The European continent represents a massive and diverse market for startups. For companies born out of Europe and for those expanding into Europe from another geography, the continent’s size and heterogeneity creates both opportunities and challenges.
According to the World Bank, the EU’s GDP in 2021 was $17 trillion, compared to $23 trillion for the US. While providing a large addressable market, countries and regions within Europe have meaningfully varied cultures, economies, and ways of doing business. For startups, that means seemingly basic questions around GTM can be surprisingly complex.
Crew Capital’s Dylan Reider and Sonia Damian recently sat down with Kulpreet Singh about considerations for startups building GTM strategies in Europe. Kulpreet was formerly the Managing Director of EMEA at UiPath, where he oversaw the region’s GTM strategy and built the global test automation strategy and team from scratch.
Sonia Damian: Kulpreet, thank you for taking your time to speak with us! Before we dive into our main topic for today, tell us a bit about you, your career, and what you’ve been up to more recently.
Kulpreet Singh: Thank you for having me, as you can see from my white hair, I have quite a bit of experience. About 15 years ago I had an opportunity to scale up an American organization that wanted to enter the European market. Since then I’ve lived in over 5 countries across different continents, I’ve traveled to over 50 countries in my career, and I’ve been part of really big organisations like Sony, Panasonic, British Gas, and UiPath.
The excitement I had throughout working with these companies made it quite clear to me what I wanted to do next. After my last corporate role, after several years at UiPath, I now spend time engaging with early stage startups – Seed, Series A, Series B – which allows me to draw on my experiences in helping them, while at the same time continuing to always be learning something new. I get to interact with really smart people and hopefully help them, either navigate this journey a bit easier and faster, or avoid the pitfalls that we went through, and that I personally have gone through.
Dylan Reider: It sounds like it’s been an amazing ride, Kulpreet. When you work with founders now, who are not from Europe, and come to you asking advice about factors they should consider when expanding their company into Europe, how do you work with them on that? How should founders think about when would be the right time, and about what parts of Europe make the most sense to expand into first?
Kulpreet Singh: Europe is not a homogeneous market, you have to look at Europe as a cluster of different markets. What this means is that while at an organizational level you do want to have some level of consistency, when it comes to execution, staying local is the absolute key. In Europe, if you move a couple hundred miles, across the borders, the culture, the buying behaviours, the competition, the requirements change and it makes it very difficult and complicated.
From my experience, the nature of how to expand into Europe is totally dependent on your value proposition.
If the product market fit is agnostic in terms of culture, language, if it doesn’t really change as you move geographies or borders, then attacking Europe as a single market becomes slightly more easier and more convenient.
On the other hand, if your product is aligned to certain industries and those industries themselves are very different across countries, then you may have an issue. As an example, the way utilities are structured in UK is very different from the way it is in Netherlands, Germany, or Nordics. This means that even though you may have a product which is an absolute fit for one country, the way you structure your value proposition, how you engage with clients in each country, or their buying drivers could be different.
The possibility of having one or two corporate bases in Europe and using those to penetrate all the markets in Europe, to me, is very sub-optimal. Customers in Europe tend to appreciate personal connections – talking to someone who’s down the road, who speaks their language, understands their culture. They want to know that the prospective vendor has made some level of investment in their market. If financing is an issue for your company, which it is for many, then pick the markets which lend themselves best to your product market. Obviously the ones with the highest GDP are very clear – Germany, UK, France, etc.
Sonia Damian: You’ve talked a bit about the nuances within the European market. What about some similarities and differences between selling software in the US or Asia vs. Europe?
Kulpreet Singh: I think Asia is a very different market. Similar to Europe though, it is difficult to generalize, so you should think of it in terms of local clusters. A company’s value proposition needs to be tailored to local sensitivities, local requirements, local issues, local challenges.
You have the classic APAC (Asia-Pacific) with SE Asia, to which you can add on Australia, New Zealand. And then you have two really huge markets on their own, which are Greater China and Japan.
China and Japan are typically the most difficult to get into, but of course they offer enormous addressable markets. Entering these markets requires serious investment. There needs to be a local management team, different legal structures, country-specific IP protection, significant product localization, and likely a refined focus on value proposition. They need a very localized strategy, there is no way companies can meaningfully penetrate China & Japan by flying in people.
Talking about the US, the difference between it and Europe are quite stark. US buyers tend to be pretty open to trying new technology. It’s easier to get an initial order, the sales cycle may not be as long as in Europe. But by the same token, the stickiness, the loyalty tends to be lower. However, if a company does manage to establish a strong relationship, over a period of time they can expect bigger average contract values.
Europe is a very different ballgame. It takes a lot of convincing to do. Sales cycles can be quite long. Even when you come to the other end, it’s rare to get a big order. Buyers are more cautious, they will start off small, they will want to see how the technology works, and they will scale up slowly. But the flip side is the greater stickiness. This is largely due to the reluctance to change, so once a vendor is in, the same barriers that were creating the longer sales cycle, they now flip to become a strength.
The other thing is, once a startup gets traction in Europe, they will certainly find out that if they get into one customer, then that customer’s competitors and peers will start looking at the startup and be interested to sign up.
At the end of the day, Europe, APAC, and the US – these are very different markets. While there are similarities, and while there are learnings and best practices which can be shared, overall the way the clients buy, and how the prospects act during the sales process – these can be wildly different. Therefore startups must go into geographic expansion recognizing you can’t have the same expectations from one region to another.
Dylan Reider: You spoke about the cautiousness in terms of companies buying new software in Europe relative to the US. I’d be curious to get your perspective on the opportunity in Europe for product led growth, particularly in post-COVID world where so many companies, big and small, got used to buying software digitally. Did that ease the customer cautiousness? Is there more opportunity today for non-European companies to expand into Europe if they leverage product led growth?
