Tips And Strategies For Achieving GTM Success Across The European Region With Robbie O’Connor

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Tips And Strategies For Achieving GTM Success Across The European Region With Robbie O’Connor
July 22, 2021 / 47:01 / EPISODE 11
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July 22, 2021 / 47:01 / EPISODE 11
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Episode Summary

How do you set up your company for GTM success in Europe? Today’s guest is Robbie O’Connor, the General Manager of Notion, who’s had considerable experience with Google and Dropbox. In this episode, Robbie discusses how Europe presents incredible opportunities, but also incredible challenges, especially for startup tech companies. First off, you need to be mindful of your target region’s culture. Localizing your marketing strategy while integrating just enough innovation so as not to make your potential customers uncomfortable is essential. If you want to take a closer look at GTM success within Europe, then this episode’s for you. Don’t miss this!

Robbie is the General Manager for EMEA at Notion, and their first feet on the ground in the region. He’ll lead the way as Notion builds its enterprise motion, launches in new languages, and serves more customers across borders. He has experience heading EMEA sales at Asana and Dropbox, and before that was in charge of enterprise partnerships at Google Maps.

Tips And Strategies For Achieving GTM Success Across The European Region With Robbie O’Connor

Welcome to the show. My name is Abhishek Lahoti. I am the VP of Business Development for EMEA at Sapphire Ventures. I’m filling in for Rico. For this episode, I had the pleasure to speak with Robbie O’Connor who is the GM of EMEA at Notion. He is a seasoned sales executive who has successfully built EMEA operations for Google, Dropbox and Asana before joining the team at Notion. What I wanted to focus on with him was a discussion on what it takes to scale European go-to-market operations.


Robbie, welcome to the show. Thank you for joining us. We’re excited to talk to you, before we get into everything, can you provide people with a little bit of information on you and your background, the roles and experiences that led you to Notion?

Thanks so much for having me on the show. I’m happy to be here and I’m looking forward to this conversation. It may or may not seem unusual but my career to date hasn’t followed a very particular plan. It might sound odd but my personality and how I’m wired has dictated the decisions that I’ve made. I love technology and I love people. I enjoy working on problems, particularly business problems. Leaving university, I was fortunate to be hired by Google and I was even more fortunate to join a niche team there. At the time, Google was figuring out how to monetize the Google Maps API platform and I joined as the division decided to build a SaaS-oriented go-to-market business and an engine. 

Tech is beginning to take more of an anchor within the economies in Europe.  Click To Tweet

I was a young buck. I was fortunate to be part of a scaling journey with front row seats to watch some incredible leaders built a multifunctional division from the ground up. That was the very early stages of that business function as it’s grown into being a multi-billion dollar business line now. I’m super fortunate to see how that started from the beginning. I loved working for this team and I took the opportunity to learn as much about SaaS, operations, marketing and sales as I possibly could primarily out of curiosity, as you’d imagine. I also built up a good network of smart people when they would do great things in their career. I met many of them later on down the line. My family, I’ve got a whole bunch of brothers and they’re all entrepreneurs. My father was an entrepreneur as well.  

I always admired the challenges they took on and the businesses that they built themselves, taking things on from scratch. No matter what tasks, big or small, they can manage themselves. Working for a bigger organization, I always felt that like I was not as strong in their presence because I took the safer path of not building my own business. I guess I always had this desire to drive a high level of impact, seeing what my family was doing in their own businesses. A little bit further down the line, I was interested in seeing a crossover between working in a good leading-edge technology company, but also being in a position where I can have a high level of impact in the work that I do. 

While Google is an amazing company, you’re still a very small cog in a very large wheel. I joined a leadership program within Google at that time. I came across a character called Chris Farinacci. He was the CMO of G Suite at the time within Google. He was the executive sponsor for this program and I hit it off with him. He introduced me to a number of things. One of them is viral growth models. At the time in his job, he was explaining that they did an enormous war chest of marketing funds that they could spend, but they were struggling to make G Suite very appealing to many businesses because email from Microsoft, the switch over to Google was something that was unusual for them. He talked to me a lot about things like viral growth models. 

The example that he showed me specifically was Dropbox. At this time, Dropbox was a couple of years old. They had a great product and had some clever growth hats, but they managed to create an enormous amount of brand recognition and subsequent user growth with meager input and funds. The product fascinated me because it was a good product, an incredibly useful product that came along at the right time and the growth trajectory was stellar at the time. I thought it might’ve been a good middle point between that cool tech company I wanted to work for and then somewhere where you can drive a high level of impact from a little bit earlier stage. I took a chance by reaching out to an exec at Dropbox and it just so happened that they were looking to grow their international operations. 

