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How to Sell your Great Technology Overseas

Tracey James - Friday, February 15, 2019

How to sell your great technology overseas

There are two popular approaches:

1. the higher effort, direct route of the lone warrior with high risk of 'crash and burn' (remember Icarus who flew too close to the sun?) or

2. the lower effort, lower risk, indirect route using emissaries. We explore both with real world examples.

Innovation starts here

A bold claim perhaps, but the Australian technology sector has produced world-class solutions for years in may fields, from the Black Box Flight Recorder to Gene Shears to Quantum Computing. Yet, these and many other breakthroughs were made with little support from federal or state governments.

Most government support has been in the form of limited or empty promises. At federal level, governments on both political sides have slashed funding for Australian R&D to the point where Australia's standing is now just ahead of Greece. Austrade, the organisation set up to help Australian companies market their products overseas, seems more focused on selling Australia’s expertise to global corporations than helping Aussie hi-techs export their products.

Going it Alone

For these and other reasons, most hi-tech start-ups try to go it alone, and we’ve seen spectacular successes like pioneers Cochlear and ResMed and, more recently, Atlassian. It’s instructive that Atlassian chose the US stock market for its highly successful IPO. Maybe because many Aussie investors are reluctant to back a local software company or any Aussie technology vendor. More Here from Atlassian founder Mike Cannon-Brooks.

A biotech client of ours listed first on the ASX and then on the NASDAQ, after finding it couldn’t attract enough investors in Australia. The situation is even worse for software companies: ‘… there are no solely software-based companies listed on the ASX,’ says Alex Louey, co-founder of Appscore. ‘In the US they are a dime a dozen.’ That’s the state of affairs Down Under.

The Warrior Route: you’re really on your own

The USA is an irresistible honeypot for many Australian technology companies because of the vast opportunities and associated prestige. But for a small Aussie company of 20-60 staff, it can be distracting, expensive and tough to get traction across the Pacific.

A former client of ours, an enterprise security software vendor, had connections in the USA and the CEO was super-keen to make his mark there. A few years ago, one of his well-connected mates encouraged him to hire a local salesman and even put forward a candidate with an impressive CV including well-known US employers. Against our advice, the CEO hired the candidate, sight unseen.

The decision had unexpected consequences. Not only did the guy have such huge health problems he couldn't fly across the country to visit prospects or attend security conferences, he was too unwell to even walk very far. As a sales resource, he was next to useless unless he was talking on the phone. Face-to-face contact was out of the question, so he arranged a plethora of meetings and waited for high level resources from Australia and the UK to fly over and attend. 

He must have been pretty convincing by phone, because it took the CEO 12 months to realise the full extent of the problem. By then, he'd spent serious money for salary, travel and accommodation, he'd distracted his key UK and Aussie tech resources in wild goose chases - and lost a precious year in a fast-moving, competitive market.

More than that, the CEO had been so focused on the US, he'd missed the signs that customers in the UK and Australia were feeling neglected and weren't happy. All things considered, the US hire decision cost the company millions.

Sure, this is an extreme case, but this direct approach is hugely attractive with Aussie technology companies, especially using a lone warrior - whether hired overseas or relocated from OZ - and more often than not, this avenue doesn’t deliver.

The Emissary Route: stand on big shoulders 

The same company had taken an entirely different and successful route to the UK, some years before the ill-fated foray into the US.

Back then, its technology was a game changer, yet back in Australia few companies understood why it was different and why they needed it.  Although the technology offered the highest-performing network protection available in the world,  the major local banks kept opting for inferior technologies from comforting global vendors. Sound familiar?

We were advising the software vendor at the time, and it was clear that the most rewarding market niches were national security, defence and law enforcement. These organisations needed the smartest technology on the planet, and political correctness played no part in the decision process. As a result, we positioned the technology as Defence Grade Cyber Security. As this was a limited vertical in Australia, overseas markets were the obvious answer, but foreign prospects were even more impenetrable than local banks.

Enterprise software has a long sales cycle, and it needs skilled people who can manage POCs (Proofs of Concept) and deployments, and keep existing/potential customers and partners happy over the long term. Fortunately, the company had a very experienced, senior sales person who was willing to go the UK for a few years. She was Celtic, charming, intelligent and fitted in right away. We'll call her Sinead.

