4 October 2018
Internationalize your start-up : How do you start?
Imec.Istart Internationalization Officer
Sven De Cleyn
Imec.Istart Program Manager
What are the do's and dont's for internationalisation? And when is your start-up ready to take the plunge? Sven De Cleyn and Lies Boghaert from imec.istart, imecs tech start-up accelerator, share their vision.
For many young entrepreneurs "making it abroad" is still a main sign of their success. Which is logical, because if you're in the Belgium market and you want to continue to grow, at some point you're going to reach a border.
The basics: when are you ready for the foreign market?
Sven De Cleyn (imec.istart program manager): "A minimum prerequisite to be able to internationalise is of course that your concept, product or service also has to be relevant abroad. In addition, you should already have considerable sales in your home market. Not just because you need the financial means to internationalise, but also because this shows that your business model works, which obviously helps to win over (foreign) investors or partners. Ideally you should also already have a few pilot clients in your foreign target market." Then there is one last - frequently forgotten - prerequisite and that is simply: relentless ambition. And that's occasionally where people get stuck.
Sven De Cleyn remarks: "I often see entrepreneurs who actually aren't prepared to go for it 100%. Internationalisation demands a lot of energy and has consequences for how you run your business. So you really have to be prepared to take on that level of commitment.
Your own 'American Dream': how (and where) do you start?
For a lot of start-ups America seems to be the ultimate dream - if you make it there, you can make it anywhere - but in fact it isn't the best approach for everyone.
Lies Boghaert: "The United States is obviously an interesting market because it is a fairly big unified market. Europe is very fragmented because of the different national languages. But although the US can therefore offer a bigger sales market, there is often very strong competition there. Instead of going for the US' reputation as standard, it would therefore be better to do some extensive market research first. For example, from Flanders the Netherlands is often an interesting choice: it's easy to access, they speak the same language and yet the sales market is around three times as big as Flanders. After that you can still always make the step to the US or other large foreign markets."
Sven De Cleyn remarks: "What I often see going wrong is that entrepreneurs go into an international project blindly. Preparation is essential, not only for choosing the right target market and building up your network abroad, but also for learning how the business culture differs from country to country. For example, in Germany it is often difficult to get to a final agreement, because all of the details have to be examined beforehand, but once everything is done, you will have a watertight contract. In other countries, contact is smoother and more informal, but collaborations can occasionally be less stable. It is important for you to learn these unwritten laws too."
Beyond Belgium: imec.istart as a springboard
Internationalising isn't easy. That's why start-up accelerators such as imec.istart are working increasingly on internationalisation. Lies Boghaert (imec.istart – internationalisation coordinator) explains: "To guide and support our start-ups and scale-ups in their internationalisation process, we focus on building international networks. That's why, among other things, we are a part of EuroIncNet, a network of high-ranking European incubators. And through BelCham (Belgian-American Chamber of Commerce) we also offer our start-ups the opportunity to go to New York or San Francisco for 3 months. In addition, we are directly involved in the Flanders New York Accelerator, a programme with the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator (ERA) in which we want to help Flemish tech start-ups, to go via New York City, into the US market faster. Furthermore, we also help our start-ups with preparatory market research and we organise regular industry-specific missions in which we introduce them to potential investors or other players who are active in their foreign target market.
The founders of Twikit and Ontoforce, two imec.istart businesses that have since expanded to become worldwide businesses, also stress the importance of preparation and the right support.
Martijn Joris (founder & CEO of Twiket): "Earlier this year we took part in the Flanders New York Accelerator (FNYA), through imec.istart. This participation was very important in terms of gaining expertise on the business culture in America, which has now enabled us, as a European scale-up, to break that market open as well.
Hans Constant (founder & CEO of Ontoforce): "Because we knew from the start that with our product - a semantic search engine aimed at pharmaceutical and biotech companies - we had to think internationally, we very soon began participating in initiatives to get a foot in the door abroad as well. Consequently, we participated in the Flanders New York Accelerator last year, through the imec.istart programme. But also outside of imec.istart there are a large number of organisations - such as FlandersBio, VOKA, Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT) - who have opened doors for us. Through them, we were able to get to know the local market quicker, to build up a network abroad and to find the right partners, clients and investors there. As a start-up, participating in these sorts of initiatives is therefore definitely not an unnecessary luxury."