‘Should I focus on growing my venture at home or abroad?’

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Julian Cook, ask the execs: expansion plans

Stung by his negative experiences of the appraisal process when he worked as a financier, Julian Cook created a performance review system that has found markets on four continents. He asks our panel of seasoned IoD members which of these offers the best potential for growth

Julian Cook was a year into his job as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs when he sat down for his first appraisal. He was fairly confident, having been regularly staffed on high-profile IPOs and M&As.

“My MD told me: ‘Julian, we believe you’re underperforming compared with your global peers and you’re not giving me the commitment I want. I think you should consider if this is the right career for you.’

“I was confused, angry and embarrassed,” Cook recalls. “I thought: where was all this feedback six months ago, when I was asking for it and no one responded?”

Cook realised that he wasn’t the only one frustrated about the infrequency of evaluations. “Millions of people aren’t getting honest, timely feedback,” he says.

“This is because humans are uncomfortable about being vulnerable and the current systems don’t apply best-practice principles in psychology, so they can’t overcome this.”

Shortly before joining J P Morgan in 2016, he founded Howamigoing to develop an online platform, focused on year-round goal-setting and feedback, to meet the needs of employees rather than those of HR.

“I prepared the initial wireframes and chose an agency in Spain to work with on the minimum viable product until the first fundraising in late 2017,” he recalls.

The venture has raised £1.1 million so far, reports Cook, who adds: “Investors want prospects of good returns but they also want to connect with the person behind the business.

“For entrepreneurs, that often requires telling your story of pain and why that positions you to make things work, no matter how hard that is.”

Cook, who launched the product in 2018, already employs 10 people. “We work remotely, but everyone comes together on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons,” he says.

“I don’t want my team to have to put in the 20-hour days I used to do, so we work 9am to 6pm. No calls or emails are allowed between 10am and noon and from 2pm to 4pm. These ‘quiet times’ are designed to help everyone work without distraction.”

Cook explains that a “lack of customer targeting has given us a very disparate client base: we serve firms in Australia, Hong Kong, the UK and the US. Now we need to decide where to focus our marketing efforts.

“Should we prioritise the UK, because this is where we’re based and we can physically meet our users here? Or should we capitalise on the fact that we’ve planted a flag in some big foreign markets and expand in those territories?”

Over to our expert panellists…

Jane SunleyJane Sunley, founder, Purple Cubed

I loved reading your story, which has so many parallels with my own. My advice is to focus less on geography and more on finding “people-centric” businesses that invest in their employees, care about how they feel and enable them to drive their own progress. These firms appear on “best employer” lists and go on social media to shout about what they do for their people. If they’re global, all the better. See where their HQs are and start there. My business – we’re consultants first and techies second – has users in 55 countries, even though we operate from one office in London.
Jane Sunley is a member of IoD London

 

David HuntDavid Hunt, CEO, Hyperion Executive Search

Focus on the market in which your product fits best. I expect that some countries will be far more receptive than others. While my business does well in the UK, it’s done better in the US and Germany, so we’re investing in those regions. But be wary and research your target territory carefully. The IoD’s Business Information Service served us well in this respect.
David Hunt is a member of IoD North West

 

David MartinDavid Martin, consultancy director, Ether Solutions

Focusing enough resources on a single territory is better than spreading yourself too thin and struggling everywhere. You can then use your success in that one market to fund development in another. A Swot analysis of various territories will help you to find the primary market to concentrate on. If some of your clients operate in several territories, they can drive the expansion of your business. Targeting prospects that present such opportunities from the primary market is a strong growth strategy.
David Martin is a member of IoD South

 

Andy CristinAndy Cristin, director, Pareto Financial Direction

Unless there is a very good reason for you to concentrate on overseas markets, focus on your home territory first. I’ve been involved in various forays into Europe and the Middle East. These have always proved more difficult than any domestic expansion. Differences in areas such as language, time zone, culture, regulation and customer requirements can all add complexity and cost. It can also be risky having outgoings in sterling but revenues in other currencies. Define your ideal client and concentrate all your marketing expenditure on it. Only when that market is saturated should you move on to another.
Andy Cristin is a member of IoD East of England

 

Peter McAteerPeter McAteer, CEO, Sysmax

Have you capitalised the value at home? Going overseas might appear easy, but it isn’t. Factors such as cross-border tax, travel, recruitment and the creation of subsidiaries are all potentially costly complications.

Rank each potential territory by the market capitalisation of your desired clients there. The US market for my business, for instance, was 35 times larger than Europe and easier to target as well.

Select one beachhead foreign market and truly focus on that. In your analysis, consider its language (making systems multilingual is one thing, but maintaining content is quite another); size; and proximity. You won’t be able to do everything online, so boots on the ground will be required. Yet long-haul travel and big time-zone differences do not sit well with a relatively small market.

Also consider the strength of the laws protecting intellectual property in your target market – you need to assume that your system will be plagiarised.
Peter McAteer is a member of IoD Scotland

 

Become a member of the IoD

The IoD has a range of memberships for directors, founders and co-founders, providing all the resources and facilities needed to enhance your business. To find out more about membership offerings and to join today, visit iod.com/membership

 

Director met Dambisa Moyo at World Business Forum London (wobi.com). The new paperback of Edge of Chaos is out now, published by Little, Brown Book Group

Global business is a key theme of IoD Open House on the Road events this November. For more details and to reserve your place, visit iodopenhouse.co.uk

 

About author

Hannah Gresty

Hannah Gresty

Hannah Gresty is the assistant editor of Director magazine. She previously worked on a local news website and at a fashion PR company before joining the Director team in 2016.

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