Get ambitious, think international…and work hard
Diane Roberts of xCell Partners shares her best advice for startups in Northern Ireland.
I’ve been working with startups for almost 15 years and unfortunately there is one piece of bad news for anyone looking at starting a new business: it isn’t easy! It’s probably one of the most difficult things you can do.
Whilst you need passion and drive, you also have to combine that with patience and tenacity. The world isn’t waiting for you and your new product or service to come along; you have to get it out there, either in person or online.
The Northern Ireland economy is small – very small. Tidy and successful businesses can be built serving a local market, but to build something sustainable with investment and government support, you’re going to have to think international from day one. Don’t park that task for ‘year two’ – it has to be in the DNA of your business plan from the offset.
Selling outside the region for the first time can be daunting – don’t let it be. The rest of the UK and Ireland are close, immediately accessible markets for us, with most key cities accessible by flight within an hour. The east coast of the USA is as near as 7 hours away, with numerous flights from Belfast and Dublin.
Here are the core pieces of advice I give startup companies we work with at Xcell Partners – and remember: building a small business takes as much effort as building a big one…
- Get Ambitious. Set out a plan that includes export objectives from day one. Critically, your own personal ambitions have to be authentic. Too often we work with startup companies with limited desire and if you are the CEO or Founder, you are the only person who sets your company’s goals – no advisor or consultant can do this for you. It has to be in your belly and be your plan. Set your aim high.
- Internationalise your Team. Get people involved in your business with international experience and track record. They can be employees or mentors and advisors. If you are leading a new business, you will benefit greatly from building experienced, export focused people into your team.
- Build a gang around your business. Network. Network. There are simply more people out there who have connections, expertise and track record in developing international businesses than you will typically have. It’s an invaluable resource that you need to harness. Build a gang of people around your business who can help reach your vision – and remember they don’t have to be on your doorstep, they can be anywhere. Our local startup scene is beginning to look a lot less local and increasingly more international. Often the best advice and help you can get is from fellow entrepreneurs.
- Get over there. Wherever there is, get over there. Travel to your target markets. Seek out partners as well as customers. You will have to know the landscape of your export markets, particularly for physical products. More often than not you will need to partner with either distributors or resellers to get traction. But always remember, any trade visit will cost your business, so see where and how you will get return on this investment. You might want to consider engaging a PR company with connections in your target market. Get in touch with Invest Northern Ireland to see if they can help and look at what initiatives UKTI may be running – both run high quality missions across the globe.
- Prepare, plan, be ready. Prepare. I’m no girl scout, but I know you have to be prepared. Before you travel, get on the phone or Skype. Telephone charges are down, Skype is free, conference call tools are low in cost. Who doesn’t have email? There are no barriers to have a call. Don’t just turn up in your market without research and making connections expecting a red carpet. Set up meetings and calls before you head off and be sure you have researched your market. Reach out to anyone you feel can help your business grow.
- Learn from mistakes. No one sets out to make a mistake. Messing up seldom feels good, but to quote Henry Ford, ‘the only real mistake we make, is the one from which we learn nothing’. If you are setting off to new markets, you are bound to have a few hiccups – just make sure they are not expensive ones.
- Don’t ignore the paperwork. On the practical side of things, make sure you can take and deal with foreign payments, ensuring payment to you is as painless as possible. Get early advice on potential tax and customs issues – you don’t want to end up with any nasty charges or admin headaches. First stop is google; all the information you need can be found online.
Xcell Partners works with agencies to deliver economic development programmes aimed at the startup community. Since its foundation in 2007, Xcell has gone on to deliver the Invest Northern Ireland Propel Programme and the Enterprise Start programme for Enterprise Ireland. Incorporating a team of regional and international mentors and associates, xCell Partners can pull on a team from Dublin to California.