Eastern European Startups Often Struggle With Marketing and Sales. Here's How to Overcome the Challenges.
Physical distance and cultural differences don't have to hold you back.
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Estonia and Eastern Europe in general boast many success stories in the startup industry. From Skype to Starship Technologies to Transferwise to my company, Weekdone, these companies are known both in the U.S. and around the globe. While these might look like the classic success stories you see every year in Silicon Valley, they are not. Building a sustainable product on the outskirts of the western world is much harder and more improbable than in the U.S.
I'm not talking about the work it takes to find VC firms and to start a business, but rather about how hard it is to sell and market your brand on a global scale while sitting thousands of miles away from your customers and influencers.
For three years, I've managed marketing at Weekdone (located in Tallinn, Estonia) and worked on getting our message to potential customers in the U.S. and around the globe. The challenges I've faced may seem strange to my colleagues working in New York or London but they are a painful reality for every local marketer I've talked to.
Small talent pool
One thing they usually don't tell you is how hard it is to find experienced SaaS (software-as-a-service) sales and marketing people when you're building a team in Estonia. Unlike in the U.S., where the mentality for selling and marketing is widespread, Estonians don't have the experience (having spent 50 years under Soviet occupation where these fields did not exist). At Weekdone, we have been lucky to have found Americans to join our sales team.
However, the last few tries to find someone who could join our marketing team have ended in failure. It wasn't because we didn't have candidates interested in joining us, either they were locals lacking SaaS marketing experience or we could not match the salary expectations of skilled foreigners.
As a local, when I joined the team three years ago, I also had no idea how to do the job and had very few people to help me. If our founders didn't have experience working in Silicon Valley, I don't know how I would have managed in my job. Their feedback and counsel kept me motivated and gave me at least some confidence that I was on the right track. I learned that you have to keep experimenting, try new things and then some things will stick. Others will not.
As a marketer, it's hard to build contacts with influencers, journalists and potential clients if you have no way to connect to them directly. Luckily, all the great technology tools available today help, but they are not a substitute for a face-to-face meeting with an actual person -- especially if you are competing with 300 other pitches and the only tools you have are a subject line and an email.
While distance is definitely a barrier, it is also a blessing; knowing that our ideas, content and campaigns need to be of the highest quality to be noticed, motivates both me and my team. The reason Estonian startups are so often praised is just that: Our content, campaigns and products must be world-class and we must provide the value we promise. Otherwise, no one would notice us at all. That makes us work harder and be more resourceful.
A mentality problem
Maybe the biggest challenge when trying to recruit and teach local young marketers and salespeople is the "northern mentality." The stereotype of a silent inward thinking Estonian is as true as they come.
For many local talented people, the hardest part of this job is picking up the phone, calling a potential business contact or doing follow-ups. Of course, I'm generalizing here, but the point is finding people who can do outreach and other necessary sales and marketing activities is harder here than in the U.S. or Western Europe.
With all these roadblocks, how is it possible that Estonia is a successful startup country? At Weekdone, we have been able to keep growing and build relationships for two reasons. Most important is our loyalty to the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) goal setting methodology. We set high SMART goals every quarter and work hard on getting them done each week.
And the second thing? We strive for our company culture to be the best in spite of the regional and cultural challenges. Every day. Every week. Every quarter.