When I took the plunge and launched a startup, I had to literally unlearn everything I’d learnt from nearly two decades working in a traditional management consultancy.
To learn the ropes quickly, I participated in the MIT Global Bootcamp where I learnt the ‘disciplined entrepreneurship‘ framework, and I joined the River City Labs Accelerator, formed a team, and finally launched Bidhive into the market. Failing fast, being scrappy and working on a volunteer’s income was soon my new normal.
Combining my learnings from these two experiences, here are my tips for other early-stage startups seeking to build, validate and scale into international markets.
1. A global mindset from day one
We researched the global landscape to understand current and emerging trends in the international bid market. We also identified geographical markets and industry sectors that shared common attributes — from terminology around organisational processes, to regulatory and legislative regimes.
We also identified markets that shared common practices, often with centralised, cross-border teams.
2. Develop networks
The power of relationship building, and the influence of stakeholders in helping you open doors can’t be underestimated. Joining an accelerator, attending trade missions and connecting with key industry stakeholders and industry bodies helped us to clarify and articulate our vision and strengthen industry partnerships.
These early partnerships helped us to gain warm introductions, and present the evidence we needed to access grants — which were our lifeline while we tested and refined our product-market fit.
Through networking, we also found willing mentors and board members.
3. Get out of the building
Even before we had a fully working product, we took our prototype into key markets to test and validate the concept, our process and the product roadmap with a cross-section of ideal customers who represented our user personas.
This was a vital step in testing and challenging our assumptions around international applicability and user base.
It also cemented relationships with early adopters who continued to follow our journey and eventually become our first customers.
4. Conduct beta testing and pilots
After we had validated Bidhive’s international appeal, it was time to do some controlled testing with our early customers to parallel test our platform against their manual ways of working, and again test the platform’s global terminology and process efficiency.
We partnered with companies that had internal advocates with digital innovation agendas, and which had a mix of centralised and remote team members. Through this process, we identified high-value features, as well as those that would require some or significant local adaptation or organisational customisation.
This helped us prioritise and stage development sprints, releases and the broader roadmap.
5. Develop scalable business models
In a Software-as-a-Service environment, metrics become critical for developing business cases for executive sign-off and capturing user case studies.
In this phase, we worked closely with customers across different country markets to: gain product feedback and new ideas; test our implementation, change and risk management and customer service model; to research pricing models; and to hone our roadmap based on crowdsourced voting of features.
We also studied our customers’ organisational structures and dynamics to better understand the enterprise sales cycle, the stakeholders involved in decision-making, and the due diligence requirements for contract sign-off.
Engage with customers and industry stakeholders early and build networks.
Primary research of the market opportunity, the industries you are targeting and your ideal customers should be undertaken through a mix of desktop and field studies — even before a fully working product with back-end technology is developed. This is because it’s much quicker and cheaper to refine iteratively rather than go to market with a product that requires major pivoting or local adaptation later.
Finally, start tracking your metrics early.
And remember, you’re building a company, not just a product — so develop systems and processes along the way and continually mature them so that you can pass the scrutiny test from both customers and investors.