How Being on the Fringes of Europe Gives Our Company a Global Edge
Entrepreneur's New Year’s Guide
It is no coincidence that the recent Globalization Report 2018 by Bertelsmann Siftung ranks Ireland first in its globalization index. In terms of flows of capital and labor, in terms of social interconnectedness and in terms of politics, countries like Ireland, Switzerland and Denmark -- countries that could be described as being on the fringes of larger economies and centers -- are forced to "get involved" in order to "get ahead." So, when we say that we find it easier to build an international business on the fringes of Europe, we recognize that the fringe is the home of international business; it has to be in order to survive.
Working from Cork (which will be the second-largest English-speaking country in the EU post-Brexit) has always presented a challenge for a company involved in political technology. We are outside of the main centers in London, Brussels and Washington, but we are also outside of our own regional center in Dublin. There is no easy network of similar companies or target customers in our city.
However, what we do have is perspective, an outsiders' view on all these political hubs and their different ways of operating, that ensures we don't become caught up in the way things are done in the "Brussels-bubble" or in Westminster or Washington D.C. In fact, when we speak with prospects they really value that we have an outsiders' view and that we can contribute new ideas and ways of operating from other jurisdictions. For example, when we are speaking with European clients they want to hear what the latest campaigning trends are in the U.S., whereas when we are talking to North American clients they want to see the latest in data protection functionality we have built in response to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Our tip to businesses growing in the fringe: Understand your comparative value, whether that is an outside perspective, or stronger regulatory functionality or whatever it might be.
Facilitating hockey-stick growth
Anyone who works in startups or who has tried their hand at running a business knows the hockey-stick growth chart. It's that chart that bumbles along the bottom axis for an interminable number of months or years and then suddenly spikes upward. John Collison, co-founder of Stripe, spoke to Standford students in 2015 about this, saying, "Even in Stripe's case I've seen it described in a lot of newspaper articles as literally an overnight success. It's like hey, you weren't there." That chart, replicated in revenue growth, customer acquisition and any other metric you care to mention tells a story of how brutal the initial stages of startup life can be. The reason so many startups fail is actually that they have so little time to make their products "fit" the market, or even to make mistakes. And the runway is short because rents are high, talent is expensive and everyone is competing for scarce resources.
As a matter of fact, an entire business philosophy, the "Lean Startup" model, has developed to some extent on the shape of that hockey-stick chart. Lean startup theory, developed by Eric Ries, tells business owners to focus on getting to "product-market fit" as quickly as possible in order to give themselves the best chance of succeeding when resources are at their tightest and revenue at its lowest.
Take the time to understand the growth model for startups and it becomes clear that places like Cork in Ireland, a place unknown to most venture capitalists, actually match this hockey-stick graph much better for startups. Rent is lower, wages are less pressured and resources are available in terms of college graduates, local business supports and infrastructure. In other words, the fringe gives you a longer runway to get your startup off the ground. It is a more forgiving environment than, say, Dublin or London, which have extreme housing pressures and a workforce that is very prone to moving on, leaving startups in a constant cycle of hiring and training that kills productivity and organizational intelligence. Places like Cork are actually much like real-life incubators and are better suited to growing a startup.
Our tip: Figure out how your fringe can contribute to matching the hockey-stick growth chart. Can you keep costs low and how can you solve product-market fit quickly?
We all know the world map and where we sit on it, but there are "alternative maps" of the world if you are willing to see them. Tony Ryan, the visionary founder of Ryanair, saw from his experience with aviation leasing that Ireland was uniquely placed to build a low-cost airline because it had access to cheap aircraft, low airport charges and a target market that need air travel to get off the island. He could see an alternative map of Europe where Ireland was the hub of a new airline infrastructure, and he was willing to make that map a reality.
In our business of building political campaign technology, we began to build our alternative map of the world that has us bridging the two political traditions in North America and Europe. The reality is for every startup it is critical to visualize how you connect to other parts of the international community. In our case, we had the English language, which connects English-speaking countries both practically and culturally. English is also the lingua franca for business and so helps in accessing all other markets.
As Irish people, we are always aware of the Irish diaspora and how we might be able to leverage that "soft power," as University of Edinburgh Professor of Modern History Enda Delaney describes it, to create connections and business opportunities. In the United States alone there are estimated to be 40 million people of Irish descent, and they are often more open to doing business with us for that reason alone.
Voter outreach is a huge part of political campaigning worldwide and Ireland has a very long tradition with this, meaning we were able to hire people who have firsthand experience with the problems we were trying to solve for people internationally.
Finally, Ireland had become the international focus of data protection legislation and enforcement. The critical mass of data protection specialists here has allowed us to draw on that expertise to develop innovative solutions to the challenges of GDPR for political parties. These strands are what we have pulled together to create our alternative map of the world.
Our final tip: See the strands that connect you to your key markets. They may be that you are a center of excellence, or you may have historic or cultural links that can be used to generate business. Use it all.