17 December 2019
The Equalture Story (8): How we expanded our client base to 5 countries.
The Equalture Story. A series of stories to give you a look behind the scenes of our company. Milestones. Failures. Lessons we’ve learned. Just the honest story about a SaaS startup trying to conquer the world.
In this blog: How our go-to-market strategy enabled us to expand our client base to 5 countries.
Our launch in The Netherlands: First tell, then prove
January 2019. Finally, after 14 months of developing our product – a Predictive Hiring Software – it was ready to be launched. And although we only started actively selling our product in 2019, the media attention we received already in 2018 was insane. Nominations, interviews, more nominations and even more interviews: Everyone had read something about ”The Dutch tech startup run by the 21-years-old twin sisters’‘ while we didn’t even have one business case to prove our concept.
I can hear you think: ”How? How can a startup that’s not even fully on the market yet receive such a lot of media attention?”
The simple and short answer: Storytelling.
It’s all about the storyline: An API vs. IPA
My twin sister and I started a tech company with zero knowledge of tech. At the age of 21. And both being a woman. I can imagine that this combination sounds like a storyline that could at least trigger someone’s interest.
When we first met the freelance team that built our MVP, they couldn’t stop laughing when I tried to participate in a tech discussion by stating that I wanted to understand how our product’s IPAs worked. They were literally lying on the floor laughing because of this sentence.
”What’s so funny? We’re discussing an extremely important technical part of our product!”
That’s when I realised that I was talking out special beers (and yes, IPAs are my favourite ones) while I actually tried to talk about APIs (for the non-techies who’re reading this blog: an API is a Application Programming Interface). So yeah, that’s how techie Fleur and I were when starting this company. And that’s the exact thing that triggered people’s interest. How are these 21-year-old twin sisters with zero knowledge of tech going to successfully build an AI-driven hiring software?
There you go. That was our storyline. And that’s how the PR machine started running without having even one proven business case. Just by making fun out of ourselves and by being honest.
People don’t care about your product. They care about your dream.
Now that we actually caught people’s attention, it was our responsibility to turn this storyline into an actual story that people wouldn’t forget about.
The one thing I learned during this period (we’re talking about 2018 now): Always sell people a dream that helps them wake up without any pain. And yes, I know that sounds super cliche, but still many founders lose themselves in only talking about their product in a functional way. My most important lesson that year: People don’t care about your product. They don’t care about how it’s built technically or how many features you’ve added to it. They care about the (i) why and the (ii) what. Why we decided to start this company and what dreams we have with this company. Your solution.
So we started telling the honest story of two 21-year-old twin sisters dreaming to help companies make better hiring decisions through AI. And that’s exactly what enabled our rapid growth in The Netherlands and even Belgium: In 8 months we were able to get 60 clients on board and let 3,000+ candidates apply through our platform. And that was the point (read: August 2019) where we became nervous.
Expanding abroad: Our go-to-market strategy
Nervous in both a good way and a bad way. In a good way because we actually managed to not only tell about our product, but moreover proved that it works. It was no longer just a promising business case, but a real company. And in a bad way because we knew that we wanted more, but didn’t know how.
Fleur and I stated from day one that our ambitions were bigger than The Netherlands. We wanted to build an international company, both in terms of team members and clients. But how the heck were we going to do that? How were we going to successfully implement an international expansion strategy without any experience in that area?
It might not be the safest strategy, but we decided to just give it try. Starting from inside our company.
Go-to-market step 1: Determining our (non-location dependent) Ideal Customer Profile
So we had big plans to grow our client base internationally. Very cool, but where to start? We decided to start with the most logical first step: Determining our Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) – a profile that wasn’t depending on a geographic location.
Having a solid and moreover diverse client base here in The Netherlands, we decided last June that our 60 clients provided us with sufficient information to analyse our ideal customer profile. And that was the the tech-savvy scaleup. We based this decision on the following data points:
- Main hiring challenge;
- Maturity of the company and the hiring department;
- Attitude towards hiring innovations.
What makes tech scaleups the perfect customer for us is the fact that these companies are Early Adaptors when it comes to innovations. Moreover, the scaleup stage is the growth stage where it’s all about hiring. Having a solid team foundation and some experience with hiring, the scaleup stage is the exact moment when you need to scale your hiring radiply to ensure exponential growth. And even more important: Every mishire is an enormous brake on this growth. So that’s why we decided that our tool could be the perfect tool to benchmark your current team towards industry averages and further grow your team based on these data analyses.
So now we had found our ICP. Cool. Next challenge: Hiring our own international team (with our own software of course) to turn these plans into action.
Tip 1: Use The Value Proposition Canvas to assess your product market fit.
