The fine art of building a cross-border business

The fine art of building a cross-border business

Last month, 18 entrepreneurs and C-level leaders got together to brainstorm the topic of ‘going global’ at the ‘Made in Chennai’ Roundtable co-organized by Smart CEO and IDA Ireland. They touched upon everything from company positioning and brand building to hiring and sales approaches. The discussion was captivating, filled with new ideas, strategies and peer-to-peer learning at its best.

When you assemble a group of ambitious entrepreneurs in a room, the atmosphere is electrifying.  There are ideas galore, learning experiences, convincing suggestions, lessons on powerful execution, and, above all, a unique collection of out-of-the-box ideas that come out.

And, we experienced one such afternoon at the first edition of the ‘Made in Chennai’ roundtable presented by IDA Ireland and Smart CEO. The event happened in January this year, for which we put together a line up of 18 entrepreneurs and senior leaders who started off their ventures in Chennai, but today, serve customers across the world including in U.S., Europe, Asia Pacific, Middle East and China. These entrepreneurs were from a range of sectors – analytics, ITeS, ed-tech, marketing-tech, fin-tech and several others; and had deep expertise in starting off and scaling up operations in many geographies.

The Smart CEO’s motto has always been to reveal the unsaid and discover new patterns and flavors of entrepreneurship.  In line with this mission, we conceptualized this roundtable, to enable a peer-to-peer learning experience.

‘Made in Chennai’ is part of a series of 15-city round tables to be organized across the world, starting with six Indian locations this year. Over the next two years, we’ll take this concept to closed-door sessions in key startup hubs in the U.S., Europe and Asia Pacific.

Our strategic partner for the roundtable series is IDA Ireland, a wonderful government organization that enables, educates and facilitates the scaling of organizations into Ireland. IDA Ireland’s mandate is to showcase the business and investment opportunities in the country and also help companies understand the advantages of choosing Ireland as a gateway to their European operations.

The session was moderated by the Editor of The Smart CEO, Prem Sivakumaran, and Honorary Counsel of Ireland in Chennai and Founder of Mecheri Smart Capital, Mr. Rajeev Mecheri was invited as a special guest to the event. Ms. Tanaz Buhariwalla, Country Director, IDA Ireland, also joined the discussion.

In this write up, we’ve culled out for you the most interesting snippets from the event.

IDA Ireland at Made in Chennai

For The Smart CEO Roundtable Series, we’ve partnered with IDA Ireland, a government agency responsible for the attraction and development of foreign direct investment into Ireland.

IDA Ireland and Smart CEO already work together on the Startup50 awards and it is a pleasure to work with them on this new initiative.

At the ‘Made in Chennai’ Roundtable, IDA Ireland was represented by Tanaz Buhariwalla, Country Director for IDA Ireland in India and she addressed the participants.

In her talk, Tanaz spoke about the key advantages of Ireland as an investment destination – availability of top-notch talent, great airport connectivity into other EU countries, corporate tax rate of 12.5%, strong IP regime and several others. Additionally, Tanaz briefly touched upon the wonderful experiences that large Indian IT Services companies have had in the country.

In addition to Tanaz, Rajeev Mecheri, entrepreneur and investor and Honorary Consul for Ireland in Tamil Nadu, also kindly agreed to address the participants. Rajeev shared his experience of doing business in Ireland, in his earlier venture, iMetrex, a security, safety and building automation solutions company, which was eventually acquired by Siemens.

Rajeev’s first foray into Ireland happened when iMetrex acquired a security technology company in the country, and since then he’s had several interests there. In addition to all the economic and business advantages of the region, Rajeev also spoke about the quality of life with high-quality education and healthcare in the country. Rajeev’s, co-founder and brother, Anand Mecheri, who runs Group company, Invicara, is based in Dublin, Ireland and Invicara is headquartered there.