The strategy was to focus on building partnerships with IT systems integrators like BT, Capgemini and Logica, to help open doors to the big defence and intelligence contracts, and it worked. Sinead spent most of her time schmoozing these 'emissaries' and building strong relationships built on trust and performance.

We backed her up with thought-leading White Papers that tackled issues of national security like Cyber Espionage, Insider Threats and gaining better Threat Intelligence, which Sinead used face-to-face and we used in targeted email campaigns. In these papers, together, we highlighted the vendor's superior knowledge and expertise at the 'serious end' of cyber security. 

Several of Sinead's UK emissaries introduced her to their existing clients who introduced her to more players in this closely-knit, closed-door, hush-hush community. It wasn't long before the UK business, focused almost entirely on defence, intelligence and law enforcement, outgrew the business Down Under.

For this vendor, focus on partners has continued to bear fruit in the UK and Europe, while the US market is still proving elusive.

Choose the Right Partners

In the crowded, competitive, noisy US technology markets, you'll probably need several well-performing partners to gain some traction. The huge US market also tends to be divided into east coast, middle, west coast, and Canada.

So, apart from reaching out into your markets, you need to choose partners who have a genuine need fort your product, not just those who'll sign up to sell it. For the former, your technology needs to fill a vital gap and strengthen their offering. For the latter, they don't need you, so they'll accept the leads you generate and the margin you give away, but won't do much else. 

You need to be tough when vetting potential partners, especially overseas, to find the ones of best fit. Having a series of questions to qualify those with the right experience, internal technical and sales expertise, and clients in verticals that match yours is a good start. It may take longer than you planned, but it's important to resist the urge to make a compromise decision you'll regret down the track.

Once you've established productive relationships with a few select partners, they will be easy to manage even for a smallish Aussie company. If you’ve chosen your partners carefully, your main challenge will be to train them (either in the US or Down Under), keep their training up to date and help them to sign their first deals quickly. Think of them as rookie salesmen who need early wins to become confident. Once your partners have tasted success, and seen the quality of your support, they'll be working hard to generate strong growth. 

Another client, a European antivirus software vendor, had a product that was far superior to that of the market leader at the time, Norton from Symantec. Most PC resellers were selling Symantec, so focusing on them would only have sparked a price war. Instead, we suggested approaching a few specialised, niche-focused resellers who needed clear differentiation from the Symantec resellers. It was an obvious strategy, and it worked. We used exactly the same strategy for a Compliance Training software company, who expanded using carefully-selected, matched partners.

Start in the Right Place

If you don't already have an overseas presence or a big budget for global expansion, starting with the UK or US - even via partners - may not be the best choice. Moving sequentially outward in geographical waves might make more sense, and it looks a bit like this:

  1. First prove your technology in Australia. When it comes to IT software, the local market is as mature as any in the first world so, if it works here, it will work in Asia, Europe and the USA. You can also forge relationships with partners located in Australia who have global offices to help your expansion.
  2. Overseas starts across the ditch (like it or not). New Zealand may not offer the enormous riches of the USA, but it’s a convenient place to test assumptions and become familiar with the logistics, challenges and cultural differences in other countries. It's also a short flight with just a two-hour time difference – and if things don’t work out straight away, the whole world won’t be watching and your powder will still be dry.
  3. Next stop: Asia-Pacific. Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan are major tech exporters and heavy users of advanced technology. Singapore is the easiest starting point, in terms of flight times and time zones, but also culture and sophistication. Singapore is a cosmopolitan market with exposure to cultural differences.

The Bottom Line

So, the simple answer to the question ‘How to sell your great technology overseas' is: 'Walk before you Run. Run before you Fly'.

The image in the header is Icarus, the character in Greek mythology who wanted to fly. He ignored advice from his father, Daedalus, and headed straight for the sun. The result: melt, crash and burn. Not a pretty sight then or for a tecnology company 2,500 years later.

Tracey James
Chief Executive

I used to be a Biotech researcher but got sick of acid holes in my clothing. After switching to selling the equipment I'd used in the lab, I discovered marketing and loved it. I've been marketing technologies ever since. I still love it.

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