A couple of conversations later, I was their first hire in Europe in the EMEA region. At the same time, they hired an industry heavy hitter, a guy called Johann Butting, who led operations within the region. At that stage, I didn’t know too much about how companies go from bootstrap to Series A, to Series B and Series C funding and going public. I just thought it’d be a cool ride. I had the opportunity to work with Johann and the leadership team that he built, as well as global functional leaders to learn a bit more about how to build operations, particularly when a company is going through a period of hyper-growth, all the ups and downs on internets. Johann had some great strategies for building his teams that I learned from. 

At the time, Dropbox is popular and we knew we had to build a sales organization but the nature of the product, Dropbox was the first B2C to B-SaaS technology out there. It wasn’t very clear what the nuances of the go-to-market needed to be. In the early days, knowing that instead of hiring very experienced salespeople, we decided to hire very early-career people, people who were super smart and we’re flexible enough to throw at a problem and make it figure it out. That was a rich experience in running a bunch of what were experiments during the first couple of years as we built the region for Dropbox. I personally got to get to run a bunch of early-stage teams like sales, account management, sales development, a little bit of business development within the region as well. 

I was almost the guy who was helping get things up on stilts, to begin with, and help get them removing towards operational efficiency and figure out whether it’s something that we wanted to continue to invest in a little bit further down the line. Fast forward a number of years, the person who hired me into Dropbox, Oliver Jay or OJ had moved over to a company called Asana to be their head of revenue. He was someone who had maintained a high degree of mentorship with. I think part of his remit was to get international operations rolling as well because we know we had a good friendship and a relationship. He felt that I’d be a good person to get Asana rolling within Europe as well. 

I guess for me that was a good bit of growth. I was very curious to experience a different type of SaaS technology that was in a category that was somewhat latent. I came on board with Asana to lead the region for them as well. We started with four people in a small little office in Dublin and fast forward four years, we had a team of about 180 across numerous different functions within the organization from sales, customer success to user support. Within the region, we also built a marketing function, a legal function, people operations and general facilities as well. I ended up being the general manager for the region there. I was directly responsible for all direct revenue, dotted line responsibility for all online revenue or self-service revenue. I then had the site leadership role to maintain a coherent regional go-to-market strategy, which pulled together in a matrix org, many different elements of the go-to-market. 

It was a fun journey. Asana was a very different ride to something like Dropbox or Google where the category had been in the degree of latency, but the product always had a ton of potential. I think we crossed the chasm past the $100 million mark and then we’re moving towards that $300 million. I felt that over 4.5 years, I’d given a lot to the organization. I was considering an internal move within Asana to get the APAC region rolling when a good mentor of mine, Sarah Cannon from Index Ventures, put me in contact with a couple of organizations that she was helping my mentor and guide. I then met Ivan and Akshay from Notion. I was impressed with the product. I’d seen it a number of times within the market before. I was impressed with the no-code movement in general. Seeing where the company was at with the type of journey that was laid ahead, I was ready for a new beginning at that point. I think I find that one of my strengths is helping companies build regional operations and teams from scratch. I thought it was a very natural choice for me at that stage. Here I am now in Notion. 

That’s quite a journey. I feel like I should tell people to watch what you’re doing at all points in time because you seem to be picking the winners left and right. It also goes without saying that you and I know each other from our Dropbox days, so there’s a bit of a Dropbox crew that exists in the market there of all these people who’ve done amazing things. Let’s talk about Notion. You said opening markets. What is your role in Notion?

It’s very early days in very early-stage companies here. Your job title is one thing and what you cover on a day-to-day basis can swing, depending on what’s required within a given quarter or within a given half or even through the year. At the moment, my job title is as General Manager for the region. My AOR or my area of responsibility would be to craft and spearhead a strategic vision and the go-to-market plan for the EMEA region. That also encompasses creating and cultivating collaborative and productive relationships with key internal stakeholders and to execute on what the aligned go-to-market plan is. Ultimately, help us lay the foundation to grow our operations and subsequent revenue within the region as well. 

I aligned with that as well because our company is still figuring out what type of functions will grow and where we need to invest within the organization. What responsibility will remain in headquarters? We’ll run from there. What degree of autonomy does the region need? We’re constantly working with my boss, Akshay who’s our COO. What the matrix management would look like? What are our centralized strategies? What is the nuance within the region? That needs to be grounded there as well. The way I looked at it with him is I almost have three roles at the moment. If we say that the company needs a guiding hand on what’s our go-to-market for the region looks like, to what degree should we be investing in new markets? What new markets do we need to be going after? 

Over markets that are performing well, how do we continue to turn the dial up there and move forward? Should we have more of a self-service approach to a market, or should we be dialing up something like a direct sales approach as well? Ultimately, painting what are the nuances are in each one of those markets and how do we build in that nuance into our plan? At the same time, stitching together a matrix management org of global leaders and regional leaders to help us put together some form of a coherent regional strategy. We’re also very aware that at this stage of the organization’s growth, everything changes. It changes a lot every three months. It changes significantly every six months and you can be damn sure it’s quite different a year down the line. 