The Smart CEO Roundtable Participant: Gopi Koteeswaran, CEO, Latent View Analytics

About Latent View Analytics:

Latent View Analytics is a data analytics services firm that works with client companies in the U.S. and Europe, and is beginning its foray into Asia-Pacific. The company uses a combination of onsite and offshore resources to serve its customers and currently employs over 500 people.

Koteeswaran Responds:

LatentView was set up 10 years ago when many organizations were bearing the brunt of the 2008 financial crisis. In 2010, however, fortunes turned and we managed to get a few big deals. Since then, there’s been no turning back. The U.S. market continues to be our core focus and we’ve built a strong reputation there due to our extended presence in the country. For example, people (working for a client) know us and cherish the experience of working with us; and as they switch jobs, takes us with them. In 2016, we started expanding our market in Europe, and we acquired three or four new clients. Essentially, our growth has come from our clients and the experience we offer them.

We have also been attracting global talent (not only from India) because, as far as our customers go, we look for people who understand their business situation. While its not easy, our strategy revolves around acquiring clients, serving them brilliantly, and growing with them.

 The Smart CEO Roundtable Participant: Bala Raman, co-founder & President, Congruent Solutions

 About Congruent Solutions:

While Congruent was earlier established as a IT services company, in the last 10 years, it has gone deep into the pension and retirement market. Today, Congruent has transformed into a products company, serving the retirement financial services segment, in addition to its services business. For the products foray, it has partnered with Cognizant Technology Solutions, to help serve top tier customers.   

Raman Responds:

From a positioning perspective, we see ourselves as an American company with an Indian backend.  Earlier, when we started off as a KPO back office administration company, our competitors were different.  However, over the last five years, our positioning has evolved to becoming a product company serving the retirement financial services segment, competing with fairly large, established legacy platforms. This market currently has three key players including Congruent.

Typically, in the pension and retirement segment, while pricing is an important factor, the bigger criteria is the ability to inflict change to legacy systems. How we position ourselves to enable this need for change is crucial. Also, the brand becomes crucial and to build that we’ve been one of the few non-financial services sponsors at the top retirement conference in the U.S. It helps us position ourselves as a specialist in the segment.

TSCR Participant: Suresh Shankar, Founder & Board Member, Crayon Data

About Crayon Data: 

Crayon Data is a products company headquartered in Singapore, with its development and data team in Chennai. Its flagship product is a B2B offering called Maya, a big data based digital personalization engine, that helps its clients offer taste-led personalization to their customers. Crayon currently serves customers in financial services, hospitality and e-commerce.  

Shankar Responds:

Having realized the importance of sharp positioning early in the game, my co-founder and I founded Crayon Data in Singapore and positioned it as a Singapore-based company. Even when we went to global markets, we adopted this positioning because it has legal, contractual, brand and data-related advantages. In fact, to every client we talk to, we believe; things like the right name and the way you talk can make a significant difference in the market. Moreover, unlike in a services company, where you pace everything as you grow, in a products company, you need to be out there long before your product is ready. You’ll have to make the market feel your presence.

On the brand building front, we took part in several well-known global competitions (TiE Silicon Valley’s Hot Technology Startup List, IBM Challenge, etc.) and managed to be within the top 10 companies in many of their lists. The learning here was, we need to stand there and demonstrate our product, which largely tests our proposition. We invested a lot of money in upfront marketing.

Lastly, if I may add, often we tend to be very Dravid-like (referring to Rahul Dravid the cricketer) and approach the market in a steady fashion. However, I have realized that you need a Sehwag-like swashbuckling approach in the products space. Prospective customers, often, don’t have time. You’ll have to be direct and clearly tell them what you have and what you can solve for them.


TSCR Participant: Gowri Shankar Subramanian, Founder, Aspire Systems

About Aspire Systems: 

Aspire Systems is a product engineering services company, which helps clients with their product life cycle, right from the concept stage. Its serves clients across sectors and specializes in serving customers in banking and financial services and retail sectors.

Subramanian Responds:

Often, we become specialists in a particular area and start our relationship with a new client by serving a very specific requirement. They come to us because we will be specialists in that area.

