The rise of the global first startup

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In the past 5 years, there have been a lot of changes in the startup ecosystem. One of the big changes is in geographical activity. 

At Hustle Fund, we invest in early stage startups that are in the United States, Canada, and Southeast Asia. We do this all with one fund. And often we get asked, why don’t we start regional funds?  To be honest, this is something that we had thought about very deeply. But what we are seeing in the startup ecosystem today is that startups are global from day one. And that the concept of a “regional fund” doesn’t make much sense anymore or at least is too nebulous.

5 years ago, if you were building a startup, you would be crazy to try to be “global first” startup. If you were building your team in other countries or even other cities, that seemed like a bad idea. If you were trying to sell a product to customers elsewhere, that also seemed like a bad idea. Specifically, the reason why this seemed like a bad idea is that it seemed like the logistical challenges in coordinating with other people would just be so cumbersome that it would negatively affect your business. These days, I would argue that you’re at a disadvantage if you are not a “global first” startup.

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Photo credit: Giphy

Most 2019 unicorns are in the United States and China.  And, these companies were largely started in the United States and China and grew up in these places. I believe that we will continue to see this trend. But, if you look at say the the up-and-coming San Francisco based companies that will become unicorns in the next couple of years, many of them were not started in San Francisco.  Many of them were started elsewhere OR have significant offices elsewhere. If you dig into this list of up-and-coming unicorns, not only do you see a number of companies that are based elsewhere, but you see companies like Front or HackerOne labeled as San Francisco companies though they started got their foothold elsewhere. 

This matters, because how startups get their foot on the first rung of the ladder is what enables them to get going. If you can reduce your costs on engineering talent and manage teams well from the beginning, you can take your company a lot further for the same amount of money.  I recently caught up with two past portfolio companies, and I was floored that both of them were doing $5m ARR with fast growth and had raised very little seed funding. If you were to look at their cap tables, one had sold less than 10% of their cap table on a fully diluted basis and the other had sold less than 10% of their business fully diluted. Their next raise will probably be mega series B or C equivalent rounds and will have experienced much less dilution than your typical fast growth startup that starts and grows up in San Francisco. I asked them, “How were you able to build and sell so much with so little?” That’s when I learned that both companies had engineering teams elsewhere. Their engineering teams were in Vietnam and Argentina respectively. Both teams had a technical co-founder leading product outside of the United States. And both teams had customer acquisition teams based in the United States – sales, marketing, and business development.

When I look at my Hustle Fund portfolio, which is newer, I also see the same trend. Even if not hiring abroad, my companies are hiring outside of San Francisco. One of my current portfolio companies who has actually raised a lot of cash and is based in the San Francisco area has more employees in Dallas than here. You would not know that by just looking at the company as an outsider.  To most people, they seem like a regular, ordinary San Francisco-based company. I have other portfolio companies that are also on a fast-growth trajectory who from day 1 started building teams elsewhere as well. One of my fast-growing B2B companies has more employees based in Nepal than here in the San Francisco Bay area, and they are a SF-based company. We have portfolio companies who have engineering and operations teams in places like Bulgaria, Canada, and Nigeria. By hiring talent and managing talent outside of San Francisco, companies can see a 3-5x difference in cost than hiring in San Francisco.  Roughly speaking, this means that you can extend your runway 3-5x longer which is huge when you are trying to find product-market fit or make a big enterprise sale that won’t happen for 2 years. 

I think five years ago, there was this notion that technical talent in San Francisco was stronger than elsewhere. I think that is only true when you’re talking about the top 1%. It’s not because San Francisco naturally breeds smarter people, but it’s because you have companies like Google and Facebook who are willing to pay $1m+ per year to attract that global talent to the Bay Area in the first place. But, can startups woo that 1% talent away from Google and Facebook? And my hypothesis is that only in rare cases can this happen.  Startups can’t compete with the GOOG on comp or benefits. And, I’m seeing most of this talent either starting their own companies or working for a friend’s very promising company. 

And so most SF Bay Area startups are not able to hire this talent — they are hiring good talent for sure. But you can hire good talent elsewhere too for lower salaries.  I think sometimes we think that the more you are paid, the better you are, but that is actually not true. How much you are paid is largely related to the cost of living of where you are. In parallel, what we are also seeing are two other trends.  1) Knowledge is becoming more and more of a commodity. You can find all kinds of free information on the internet on how to do just about anything. 2) We are also seeing a lot of tools coming up to make development easier or in some cases, allow you to build things with no code.  If you are building a “deeptech” startup, then you do need to hire the best technical talent in many cases, but most say typical B2B startups that are coming up don’t need particularly deep technical knowledge. So, you can get the same level of talent quality for a fraction of the cost in places where the cost of living is cheaper.  

