What Startups With Global Ambitions Can Learn From International Innovators
Learning what works for global tech startups could help us improve our own startup scene.
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Each January, more than 170,000 attendees come to CES, the world's biggest technology event, to see the latest in innovation. One of the annual highlights for me at the show is meeting the creators and dreamers who share their innovations on our international stage. Turning an idea that exists only in your head into a workable product takes the courage to try and the faith your product will sell.
To me, startups symbolize what CES is all about. Each and every one of the more than 900 startups across CES's Eureka Park, where investors come to find their next unicorn, embodies that courage and faith. And they have been rewarded for their vision -- since 2012, more than 1,000 startups at CES have raised over $1.5 billion combined.
At this year's show, Eureka Park featured companies and entrepreneurs from more than 40 countries. And roughly half of our Eureka Park exhibitors hailed from Innovation Champion countries, as defined by the Consumer Technology Association's (CTA) International Innovation Scorecard, which ranks 38 countries and the EU based on their innovation ecosystems.
CTA identifies and tracks policies that advance entrepreneurship in the U.S. and abroad. The International Innovation Scorecard shows that, while the U.S. is still among the top tech economies in the world, it's falling behind in a handful of categories including openness to certain disruptive business models.
When industries and businesses find themselves failing to keep up with the pace of innovation, they're prone to call in third-party help (often the government) to protect their legacy interests. But, history shows such solutions are temporary. After all, you can protect the horse and buggy for only so long before consumer demand renders it obsolete.
That's why looking to international innovators is so important. These nimble, strategic entrepreneurs combine innovation and passion, adaptability and stubbornness -- precisely the skills it takes to survive in today's competitive global tech market. Learning what works for global tech startups could help us not only improve our own startup scene, it could help individual startups figure out how to navigate the international marketplace.
In conversations with CTA team members, three startups weighed in about what it takes to launch successfully on the international level. Here's what they had to say:
1. Have a simple vision and stick to it.
There are hundreds of startups filling Eureka Park and countless more across the globe. Making your product and your vision stand out in a fiercely competitive race is no easy task. Simplicity is key. If it takes a lot of narration or complicated jargon to understand what it is you do, then your audience -- and your potential investors -- will likely forget or overlook you.
When asked what they would say to entrepreneurs with international ambitions, HunJoo Song and SeonAh Kim gave advice that was as simple as their approach: "The most important thing is to find [a] big problem and solve it. That's all."
Song is CEO and Kim is CMO of TwoEyes Tech -- a startup that created "the world's first 3D 360° VR camera." Modeled on human eyes, the camera has two lenses, allowing photographers to easily get the 360-shots they need and instantly view them on their phones.
Peter von Campe, the director of sales at French startup FieldBox.ai, agreed: "Today, if you want to build something strong, you have to have some vision of what you want long-term." For him, that means far more than creating a product -- it means thinking about your future business trajectory.
"I think you should be aware of your vision, and not give it up as quickly as possible," he said. "[For us,] it's not about flipping a company, building something and selling it as quickly as possible to the highest bidder." In other words, if you want to develop your company on the international level, you need a clear sense of what your end game is. Knowing what you're ultimately striving toward will help you actually get there and make the most of the many opportunities at global innovation events.
2. Don't be afraid to start small.
Going global is an exciting idea, but it's important to fully establish your company within your own country before doing business across borders. Navigating the U.S. legal and regulatory framework is challenging enough, and keeping abreast of international rules is even more difficult. You want to be able to fall back on a strong, well-developed system here at home as difficulties and setbacks arise.
Von Campe highlighted challenges his team faced when marketing their AI-implementation services to other nations: "A lot of countries have a lot of rules around how you can sell, so that makes it difficult to establish relationships. Some companies, especially in international markets, find it difficult to buy from companies that are not local. I think that's true not just for companies in South America, Asia or Africa, but also for companies in America and in Europe."
It's also not a bad idea to start small financially. Markets are booming this year, but as CEO of MindAffect Ivo de la Rive Box observed, this could change at a moment's notice. And a shoestring budget may not necessarily be a bad thing: "It is also a very good way to get started when there is no money because you just keep your costs low and move forward. Some of the most successful companies all started in the same economic down times so it has its benefits as well."
Box knows what he's talking about: MindAffect is the second company he has led to success. His strategic leadership catapulted the company onto the international stage when it attracted funding from the ALS Foundation.
It's an amazing achievement just to make it to CES. So much work goes on behind the scenes for these companies, from research and development to funding and branding. The final product that attendees see is the results of hundreds, even thousands of hours of brainstorming, critiquing and tweaking. None of it can happen without constant, ongoing communication.
"It's nice to have a good product. But, even the best product -- you're going to have to sell it," said von Campe. "That's one that you have to discover along the way, especially if you're from an engineering background where you think, If you build it they will come, which is not true anymore -- or I don't know if it has ever been true."
Song and Kim agree, and see effective communication not only as the greatest challenge for their company, but for all startups.
"[The] biggest obstacles to entrepreneurs is to prove their business to the market," Song said. "We want to prove the innovation of our business in this VR industry. Prove our value."
And sometimes the best business advice comes from talking to -- and learning from -- others.
"I really like to be in the startup pavilion with other Dutch startups," Song said. "It's a lot more fun with like-minded people that help each other."
My hope for 2018 is that entrepreneurs will lean into international partnerships, reaching out to other innovators across the globe to devise ideas, products and services -- and that next year, Eureka Park will host more startups whose work crosses borders and creates game-changing solutions to the world's greatest challenges.