This strategy is not very different from what several services companies adopt, especially in the banking sector. We enter a project through a niche service, but also build a broader set of capabilities and service offerings, which we sell to the client once we’ve established a relationship with them. In order to establish scale, it is crucial to build these broader set of capabilities.


TSCR Participant: Gowri Shankar Subramanian, Founder, Aspire Systems

Subramanian Responds:

During the early days, the other co-founders and I used to take turns to stay in foreign markets.  But today, none of my partners are operationally active (though they are still on the board). So, we have deputed some of our early employees in these markets. Singapore is the only market where we’ve hired someone through a reference. And in Belgium, the team came through acquisition. We have different approaches for different markets. But, predominantly, it has been to move someone from here (India) into those markets. The flipside of this strategy is that it takes time for them to understand that market and start working. Hence, patience is a prerequisite.


TSCR Participant: Vel Dhinagaravel, Co-Founder, Beroe Inc.

About Beroe Inc:

Beroe is a market research and procurement analytics global KPO firm with a team size of 500 people, 400 of whom are based out of its centers in Chennai and Bengaluru. The company gets 50 per cent of its revenue from the U.S., 40 per cent from North America and the remaining from the rest of the world.

Dhinagaravel Responds:

In terms of hiring, our focus is on India and it has been difficult to keep people engaged and motivated. So, we came up with a unique proposition for employees who join directly after graduation; we spoke to potential job applicants and understood what they were looking for, just like we do market research to understand what customers want. During this exercise, we realized that many companies don’t put their employees in front of their customers, as they are worried that they will destroy the image of the company.  We turned this around and asked them to go talk to customers. We didn’t even put filters in the process. Instead we said, if you say something wrong, we can always manage. We brought in an element of specialization and this is linked to our positioning.

Every one of our 400-odd analysts focuses on a niche space. What we did was, take an analyst with no background in a particular category and tell them that in six months they will become experts in this field. This belief and confidence made them deliver. In fact, when our customers visit us, they are surprised at how young our analysts are. We often underestimate the young employees’ ability to solve these problems for us.

While this strategy has resonated well, it comes with a downside too; that it puts pressure on employees, who don’t want to take on such a role.

TSCR Participant: Kumar Vembu, Founder & CEO, GoFrugal Technologies

 About GoFrugal: 

The company, founded by the ex-co-founder and CEO of Zoho, offers POS software for retail, distribution and supply chain management companies and plans to launch SaaS solutions this year. It has about 25,000 customers of which 90 percent are from India and the remaining are from 45 other countries (their foreign markets) like Africa, Middle East and South East Asia.

Vembu Responds:  

When we started Zoho in 1995, we hired whoever was willing to work for us.  Most of these people were not hired by large IT firms because of their poor communication skills. They knew their limitations and they wanted to throw themselves anywhere they found an opportunity. It is this attitude of theirs that made them winners, and therefore made us at Zoho also a winner.  (At Zoho) During the first six to seven years, we took whoever was available. There was a job to do and we wanted someone to come and do it. That was our attitude then.

As they came on board, we exposed them to the job right away and told them that they can make mistakes and learn from them. So, when our employees used to respond to our U.S. and European customers, I’d sit with them and encourage them by saying, whatever you write is English. I used to tell them that the customer is buying the product and not your English. In fact, when I went to Japan, I felt I could speak better English than them!  A customer is looking for commitment and the fact that our employees were sitting there and not leaving them was proof enough of that. In a way, we were setting an example for the new comers.

When I founded GoFrugal, I thought I would have the same experience and tried repeating the same thing (hiring youngsters) and it backfired. We got people who didn’t want to work, as most of the others got placed in campus.  We had to take corrective action and brought in some experienced people on board. Now we do a mix of both.

Finding customers, selling a product and competing in a market

TSCR Participant: Nandakumar, Founder & President, Perfint Healthcare

About Perfint Healthcare:

Perfint is a medical robotics company with an employee strength of over 50.  The company designs, develops, makes and sells robotics solutions which are used in cancer care – lung and liver cancer. It holds patents for its products and most of its customers are in Asia.

