Mikell Hazlehurst is an avid traveler and just finished an MBA exchange program at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, India. Mikell wrote an in-depth research paper on barriers of entry and strategies of success for expat entrepreneurs in Bangalore. Mikell interviewed Valarie Wagoner, CEO of the mobile marketing platform ZipDial. Soon after this interview, ZipDial was acquired by Twitter. Below is a condensed version of Mikell’s research paper including Valarie Wagoner’s ideas on starting successful companies abroad.
by Mikell Hazlehurst
The amount of aspiring entrepreneurs in places like Silicon Valley is staggering, and a face-to-face meeting with a successful startup CEO would never happen without personal ties (and even that is a stretch). By placing yourself in a small startup ecosystem and adding to the equation that you have “being an expat” in common, I believe that chances of getting the support you need from the local expat community drastically increases.
Regardless of who you are or what you’re doing, the likelihood of success ultimately depends upon your strength of character and an unwavering attitude of persistence. Strategic adaptability is essential for an entrepreneur coming to India to start a business, and the expat entrepreneurs who are successful are the ones who can “Think Local”.
For instance, the ability to do business in India requires a willingness to turn constraints into opportunities. Valerie Wagoner, who is the CEO of ZipDial, spent a semester studying in Bangalore at the Indian Institute of Management. Originally hailing from California, Valerie’s Bangalore-based company was just listed on Fast Company magazine as the 8th most innovative company in the world, ranking just behind some of the world’s biggest brands like Nike and Google. Valerie actually gave one of her first demos for ZipDial on the IIMB campus at the N S Raghavan Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (NSRCEL). She would go on to explain why starting ZipDial in India was the right move:
“A large, growing domestic market that is a solid foundation for expansion of a unique business model and technology into other emerging markets. Emerging markets in general have a huge amount of opportunity if an entrepreneur is willing to take a long term view and have the stamina to execute, and India is a great place to start for future expansion.”
I then wanted to know what advice Valerie would bestow upon a potential entrepreneur who is interested in starting their business abroad. Oftentimes, entrepreneurs have obtained knowledge the hard way, and it becomes of utmost importance to learn from their mistakes. Valerie was kind enough to share with me to “have a strategy to be global from early on. India is a large, important market, but you should think early about your long-term global expansion and how you build a solid foundation for that. Incorporate outside India, even if you are going to primarily build in India and sell to India. This will make future expansion outside of India more seamless. Raise more money than you think you need earlier than you think you need it (if you can). Do not take for granted the importance of high-quality finance and compliance team members (whether in-house or outsourced). You need to keep this in order from day one to avoid costly headaches later. And don’t underestimate. Be generous with employees about Employee Stock Options, and be ready to educate employees about how they work and why they are important.”
Shortly after returning from India, I found out that ZipDial had been acquired by Twitter. Valerie’s hard work had paid off, and I bet she ended up banking a lot more money because she was able to keep both her business and personal expenses at a minimum. I ended up interviewing several other expats and local VC’s for an article which was used for my final research paper in an independent study course at IIMB.
I spent countless hours running around the city of Bangalore trying to make my meetings on time. All of the entrepreneurs knew each other, and it was an interesting experience for sure. If you’re interested in trying your hand at starting a business abroad, I’d recommend looking into Bangalore for the low cost of living and high availability of cheap talent. One of the entrepreneurs I met with for this project has a company which specializes in finding startup jobs for expats in Bangalore. His name is Troy Erstling, and you can checkout his website at BrainGain.Co.