes and how to move to the new markets, so it slowly grew into a business.
There’s always a need for quality support services, and we did see an opportunity in providing support for entrepreneurs doing international businesses and re-locating their companies to other jurisdictions. It’s quite unbelievable how much better some countries are within the EU for doing business, both from taxation and bureaucracy point of view, compared to others.
You also help companies with crypto licenses in Estonia through Comistar. Could you tell us more about this?’
Yes, Estonia introduced crypto regulations in 2017, and as it was back then and still is one of the few jurisdictions in the EU with specific crypto licenses, there were many crypto companies that wanted to obtain the Estonian license to give legitimacy to their operations. It’s still the case, because no one wants to operate in an environment where the lawmaker hasn’t specified whether something is legal or not. We’ve helped more than 50 companies, including some of the biggest crypto exchanges and crypto-lenders, with their needs in Estonia.
It’s currently hard or impossible for companies to obtain crypto licenses in a lot of countries. Why do you think most countries makes this so difficult? Will it be easier in the future?
Well, for one, in many countries there’s no specific license to obtain. For example, in Malta, if you’re a crypto exchange, you need to obtain the MTF-license, which is an Investment Firm license with a capital requirement of 720 000€, and it can take even several years to complete the process. There are some countries like Germany and Liechtenstein who have introduced more specific licensing options, but they’re still super complicated to get. It’s difficult because lawmakers want to protect retail investors and traders from losing their money, and they just don’t know any other way than making things complicated. I don’t believe it will get easier, if anything, it will get more difficult.
Around 500 Estonian crypto companies lost their crypto licenses in 2020, could you explain why this happened?
Yes, the number is higher now, I would say around 1000 crypto companies have lost their licenses now, and less than 60 companies have the license at this moment. It’s due to the new requirements. In March 2020, Estonia introduced new licensing requirements, which require to have a local office with Estonian residents on the board of the company. It doesn’t have to be an Estonian citizen, but a person who lives in Estonia. There were other requirements, but this is the major one.
There are a few important things to note here. First, many crypto license holders were inactive companies, including companies that obtained a license for an ICO (not needed) to show that they’re supervised and legit projects.
Secondly, Estonian FIU wasn’t able to supervise 1000 companies operating across the globe. It’s logical that you want to have the capacity to supervise companies if you issue licenses, otherwise, the license has no purpose without supervision. Therefore, the local management requirement makes a lot of sense in my opinion. These changes cleared the space and now we have better quality companies operating under the Estonian license. Of course, there were good companies as well that lost their licenses, because it wasn’t economically feasible for them to keep the local office in Estonia.
Yet, I wouldn’t be afraid of the process even now — it’s still many times easier compared to alternatives, both process, and cost-wise. Additionally, we can help our clients to set up the local office and recruit the required personnel and provide the A to Z solution. With stricter requirements, the license has more value.
Comistar built a Zero to scale solution for company management as well, could you tell us more about this solution, and it’s benefits?
Yes, Zero To Scale is a software to start and manage your Estonian company. As we’re official service providers on the Estonian e-Residency marketplace, we have many clients who use our services to manage their online businesses. I do not think there is a better way at this moment to manage the Estonian company than the solution we’ve built. Zero To Scale includes accounting and compliance, banking marketplace, invoicing, legal document templates, Growth Lab and other features that clients can use. It’s really a no-brainer if you’re planning to register your business in Estonia.
What have been the biggest challenges for you and Comistar since you started the project?
Limited resources — as we’re not a big company, we have to be very wise about what we build, what we prioritize, and most importantly, what not to build or spend time and money on. It’s not always easy to understand what are essentials and what are nice-to-haves in product development.
Understood. Now what has been your greatest achievement thus far, and what has been the biggest failure or setback personally or in the history of the company?
The achievement has been to build a decent company with a loan of 5000€ seven years ago, and in due course, helping many clients to build their businesses together with us. We’ve seen multimillion-euro exits and met many great entrepreneurs, and that’s the best we can hope for.
As for setbacks, at times we’ve definitely focused on the wrong things which have caused the stagnation of the business. We’ve also made mistakes on hiring and have settled for people that aren’t really a good fit for the company.
What is the next step for Comistar in the next 1–2 years?
We’re transitioning from mainly a service business to mainly a software business. We’re building three different products which are all software products, and it’s part of our goal to become a tech-first company. We see it as a must if we want to be competitive in the next 10 years.
Where can people support your business? Other than that, thank you for your time — any final words?
Yes — people can find us at www.e-resident.me — they’ll have a chance to connect with us via contact forms or write to us directly at [email protected] I would say that we’re entering into a possibly longer period of economic downturn, and in these times, people need hope. They need hope and realization that whatever they want their life to be, it’s on them to make it happen. And Estonia, with its favorable taxation and e-Residency program, is a great platform to start a side-business or full-time entrepreneur career. I believe that entrepreneurship is one of the truest forms of self-actualization. We will have enough complainers. Don’t be one of them.