Nandakumar Responds:

In our space of minimal invasive cancer care, there aren’t too many competitors because we mostly create and educate the market. We are an eight-year old product company with 100 plus customers and this tells you how small the market is. Being a niche space, scaling up is also a challenge. We are hopeful that what happened to the medical robotics sector will happen to us. To get to this sweet spot of neurological surgery, the largest medical robotics company took 23 years.

From the market perspective, Asia has the largest incidence of liver and lung cancer and much of healthcare is Government led. For example, in India, 90 per cent of cancer care patients are treated in public hospitals and hence, we have to find a way to sell to the Government. And, by nature, China is Government-led and they have 40 per cent of world’s liver cancer population.  So, in most markets we need to learn how to sell to the Government and one solution doesn’t fit all.

One underlying factor in this business is the extremely long decision cycle associated with Government approvals. This often upsets our estimates. Every year we are 50 per cent behind the plan. This apart, it is a budget cycle in a Government and unless the budget is approved in the current year, you cannot sell.

TSCR Participant: Krish Subramaniam, Founder & CEO, Chargebee

About Chargebee

Incorporated five years ago, Chargebee is a subscription billing platform which serves about 2,500 clients in 48 counties. Most of its customers come through online channels, and 50 per cent of them are from the U.S. 

Subramaniam responds:

The whole segment of subscription billing was created by Zuora in 2006 and, at that time more than 99 per cent of the market was in-house; which means, companies hardly bought software off the shelf or outsourced development.

The buying process today has changed and developers have more influence over the choice of solution. We have to ensure that we are able to come across as an option from a business perspective and yet make the developer see the benefit of using Chargebee. So, we focus on things they do not know.  Moreover, we couldn’t afford to throw dollars to evangelize, hence, we did content driven marketing.

With content, it is about being to the point, spreading awareness and earning their trust, in a way that they are ready to buy from you. And, you do that by putting yourself in their radar using retargeting and other insights-driven tools. Once they start evaluating the product, you know that you’re ready to use and recommend your solution and then you put your company across to them. That is the process based on data and content.

When it comes to pricing, we have to make sure that the price point at which we sell is aligned with the acquisition cost. It is not price sensitive, but we want to be able to sell to customers who are thinking about scale, so that we make money when they do and, yet, we get through to them when they are small and ambitious.

TSCR Participant: Vikram Ravi, Director – Operations and Client Services, Unmetric

 About Unmetric

Unmetric is a social media analytics company, based in the US, with a development center in India.  It helps a brand understand what other brands are doing around social media and what they need to do to get a larger footprint. It is a pure products company, with clients in over 30 countries.   

Ravi Responds:

The best decision we took in 2012 was to hire a Head of Sales.  At that point, he had 10 years of work experience and he had almost decided to join Facebook, but we convinced him to join us.

At Unmetric, almost 96 per cent of our sales is through referrals, meeting people and having conversations. Earlier we tried several strategies such as inbound marketing and Hubspot, but it did not translate into much because our ticket size is larger. Hence, we hired the right sales person and this worked well for us.

Early on, events were important. But right now, our focus is on the growth team, that we have built recently. Every single function comes in here and goes back into sales. The growth team fuels things back to sales teams, so they are able to get a perspective of things.

This apart, we have advisors like Ram Gupta (a IT industry veteran), who urged us have a sales script, one that would be consistent across our sales team. This was a simple yet critical input, which has ensured consistency of pitch for Unmetric.

TSCR Participant: Umesh Sachdev, Co-founder & CEO, Uniphore Software Systems.

About Uniphore:

An IIT madras incubated company incorporated in 2008, Uniphore focuses on technology-enabled speech recognition and has launched a series of products for the enterprise segment. The company supports over 80 global languages on its platform and serves customers  in North America, Middle East, India and South East Asia.

