In this new series, Going Global, we’re interviewing leaders from companies of all sizes, who all face the same challenge: how do you tackle global growth?
First up is Mikkel Hippe Brun, co-founder of the world’s largest business commerce platform, Tradeshift, which is now used by over one and half million businesses across the world.
Hey there! Who are you and what’s your goal, globally?
Hi! I’m Mikkel Hippe Brun, co-founder of Tradeshift, background in Computer Science. I started Tradeshift in 2009 and since then, have had many roles. I’m now responsible for activities in APAC where we have 100 devs in China, and three localised teams.
Tradeshift is a platform that connects businesses of any size to do commerce on a broad scale, from sourcing and procurement through to payment.
What were the most effective strategies you pursued to scale sooner or faster?
First of all, we started out multicultural and made a point to hire from all different nationalities. From day one, speaking Danish wasn’t a requirement for employment as we knew we wanted to go global.
This also gave it a family feeling: everyone was foreign to Denmark but part of the Tradeshift culture. Many of our employees had previously been working in less interesting jobs, and Tradeshift gave them the opportunity to take advantage of their talent.
Quite rapidly, we went to Silicon Valley and opened up there, which in 2011 was really the protocol for all tech startups with global ambitions.
Today, the opportunity that I’m excited about most is China. I often tell people that Shanghai might be the Holy Grail.
What helped you attract your first international customers?
Originally, we took advantage of the social media invitation mechanism from Facebook, Twitter and the like, as well as becoming very active ourselves. In just a few months, we had users all over the world.
From the beginning, we built the platform to be multilingual to encourage use in different markets but to really deliver for customers, we had to establish teams in those regions.
It’s not the same thing to sell in France as the UK and Germany. For us, getting that first French customer was monumental.
How do you succeed when each country can be so different?
It really takes tenacity. You have to hire some really good people, they need to be on the ground, and you need to support them. You have to be ready to jump on a plane and be at every customer meeting. You need to create a big enough team to find critical mass. Limiting yourself to just hiring one AE in a new country is setting yourself up for disaster.
Which is the harder challenge to overcome — geography or language?
I think geography is the smallest piece of the puzzle now. We can jump on a plane and be in Paris later today for a meeting, if needed.
It’s all about culture and language. For example, a German CEO would not appreciate conducting business in English. They’ll do it, but they would much rather prefer to have it in their native language. Having a good sales person speaking their native tongue helps these relationships.
Culture is the next biggest adjustment. In China, they call it Guanxi — it’s all about building relationships — after you have been out drinking and discussing personal stories, you build up a longstanding bond over time.
In the Nordics, it’s much more mechanical. We have stricter requirements about working together, such as publishing a formal RFP — if you fulfill these requirements, you’re in the circle.
Which bits of the experience were more difficult than you expected?
Growing a company means you reach a breaking point every nine or twelve months, as you scale. Overcoming that is a challenge every time. Maybe it is bigger today, because we have so many people in so many geographies, and keeping everyone aligned in collaboration and not in siloes is something I am constantly trying to mitigate.
Even when you're small, you’ll find out suddenly the structure you use doesn’t work anymore on two floors or three teams, or with developers and designers in different groups.
It’s a constant succession of experiments and organisational development, and it’s painful every time.
What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time?
I think if someone had given me the Startup Cookbook, I could have avoided a lot of mistakes. It is important to create company-wide north star goals that are aspirational for everyone. Structuring work around OKRs and combining that with the agile scrum process is crucial.
There was a presentation that circulated in those years — Startup Metrics for Pirates ARRR. I think it’s seven or eight years old but it actually boils a lot of it down in a way that is easily digestible.
I really enjoyed building a team in a new region because it was like founding a startup again. The initial stages of building a team, finding the culture, were all involved.
The point above all is: you have to be ready for it. If you start setting up teams nine hours apart, it puts an enormous strain on your ability to communicate. It takes a lot of tenacity — don’t underestimate what it takes.
One thing that’s very important is don’t move out of your home country until you know you’re ready to do it.