We’re trying to be that guiding compass from a general manager’s perspective. Within the region, I’m directly responsible for our sales engine, for our sales team. We’re still hiring. We’re getting a foundational team off the ground. I’m also doubling up on an interim basis. One of my colleagues has gone on maternity leave so I’m leading the global sales organization for Notion at the moment. I wear three hats, regional GM, regional sales leader, and then global sales leader right now. 

It’s a lot of stuff. It seems like you’re casually doing three jobs that most people would find incredibly difficult to do. I want to talk to you a bit about Europe. This is the reason that we’ve asked you to join because Sapphire Ventures wrote a playbook about how to open up in Europe. You are European. You’re from Ireland originally, but you’ve also been working in Europe your whole career. What is the insight that you could share with someone who’s not familiar with the region? As an American who moved to Europe, I’m used to a very homogenous sales region with small changes here and there. Europe is usually quite different. What is your take on that?

For many scaling organizations, Europe presents a very appealing opportunity for any product that’s got good global growth potential but also presents a unique set of challenges as well. While it can be very appealing, once it gets spun up within Europe and get moving, the European market is very attractive and very lucrative. The operational element to doing it sequentially correctly and safely can be a real head-scratcher for organizations that are entering the market from that side. Why is that? Europe is made up of many different markets, many cultural differences, language differences, and business differences as well. When you’re entering the region, you need to be well aware of what those different nuances are, and then prioritize your approach to different markets and whatnot. 

My experience is very oriented around tech. If you have a product that’s becoming reasonably popular from the get-go, you can get a good read on where it’s becoming popular. Europe has a number of very large economies that are very powerful and very tech-savvy. You’ve got some economies that are smaller but are still very powerful and are tech-savvy, then you’ve got some more legacy-oriented economies within the region as well, where you need probably a different approach from a go-to-market perspective. In thinking about Europe at the moment, many of the primary industries and anchor industries for the larger economies are what would be considered more traditional, FMCG, auto manufacturing and retail. That’s beginning to change. Tech is beginning to take more of an anchor within the economies in these regions. It presents a unique challenge as Europe is going through a genuine digital transformation at this stage. The switch is from some of these more traditional industries towards technology as well. I’m not sure if there’s any more detail that you want me to go deeper in there specifically. 

We’ll probably cover some as we get along here. I want to ask a couple of pointed questions about you and the team in Notion. From your perspective and you mentioned previous roles too. You are the GM for the region and you’re heading up the region in that same way. We’ve seen a couple of different models and we worked at Dropbox. It was a different model but in your opinion, why would you do a GM model instead of potentially functional heads that are scattered across the region?

What’s most important here is for organizations to think about what suits them. In my case, within Notion, because our teams are still relatively small and headquarters, we were looking for somebody who could give us a very clear overview of what potential strategy would need to be within the region. To begin with, to be a very strong guiding hand with all our existing functions and headquarters to craft together a centralized strategy. Over time that may change, however. As we see functions grow and we bring onboard new leaders, we’re very open to changing the model initially to changing the model a little bit further down the line to include more functional expertise. To begin with, we felt it was a good idea to have a center point who could put a good guiding hand on all of our regional functional activities within the region. 

You’re a GM who’s also a sales leader as well. Let me ask you something on the sales side here. From a go-to-market perspective and the process that you had in HQ, and then translating that into Europe. Did anything change? Did you have to modify things? Were there different activities, pipeline, processes or contract terms?

In Notion, we are still quite centralized in many of our major strategies. However, in previous companies like Asana and Dropbox, we would have been very mindful to look at what were each different regional requirements typically for the larger economies where we wanted to play very effectively. We’re very open to making nuanced changes there as well. Something we noticed early on in Dropbox is that in North America, the company had done a good job of managing our people to sign up with credit cards. It was a very easy signup flow and the user base was growing. Whereas in Germany, there was a delay and that we weren’t seeing the same growth trends. After a little bit of research, we realized that Germany didn’t have a strong credit card culture the way it had in North America. 

We had to work with our product teams to look at our signup flow and see what was the most appropriate way that we can make the flow very nuanced for the German region. Would we allowed people to sign up with automatic invoicing? Should we take them through a different flow? We did begin to unlock much more user growth by having that varied approach. The instinct thing is if you look at your various different regions within EMEA, there is some subtle nuance in every different pocket. Be it a more localized language approach, be it a different marketing positioning that you’re using at the front end which can help you unlock smaller little bits of growth here and there, which in aggregate will lead up to stronger growth in general. 

