Sanjay Aggarwal, our Venture Partner specializing in Enterprise Software and India-US opportunities, along with the Eight Roads India Ventures team, recently hosted a #Scaleup lunch for founders of Indian SaaS companies. We discussed best practices and challenges for Indian SaaS founders seeking to scale globally.
Early stage tech companies spend a lot of time and focus on their technology and ‘product market fit’ but often less time focused on their ‘commercial market fit’. While product almost always comes first, without a laser focus on how you will take that product to market, all efforts risk falling flat.
Here is a summary of some of the learnings from the room:
Think about your market
Whatever the global ambitions of your business, the idea of gaining mastery in your home territory before expanding into other geographies is something everyone agreed on. While most agreed that scaling an India-only business is challenging, India is still an important market and also a great test-bed for perfecting the product and building out the supporting operational processes.
Having said that, founders must think ‘global’ from the get go. The product and platform must be flexible to adapt to the needs of global customers, and founders must do the hard work to deeply understand what those needs are without assuming that all customers will be the same. It is also not a given that the US and Europe should be the ultimate target markets. While those are some of the largest markets, they are also highly competitive. Founders are increasingly seeing attractive opportunities in Southeast Asia as well. The key takeaway for founders is, understand the opportunities and make a deliberate choice rather than simply following others.
Direct selling or the partner model?
When entering new markets, founders are confronted with two options – grow organically with a direct sales team or work with local partners. While both approaches can work, the best approach can depend on local cultural and business norms. In Southeast Asia, where relationship-based selling is more common and local language barriers do exist, several founders saw early success in working with local partners. The partners were able to quickly open doors with prospective customers, though the company embedded dedicated resources in the partner to ensure success of early sales efforts. Over time, as they built credibility and developed an understanding of the local market, building out a local direct sales team became more viable.
In the US and Europe, several founders saw early success with an ‘inside’ sales approach based out of India. Particularly for lower-priced solutions, these customers have become increasingly comfortable with a remote sales process, and several founders expressed how they leveraged this for their initial market entry. However, complementing these efforts with local touch points either at conferences or during sales trips helped accelerate the sales process for many customers. Eventually, as they built an initial base of customers, founders saw value in hiring some local sales resources to complement the sales team in India.
Getting creative with events
Building credibility in a new market can be challenging. Some founders found ways to establish themselves as key players and thought leaders by hosting events, typically in partnership with more established companies in those markets. Small networking events or thought leadership events led by established industry practitioners were a great way for founders to identify prospective customers. Event partners, who can be key to attracting the right audience for the event, can be go-to-market partners in those markets or complementary vendors for the company’s own solutions. Particularly for the latter, offering to co-host events in India can be a great way to get the attention of the right vendors.
Talent acquisition: local vs global
Most founders are faced with the question of where to hire talent. If the US is a key market and a majority of the customers are based there, when does it make sense to hire a local who understands the market versus relocating people from India?
There is no one-size-fits-all, but most agreed that at some point in order to scale, hiring local talent is critical. When recruiting local talent, ensuring that the candidate understands the company culture and setting the right expectations early on in the process is critical. The initial hires are always the toughest, both to recruit and to on-board, but over-investing time to make the early hires successful will make the process easier for future team members. There was also an interesting discussion around the trade-off between prioritizing domain expertise and experience vs someone with less experience but more hustle, with many founders supporting the latter.
We love spending time with founders and over the coming months we’ll be looking at other #Scaleup topics to discuss and write about.