Six steps for effective market missions
When we speak with startup founders about entering a new international market, it’s useful to get an insight into their current understanding and perceptions.
One of the things that often stands out for me is whether they have already completed any exploratory market missions.
I’m not referring to whether they’ve visited the country before (we’ve all been on holiday); I’m talking about whether they have had a structured approach to understanding whether the market is right for their business.
Generally, I find that founders who are thinking long-term about international expansion, will adopt this approach.
Other founders typically have a more opportunistic view.
Examples of this range from chasing a specific sales opportunity through to having a “friend” who lives in London and so they want to expand into the UK.
Seriously, I’ve even been told by a UK founder that he decided to setup the company’s first international operation in Australia because “my sister lives there and I don’t see her that often”.
Touching. But hardly a well thought out plan.
I could generalise further and say that, from my experience, founders who take a more structured approach to market missions also have their sights on long-term growth and the next funding round.
The more opportunistic entrepreneur (and this isn’t a criticism of that approach) is generally bootstrapping or funding growth organically.
Unsurprisingly, I would always recommend the more structured approach (even if you are bootstrapping).
Mainly this is because I’ve seen too many startups mis-fire and have nightmare experiences when they’ve been too gung-ho on entering a new market.
So, if a structured approach is best, what’s the best structured approach?
From speaking with founders who have been successful, and through facilitating market missions myself, I believe there are six key steps to consider:
- Think long-term
- Decide on how you will decide
- Find an anchor event
- Plan at least 3 months out
- Find a local expert on the ground
- Review Yes/No
Before going through these steps, let me clarify one thing.
This is about “market exploration” not “market entry”.
What’s the difference?
With market exploration you are seeking to understand the opportunities on the ground in the market. You haven’t yet decided whether to push the go button or not.
So, let’s explore these steps in turn:
Step 1: Think long-term
Market missions are typically at least 12 months out from an actual attempt to enter the market. They should ideally be preceded by some basic research into the market, often to narrow down options from a range of geographies, when considering elements such as market maturity, competitive landscape, etc.
A good plan (which fits with the concept below of an anchor event) is to attend a conference or trade show, relevant to your business, that potentially could be a future route to market.
The key is to plan for the long-term.
Step 2: Decide on how you will decide
Let’s be honest, international travel can be both exciting and exhausting. Itineraries are always packed.
So, at the early planning stage, think about what you need to discover or confirm in order to make a Yes/No decision on the market.
This step also forces you to evaluate different options for missions.
For example, many governments have export focused departments running “trade missions” for startups. Often these are fully funded so can be attractive.
However, they typically include a broad cohort of companies with diverse interests, so the itinerary is often a rather unspecific tour of office spaces, consulates and the odd cocktail party or networking event.
Great fun? Maybe.
Effective? Maybe not.
I’ve spoken to many founders who have travelled half the globe to be herded around London on a semi-tourist route that held zero value to their business aspirations.
At least they found out how to use the tube and to always carry an umbrella, right?
And on this point, the reality of these “diplomatic” excursions is that they always focus on the main cities.
Which may be fine if that’s your market but if you’re into Agtech, or you sell to sectors that are regionally dispersed, you may also need to be visiting somewhere completely different.
Step 3: Find an anchor event
OK, so now we’re into the meat of things.
If you are constructing a market mission, always plan around an “anchor event”.
What could this be?
The obvious choices are conferences, trade shows and exhibitions.
Attending these can tick multiple mission objectives, such as market insight, potential partners, media contacts and potential customers.
They also, as stated before, give you the opportunity to evaluate these events as an effective future route to the market. Asking current exhibitors on foot-fall and how it’s going can be very insightful.
Ultimately, if you decide to pursue entering the market you will need to build a presence, and this will require an investment in some form of market communication or events.
Step 4: Plan at least 3 months out
So, you’re booked to attend your chosen trade show, surely that’s enough?
Just walk around, soak up the atmosphere and do a bit of networking, right?
Going back to the first point about “deciding how you will decide” you should by now have a clear idea of what information you need to discover.
The trade show may answer some of these, but it’s always best to expand beyond just the one venue (hence it’s an “anchor” event).
Through your research and preparation phase you should have identified potential partners (eg: technical, sales, media, recruitment, etc) that you want to speak with.
I guarantee, they will not all be at your anchor event.
So, start planning. Start some outreach. Build your own itinerary.
Extending your market mission either side of your anchor event enables you to maximise the discovery phase.
Step 5: Find a local expert on the ground
OK, possible blatant pitch alert.
But, seriously, having someone local will make your mission far more successful.
Many founders will agree that having someone on the ground, with local market knowledge is a critical part of their international strategy.
They can help facilitate introductions and setup meetings around your anchor event.
They can assist with local knowledge and logistics (which may seem a small point but many a packed itinerary has been ripped up through unfamiliarity of the locale and transport). Previous experience of the anchor event venue can be a godsend.
They can also serve as a valuable link back to the market after your initial mission.
Having someone who can assist in building relationships over time, as well as opening up their own network, makes further missions much smoother.
Where can you find such a local partner?
I always suggest seeking recommendations through your network on via LinkedIn.
Or speak with the organisers of your anchor event.
Typically, they will have an understanding of your market, a network that they can activate and experience of working in or with startups.
Step 6: Review Yes/No
Finally, when you’ve landed back home and shook off the jet-lag, there comes a point when you need to make a clear Yes/No decision.
Resist making any investment commitment until you return from your market mission.
You had a great trade show? Let the euphoria subside before booking that enormous stand near the entrance.
Or taking that space in the swanky co-working office just for when you’re next over.
Breathe deeply. Review with original objectives with your co-founders and team back home.
Remember that entering a new international market will take up a great deal of time and energy. It will stress both your management team and your capital.
Keep connections to the market open and only commit to next steps if it’s right.
It may be that several further visits are required. Perhaps with an emphasis on building on early partnership discussions or, even, early customer conversations.
This is why finding a local expert on the ground is important; if they have been valuable and effective in making your first mission successful, they can often assist in establishing a foot-hold.
Whatever your decision, this thought-out and structured approach is essential to ensuring maximum value from your early market exploration.