Startup diary: Being stuck on a small island in the Atlantic is a blessing you must embrace
Last week I had the pleasure of being invited to speak on a panel at the Enterprise Ireland Startup Showcase event in Croke Park. The topic for discussion was international sales, and the question at issue was how do you move beyond your home market in Ireland to start selling your product internationally?
An Irish technology startup will never succeed in the Irish market alone. Our home market is just too small. You can treat this as a massive problem, or a huge opportunity (hint: it's a fabulous opportunity!).
Once you get your head around the idea that you'll need to sell to other countries, it will mean a big boost to your chances of success.
Every startup that I have been involved in, the failures, and the successes, has followed this strategy, because it really is the only way to achieve the growth levels that you will need to scale your business.
If you focus only on Ireland to begin with, by the time you need to scale overseas, you won't have the team and capability in place to do so effectively, and it will really slow you down.
Let's break down this "international first" strategy into a set of tactics. First, you need to adopt the right frame of mind.
You have to decide from day one that you'll be selling abroad. If you defer this decision in your own mind, you'll close off opportunities to build your company internationally, to your later detriment.
As with most things in the startup world, your own mentality is your most dangerous competitor. Despite no experience in international sales, and no idea how to go about doing it, you must nonetheless decide that you will. Of all the tactics, this is really the most important.
Second, you must commit to the reality of business travel. We are an island nation and we will always need to hop on planes. Even though you may have little cash at the start, it is still a good investment to get outside the country on a regular basis.
Startups start with Ryanair and hostels (or friends' sofas). You need to start building a network in the countries where you will do business. This network will help you find people to hire, and will help you sell. The trick to making the most of a trip is to use an anchor meeting to justify the cost, and then fill in as many other activities as possible.
This doesn't just mean trying to get as many meetings as you can-in the early days you have to be careful not to waste people's time if you have nothing built. Frame meetings as looking for advice, which at this stage you sorely need anyway. Instead of individual meetings, attend any relevant meetups (which you can find on meetup.com) in the city that you are visiting. This is a highly efficient way to meet people. You'll want to choose events that have at least 30 attendees, and are relevant to your business. Almost all big cities have them. I would often have an itinerary that has two morning meetings, two afternoon meetings, and a meetup in the evening. You'll be fit for nothing after a day like this, but it will open up your network wonderfully. Pro tip: go easy on the coffee and don't drink alcohol, at all.
In fact, you should aim for zero alcohol on business trips - your time is too precious and you need to be as sharp as possible. This is work, not play. If you've worked for a large company and experienced business travel as more of an incentive, this is something you'll have to deliberately change in your own attitude.
Beyond meetups, and if you have the experience, you can also target conferences to speak at. This is not an option for everyone, but can be very effective if you can swing it. Aim for smaller, more focused conferences, as the networking will be more efficient.
The third tactic is to build remote working into your company culture from the start. Later, it will not be a big challenge to manage people in other countries.
Your first experience of this working style may well be with outsourced software development. This experience is of limited use however, as it only covers a small range of working styles. In my current company, Voxgig, I have from the start sought out key team members based anywhere in the world. It is a leap of faith to hire someone in a foreign country, but it is no worse than working with someone on a trial basis for a month or two. You will quickly find out if there's a fit or not. This is much less risky than trying to hire under the pressure of later-stage growth, where the wrong person in the wrong role has big, bad consequences.
In our case, our head of business development is in London, our head of engineering is in Spain, our head of marketing is in Carlow, and I'm in Waterford.
Expanding in the UK market is not going to be an issue, because a core team member is already on the ground.
The fourth and final tactic is the most personally painful. There are markets that only you as founder can open, such as the US, Middle East, or Asia.
That means you will need to spend a lot of time on the ground. You'll be flying backwards and forwards, or you'll need to base yourself on location for a while.
This what the founders of many Irish startups, such as Intercom, ended up doing.
Make sure that you get all your visas sorted beforehand. This is another unavoidable expense. It may be painful at first, but remember that opening a new market is going to transform your company.
You must be open with your family about this element of the business. Your spouse or partner will end up putting a great deal of invisible effort into your business to enable you to travel. It is better to plan ahead now rather than allowing frustrations to build.
Given all these challenges it can be tempting to defer your entry to international markets. Don't do this-these markets are so big that the effort is absolutely worth it.
What might seem like a curse, being stuck on a small island in the Atlantic, is a blessing in disguise, and you should embrace it fully.
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Richard Rodger is the founder of Voxgig. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford