U.K. Startups, Take Heart: If You Can Make It Here, You Can Make It Anywhere
The unique challenges of the U.K. market will prepare you for anything.
When my partner Lee Puri and I founded MiQ in London in 2010, it wasn't our plan to become a global company. We set up shop in the U.K. because that was the market we knew, it harbored a thriving ad-tech economy and we saw there a significant opportunity.
Across the industry, there was a clear need for building transparent models in real-time advertising. Advertisers were gaining access to more data than ever, but they lacked a way derive meaning and value from that data. We saw a need for technology that would translate data into insight, and through our proprietary platform, AiQ, we built a marketing intelligence machine. Our expectation was to be small and successful in the U.K., but we grew beyond our wildest expectations, so expansion became inevitable.
Launching where we did turned out to be valuable in many ways. It's my view that if you can figure it out in the U.K., you can thrive in North America, because the U.K. market requires far more agility and adaptability to do business. Let me explain.
The U.K. market is slightly more challenging because there are fewer clients and less money, but the same amount of competition. Therefore, you really need to fight harder for differentiation and hence, innovate at a different level. Because of this, in the U.K. we end up making the proposition more complicated with many nuances, whereas the U.S. clients tend to appreciate broader, simpler solutions that are easy to scale. This is one of the reasons why U.S. business processes and technologies typically evolve toward the simplest standard execution, thus making standardization the norm.
The U.K. business environment, on the other hand, is much more fragmented. Serving clients requires the ability to customize and adapt to diverse situations and architectures and to get much farther down into the details with each relationship. In the U.K., your organization must be agile and flexible in a way the U.S. doesn't demand.
That grueling infancy set us up well for our eventual expansion to the U.S., which took place in 2014. In fact, we were quite cavalier about the move, establishing our New York office with ample confidence and no formal business plan. We had grown exponentially since our launch with no outside funding, we were fully independent and, most important, we were profitable.
Moving into the U.S. market felt like the right step, and our U.K. roots served us well. Operating in North America required far less granular adaptation than back home, so things went smoothly and moved quickly from the start. We increased year-over-year revenue by 218 percent in 2015 while also increasing EBITDA margins, something many startups struggle to do. Today, we work with all the main agencies in the world, including the top six holding agencies and 40 percent of the global Fortune 100 companies. We're still independent, we're still profitable and we have offices around the world.
Regardless of where you start your business, I think there are rules to remember as you grow into new markets. One is to maintain the right balance of continuity and localization. You need to bring some team members and your cultural core values from your base location to your new location, then add in local talent and adapt to meet local expectations. There's no hard and fast rule, but I think aiming to keep your business 70 percent consistent and allowing for 30 percent localization is a fair goal. Then, you need to fully empower your new local team. Give them all the tools and support they need to succeed, much like a franchise operation, and let them run with it.
While choosing where you start up your business depends on myriad factors, I still believe that Europe is a more demanding landscape in many ways than the U.S. Like training at high altitude, if you can grow and flourish there, you may actually find success easier elsewhere.