Sachdev Responds:

What we have built only appeals to large enterprise segments, especially with respect to the cost structure. Hence, we had to develop an ability to sell to large enterprises and more importantly, to key decision makers at these firms. We, as co-founders, didn’t have a sales background and are not business graduates. So, we initially used a lot of brand equity (mentor network) which is not ours, to enable sales.  We went out by introducing ourselves as an IIT Madras company and this helped us get a foot in the door. Over time, when investors such as Kris Gopalakrishnan of Infosys and Rajan Anandan of Google came on board, our brand equity improved and it certainly helped us sell better.

We also consciously built a sales force that is capable of having conversations with the top management of Fortune 500 to 1000 companies. Over time we also figured out the whole channel partnership model; we realized that, as we work with contact centers, it is their customers who have to be our customers.  Hence, we created champions in our partners, who represent Uniphore to their customers. We had to overcome the question of how a Chennai-based company competes on accuracy with Silicon Valley companies in a space as niche as speech recognition.

Inbound and online sales does not work in our business, as cost of customer acquisition is high. Customer life cycle value is high and hence, we spend three months, fly down the best sales and technical people and spend time with the customer to get them on board.


TSCR Participant: M.V Subramanian, co-founder, Future Focus Infotech

About Future Focus Infotech:

A technology-focused staffing services company, it has presence in India, Middle East, and the U.S. and currently employs over 3000 consultants. Its customers are primarily system integrators and, the company has to be present wherever its customers are, which is currently in 70 countries. 

Subramanian responds:

We started as a training company and the first customer that we acquired was TCS. We had to visit them about five to six times before they became our customers. For the rest of the business, they collaborated with are large company. However, since we put a lot of pressure, they gave an opportunity to serve and TCS continues to be our largest customer in India today.

When we went abroad, the largest customer that we on boarded was in the Middle East. They tested us for a week to check the maximum endurance we have to sustain the pressure and then they signed us. Every customer of ours has a different need. We pick the customer, we pursue them and even if takes time, we will support the customer initially with our services and then if they are satisfied, we start getting further insights. We have few large customers with longer sales cycles whose job is very focused. I personally get involved in working with customers.

TSCR Participant: Nirmala Sankaran, Founder & CEO, HeyMath & HeyScience

About HeyMath:

The company was founded in 2000 in collaboration with the University of Cambridge with a mission of improving quality of Math teaching, with the goal that every child can learn the subject well and have fun while doing it.  HeyMath currently serves customers (schools and teachers) in India, Singapore, South Africa, parts of the U.S. and Latin America.

Nirmala responds:

We started as a direct to consumer brand in 2001 and for the first 18 months we had no customers at all.  We survived that and decided all roads lead to Singapore and got introduced to schools and participated in Math contests. By this time, we had abandoned the idea of being a consumer company as we realized it will be difficult to scale. We created prototypes of products with 80 universal math problems and said regardless of country, this should work. We pitched to Raffles School (leading school in Singapore) and met them 20-25 times and we finally saw a cheque. Just last year they extended the deal to 2020 (and we’ve worked with them since 2001).

Our second tipping point was being featured in Thomas L Friedman book, The World is Flat where he quoted HeyMath as an example of globalisation in education. We got 12,000 enquiries in two to three days and this opened up a lot of interest for Heymath.

A lot of customer acquisition has come by planning and leveraging the expertise of our investor, Jerry Rao and Mr. Raghuram Rajan, who was on our board.

We have been in South Africa for the last eight years and that happened due to a simple enquiry that came from a farmer whose daughter led him to us. He said this country needs such a solution because education system is messed up for a black child. This farmer wrote to me and said, “We are concerned about South Africa’s future, can I invite you here?”  He wrote many times and I went. He connected us for a meeting in Cape Town – Council of the National Education Ministers from all nine provinces of South Africa. We had a one-hour window to present to them and once they were convinced, our journey has been fascinating in that country and it is a large market for us.


