Kuldiga street, the main drag through the city center, would rate as a minor backstreet in most of the world's major ports. As you walk along it, past a few cafes and an impressive proliferation of gambling halls, there's nothing but a modest plaque at the entrance to one of the older and more attractive buildings to suggest that three floors above, the entire population of China is being helped every single day.
Well, not the population of China exactly. The figure is roughly equivalent to the number of people Ervins Grinfelds, co-founder of technology company TestDevLab says have been affected one way or another by the work taking place three floors up.
“We sat down and calculated how many customers we've actually helped by testing software. The number is about 1.5 billion, as we have quite big customers: Microsoft, Skype, Twilio, Truecaller and others. That's quite a wonderful feeling,” says Grinfelds.
“In a nutshell, we help our clients to build better quality software products. We have more than 500 mobile devices here in our offices – iPhones, Androids, tablets, and certified professional testers who test the products thoroughly and give feedback to the customers saying 'These are the bugs and the problems in the application that need to be fixed before you release the product'.”
Speaking of bugs, just outside Grinfelds' modest office is a glass case, which looks a bit like the farms one sees at natural history museums illustrating the well-organised life of a colony of ants in real time. Inside, instead of queens, workers and soldiers munching leaves and laying eggs, is a bank of blinking mobile devices all plugged into a central nervous system. It's called the 'Device Farm' and allows TestDevLab's testers – who account for three quarters of the total staff of 100 - to try things out and see what happens.
Founded in 2011 by Grinfelds and business partner Andrejs Frisfelds after years of experience with Skype in Estonia and Sweden, TestDevLab now has clients in 10 countries, mainly in Western Europe and North America, and 94.5% of turnover (just over 3 million euros in 2016) is generated by exports.
So, with shapes of grey ships looming ominously through the blizzard outside, one has to ask: why Ventspils?
“We came here to study information technology in 2002-3 at the university. But we didn't just study. We also established connections, and when we thought about starting up our own company it seemed natural to use those connections, so we decided to open up in Ventspils. That's one of the good things about smaller places like Ventspils – because the university is quite small, people bond better. There aren't a huge number of places to go out, so your paths cross all the time. It forms friendships and with me it created contacts that have lasted a long time. It is the same with our clients – we win contracts because people recommend us or show our work to others. We call it our trusted network of individuals. The only way to survive is to show we can bring significant added value to our clients.”
In fact, this is TestDevLab's third incarnation in Venstpils. First was study at the university, then the return to open a small office at the adjacent business incubator and in 2015 the company found its well hidden test up above the gambling halls.
The unexpected location has no impact on the company's cutting edge work, says Grinfelds.
“Latvia is one of the best countries for network infrastructure. We have optical cable in Ventspils that gives just as good performance as in Riga. It's not an issue at all.
The proximity of the university (where Grinfelds and Frisfelds now lecture, allowing them to pass on their expertise as well as keep tabs on the next crop of IT talent) and a local workforce ready, willing and able to join the team has led to rapid growth, so that now TestDevLab has offices in Riga and another seaside city, Liepaja.
“People are quite loyal to their city. It's family-friendly and particularly in summer we get people from the Riga office quite keen to work in Ventspils and Liepāja,” smiles Grinfelds.
Being in the center of town instead of out at the city limits at Ventspils' high-tech cluster has another benefit. Just around the corner are the old-time wooden beams and sepia prints of the famous Skroderkrogs restaurant. After a quick battle through the blizzard, it's here a continued discussion of whether the concept of “place” matters in a digitally interconnected world prompts Grinfelds to tell a memorable anecdote.
“I'll tell you a story. I fly drones. I took one to Pokaiņi forest [a famous mysterious place associated with everything from ley lines to UFOs] and flew it up into the air. This was quite a sophisticated drone and uses all sorts of data. After a few minutes it sent a message that its compass was not working. That was strange. Then a few minutes later it sent a message that its GPS was not working. At that point it became completely impossible to control – it flew off and disappeared. I never saw it again.”
This series is produced in cooperation with The Red Jackets organization which unites the best exporting brands from Latvia with top-notch products, services, knowledge, and values. These are brands rooted in Latvia and the movement aims to spread the word about Latvia through its brands, exceptional people and inspiring places. Supporters of the Red Jackets movement include the European Commission representation in Latvia and ALTUM state-owned development finance institution.