8 Hurdles to building a global startup from a slightly troubled Europe
I was recently invited to Warsaw to speak at the ICT Summit, below are my slides, some brief notes and in a perfect world, how the speech would have gone.
Please note that this was meant for a 40ish mins talk, so it’s going to be a long read, if that’s a problem, I’ve attached the slides and you can make up your own speech, but my lawyers have advised that none of the things in your imaginary versions are binding in any way.
Before I dive into the crux of my talk, let me just start with a very quick story about 15 year old me and my very first online business.
I had just landed on a beautiful little island, where I didn’t know the local dialect or the local event scene.
While trying to find out what was going on in and around my new home in Limassol, it became apparent very quickly that there was a gap in the market for an online magazine purely in English that covered all the events, shared breaking news and promoted the hidden gems of the island.
Great right? I was young. I had an idea. I knew how to build websites (debatable). I’d make money selling ads to local business, so I had a business model too.
All boxes ticked, right? Right!?
That’s where things got interesting. Every service, potential partner, or client seemed to think that I was special, and thus couldn’t get normal deals that other more traditional business were getting. Oh no no no… as a young ‘kid’ with a ‘riskier’ business I qualified for the “special packages”… that just happened to be more expensive, brutally unfair and utter bullshit.
Even though I was young, I wasn’t an idiot. I could see what they were doing, but I couldn’t really do much about it.
The thing is, and hear me out with this, I am NOT special.
Around the world, every single day, 100 thousand people are diving into turning their ideas into new businesses. Some with bigger dreams than others, but many of them are still being told they’re unique and thus obviously need the “special rates”.
Way back then, around 10 years ago, I promised myself that one day I’d be rich enough to help entrepreneurs in the toughest ecosystems in the world avoid this bullshit and get the support they need to grow spectacular businesses.
Well… when the Cypriot economy collapsed last year, I made a decision to start helping, but not through angel investments as planned, oh no, as something very veeerry different.
Just over a year ago, I launched what would become included.co to make a change in the way businesses grow around the world.
included.co is a global discovery platform for entrepreneur-friendly communities, services and packages. It’s designed from the ground-up to help businesses grow during their most vulnerable periods.
And since the launch in a relatively small city in Cyprus in about May 2013, we’re now helping and connecting entrepreneurs in 35 partner spaces across 7 countries and spanning 2 continents.
Ok, so let’s get back to why you’re all here, to hear the talk about the challenges facing entrepreneurs with global aspirations, who happen to be sitting or swimming in Europe.
To keep this short and sweet, I’ve compiled a list of 8 hurdles that can trip up international growth, some of them are from my own lessons and others are observations shared by other passionate entrepreneurs within our network.
I’ll even try touch base on how we overcame some of them or are actively trying to knock them down completely for local entrepreneurs.
I must preface this with a large note. Such a large note that it gets it’s very own slide.
Whilst many could argue that I do actually need professional help for some of my crazy ideas, the help I believe I really need is from you.
I don’t have all of the answers. I barely have all the actual questions if I’m honest.
So please, if you do see something I’ve missed, or believe I’ve gotten something wrong, please feel free to blast me as many tweets as you like, I’ve even put my handle @inztinkt at the bottom of every single slide.
Please don’t be shy.
Seeing as this conference has it’s very own investment and VC track, I’m not going to even dare touch the topic of investments for European startups.
Firstly, there are far more investors at this conference than the last 4 events I’ve been to, put together. And secondly, we’re still bootstrapped and are only looking to raise our first round in 2015.
And so we begin with Hurdle number 1. Tackling Risk.
We all know that entrepreneurs are hungry and foolish. We all know that in general we’re willing to risk quite a bit to get turn our visions into viable businesses.
The problem across the board in Europe, especially in the stages before employee number 30, is that it’s tough to find enough people who have a big enough risk appetite to join a startup as oppose to something more steady.
Whilst I don’t have a silver bullet for this, I do believe that as the ecosystems mature and exits get larger, the risk appetite of our very talented communities will grow.
At included, we put a lot of time into negotiating exclusive packages and perks for the businesses who work from within our partner spaces. The hope is that, if we can get enough value behind our guest startups, maybe they can compete on a more open playing field for talent with larger more established firms.
Moving on to hurdle number 2, actually scaling in Europe.
We all know, and have been told many many times that it’s easier to scale in the US and the English speaking world. However even across the English-speaking world, there are cultural differences that cannot be overlooked.
My approach here is to stop worrying about how much easier everything else is, and instead find a way to solve the problem. I mean after all, if you crack the model for scaling in Europe, you’re increasing the barriers of entry for any potential competitors.
Our latest attempt to unlock this model at included is through a network of startup ambassadors in each of our connected ecosystems. Even before we fully enter a market, we spend some time understanding the pain points, the ecosystem and how we can deliver additional value as rapidly as possible.
A cheeky reminder to anyone watching, listening (or reading), that we’re always looking for passionate startup people in ecosystems around the world, so please ping me directly on Twitter @inztinkt.
This brings me to one of Europe’s most notorious hurdles, what I like to call “Too Much Crazy”.
This is most evident right after the buzz of pushing everyone towards entrepreneurship fades. All around Europe, and the world, there are organisations/individuals who enjoy telling you that you can do anything and anyone can build a billion dollar business.
What happens very quickly afterwards, is that when the hype has faded, people aren’t all as confident in us as they made it out to be. For example, how many of you believe you can and are building a billion dollar business? And what do your friends, family or these organisations tell you when you say it out loud.
