Breaking Into the U.S. Market as a Danish Startup
Entrepreneur's New Year’s Guide
If you want to succeed globally, it becomes imperative to expand the business sooner or later with boots on the ground and intel on how to improve in new target markets.
Airtame is a Danish startup that began its life as a crowdfunding campaign in 2014. We produce a wireless streaming solution for the business and education sectors, both hardware and firmware, and digital signage solutions.
In our initial crowdfunding campaign, around 70 percent of all orders came from the U.S. That's why we didn't even have to pick a country to expand to -- it picked us.
Expanding your business to a much larger market will open up new streams of revenue and in turn give you better and more precise intel on how to appeal to it.
Why the United States?
The U.S. market is very different from the European market, and therefore the sales approach is, too. It requires a physical presence to know the market, the customer group and the lingo that goes with it.
The list of companies walking the same path as us is long, which means we're on the right track. Just take a look at the top 25 most badass startups in Denmark, many of whom have decided to grow their business in another market.
Zendesk is probably the shiniest and brightest example of a small idea turned global. Also Copenhagen-founded, the customer service software started in 2007 and moved its headquarters to San Francisco just two years later, and it now services tens of thousands of businesses in more than 150 countries worldwide.
What we all have in common is the universal solutions offered: customer service software like Zendesk, wine recognition software by Vivino, social media marketing from Falcon.io and Airtame's wireless HDMI. It's not only applicable to a small number of people or businesses but bringing value to many.
Take Vivino, the world's largest wine marketplace, which now has offices in the U.S., Ireland and India besides its headquarters in Denmark. The U.S. market for Vivino now accounts for 50 percent of its total revenue. It's now looking into expanding into emerging markets, such as Hong Kong.
Falcon.io, another Copenhagen-founded company trading in social media marketing, expanded its business to include an office in New York. Falcon.io (formerly Falcon Social) was founded in 2010 and thus our journey mimics theirs.
It's a big milestone for any company but at the same time a great risk. In 2014, Falcon.io had a 63 percent hike in staff, and our numbers for 2017 are close to that. The risk of such a rapid growth curve means that company culture and core values can get lost -- and obviously, the financial risk is enormous too.
A small fish in a big pond
Still, it's easy to comprehend why a Danish-born startup would want to look into other markets, the simple reason being that the Danish market is tiny compared to, for example, the North American.
We're a hardware company, and setting up trusted resellers and means of physical distribution is, in my opinion, a lot harder than pitching a purely software-based product like those of some of the previously mentioned examples.
To overcome that hurdle, we've focused on these general values that are applicable for most startups wishing to expand. All of them revolve around the notion that it's better to have others complimenting you rather than doing so yourself.
Talking directly to customers
Focus on being in direct contact with your customers instead of dishing it out to external supporters.
Make sure you have a dedicated team that makes it possible to perform excellent customer support on the ground but also ramp up your presence at conferences and events in the U.S. where you can make a splash.
The importance of good relationships
We've invested a lot of time in getting closer to the largest resellers in the market. If you give them some easy "wins" by talking directly to the customers and helping them with their sales, they will in turn much more happily refer you to other customers.
Their recommendations have a greater impact than you overstretching and "selling yourself." Contacts are key.
Being in direct contact with your customers has another perk to it other than receiving valuable feedback. If your customers like what you're selling, chances are they don't mind showcasing it (and maybe even bragging about it).
Massage these customer relations and establish the opportunity to create a portfolio of solid use cases. Seeing the product "in action" will bring a lot of value to the conversations you're having with other potential customers, and will help close a deal.
In general, you want to shift your focus from being "reactive-supportive" with customers, and instead take a proactive approach. For us, we nail this down as the transition from customer support to customer success.
To infinity and ... beyond?
What's most important when setting up a new team in a different market? There's no doubt in my mind. Transparency and good communication are the key areas to work on when expanding your business. Internally, yes, but definitely also concerning everyone else involved with your business.
Find the place, the people and the market that best suits your product. Maybe that's Denmark, maybe it's the U.S., maybe somewhere else. The rest of it is hard work and a fearless attitude.
When people ask me what the recipe for success looks like for an aspiring entrepreneur, I have no answer. It's chance, luck, planning, teamwork and timing but not necessarily in that order. If you ask the founders of Zendesk, Vivino, Falcon.io or any other successful startup, I feel confident their answer is the same.