Kulpreet Singh: The truth is that today, any software company needs to be “product-led” with its growth strategy. Especially for an early stage startup where you’re just trying to break through.
The only way you will get sustainable, repeatable, scalable growth is, if your clients understand the value that your product brings them. That means they need to have an opportunity to check it out. It can be through a proof of concept, proof of value, community edition or through case studies, peers etc. And if they try it, then they’ll only scale up when there’s value actually being delivered. All these strategies I just mentioned, they’re technically all product-led. That’s basically saying “my product has the capability to stand toe to toe with any competition out there, and deliver value to your company, and we are standing by to deliver that value.”
Post-COVID, sure, everybody is comfortable with doing sales meetings on a virtual tool, you don’t need to be there in person through all the stages, you don’t need to have people coming to office every day, but putting a local face is important.
The other part other part of being local is the localization of your product. What I mean is, for example, if you’re going to France, can you have a product which has a menu in French or supporting documentation in French? It doesn’t take a lot of effort, but it transmits a strong message: I respect what you’re doing, I understand this is important for you, I’m making the effort to make it work for you. I’m trying to give you a product which works for you wherever it might have been developed.
Sonia Damian: The importance of quick time to value through a product-led strategy makes a lot of sense. What are the typical pitfalls or mistakes that you see startups making when they expand into Europe at first?
Kulpreet Singh: From my view, there are two parts to it. First is, as I said, don’t think of Europe as a homogeneous market, it’s a cluster of different markets. Figure out whether you have the capacity, the capital, the ability to fight on multiple geographic fronts. If not, pick your battlefields, whichever ones those might be.
The second one comes from the price of success. Let’s say, let’s hope you are successful and you created all these GTM clusters and they’re all doing well. Sometimes companies make a mistake of treating local markets as islands, and they end up getting cut off from the rest of the company. They forget they are part of a unified organization.
So while it’s good to recognize the local cultures and put in place a strategy that reflects local customer appreciation, teams should never ever forget that at first level they are part of a European organization, and then at a second level, of a global organization.
Make sure to let them all be interconnected through some shape or form, whether that is through marketing, global accounts, product strategy, whether it’s just getting people together and getting to share the experiences or even as simple as making sure that there’s a consistency on certain basics. This is how sales standards are maintained, how the sales process or pricing is being managed, how nobody is going to discount or undercut somebody else, when it comes to global clients.
That structure, those formal and informal linkages are absolutely critical, unless you want to end up with silos, marooned in different geographies, as the price of your success.
Dylan Reider: Since we are talking about clusters, cultural differences, and local structures, can you tell us a bit how an early stage company should think about structuring their European GTM organization?
Kulpreet Singh: There are three ways you can organize a sales team: by industry, you can do it by the size of the prospects, or you can do it by geography.
At the basic level, you need to check what is your product market fit. If your product is horizontal in nature then a vertical structure doesn’t help you in any way. If your product can be sold or can add value to any size of the company, medium enterprise, commercial or SME, then probably that doesn’t make that much sense.
In Europe unless there’s a good reason, I would say the assumption should be to start on a geographic basis, and then look for reasons as to why that is not the right approach. Afterwards you may want to further segment by industry, by vertical or by the size of the prospects. But first do it on a geographical basis, because then you can address the various requirements with flexibility.
This is in a nutshell my view on structuring the sales team. Everything else like marketing, product, talent management you can think of having a centralized basis.
Sonia Damian: Community led growth is an often discussed topic now as well. What’s your view on it? Have you seen any startups in Europe leverage community to their advantage in their GTM strategy?
Kulpreet Singh: I am a firm believer in having a community, and going back to what I said before, if you have a software product, you need to demonstrate the value straight to your clients or your prospects. You can create presentations, you can have use cases, you can have testimonials, you can have references. But nothing actually beats a prospect trying your product on their own, in their own environment and realizing its added value. If they do that, then the only time they’ll come back to you is to say I want to buy it.
Community lead growth is a big thing. You need to be ready to put your product out there in all its nakedness, and by doing this, you will get valuable feedback – positive, negative, it is all great feedback because you wouldn’t have received it otherwise. And if your product has a strength, then this will build a momentum which marketing or sales cannot do on their own at all.
In the initial stages, when budgets are tight, when you’re an unknown entity, this can give your product the biggest credibility. I strongly suggest to all founders that it should be part of the product set, part of the strategy. They should embrace it.
Dylan Reider: This has been awesome Kulpreet, thank you for spending the time with us. Do you have any final words of advice for founders looking to expand into Europe?
Kulpreet Singh: If you’re an American founder, Europe may look very difficult from afar. My experience tells me if you really want to go global, if you want to be the best in your particular sector, in your industry, then what you should really do is strive for a near-equal sales balance across US, EMEA, and APAC.
While it won’t be exact, typically one third for each is a goal to strive towards at scale. And trust me, it is possible to get it if you strive for it from day one if you embrace that there are differences in these three key markets. If you get into your mind that what works in US will not be readily translatable or replicable in any of the other markets, right away you’re at an advantage, and the rewards can be immense.
Ideally you should approach Europe as a market on its own, which can with the right investments mirror what you get from the US. But it will need some level of investment, actually, it will need a little bit more investment than what you would put in the US. The return on investment won’t be immediately as high.
If you’re a European founder, then you already know that Europe can be a great home market, which you can use to leapfrog into the US, or into Japan. But you still need to keep this lesson of embracing the differences in mind.
Overall, geographic expansion done effectively will get startups to a much better, more diversified business, with more clients, more global organizations, and along the way you will probably be learning quite a few new things.
Sonia Damian: Thank you again Kulpreet, this conversation has been tremendously insightful.