Conventional wisdom suggests that a 9 month-old bootstrapping data visualisation startup should stick to its home market, carefully mind its resources and focus on getting through the first few tough, lean years. Conventional wisdom doesn't countenance sharing management time and scarce resources across markets in two geographically disparate locations. Despite this in September of 2013 Coolgarif Tech took part in the first trade mission of its brief existence.
Just to put this decision in context, our first summer had been pretty quiet. In May we had a very strong pipeline of potential projects, so much so that I was particularly stressed about finding additional headcount to meet the demand. However for one reason or another work dried up once the sun came out!
We consoled ourselves with the idea that things would definitely pick up once everybody got back from the beach (although this wasn't particularly comforting as we sat in Farringdon in the sweltering heat!)
The goals for September were pretty clear – get some of the projects that had stalled over the summer back on track. Start to refill the funnel and bring the company through to the end of our first year on a wave of successful projects and happy customers.
That was until I got an email from the UKTI.
It was a Sunday evening some stage in mid August informing me that we had been accepted on the Great Tech Expedition 2013 to Brazil in early September for 10 days.
It was a bit of a shock as I had completely forgotten about applying for the trip. I had seen the event link on some random twitter post in mid-July and fired in an application without much thought. In fact so little thought that I hadn't really considered what we would do if we actually got accepted!!
To be clear, we don't have a sales team, business dev folk, a sales person or even an intern. At this stage of our development everybody does everything – what do any of us know about breaking into developing markets with our data visualisation offering? In short, absolutely nothing.
So when the news came through that we were accepted on the Great Tech expedition I sat down with the entire company (ie: James and I went and grabbed a coffee) to discuss whether this made any sense whatsoever.
We weighed up the positives − new market, good sales experience, potential increase in brand awareness, meet other UK tech companies, get to know Tech City, UKTI and the London Mayor's Office, and the negatives − what if we managed to develop no new business from the trip, 50% of the company would be out of the office at a crucial time, are we too immature as a company to get any traction, perhaps datavis isn't a thing in Brazil? There were a million good reasons to stay in London anchored to my text editor, bashing out python and manipulating data for clients.
But we do believe in taking risks and putting the company in positions that allow for good things to happen. So we rolled the dice and I started thinking about how on earth we could possibly send half the company to another continent.
This article isn't really about the trip itself but more about the thought process behind making the decision to go and a little of what I learned while I was there.
As part of the trip the UKTI arranged for the Sao Paulo based UKTI officials and a local Brazilian agency to source meetings for us with relevant companies. To be honest I was concerned about this part as in our experience it can be tricky to explain exactly what data visualisation entails unless the target has business intelligence or technology experience. To give the local teams credit they did an excellent job in arranging meetings for us, made the consulate in Sao Paulo available where required and supported us very well throughout the trip.
Our primary goal for the trip was to meet potential local partners who could use our data visualisation libraries and skills in their local projects. Ideally these partners would have their own particular technology expertise that we could complement with our offering. This seemed like us to be a sensible approach to take without tying up too many of our limited resources in such a remote market.
In advance of departure we had been asked to provide some marketing content, including a description of what Coolgarif Tech does. Upon reflection I think I did a pretty rubbish job at preparing this! So much so that at the opening reception on the first evening of our arrival most of the local companies weren't entirely clear as to what on earth we did! They picked it up pretty quickly once I explained the concepts but I definitely felt that I had let the side down.
Now part of this confusion is down to my inexperience at copy writing and crafting a strong brand image (or having the spare cash to pay somebody else to do it). Another reason is that the identity of the company and its offerings have been evolving and gestating over the course of this first year. Often we haven't been clear in our own minds whether we are a product company or an agency or some strange hybrid bootstrapped love child of the two. We are definitely leaning closer to the third of those options but people who don't know us can struggle with this initially.
Looking back at the marketing materials that I had hurriedly put together I was embarrassed how weak they were. The more technical companies got it to a certain level but it wasn't until I started demoing our showcase work did the message become clear. Effectively as a company our message is weak and needs to improve. This is something we've been working hard to improve since my return.
Another thing I learned is that despite my scepticism in the past twitter, linkedIn and google are pretty powerful in connecting with potential leads in new markets. Ahead of the trip in an attempt to generate some additional meetings, beyond those organised by the UKTI team, I started to reach out to anyone who seemed to have links to the tech startup and data visualisation worlds in Brazil. This lead to some really interesting conversations about the scope for Open data in Brazil and the opportunities that are emerging from them.
One of the contacts that I made in this manner is Mauricio Savarese (@Msavarese) and I want to thank him again for his outstanding help in Sao Paulo. To illustrate how far Maruicio went to assist, at one stage he went through his phone name by name suggesting potential connections. This generosity lead to several fascinating conversations and an insight into the local market that I would have otherwise failed to achieve. In hindsight I should have started this process weeks prior to my trip (and not 48 hours before the flight) as it was very effective.
Maruicio's open and positive approach mirrored that of pretty much everybody I met while on the trip. There are some great entrepreneurs in Brazil, with some fantastic businesses and I'm very excited to collaborate on some amazing data visualisation projects in the region soon.
AirBnb was funnily another unexpected source of leads! I reached out to each of the three hosts that I was staying with during the trip saying that that I was in town with my tech startup for business. It turned out that one of the hosts was able to put me in touch we some fabulous local contacts. Although, I'm not sure I'd go as far as to say that my test of AirBnb hosts had sufficient statistical rigour to determine that 33% of all hosts will be able to assist your tech startup with local business development leads.
Away from lead generation, a concern was whether we were mature enough as a business to generate any traction in a different continent. My take away on this is trust in your business and its maturity. My fears couldn't have been further from the reality as the local companies that I met proved to be warm, welcoming, positive, technologically progressive, and generally very exciting to meet with, drink beer with and plan projects with.
Another major benefit from the trip was getting to spend time with the other members of the expedition. We were eleven technology companies in total with a range of specialities but a level of overlap in terms of product and focus. This lead to some great cross-marketing efforts during the trip where potential customers were introduced to me via other members of the expedition, increasing the overall exposure footprint of the trip.
Again any fears I had that the other travellers wouldn't be interested in what we were doing proved unfounded. Every single company on the trip was amazing positive, supportive, open, friendly. I was able to grab time with each of the entrepreneurs individually to discuss each others businesses, ideas and insights from their experiences and past technology lives. I came away excited by the wonderful talent that exists across the group, their energy, enthusiasm and wisdom. Many of the founders were vastly more experienced than myself in the world of technology and were more than willing to impart their experience to me and suggest actionable.
Since we started the company back in January 2013 my interaction with the UK government has been pretty much limited to the foreboding letters I regularly receive from the lovely folk at Her Majesties Revenue and Customs. We'd often read about Tech City initiatives and wondered what could we do to get more support from the government at large.
What I learned from the Great Tech Expedition is that the UKTI and Tech City are extremely knowledgeable and very supportive of companies such as Coolgarif Tech. Keith who lead the trade mission on behalf of UKTI and Tech City did an excellent job during the trip. His experience in looking at young companies was a great help. [UKTI have a range of excellent services available to early stage companies looking to break into new markets].
So to sum up the trip as a whole, from a revenue perspective, it has been a little slow in materialising, but we are having some exciting negotiations with some potential Brazilian partners. I can't say much at the moment but I hope to continue our development in Brazil over the coming years as we grow the company.
My final word to any founders reading this thinking about applying to be part of any upcoming trade missions: don't be afraid, take the leap and embrace new markets.