Europe gives a huge opportunity to any company who wants to invest in operations, but also a unique challenge. Click To Tweet

It’s not always easy to begin with because you’re going from a homogenous market to a market made up of many markets. You don’t always have all the bandwidth to make too many nuances and changes. As your team grows and your requirement to increase your user base or increase your conversion rate or bring onboard more customers, as well as your ability to bring on board more expertise that can have a regional focus. There’s a good phasing, which goes from very generic to quite nuanced for a specific market. Ultimately down the line, you may see that your French users get a slightly different web experience from your US users. Your German users may see some different language and some different phraseology, which speaks a little bit more to what’s topical and trending within their region. You’re going to have the bandwidth, the expertise and the ability to make those changes on the fly a little bit further down the line. 

I’m going to ask a little bit of a pan-European style of question from you, given that you’re the expert in this particular call. You mentioned nuances within these micro-markets here. I’m going to name a couple of markets here, and I want to know one nuance. What are the things that now you’re a seasoned vet would you have told your younger self? Let’s say the three biggest markets in Europe are the UK, France, Germany and for good measure, let’s throw in Spain. What’s a nuance of the UK? Let’s just couple the Irish in there too because it’s the Ireland English-speaking market. What are some nuances of the UK and Ireland?

The UK is an English-speaking region and has a heavy level of exposure to US culture. What you’ll typically find is that the UK market is maybe a couple of years behind what’s very popular within North America. You’ll notice that maybe years ago, the fledgling startup scene began to proliferate within the UK. Now we’re beginning to see the first unicorns and decacorns that are coming out of the UK as well. However, the UK economy is quite anchored around very traditional industries like finance, manufacturing, FMCG. A lot of tech companies pushed very hard initially on the message of digital transformation when they were entering the market. While the Silicon Valley effect had taken grip within North America and companies were looking for new agile methods, within the UK, that message was burnt out very fast. 

Many of the larger traditional industries that you were dealing with this very Americanized message of change and faster routes of doing things didn’t land so well. I saw a number of tech companies would have teams that relatively burned because they didn’t get the positioning perfectly tailored to what was topical and what was trending well within the UK. It’s different now where the digital transformation is a little bit cliche, but you can resonate quite well with the fast-growing companies within the UK that people know and are very proud of. Farfetch, you probably know. A lot of large organizations who are very eager for innovation and change are beginning to ape and mimic what they’re seeing with the startup scenes within their local countries. For there, your marketing team wants to be on point on tailoring its messaging to not take it super US-focused or very US message and tailor it to what’s topical within the UK market at this stage. 

Let’s cross the channel, let’s go to France. I understand that you might speak some French too as I recall, but what about the French market? What would someone need to know about trying to sell to the French market?

I studied at a university in France and I’ve got some Belgian cousins, so I speak French with a very unusual Brussels accent, which I’ve been told a couple of times. The French market is fascinating for me. For most of my career within tech, the French have been a little bit lacking in tech. Technology wasn’t seen as being a significant competitive advantage for organizations within that region. The status quo was almost not to be questioned and not to be changed. Every now and again, you would find a large player within the market that would be looking for a degree of innovation because they need to change or because they’re terrified of another company disrupting them but would open the door a little bit more. The business culture there was knock to change. It was much more traditional. 

Also, I think of all of the markets in Europe that have strong economic potential, France requires the highest level of localization. There’s an enormous amount of pride in the French people and within the French market. You need to prove that your product can speak to that economy super well. However, similar to the UK, we’re seeing a huge change in the last few years. A lot of European economies are re-embracing the concept of innovation. They know that most of the money that’s gone into the tech industry has been in the US, has been in APAC over the years. You’re seeing real centers of excellence from a tech perspective in Silicon Valleythe East Coast, North America and then in pockets way back. 

Europe, to a certain extent, had been left behind for a long time. European governments have been investing heavily in creating the right factors, which allow a tech ecosystem to evolve. VC firms that are giving money and funding to crazy ideas that can turn into fast growth, and providing the right benefits for organizations and incentives to help them move quickerFrance is at the center of this. Notion did a partnership with a very innovative startup called Station F which has hundreds and hundreds of French startups. Over the last few years, we’ve seen France go from 4th or 5th in Europe for innovation in tech to now being close to the top, with many of those early-stage companies that would have received funding 5, 3, 4 years ago, now becoming unicorns and on the path to being decacorns as well. 

That’s pulling the French economy along. If you’re a senior executive within one of the larger, more traditional players, you’re not going to be sent to Paris on these courses to learn about agility and innovation and seeing how a concept can go from $0 to $3 billion or $4 billion in value of the space of 3 or 4 years. That ultimately trickles up through the economy and makes it a little bit more robust and ready for it for the modern era. For France, to answer your question more succinctly, a higher level of localization is always important. English language from a business perspective has not proliferated in France to the same extent as what I would say in the Nordics or obviously in the UK or Germany. Taking advantage of the topical trends that are happening within that market as well, speaking to it very closely, wrapping your arms around it and embracing it is what’s required within France. 

As you mentioned, Germany is a larger region, the DACH region. What’s a good factoid for the sales process of DACH?