Now, hiring people in multiple locations certainly has a ton of challenges. It is challenging to build rapport with people remotely. And it is challenging just to get people to work together remotely. I think all of these challenges still apply even now but are a bit easier than 5 years ago.

Over 5 years ago, remote communications was a challenge.  Nothing really worked well. I remember Skype and Google Hangouts being just sh*tty.  (They still are) I hired remotely for my startup, and I was one of the early users of Zoom for my startup LaunchBit. Prior to that, we had tried just about every video conferencing software possible, and nothing worked well.  But, with Zoom, we gave everyone an iPad and had everyone just leave Zoom on all day everyday. The calls *never* dropped. And there was never any latency. It was like we all sat in the same room. Today, we also have Slack, which has made communication so much easier.  And a lot of wiki-like tools.  

What I have seen work the best with regard to tight communications, is to build a hub-and-spoke model. For most of my portfolio companies, they have distinct offices in specific places. They build out teams in these places, and there is a team leader of sorts in each place.  Usually a co-founder who had spent time in the US and met the US-based co-founder and then returned home to build the team. And it is the team leaders who need to coordinate the best remotely. E.g. it is the technical co-founder who coordinates really well with the business co-founder to test hypotheses together to get to product-market fit. And they have really quick feedback loops. So then you’re not really talking so much about coordination of many people, but you are talking about the coordination of a couple of people.

Building culture, though, is the tricky part. How do you ensure that each team has the same culture? And that’s hard. I don’t have a great answer for this. even when I worked at a large company – Google – I noticed that the culture was different in the Boston office than at headquarters in Mountain View. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is challenging to have to ensure that all teams have the same culture.

Beyond working with teammates globally, we also have portfolio companies who are doing some crazy global arbitrage things. For example, in Canada, the government offers startups so many grants of all kinds. And that reduces the costs dramatically or reduces the need to take dilutive funding. In contrast, in the US, most software startups do not qualify for any grants.  One of my San Francisco-based teams actually set up a Canadian entity just to take advantage of one of these grants. 5 years ago this might have seemed like a weird distraction. But today, this type of arbitrage can buy you a couple of extra years of runway or reduce your need for dilutive capital.  

On the business side, we have US portfolio companies who are now selling to potential clients in Asia. and we have Southeast Asian companies who are selling globally or to the US market. Five years ago, this seemed impossible but today, this makes a lot of sense for the right business. 

How can you sell abroad? I see most of my portfolio companies or past portfolio companies building out their customer acquisition team in the market they are selling to. But even in the beginning when it’s just the co-founders, this is possible too.  Even many years ago, when I was selling ads for my startup, my customers were in India and Israel and Europe . And, I made all of those sales over the phone or over video conference. In fact, those sales were done in the same way that I sold to US customers. The only difference is that sometimes I would have to stay up and make those sales or get up early in the morning.  In fact, some of my current portfolio companies are finding that it is actually easier to sell to customers in another geographical market. Customers in another region of the world may be hungry for technology in a way that local customers may not — especially when you’re building to disrupt old stodgy industries. Sometimes finding product-market fit is tied to to geography.

So when I look at our portfolio, I cannot quite “bucket” so many of my companies. I have companies that are San Francisco-based but have operations or development in another country or another city.  In other cases, we have Singaporean companies that sell to the US. What it means to be say a “San Francisco-based company” is quite nebulous these days.  

In fact, when I previously was running an accelerator in a past life, in one of my batches, I had a portfolio company with a co-founder who was from another country X and had a development team in country X.  But the company was incorporated in the US and both co-founders lived in the SF Bay Area. My past employer also had a regional fund that invested in companies in country X. And, the fund manager for country X was a bit ticked off at me at first for not showing him that deal.  

I was puzzled, “But they are a US company and the co-founders live here — I thought you are investing in startups in country X.” I said. 

“But the founder is from country X and they have a team in country X,” he said. 

That was the first time I started thinking about this issue. My mind raced through all of our companies in the accelerator batch and past batches. It dawned on me that most of the companies in our accelerator were US companies (SF based) who had teams elsewhere and that geography had become blurred.  That was a few years ago, and now it’s even more blurred. 

In this modern economy, if you can navigate hiring and building teams in different locations and selling to customers in other areas, you are at a serious advantage. And in many cases, I think in the next 5 to 10 years, I think this will become not only a nice to have skill set but a necessary skill set. 

2 comments
  1. +1!

    When we first got things started, we were on opposite sides of the country! And then we just started hiring more and more distributed folks and this is becoming more and more of a “default” option instead of a nice-to-have or “sure, we do that too” type of thing.

    Love it.

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