Mike Wright launched Striata in 1999 from his converted garage in Kensington, Johannesburg. He was 30 years old, with limited capital, and had resigned from his job as MD of a leading web design firm to follow his dreams. To get started, he rescheduled his bond and provisional tax payments, and started working on his big idea. These are his lessons in high-level growth, and the do’s and don’ts of international expansion.
- Player: Mike Wright
- Company: Striata
- EST: 1999
- Turnover: In excess of $10 million (±R120 million)
- Visit: striata.com
Striata is a R120 million+ business that operates across South Africa, the Americas, Europe from a base in the UK, and Asia. Launched in South Africa in 1999, founder Mike Wright reached a point where the only way he could grow the business further was to go offshore.
Expansion in the US has been extremely successful, and Mike moved to the UK with his family to spearhead European growth. The business’s efforts in Australia have been less successful however, and a second office has since opened in Hong Kong to service Asia Pacific.
Here are Striata’s lessons on international expansion — what worked for them, what hasn’t worked, and how to approach new territories to guide your business’s success.
Learning from the ground up
Mike Wright’s first piece of advice to any entrepreneur looking at international expansion is not to rely on statistics. “In my view, statistics don’t work for the individual,” he explains.
“You can be successful and be doing the opposite of what the statistics say should work, or you can do exactly what the stats applaud and still be struggling.
Related: Will debt or equity financing work for your business’ expansion?
“If you’re thinking of expanding beyond your borders, hopefully you are already successful in your own market. We reached a level of success and maturity in South Africa that led us down this path. Along the way we’ve learnt that when you enter new markets that aren’t in the business landscape you know and understand, all bets are off. Past achievements don’t guarantee future success.
“You need to look at your business, what you offer, your differentiators, strengths and weaknesses, and use those to determine your go-to-market strategy, based on intensive research into the markets you’re entering. You need to know how and why people do business, and who they do it with, in all the territories you’re looking at.”
In each of the three territories they entered (Australia, the UK and the US), Striata sent pioneers — people they knew, who had worked with them or knew them, and who understood who and what the brand stood for — to spearhead the new international offices.
There’s a fundamental choice you have to make when you launch a division in a new territory: Employ a local with an entrenched network, or send someone that you know shares your values and company culture,” says Mike. The most obvious way to tap into an established network is to find a local partner, or purchase a local business. The downside to this strategy is culture. “The bedrock of a successful business is a shared company culture, but fundamentally you can’t change people. If you go the acquisition route, you need to be absolutely sure you have cultural alignment, and too often it’s only once you’re in business together that you realise you don’t.”
Striata opted for door number two: Supporting individuals from within the organisation to spearhead international growth and building networks on the ground.
“Building a network takes time. You need to attend conferences and networking events and make meaningful connections. We saw this in action in the US. Our pioneer was very good at growing his community and leveraging contacts. The US is a large, mature market, and no one cares where you’re from as long as you deliver. We had a product to sell, not just a concept, and a track record. The right person, market, timing and opportunity aligned for us, and our launch and subsequent growth was successful. We didn’t gain traction overnight, but there was a market for our services, which is the biggest hurdle.”
The strategy worked well in the US and the UK — but not that well in Australia. “We learnt the hard way that the Australian business market is built on long-standing relationships, and it’s a difficult market to break into as an expat.”
As a result, Striata invested more in the market that was working. From 2005 to 2008, US growth was a top priority. “We hired more people, attended conferences and ensured we had a good product with exceptional back-up support and account management. Not every decision will be a win — even when you’re accustomed to getting things right. Sometimes you have to cut your losses and focus on what is working.”
Pulling together the threads of success
According to Mike, Striata’s South African success was based on a simple formula: To successfully run (and grow) a business, you need to keep moving forward — hire the next person, make the next contact, add new partners where applicable, run a good business with a good team that’s focused on execution. You also need a good product, back-up support and account management.
“The minimum level of all these parts working together allows you to service your customer. The maximum level creates a customer who loves you and gives you more business,” says Mike.