Go-to-market step 2: Determining our target areas
Now that we had validated our Ideal Customer Profile, the tech scaleup market, our next assignment was to choose our target areas. Since focus is key when expanding abroad, we decided to create a top 3 scaleup hubs in Europe. After doing some research into the European tech scaleup landscape, we determined our three target areas:
- Southern Europe.
This decision was based on the following data points:
- Market growth in 2018-2019;
- Business culture/mindset;
- Hiring challenges.
All of these three areas face similar hiring challenges, are growing extremely in terms of new tech scaleups and have a business mindset that’s aligned with our mindset: Efficiency is important, but hiring for fit is key.
So now that we determined our ICP and the target areas to focus on (including the size per target area), we knew how we wanted to structure our Business Development team.
Tip 2: When expanding internationally, try to first search for target areas within the same continent. This helps you understanding business cultures and legal differences easier and also allows you to keep running your software on you regional server(s).
Tip 3: When researching different business cultures, The Culture Map is an absolute must-read. This books helps you to better understand different cultures and provides you with useful frameworks to do business with other cultures.
Go-to-market step 3: Hiring an international team
Fleur, my co-founder, and I both studied at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, which is characterised by an extremely international campus. Being surrounded by dozens of different nationalities also learned us more about the differences and interactions between nationalities. And that’s exactly what we needed to learn in this company as well in order to expand internationally. So that’s why we hired Raul, our very first international team member, last July. Since Raul is Italian (and also fluent in Spanish) we were able to learn more about the Southern European cultures – both in human interaction and business cultures.
Luckily enough we met our Finnish colleague, Emilia, only a few months later, and we decided to hire Emilia right away.
So now we had our expertise in the Dutch market, some friends and advisors with UK expertise and finally Raul and Emilia with respectively Southern European and Nordic expertise. Internally we were already an international company.
Tip 4: When aiming to expand internationally, it’s key to hire a native Business Development team. You can read hundreds of books and listen to dozens of podcasts, but a native colleague will always understand the market and culture better than you do.
Go-to-market step 4: Creating a business and marketing playbook for each target area
Together with Raul and Emilia, Fleur and I started creating a playbook for each different target area. How do people work in these countries? What are the main focus areas in terms of hiring? What’s the main hiring challenge in this area? And what type of content triggers their interest?
Having all this information allowed us to translate the ‘area profiles’ into a Content Marketing Strategy. Since we believe that inbound sales is key for a SaaS company, we attach great importance to creating credibility through sharing the right content that helps scaleups boost their hiring. Starting with some interesting blogs that fit their hiring interests, and later in the Marketing Journey offering some practical playbooks in return for contact details. This strategy allows you to spot the right moment to get in touch with a scaleup based on their stage in your Marketing Journey.
So now we knew where to focus on in terms of content, but also we recognised when a scaleup had reached the right growth stage for us to show the value of our software. This led to very interesting and insightful chats with companies and of course some very cool clients in these different areas. Bingo!
Tip 5: Content marketing is your most important sales engine. Providing companies with the right content at the right time not only shows your expertise, but also allows you to notice when a company becomes an ideal customer for you.
Go-to-market step 5: A new customer is not a sale, but a source of feedback
This might sound like a no-brainer, but since it’s something you easily forget due to the operations I will share this last tip anyway: Take feedback for breakfast! Your sales is not successful when you checked a new country on your world map. It’s only successful if your clients benefit from your product and stay with you.
Although we have a SaaS product, meaning that we don’t customise our product for clients, there will always be some missing features when starting to work with a new client base. In our case for instance, we integrate our software with a client’s Applicant Tracking Software (ATS, a system that allows you to structure your job openings and candidates and analyse your hiring efforts). When we decided to enter the Nordics market, we soon found out that a lot of scaleups over there work with TeamTailor, an ATS that we weren’t integrated with. Since this integration was key to ensure a comfortable workflow for our Nordic clients, we decided to add this to and prioritised this on our product roadmap.
Of course this is an obvious one, but you won’t find out about these required product enrichments if you don’t talk to your customers. We call this SaaS with a face. Yes, we’re an automated SaaS company, but that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t know about the people behind this company. Having an actual (video) chat with your customers allows you to get to know them better and to understand how you can make your product even better for them.
The result of this 5-step go-to-market strategy?
We expanded our client base to 5 countries. Just from our office here in The Netherlands. And it wasn’t rocket science. We just carefully collected the right information, hired the right people (shoutout to our amazing team!) and didn’t forget to listen to our clients.
Next year we are going to focus on conquering the European tech scaleup market. And after that? Well, we will just find an additional market by learning from the best practices and conduct this go-to-market strategy once again.