One thing I’ve noticed is that the requirement for localization within Germany has become less required in the last number of years because English as the primary business language has been taking foot more than it ever has. Larger organizations have been screaming for innovation for the last number of years, and have taken on technology with an increasing level of fervor. There seems to be a new business culture within Germany, which is very outward-looking. As you move upstream within Germany, you do run into some of the classic enterprise paradigms like security, administration, which are always important. Tech companies coming into the US are earlier and earlier getting on their localization game faster and understanding what are the nuances for this market. I remember in Dropbox, the way that their product grew and it was in a lot of companies before those companies realized this, the cloud was still a relatively new concept a few years ago. Many organizations coalesce by seeing these products grow within their companies. 

In Germany, data location is always a major issue and a very valid concern as well. At that point, Dropbox needs to figure out, should they build a European data center that gives these customers a little bit more ease of mind for where their data is going to be located? How would that work within the product? Is that easy to do? Should this be sold or is this something that should be given to these organizations by default? At that stage, the tech companies are also thinking about what’s their attitude towards security and what’s their policy there in general. These European economies have been researching these questions well.  

Fast forward to Asana and Notion, which almost goes as part of the territory as you’re entering a region. It’s to understand some of these concerns and act to them fast. It’s not like we spun up a data center reasonably fast. It took us about a year. We moved from it being a feature that you could sell to being something that was granted to any user within that region as a matter of policy and then at Notion, we’re cooking up similar plans as well. 

It’s the incredible importance of data privacy, everybody knows the phrase of GDPR, and there’s more and more stuff coming down that pipe. I’m going to stop pestering you specifically on regional assets as well because I know that’s a bit of a secret sauce. The last question I have on regions, we’re going to skip out on the rest of Europe. I know there’s much more we could talk about in the Spanish market, Nordic market, Italian market, Eastern Europe, but I’m very curious about location. You’re sitting in Dublin at the moment. We know that there’s a bunch of great startup hubs, Index Ventures for example and us as well, Sapphire Ventures have noted that in European expansion, there are some good cities to go to that are key. What are your thoughts on why a company chooses specific places? You have your Dublin’s, London’s, Amsterdam’s, Berlin’s. What would you recommend as potentially the best calculus to decide where your HQ wants to be?

It’s a very important consideration for any organization that is thinking about how to set up in Europe. As we discussed early on, Europe presents a huge opportunity to any company who wants to invest in operations there but it’s also a unique challenge. The fact that there are so many different markets, many different countries with very different cultural considerations to consider, a decision needs to be made as you went to the region, where do you get going? Where do you start? Interestingly, you’ll find that these countries are vying for your business. They want you to set up here. They’d like you to create your operations for the region, administer the whole region from their location. They’ve done a good job of showing why their specific territory or geo is a good fit for your organization. 

I’ve also been on the other side of things in these young companies that are scaling and growing and trying to make a decision about how they had to do these operations. Sometimes within an organization, you’ll have a high degree of expertise. Some people who have seen and done it before understand the benefits and some of the pitfalls of different areas and understand how to make that matrix. I’ve also seen some scenarios where it’s some young founders and the early-stage CEO or COO who were making the call on how they go. Typically, what happens is there’s a matrix of all of these likely sites and locations, and you drop one of the factors around how you’d make your decision. What’s the ease of doing business in this market? 

What does the language and culture of this market like? Does it resonate well with our language and culture? Is there good governmental support to get rolling and other incentives and benefits to help us move as well? Almost entirely, it has fallen down to two factors. One has been the access to talent and are we able to high the right type of talent that we want to put into the teams that we’re thinking of growing? Secondly, does this market I’m going to track backward? Do we have other people who we know, who are like us, who we admire, want to be like? Do they have a track record of success in those markets as well? Have they done a good job there? I think in equal measure, certainly from the Silicon Valley perspective, there are some very positive stories, and then there are some decisions that some organizations regret as well. 

It’s a very tricky one because there’s also a lot of pride in cities. I’ve noticed as I’ve asked that question across various leaders, people always want their country and their city to be at the forefront. I understand that matrix is key, especially when you’re considering the idea of talent in this competitive post-COVID market. Do you need people to be local? Will people be able to work remotely and does that matter more? I think HQs might be shifting a bit.

In that idea and for my next question, general talent, working with sales teams, keeping people in line. You’re opening a new region for a company that’s been operating before in a different place. You know that there are going to be questions about translating sales processes. There are going to be questions of hiring and so on. Most importantly and the core to the success and happiness of a lot of people is company culture. We came from Dropbox and we had a very distinct company culture there. I know Asana has a very distinct company culture. What do you do? How did you keep people on that particular line? How did you adapt it slightly for the European market? What is your idea for how to be successful when it comes to making sure that the company feels like the company is maybe in a different location?