TSCR Participant: K. Karthik, founder & Director, SCIO Health Analytics

About SCIO Health analytics:

The company provides analytics solution and services that turns data into actionable insights. It services the health care market in the U.S. and Europe. Within healthcare – it services health insurance companies – both government and commercial, and offers analytics services to hospitals and large drug manufacturers as well.

Karthik responds:

We actually started the company by doing an acquisition first. Over the last 10 years, we have acquired four to five companies, which gave us the capability and bandwidth to sell, especially in new geographies.

When you have an initial set of clients for whom you’ve been there and done that, they become your reference clients and hence, sales become easier. You are no longer looked at as a startup as you have clients and capabilities. And when you expand into a new geography, your product is mature by now and you go through a formal business plan. We plan the sales force, have concrete plans for the market, the kind of investments, create partnerships and other business roadmaps.

Due to the nature of our business, we cannot be ambiguous nor deal with clients who are. Biggest challenge we have is dealing with data quality – data is like oxygen for our business. We need a specific type to deliver the right insights and since you have been in the overseas market everyone has legacy systems and multiple claim systems. And hence, the data that we get from them may not be compatible and so we have to standardize, cleanse and that takes a long time. Implementation takes long as our business is outcome based. That’s why our expertise is in understanding the nuances of data, because if you understand the market, then people who are supplying to software systems from which we are getting the data can come to consensus.

TSCR Participant: Pradeep G, Co-founder & India Head, Tiger Analytics

About Tiger Analytics:

It is a data analytics consulting firm started 5 years back.  While the driving force then was the demand for converting data into something meaningful that can help make decisions, today, the company works with clients who automatically generate lot of and Tiger plays a role in making sense of this big data.    

Pradeep responds:

When we started work in the U.S., it was just the two of us and I, in fact, worked from home. It took us six months to settle down with compliance in place and get the right software and hardware infrastructure in place. There are many things you take for granted when you work for someone else, and once we turned entrepreneurs, we realized everything was up to us.”

We build custom data science and advanced analytics based solutions for our clients.  We take their massive data and help them make sense of it. Currently, we serve global customers including Orange, Kraft Foods, Sutter Health and Travelers Insurance.

We initially served the transportation market and today, we serve customers across telecom, healthcare, FMCG and retail.


TSCR Participant: Venkat Aravamudan, founder & CEO, SmartMegh

About SmartMegh:

Founded in 2012, it is a cloud-based enterprise solutions company that sells and implements cloud based ERP, HR payroll, CRM supply chain and business analytics solutions for its clients. The company works in the APAC and Middle East,  African markets and is a partner for companies like Ramco Systems and Microsoft Azure. Its current aspiration is to move into markets which potentially offer better ROE and is currently exploring opportunities in Europe and Americas.  

Venkat responds:

Where we do work is largely dependent on where Ramco Systems acquires clients. They are a product company and we’re one of their largest implementation partners. So, if they pick up an order in Philippines, that becomes our next stop.

Most of our delivery team is in India and we send our people to that particular market. We don’t setup a base in these places unless there are about 4 to 5 deals in that country like we have in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.

We have employees at a regional level. We have a senior employee who joined our board and takes care of things from a business perspective. As far as delivery goes, our employees travel back and forth. While cloud solutions are remote, there are requirements for local installations and that is when we need local subject matter experts.

As far ambiguity goes, we started off with the ambition of building a cloud superstore. This meant, we’d be partners with a collection of cloud-based companies and, customers, would buy these products from us and we’d also help them implement these solutions. But, after 18-24 months, I realized the order values were very small for cloud-based products. Over time, we became an implementation partner for Ramco Systems, and we said we’ll become specialists of cloud-based ERP implementations. Over time, we realized that we’ve done a lot of HR and HCM implementations for Ramco; so repositioned ourselves. On a serious note, in industries such as ours, the ambiguity lies in where the opportunity lies. We’ve followed the opportunities, that is just the way it is. Today, Ramco is also one our investors and we’re probably their largest implementation partner.

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