I knew it would be tough when I moved from Sydney to San Francisco last month with my start-up RecruitLoop. We have limited budget, big goals and tight timeframes. We’re building two marketplaces, Australia and the US, from the ground up. How can we be successful?
Building a global product is something nearly every Australian start-up dreams about. There’s an illusion that technology companies can just flick the switch to ‘turn on’ a new market. The reality (for us at least) is different. It requires hard work. Planning. Some luck. And more hard work. It’s rarely glamorous.
Every great company has to start somewhere. Uber is a US start-up with a mobile booking service for limos and taxis, which recently launched in Sydney. Their first action? Hire a local team and go meet drivers.
Another example is General Assembly, one of the leading start-ups in ‘Silicon Alley’ – the tech scene in New York City. It’s set up offices at Fishburners, Sydney’s premier start-up co-working space, and invests quality time building a community with the residents.
This motivates me to jump out of bed every morning (despite running constantly on two timezones), knowing that all these scalable, tech-based companies started at the ground floor. Behind every ‘overnight success’ was years of hard work.
We’re facing the same challenge, just in reverse. We have a model that’s working in Australia, now looking to launch the US. We have a technical platform, international validation and proven demand on the ground.
But how to take the first steps, get noticed and start winning customers?
The challenge is no less daunting after four weeks in San Francisco. We’re breaking it down in three ways: by narrowing the scope, building social proof, and throwing lots of pebbles.
Narrowing the scope
Geographically the US isn’t one single market, but a combination of regional areas with very different features. We’re initially focused on one: the Bay Area around San Francisco.
Building a two markets, Australia and the US, requires even more focus. We currently focused on supply (finding independent recruiters) before demand (finding employers), to build initial ‘liquidity’ in our market. In practice that means I’m ‘recruiting recruiters’, which is a surprising turn of the tables for many of them.
Building social proof
The Bay Area is an incredibly networked environment, with reputation as its currency. You need referrals. Warm introductions. Testimonials. The higher the profile of the referrer the better. Use them to build credibility, when you’ve got nothing else.
For example, RecruitLoop received glowing praise last year from Jason Calacanis (a high profile investor and blogger), after I presented on his internet talk show. In Australia, we’re trained to be humble about these sort of things. Or just mention them in passing. That’s certainly my first instinct. The dreaded tall poppy syndrome.
But now I’m bumping into tall poppies on every street corner. We share an office building with Twitter and Yammer (acquired by Microsoft for $1 billion). There’s no room for wall flowers. What might be called boasting in Australia is simply ‘social proof’ over here (within reason). It’s one of the most important weapons in cutting through the noise and it really works.
With that in mind, we printed t-shirts and business cards to use at events with a quote and Jason’s mugshot. I’ve had people tap me on the shoulder to learn more, while standing in line for coffee. And it really helps steer any conversation around to what we do, without having to force the issue. The last thing I want is to for people to think I’m some kind of desperate salesperson.
Throwing pebbles…lots of them
What does this mean? We make many small bets, we’re constantly active, with the sole purpose of generating awareness and growth. Every action is like throwing a pebble into a pond. It has ripple effects. Individual pebbles might not move the needle. But when combined, the ripples interact, magnifying the impact. We learn from the results, then think about scaling them.
In practice, this means we’re focused on free and cheap activities. We can’t blast the market with advertising costing tens of thousands a day. We need to be smarter (and scrappier) to hack our way to growth.
This means attending events and meeting stacks of new people for coffees every week. I’m crossing the city on a second-hand bicycle, alongside thousands of cyclists in dedicated lanes. It’s reminiscent of the commute I’d make from from Bondi to Ultimo, but with glimpses of the Golden Gate instead of the Harbour Bridge, and swapping the SFS for the Giants’ stadium.
When I arrive, I’m usually wearing a branded t-shirt and as a rule, I just ask questions. It’s never a sales pitch, just about building relationships. The ‘pay it forward’ culture in Silicon Valley means everyone is happy to help with another introduction, referral or suggestion. For example, one coffee meeting led to an introduction to the head of talent at a global venture fund. Once we’d lunched together (Mexican – excellent tacos), I had warm introductions lined up at tens of start-ups.
But isn’t this just traditional sales? In a start-up it’s different. It’s less about sales and more about personal evangelism. You’re intimately tied to your product. The problem: your product is in development and often incomplete. So you’re selling the vision, as much (or more) than the product itself.
It’s grassroots stuff, but has immediate impact.
It’s too soon to judge success. But the signs are there. We’ve accepted our first 16 US recruiters to build up the local offering and have signed our first local customers – a management consultancy firm, along with several smaller start-ups. It’s early days, but we’re making steady progress. The trick now is to make sure we have the logistics and operating capability to keep growing, and serve the US market as well as we’ve done in Australia.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.