It’s a great question. It is one that cannot be overstated about how important it is to put a deep level of consideration into this. A lot of organizations when they move into a different region, it’s almost 50/50, whether they get the early team right or not. It takes a high degree of input, both from within the region and from headquarters to set this thing up for success as the way I describe it. It takes a huge degree of mindfulness to be very aware of all the factors and all the little things which go into supporting culture over correctly. In my mind, it starts with the person you hire. For better or worse, it starts with the first person you put on the ground. Also, how invested your company leadership is in this strategic maneuver around investing in the field. 

If this is a decision that’s coming from mid-level management and they’re managing it, they won’t have all the ability to set this new venture up for success. It needs to come from the CEO’s desk or the COO’s desk. They need to be personally invested in making this work. You need to choose your first leader well. Do they align with your cultures and the value within the organization? Do they subscribe to them? Are they going to be an add ultimately rather than a fit to your organization? What type of team are they going to be building? What degree of input do you want to put in there? Your early hires are super important as well. I talk a lot about Jedis and Stormtroopers. 

I think in the early days within an organization, you want your people to be very flexible and to be like Jedis. There’s going to be a lot of issues and a lot of problems. There are going to be some things that need a bit of translation and a bit of a fifth parallel thinking. You want to ensure that you have people on board who are down for that, who were up for an adventure and enjoy that or already started the journey. Later on down the line, that type of profile becomes a little bit bored when things become a little bit more process-oriented. That’s where you need your Stormtroopers more than your Jedis. Your Jedis has grown into different roles. The landing team is also important. It’s super important to ensure that there’s a degree of a transplant from headquarters as well where possible. 

If you’re a leader who spends a good bit of time at headquarters initially, soaking in the culture, making key relationships very strongly with people who are going to be supporting the region, then you want effectively to be starting your new team with some transplants from headquarters. Some people who are high performers, who are well tenured within the organization, who know the how and the why of why things are set up the way they are within the organization, who can translate process and systems, who knows the tooling well and can almost sponge outwards that culture when they get into the new region. It’s super important as well. Getting this wrong means that you can effectively set up a different company, a different organization within the region. It’s very fast that silos can spring up and poor attitude when things are out of sight and out of mind as well. 

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Once you’re set-up, it’s important to be incredibly respectful of headquartered thinking as well. The flow needs to be right between what’s coming from headquarters because they’re very connected teams. They’re all sitting in with each other. They’re thinking about things quite deeply and I think you should be looking for an 80% pattern match within the region with about 20% room for any cultural nuance. You don’t want to get into a scenario where there’s a bit of grumbling or animosity between the region and headquarters. That can spin up fast if you’re not very careful about it. To make that happen, the grease that makes all of these pieces work is an overstatement of communication. 

I would encourage all of our early teams to over-communicate. They should be in every Slack channel and they should be following what’s happening within the organization super closely. You should be drinking everything that’s happening at headquarters and living it and embodying it and supporting it and being visible in conversations and online. You should also be communicating what’s happening in the region as well. In each of my organizations, we set up a monthly newsletter. Here’s all the stuff that’s happening and across sales, marketing, engineering, customer support. Here are the great new logos we brought on board. Here’s how it ties to our regional strategy to keep your region top of mind, which is super important. You never want to get into a situation where your regional team has a bit of a black box. People in headquarters can say, “I don’t necessarily know what’s going on there. I know some names and some personalities, but I’m not sure what’s happening.” That ultimately falls within your leadership team within the region as well. 

That’s a good point, especially the two relationships and how they need to work together. I remember when I moved out here, realizing that all hands were not just a convenient time regularly. Luckily, our organization at the time decided to switch that to somewhat of a change, but that’s a small thing that makes the region feel like they’re connected. In that sense, it’s not these massive endeavors that you can do. You can do things like, “Our all-hands is now going to be in the morning in California because that way at least we know European colleagues can come on or let’s do it every two weeks, morning and evening that if we have APAC colleagues. They can join as well.”

It’s a great point and that’s why it goes both ways. That’s where you want the right leadership to speak to some of these pieces. There’s an interesting phasing to it as well. What you’ll notice is that many of these companies are so proud that they’re setting up operations in other regions. It’s a big deal and there’s so much positive sentiment internally within these organizations. There’s a great wave that you can ride on positive sentiment and support to move mountains and create the right connectivity early on. Later on, I know that within Dropbox, we had that company all-hands and as the complete group came, it’s less and less relevant to everybody within the region. We split up our own regional all-hands as well, which is almost like an echo of the centralized all-hands, which spoke a little bit more to what was going on within the region. Also, regional has some of the primary communication efforts from headquarters as well. Internal communications is a skill right now within organizations, a strong one, and there’s always a fine nuance that’s required for the EMEA region. 

