Author: Mohamed El Garem, Co-Founder and Head of Launch at Trella.
In early 2019, I took up the Head of Launch position at Trella, put boots to the ground and worked to see the company rise to its current stature. Fast forward one year, Trella has officially launched in Saudi Arabia, and I’ve spent the past few months paving the way for our regional expansion with the rest of the team.
Under normal circumstances,launching a new market can be an overwhelming experience; particularly if you haven’t adequately fleshed out your approach. Beyond taking the time to identify and validate your market size (or opportunity),
there are a few key things you’ll need to do, to help ensure success:
- Hire the right people and hire them fast. Have interviews set as soon as you land. You want like-minded people who fit your culture and have a strong network at both ends of your marketplace. Their knowledge of local nuances and their contacts will enable you to close deals and scale rapidly on both the demand and supply fronts. These people are the bedrock of the company, so be wise.
- Never turn down a meeting. Do not leave any stones unturned and reach out to every contact you know in the new market. Reach out to anyone who’s ever mentioned that they have a distant relative there and always look for an opportunity that you can turn to your advantage. You may even find contacts in unexpected places. During my first day in Jeddah, for example, the host of the AirBnb I was staying in was a kindred spirit who worked in a local ecommerce startup. We went out for dinner and got to talking. He introduced me to the company that is now handling Trella’s accounting, and also connected us to a company that’s handling our payrolling and hires. It didn’t stop there. The accounting firm’s CEO introduced me to our very first carrier in Saudi Arabia when he took me to a customs broker he used to work with. 30 minutes into that meeting, incidentally, I was sitting on the floor cross-legged, elbow deep in a rice and mutton dish, pitching Trella to 20 drivers.
- Pay constant attention to both sides of your marketplace. When launching a new geography, you have to keep an eye on both ends of your marketplace, and continuously think of new ways to support them. Never forget that you have two customers, and in Trella’s case it’s shippers and carriers. We had to rebuild our product in Urdu in under two weeks after we’d noticed that 70% of our Trella drivers in Saudi are of Pakistani origin.
- Be decisive. Ambiguity is not a state you want to find yourself in. It’s better to take a course of action, find out it’s the wrong one and correct your path than fall into the paralysis of indecision.
On the personal side…
‘launch life’ can also take quite a toll on you, as there’s often a lot of work that needs to be put into place within a limited time frame. It’s my recommendation (and my experience) that a two-person launch team is the best option.. Besides this, make sure you:
- Choose the right launching partner. Because you can’t get away from them. You’ll want to work with someone who compliments your personality e.g. one launcher who thrives on strategy, and another who excels at execution. Of course, you’ll need someone who you also get along with – you’re going to be cooped up together for a while. Launching KSA with Peter has made a world of difference
- Get yourself into a coworking space in the early days. This will help you rapidly expand your social network from the outset. It provides a much-needed avenue for social gathering, and is also beneficial for your work as you’re likely to be around entrepreneurs who have faced similar problems to you. They might also have a list of vendors and contacts they’ve already used to solve issues that you’re uncovering in your own process.
- Control the things you can control.There’s a lot of uncertainty that one must navigate through while figuring out a new market, and so it’s best that you navigate them from a solid base. One example is arranging for long term accommodation quickly. When we first moved to Saudi Arabia, Peter and I were changing hotels every 2-3 weeks. This was unimaginably hectic as we were constantly being uprooted; taking away time we could have used focusing on work.
- And accept the things you cannot. You should always be ready to switch your strategy as new information comes to light, you have to roll with the punches and be dynamic. You might also have to tolerate your roommates’ deplorable habits. Take Peter, who argues over which movie to watch, and then, without fail, leaves 20 minutes into anything we’ve chosen.
With the new reality of COVID-19, we’ve had to make some adjustments at Trella…
Taking a leaf out of The Godfather’s book, you’ll want to switch your footing and become more of a wartime consigliere. Meaning, you need to be less constrained by the caution and deliberation appropriate for times of normalcy or times of peace. In short, be more like Michael and less like Tom Hagen.
- Pivot, don’t panic. We scanned our market and current clientele in Saudi Arabia and concluded that in order to avoid a drop in revenue or growth, we would have to pivot our sales efforts towards COVID-19 proof industries, such as, food and hygiene, and away from petrochemicals and non-essentials.
- Seek out support packages. Go for all initiatives offered by the government to support companies in need during this time, be they salary subsidies, VAT exemptions, or free services.
- Set a detailed communication rhythm. Outline proper cadence for each department to effectively manage the transition to work from home.
- Adapt to social distancing rules. Encourage vendors/supply to integrate remote transactions and electronic payments. Though these aren’t commonplace in an industry as traditional as trucking, they are now increasingly appealing.
- Kill any unnecessary costs. Review the costs that you could potentially do without. At Trella, we have per-diems in place for launchers that take into account a lot of movement, travel and dinners. The current circumstances don’t allow for any of that.
The challenges of launching a new market are extreme, to say the least, and they are even more pronounced in the current climate. They seem to come out of nowhere frequently from where you least expect, but preparation is key. I am constantly reminded of my rugby coach’s old adage, ‘preparation prevents piss poor performance’, and it’s true. The secret however, is to be flexible, and to work quickly in laying the foundations from which you can scale.
Being cognisant of these points, even in times like these, will hold you in good stead for success when entering a new market. Always remember, even the best laid plans go awry, but without them you are lost. So bear with it, keep your head above water and always keep swimming.