Vassilis Nikolopoulos (CEO of Intelen): "Your CTO is your ultimate weapon for your expansion strategy."
Vassilis Nikolopoulos is CEO and co-founder of Intelen(CODE_n13 finalist). In May 2013 he took a big step forward with his startup Intelen – he moved the headquarter to New York in the United States. Most startups are dreaming of a successful expansion strategy, but only few can realize this. We are very pleased to have Vassilis’ contribution in our blog and that he will share his experiences with us.
As CODE_n 13 finalists, we had a great opportunity to interact with many foreign EU startups at CeBIT in Hanover this year. Expansion-about discussions was all around the place with great startup guys and entrepreneurs that were looking for a global market and this is exactly the key!
Strategy is a magic word in the startup world. Based on my experience, there is a huge value in spending time early on building the overall strategy and tactics for your startup, before you move ahead and before you start operating and following an aggressive growth plan.
Even at your early stages (pre-seed or Minimum Viable Product (MVP)), you have to set up a killer strategy that will help your startup achieve three initial basic targets:
1. have a solid and accelerated growth plan, with an efficient pricing and go-to-market strategy
2. have an effective marketing plan that will inform the market and your potential customer or investors about what you do and how. Be sure to have that from your MVP
3. be ready to execute fast change management plans and pivoting in order to conform with the LEAN methodology and adapt to the current market needs or changes
So, initial startup strategies have three main functional keywords: a good go-to-market strategy, an effective marketing and a LEAN approach for fast pivoting. Given the fact that you also have a good MVP as prototype and some initial customers for proving your value proposition, you are almost ready to start expanding and hit foreign markets.
The next step is to develop tactics to support your expansion strategy. Have a solid execution Team and a focused CTO to support your execution and technology plan. Your CTO is your ultimate weapon. If you own technology you can execute fast and you can adapt quickly to overcome risks and difficulties. This is where your leadership as a CEO is critical in working with the team on implementation tactics.
As the CEO or co-founder you should periodically sit back and remind yourself of the ultimate objective and the strategy to reach your initial goals. Perform a periodical strategy gap analysis to see how your targets are and how far you are from their achievement. Do not fail to review the assumptions underlying your initial strategy. If one or more of the key assumptions have changed, do not fail to adapt your strategy, modify your tactics, and iterate. This is the secret of applying agility and LEAN process to you startup strategy plan. You don’t have to change your strategy or assumptions because you failed to achieve a target. Change your iterations and tactics instead and apply a fast pivoting mechanism.
Expansion needs a good mixed VC-backed/organic growth plan. In your initial expansion steps and as soon as you have achieved the 3 initial strategy objectives mentioned above, secure good funding or have some cash from your bootstrapping approach. Stay local in the development process if this works better for you and if this is cheaper and can be followed as an execution model (ie. SaaS, cloud technologies, etc). Hire a good COO and Sales executive to setup and orchestrate operations and sales in the foreign market you are moving in. If you also move business operations (HQs) be sure to have a very good and incentivised COO.
Your Operations guy will secure, manage and track your go-to-market and expansion plan and your Sales guy will implement it, so be sure to obtain a good relationship.
When we (my start up, Intelen, Inc) executed our expansion plans and moving our HQs to New York, we followed the above plan: secured the 3 initial strategy targets, had a local agile development and engineering team to achieve efficiently the execution plans of our cloud product (following LEAN processes) and hired high level executives, as COO and Sales in order to execute the expansion plan. Great results so far indicating that if you have focus and if you are ready to iterate with strategy tactics, you diminish the probabilities of re-engineering the whole strategy and re-starting; this is not bad but takes valuable time out of your target path.