In this new series, we’re interviewing leaders from companies of all sizes, who all face the same challenge: how do you tackle global growth?
Who are you and what is your goal, globally?
Libryo is a B2B SaaS company that helps compliance professionals know what the law is in the place they are working, at that moment in time.
Currently we have customers in 45 sub-saharan African countries, the UK and we are just expanding across Europe. Then we are also getting interest in Australia. Then North America.
What helped you attract your first international customers?
Our constraint is where we have the law captured. It’s a very expensive process so we generally have to decide if we’re going to invest prior to having customer there.
The business was originally based out of a consultancy with history in South Africa. With that client base, we were doing some of the work in a consulting manner.
We started with those consulting customers, many of them multinationals. This helped start providing in certain countries and we have since grown in a deliberate but also opportunistic way.
How do you know decide where to go next?
We track requests and they have come from all over the world but the constraint is, many countries want e.g. these 27 specific countries.
So we do look for where demand is clustered — but also think carefully about “buying culture”. We have discovered in certain countries that the culture of trying something new is different. The UK has been difficult in that regard, by our experience they tend to prefer tried and tested.
It seems Australia has a more flexible buying culture — Canada and Germany do too, interestingly enough.
What has it been like approaching Africa?
South Africa is a country with an advanced, “first world” set of laws, banking, institutions on one hand. But on the other hand there’s a “third world” element too.
That makes it great to innovate because it’s a microcosm of the world. We have 11 languages here, even if business is largely done in English.
As you advance further north, that picture changes. In many African countries, it’s hard to get the law at all. For the most part, nobody is publishing the full set in a consolidated/ as-amended format.
There can also be government incentives not to let the law be clear or widely accessible because then it remains in the hands of officials and insiders.
How do you grow into new regions?
We try to get the law we can get in whatever format possible. Often that means saying it’s as good as it can be — clients get that.
We get it from the likes of the UN or niche content publishers. But you will quickly find you don’t have the law or there are clear gaps, so we supplement that law with international best practice.
With brand new challenges, we do the work ourselves — but once we have it established, we can use channel partners to increase our reach in that way.
What were the most effective strategies you pursued to scale sooner or faster?
With Australia, we’re working with channel partners, who will find the clients for us. They love the tech because they see how it works and saves them time. Then they find the clients and we do the delivery work at the end.
For me, we often have taken choices that seemed risky at the outset — but we try to aim for a calculated bet. Fortunately they have paid off so far.
For example, deciding to front load UK law without a client was costly and a huge amount of work — but ultimately it paid off.
The decision early on, to go ahead with the pan-African customer was risky but also paid off. It has given the opportunity to sell that again and again now.
Which bits of the experience were more difficult than you expected?
I think getting those first sales in a new region, you always underestimate how long it will take. Every country has a different sales culture and it’s about learning how to interact with people.
It’s one thing to know there’s a market, but it’s quite another to get that product/ market fit. It’s much more than just having the right product, it’s how you bring it to market, how you frame it, the sales process, how the networks work. You can’t even see your own errors, based on what you are familiar with. You don’t even know what you don’t know.
My co-founders and I are all born South African — we aren’t English. And although it seems like many cultural similarities, we can tell we aren’t English.
You think the way the meeting will go will be the same, but that’s a mistake.
This changes your expectations, strategic planning, timelines.
How do you get good at it?
I think the first principle is to not assume anything when you enter a new place. Try to start from first principles.
The fastest route to start discovering the truth is to work with the right local people. Find those who have a natural affiliation to what you are doing.
The other thing we’re realising increasingly is that the pain we address isn’t experienced in the same way everywhere we go.
In SA, there are 278 different local authorities that can make laws and e.g. environmental laws change materially from place to place. That’s not the case in somewhere like England, which has more consistency.
However, between countries it varies even more. So in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, the laws tend to be quite common and based on South Africa. But in Europe, there’s enormous variability, the dynamic of the European Union and more.
Has where you came from helped you make that journey?
One of the things about being South African is you are aware you are the edge of the earth — it’s a 10 hour flight to anywhere.
Malcolm Gladwell talks about aeroplane dynamics and how certain cultures may let the plane fly into a mountain because wouldn’t challenge authority. South Africans were the opposite, ranked second (I think?) for questioning authority.
I think that’s helpful when trying to be entrepreneurial because you don’t assume the status quo is right.
What’s the balance of the challenge between geography and language?
There’s geography, there’s language and there’s CULTURE. And even also jurisdiction, in our case.
Some African countries take their lead from European countries. So there’s frameworks there. Some have to have the whole French legal system included because (legally) they are “territory” of France.
There are Portuguese, there are English, South Africa inherits from the Roman Dutch system, with strong English influence, Australia is commonwealth, so influence and commonality with the English common law system, and so on.
Going to somewhere like China, language will obviously be the biggest difficulty. But we were just in Switzerland and everyone just speaks English, so it’s not a primary factor there.
What would you do differently?
We should have done it faster or should have done it slower. For example, taking on many more countries at once.
We also recently distinguished the importance of where we sell from and where we sell to. So, for example we were asking “should we do Germany” but then instead reached “should we sell to Germany, from England.”
So how we are growing our footprint of where we are selling from and where we are selling to can be dealt with differently. That has been a big help.