Most give you some kind of disapproving smirk and tell you to be realistic, especially when you’re entering a market already dominated by a legacy brand. I’m sure if Uber was an EU startup they’d have heard how they couldn’t compete with every taxi company in the world.
I see this all the time, and even though I honestly believe we’re building a billion dollar plus business, I say it out loud far less than I bloody should.
I guess this is a hurdle I still have to defeat myself.
Hurdle 4 is one I’ve seen in almost every young ecosystem. Especially where the media has romanticised entrepreneurship as a lifestyle akin to being some kind of rockstar.
In pursuit of media exposure, multi-million dollar investments, and being startup rockstars, you often find a LOT of people trying too damn hard to have a sexy startup.
For those who don’t know a sexy startup are those who fall into the ‘hot’ sector of the season, I think the current sexy sectors are still big-data and Internet of Things.
Plenty of great people spend their time trying to create technology or startups that fit into what might be the hot sectors at the time, instead of tackling underlying problems or scratching their own itches.
But I might be biased, after all, included.co is NOT a sexy startup. And that’s fine. Most of the world’s media will never cover our story. And that’s fine. We’ll have to search high and low to find the investors who get what we’re building and why. And that too, is fine. You know why?
Because every single day we work with spectacular teams (some of which are pretty damn sexy) and we make their lives easier, allowing them to focus on pushing code and dare I say, change the world.
As we pass the half way mark in the number of hurdles, we touch base one those special packages with hurdle number 5. The Flag & Gap.
Although the structure has changed slightly, the trick is still pretty much the same. Some organisations think entrepreneurs and their teams are idiots. These organisations wave the flag of being entrepreneur friendly. You’ll see them at tech/startup events and giving freemium packages to every single founder/startup they can find.
Whilst I can’t exactly bash free stuff, the problem kicks in as soon as these businesses start making money, because the day will arrive when an invoice arrives and all revenues that were meant to be pumped into the war chest are syphoned out and the startup disappears into the gap between idea and profit, before it even had a chance.
As mentioned previously, this is one of the core problems we’re trying to fix through included, and in order to do so, we’re pushing for fixed-price packages in all the necessary fields for growing a business.
The idea being that if a business know how much capital they’ll need to get from point A to point B, they can instead focus on solving the actual problems as oppose to haggling and jumping between providers when these free services expires.
Ok, we’re almost there, thanks for baring with me so far, let’s move onto hurdle 6 of the 8. Silos.
No matter where you look, there’s all these crazy separations of businesses who, for every reason under the sun, should be working together or at least selling to each other.
This is evident on a very local level, with shared and coworking spaces becoming closed in communities. The problem persists if we zoom out a bit, with cities or regions actively competing with each other. This also exists on a pan-European level with countries obviously trying to push their own startup hubs. And then of course we can’t ignore the fact that we’re all “secretly” competing with Silicon Valley.
Now I understand that each have their own objectives, be they increasing revenue, attracting bigger investment & better talent, or increasing the taxable income available.
However, I’d argue that none of these help the actual growing businesses, who should have access to all the best tools and services, regardless of their geographic location.
And so, as of early 2015, any business growing out of one of our partner space, will be able to openly and effectively offer their services or packages to other startups across the network. Hey, we may even start seeing business scale globally much faster through our network.
If you’d like more information on this, or would like to get involved, please you know… twitter… @inztinkt.
And that brings us to the penultimate hurdle. Hurdle 8: Sharing.
We’ve still got this issue in Europe with sharing our experiences, knowledge and observations. Most times it’s probably because we don’t really believe we have enough experience to really be able to help anyone.
I am, like many of you who’ve jumped off the cliff of entrepreneurship, still putting this plane together and holding it together with chewing gum, staples and whatever I can get my hands on, hoping that it will fly before it hits the ground.
So why the hell did I agree to try and give a talk on my experiences?! Well it’s simple really, if any of my rambling helps a single person here then it’s already worth it. If they then help one other person, then there’s a chain already being formed, and my albeit messy speech has contributed to pushing back this hurdle.
Now, I need to end on a very important hurdle, don’t I? That’s what all the speech telling pros would say. And so, the last hurdle is Loneliness.
Whether you’re the founder or an early member of a startup team, there are almost always fears and stresses you feel can’t share or get stressed out trying to solve alone.
A possible fix, that I’ve witnessed first hand, is by working in a space that houses other teams or individuals on a similar path, and by surrounding yourself with the right people for your character traits.
We hear again and again how failure is good or how failure should be celebrated, however we’re all still humans (well most of us), and thus failure will always hurt on some level. It could be argued that by making this facade that we should be fine with failure is putting even more pressure on the shoulders of entrepreneurs and their teams.
If I could ask for one thing it’s to give yourselves a break sometimes, and speak to others about some of the problems that are trickling on in the back of your minds.
Although there is so much pressure to always be moving forward and to always have the answers, you’ll find that some times you learn and grow much more by taking a breathe and asking for help.
And so, there you have the 8 hurdles of launching a global startup from Europe. Keep in mind they’re only hurdles and with the right mindset, toolset and network you can jump over or bash right through them.
Good luck out there, keep the passion, and thanks for listening.
And that’s what the speech sounded like in my head, however since I’m a more experienced blogger than public speaker, I figured sharing it via this medium (mind the pun) could offer some gems or info I may have skipped due to the excitement of doing my very first conference talk.
Oh yea, incase you missed it, I’m very open to receiving your criticism, suggestions or advice @inztinkt on twitter.