On that too, I wonder your thoughts on executive visits when we’re allowed to open up and travel again. It seems like we’re slowly but surely coming into that space of a world. What’s a good cadence for executive visits, for HQ visits? Sometimes I felt like the executives that I worked with didn’t know much about the region because they didn’t come very often, but what are your thoughts on having done 3 to 4 big companies of scale that way?

There’s a couple of things that I think about there. First of all, building an affinity with the region is important. Your execs within these companies are usually quite visible people. It gives a real charge to your regional team when some of your execs show up for sure. I don’t think it should just be execs. I think anybody who has a stake within a given region from leadership all the way through to middle management or even ICs, it’s very important for them to understand the characters, personalities and nuances for the region as well. I certainly am a huge advocate for a high degree of connectivity with people going over back, particularly the early days between headquarters and the region as well.  

The next piece I think about is that understanding these markets is always important and there’s nothing more useful than getting firsthand experience of what your customers and what your users or the companies that you’re dealing with within these markets are thinking or saying or acting. It’s one thing to present us within a meeting to your execs, but it’s good for them to experience it as well. I’ve often run a playbook where our execs are put on the road when they come to Europe and let’s go and meet twenty customers in the UK. Let’s go meet ten customers in Germany and France. Let’s get you in front of some execs within their company so you can understand what’s different in their view from what our centralized thinking is. That’s a very enriching journey for many of those execs. They enjoy it and they get to see getting a whole hot take on what’s going on within a region.  

I had a pretty funny story when my previous boss in Asana, Oliver Jay who was the head of revenue. I was trying to explain the status of the German economy and some of the questions that we would get from companies who are looking at our tool versus the echo chamber that can happen when selling to tech companies and headquarters. We brought OJ to this little place called Island Wharf with a large customer called Dietsman at the time to see how different the world is there. We ended up on a factory tour around their large production facility with a hairnet and a white coat. It was a million times removed from the regular tech vibe that he would have been experiencing in headquarters. He went back with a very different perspective around the challenges that we face within a market than the type of profiles that we’re selling to, which is fascinating.  

The next piece is execs can come from headquarters and can see some things they don’t like as well. It’s not something trivial. When your leaders are coming over, it’s important for you to have a very coherent plan for your strategy to be well aligned to what the company is doing because you don’t want to look like things are going in the wrong direction. I’ve noticed that leaders can always be a little bit on edge when people are coming from headquarters because you want them to be leaving heading back to headquarters with a positive view of what’s going on from region. I understand what’s happening. I’ve got a clear picture of how much more we need to invest here in order to move the needle forward. It’s very worthwhile. 

The last couple of questions here. The one very big question is every CEO or every product creator is probably thinking, “Why is this going to be so hard? Why am I reading somebody talks about this? It should be as easy as opening up an office and selling there.” There’s an obvious conversation around product-market fit. Does this thing resonate with the people who have a different upbringing, have different education and have a different day-to-day life? I’m going to list off a couple of things but I’m curious about your top three when it comes to the proper product-market fit in a European market. I know that changes across the region, but let’s imagine for a moment that there are a bit more similarities than there probably are. Is it compliance that’s most important? Is it us translating the product and fitting into the culture? Is it the product being able to innovate older, maybe non-tech industries a bit better? Is it potentially being able to be flexible and not be fit for use cases that we’re used to? What are the keys to product-market fit?

That was a poignant question that’s at the knob of how we do our work. You’re going to hate this answer but it’s a mix of all of those above of all of those four considerations that you pull at. You’re looking at it certainly for the businesses that I’ve been part of. Data is the most important thing. Getting your instrumentation and your system set up so you can derive the right level of data, which is showing where your product is currently getting traction. In what markets is your product speaking to the target audience that you’re aiming for. Being able to pull the right insights there into why and how. That can be quite perplexing. You could say that France and Germany are quite similar as markets, but you can see for some reason we were spiking in users in France and we don’t always necessarily know why that is. 

What’s happening there how do we get to the center of why that’s happening? Looking at them to say that, “Where do we want to play? How are we doing there at the moment?” You mentioned earlier the three big economies, the UK, Germany and France. Let’s say that in the next yearsomething develops in the Nordics. Let’s say that we’re performing well in France right now, but we haven’t got the right level of traction in Germany. We’re doing fine in the UK, but killing it in the Nordics right now, just based on the data that we’re seeing of user growth and on the revenue that we’re generating from there. 

We could say that what is blocking us from getting the same level of traction and growth in France as we’re seeing in Germany is our marketing message not working right. Have we not activated the right early-stage adopters? Do we need to invest in our acquisition strategy there? Does it need to be differentiated? Same for the Nordics and the Benelux. Is there a compliance issue? Is that the reason why people aren’t buying our product? Have we not translated things well or have we translated them all? Similarly, is our product something that’s culturally acceptable within that region as well? We met something that was very interesting. We were very popular with tech companies in Germany with the startup scene. 