“There isn’t one secret to success. You need to get lots of little (and big) things right. A minimum level of service requires repeatability, a focus on service, references, and a good product. The problem is that when you think most of them are ticked, you end up finding one you ignored.”
For Striata, that has not been people. The company’s senior team are all veterans of the business. “A business becomes easy to run — and infinitely more scalable, especially across multiple territories — when your core management team have been with you for a long time. We value our team, offer the right rewards, create wealth for them and give them a career path, and we have the foundation of a phenomenal business.”
However, before you can get your people, systems, processes and service right, you need to start with a product and a business model.
“When I launched Striata I knew I wanted a business based on annuity income. I’d been MD of VWV Interactive, a web design company, and in my 18 months there I’d learnt that when your business is built around projects, you’re either snowed under with work, or scrambling for your next project. I did not want to pursue that business model.”
Prior to VWV, Mike was employed as an accountant at Coopers & Lybrand (pre- PwC), where he was part of their Computer Assurance Services. This was the beginning of computer auditing. “The Internet had come along, and we needed a website. I straddled tech and marketing, so this became my project. Next, we developed eTaxman, a form that calculated your tax return online. It went viral before the term viral even existed. I was on TV, at conferences and on the radio talking about eTaxman. Coopers was at the top of the game and experts in the ‘Internet’.”
The exposure brought VWV knocking. A team of brilliant young designers, they decided they needed more structure in the business. Being 28 and tech savvy meant Mike qualified for the position. “They were the best in the business in terms of creative design, but they needed to build a business around those capabilities as the market shifted to eCommerce,” he says. “It was a fantastic 18 months, but I realised I needed more — I wanted to build something of my own.” At the time, Mike was at the forefront of what corporates could do with tech, and how the Internet was changing the way companies did business and interacted with their customers. “I was looking for a gap, and concentrating on where there were — and weren’t — already players in the market.” Paying attention led the young entrepreneur to a key question: Who was handling corporate focused emails?
Related: How to manage the growing pains of business expansion
“Corporate South Africa caught on to email quickly — it was an excellent way for companies to communicate with customers and constantly tell them what they were doing, and how they were building a better online experience. The problem was that a corporate exchange server can’t handle 100 000 messages in a queue, particularly when that bulk message could delay the CEO’s very important email. We needed to provide a service that could deliver personalised bulk emails.”
With his idea in hand, Mike’s first move was to ‘take a loan from the taxman’ by delaying his provisional tax payments. “I spoke to SARS, acknowledging the debt, and they charged me interest. I wouldn’t recommend this avenue to everyone. You have to be extremely disciplined to pay it off as agreed, and the interest was high, but it worked for me.”
He also reached out to his network, and secured some corporate funding. It was enough to hire a techie who understood email. “We bought a license for ‘list-serving’ software that allowed for personalisation, and entered the market with our solution.”
Since pre-launch, Mike has consistently asked himself these two questions: What do we do/sell? Is there a market for that? “The secret to any business success is being able to take an idea or concept, put it together, connect the dots and get someone else to pay for it. Then you need to ensure you can repeat what you’ve just done, and that you have access to the resources you’ll need to do so. Build it, sell it more than once, and then iterate. That’s where you create value.”
The foundations of growth
There’s a second set of questions Mike asks himself, and these are the foundations for growth: Where are my constraints? What’s stopping me from getting to the next level? “Within our first year, it became clear that not being able to make changes to the licensed software was constraining us. We needed to be more flexible. If you have your own code, you’re in control. Ninety percent of competing software solutions do the same thing. It’s the 10% that gets you the job — you need that 10% to be exceptional, and you need to own it.”
In Mike’s own words, to create the complex and ground-breaking products that Striata is built upon, you need a ‘serious’ rocket scientist. Luckily, Mike knew where to find one — he just needed to wait out the one year non-solicitation he’d agreed on when he left VWV. The second it was over, he approached Nic Ramage to join the business.