They liked the organized nature of that product, but in larger organizations, we weren’t growing it as much as we wanted to. We noticed that we were getting blocked by Worker’s Councils. The famous Workers Councils in Germany who have a seat on the board of every large organization saw the product as being almost like spying on employees and this a way to regulate their work in an invasive fashionWe had to figure out how to answer that in a very succinct fashion in a good way that spoke to that audience. That was part of that nuance as well. To answer your question a little bit more directly, it starts with the innovation piece. Is the market ready for your technology? Is that why it’s moving forward there? If you want to accelerate growth within that market, is your product a good cultural fit for that region? Does it need a high degree of localization like a translation? Ultimately, what are the barriers to entry that you need to circumnavigate in order to make that work? 

That’s very insightful, and as with many things, it’s not easy. I wish it was like a very black-and-white answer.

It’s always a head-scratcher. I was explaining it to headquarters, all these snakes and ladders. 

That’s what brings the region a lot of focus. From a market economy size, it is very big. This is the last question and I’d love to hear your thoughts. When does Europe catch up to the American market? Most people look at the revenue models and especially exited companies. You’re looking at about 25% to 35% of your revenues coming from Europe and the rest is from the rest of the world, mostly in the US still. That’s a very high amount anyways in the US. When does Europe start to become that dominant market? Are we still going to be ping-ponging a little bit back and forth?

As I mentioned before, many years ago, tech in Europe wasn’t on the map. We had SAP and you had some older hardware manufacturers within the region as well, but the whole concept of the ecosystem of the startup scene hadn’t taken foot in Europe. It was growing super well within Silicon Valley and then in different pockets within Asia, but Europe had been somewhat left behind. The reason being is that it didn’t need it. Major industries were the anchor of all of the major economies this is where governmental thinking was around how do we support these industries? How do we continue to grow them and ensure that there’s still a strong anchor of our employment model within the region? 

It’s all changed now. In America, tech is now the largest industry. It’s overtaken finance in 2020 as being the industry with the highest impact on the economy in general. Within Asia, we’re beginning to see Chinese through the work it has to the world. It’s now one of the innovation leaders and many of the largest tech companies are coming from there as well. Europe has always had incredibly smart people, very well-educated people. The talent has been more funneled into more traditional industries before. However, that’s beginning to change. European economies are terrified of disruption. They know that within five years, you’re very well-established, a very rooted large organization can be outmaneuvered by a more innovative organization that comes from a different region. 

These larger companies are beginning to invest a lot more of their thinking in how to become more agile, how to become a lot more innovative, and what does the next 5 to 10 years hold for us and how do we prepare for that better? European economies and governments are also heavily investing in this space within technology and innovation. To do that, they’re allowing room for finance institutes to have some form of venture capitalists funding to create that ecosystem where you want people to be moving into these innovative fields. We’re going to see that take hold. Berlin for me was the first almost like San Francisco Silicon Valley-like atmosphere that I saw. I went to visit Berlin and these cool, young tech people who were looking, acting, talking like what you see in Silicon Valley. 

These young founders we’re getting good funding from VC firms that were European-based. You start seeing some large organizations that had exits beginning to reinvest some of the money that they made from that into newer ideas, newer streams. You start seeing some talent networks begin to spread across new startups and new industries. That real startup growth ecosystem is beginning to take root and take hold. I think that’ll increase in Europe over the next years exponentially and we’ll see similar patterns to what we saw in North America where tech could become one of the more dominant industries within the space. 

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Already we’re seeing every day, if you’re signed up to your Crunchbase or tech country letters, almost every day, you’re seeing new Series A, new Series B, new Series C fundings for many of these companies based in Berlin, Paris, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Dublin and London. They are taking these crazy ideas, making them into businesses and getting these valuations based on the future trends that people are going to need these technologies for. I can see it growing. A strong mix between powerful economies, talented people, a very worldly global outlook because Europe is it’s very global by nature. It’s going to be an interesting time over the next 5 to 10 years in this space. 

I’m excited to see how it evolves. Robbie, thank you so much for the time. It’s always a pleasure to speak to you and the insight was incredibly helpful. I know people who are reading this are trying to dissect and understand the market. They are going to be able to look at this and say, “I wish I knew as much as he did.” You might even have some people reaching out, asking for more help there. I appreciate that. Thank you for taking the time.

It’s a real pleasure to see you again. I love speaking on these topics and for anybody who wants to talk about these pieces, I’m completely obsessed with them. I’m always available to connect on LinkedIn or speak over email. 

Thank you so much.


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About Robbie O'Connor

Being a relationships orientated person, partnerships, sales and business development have always been my passion. My career to date has taken me from Dublin to London then to San Francisco and back to Dublin again. Along the way, I have had the opportunity to work in some amazing teams, sell some game-changing technologies (to small and big companies alike) and to learn from some fantastic mentors how to build and scale high-performing sales teams.