“Start-ups generally can’t afford the top experts in their field, even with VC backing, so you need to get creative,” says Mike. “Nic was up for the challenge, but he also came on as a partner and shareholder. If you really want to attract top talent, you need to give them the right incentives.”
From year two Striata started making money. Mike says, “It may be ‘old school’ but whether you have funding or not — or perhaps even more importantly if you do — I believe you must pay your own way by becoming profitable as quickly as possible.” Trained as an accountant, and growing up with a parent in the financial services sector, Mike admits he’s no gunslinger. His approach to business is conservative, and he hates unnecessary risks. But he’s also very focused on growth. “You need to do the work, bill your clients, pay salaries and then put what’s left into R&D. As our development team grew we needed to fund this from normal operations. Perhaps this constrained our growth, but we built a stable base, which worked in our favour when we started focusing on international expansion.”
Striata has chosen to stay focused and niche. “We’ve built up domain experience. It’s tough to be a mile wide and a mile deep — you have to choose between being a generalist or a specialist. We’ve chosen specialist. But, this doesn’t mean we haven’t added new solutions to our overall offering.
“We recently introduced a secure document storage solution in the Cloud — like a document vault. Online archiving and storage is the second leg of our product set. Our differentiator has always been security. All documents we send or store (such as bank statements invoices and insurance policies), are encrypted and password protected.
“We’ve learnt to listen to our customers. That’s how we grew from emails to encrypted documents. Then we realised they needed a way to store documents, so we built a solution to that. We’re also clear on the fact that we do message delivery — not only email. Our model is being ready for the next mode of communication. We need to have solutions before our customers ask for them.
“Our value proposition is to enable communication as an efficient customer service and an engaging customer experience. There’s more interaction between companies and customers than ever before. The actual protocol might change (email, SMS, WhatsApp), but our product is communication. We can go deep within this niche area of expertise.”
Striata’s plan was simple: Develop the secure attachment market in South Africa, until it become a de facto standard. By focusing on a need and creating the right products to address it, while adding functionality customers could benefit from, this is exactly what happened.
“The first time we offered an encryption service was for Diners Club statements. Their parent company, Standard Bank, also liked the idea and issued an RFP.” And this is where Striata moved up a level — its competitors were IBM, who were going to build a similar solution, but hadn’t yet, and an international company, ACI, who had no track record in South Africa.
“We were ahead of the curve, and this secured us the Standard Bank project. We were local and we sold the hell out of our software and capabilities.” Today, Striata counts a number of South Africa’s top banks as clients.
Related: Lindani Dhlamini on business expansion into Africa
From 2004, Mike aggressively sought growth avenues. His five-year-old business was established, and servicing much of corporate South Africa. “There are two ways to grow: Add a product to sell to your current clients, or look at new geographies. We did both.”
There are a few major points that work in Striata’s favour. “Our currency gives us a margin that international competitors can’t match.” That said, many other international tech companies, including Amazon, have set up development hubs in Cape Town to take advantage of local skills and the exchange rate.
Second, South Africa operates in the same time zone as the UK and Europe, so tech support is only a phone call or email away.
“When we started looking overseas, we were a relatively young software company that had a software as a service (SaaS) offering. We knew we had the capability to sell anywhere and everywhere, and we had a cost advantage based on the rand exchange rate. We had the ideal business model for international expansion, we just needed to gain traction.”
By 2008 Striata — and Mike in particular — reached a crossroads. The US was growing, the Australian business was struggling, and the UK presented a fantastic opportunity, yet many deals just didn’t close. “I realised I could make a difference in the UK market. South Africa had a strong, established team. I wasn’t needed there anymore to continue the day-to-day operations of the business.” Mike has spent the past nine years in the UK, and travels between all of Striata’s operating territories. “We’ve got a good base, but we’re just getting started. Communication is shifting so quickly; we have to stay on our toes to ensure we’re the ones spearheading new solutions and growing our markets.”
Copyright is owned by Entrepreneur Media SA and/or Entrepreneur Media Inc.
All rights reserved. Click here to read our editorial disclaimer.