10 business lessons I learned while writing “European Founders at work”

I am lucky enough to have had the opportunity to interview 20 of the most prominent European founders of our time. There are plenty of successful entrepreneurs in Europe but unfortunately for the most part they are unsung heroes. In another post I will explain why I wrote the book, but on this one I would like to focus on some of the lessons that I learned by writing the book (not only in the interviews).

European Founders at Work Pedro Santos Gairifo

European Founders at Work (clicking goes to Amazon book page).

1. If you don’t try, the answer is always no

I never expected to be an author of a book. And to be honest, I never did much to be a published author. When I was starting out my company (www.all-desk.com), I had one very simple question that I had no answer. The question was “How can I build a global company based in an European Country?”.

That question, and my admiration of the “Founders at Work” book, led me to think that “someone” should write such a book for European founders as I thought that it would have a lot of the answers I was looking for. After two weeks of this idea not leaving my head, I decided to write an email to the publisher of the original book proposing them to write the book and if they needed an author, I would do it. To my surprise and delight they said yes.

2. Always hire better people than you

The most recurring theme in the interviews with European founders was the importance of having the right team. Being surrounded by people with the right attitude, complementary skills and knowledge is a big boost to the chances of the company being successful. As Iain Dodsworth of TweetDeck put it “and of course, always hire better people than you!”

3. Show solid progress and the impossible will happen

One of the most sucessful entrepreneurs I wanted to interview (not going to say who :) ) asked me when I contacted him for an interview whom did I already interviewed and who I planned to interview. At the time I had very few interviews done so he said that he would “think about it”. After 15 interviews done with great European founders I contacted him again showing progress. He immediately agreed to an interview and congratulated me on the great progress I achieved.

4. European founders: decide if you want to be a global player or a regional player

Some companies, like Shazam, decided to start in the UK and grow country by country (usually using white labeling as a way to get in). Others, like Prezi, decided to attack the US market first as a way to have more global exposure from the start. Both strategies work but each has advantages and disadvantages.

Attacking the US from the start is costly and much harder than focusing on your market, going country by country may mean that if another company grows faster in the US you may become “just” a regional player.

5. Don’t panic

Olivier Poitrey, Dailymotion

Olivier Poitrey, Dailymotion

Thing go wrong (sometimes terribly) but the worst thing is to panic. Most entrepreneurs mentioned this as a necessary evil. This can be summed up in the following quote of Olivier Poitrey of DailyMotion: “never give up, stubbornness is a requirement to lead a company to success, and the road to success is inevitably paved with failures. When things start to go wrong, the worst thing to do is panic and change everything.”

6. Don’t try to build another Silicon Valley, know it, understand it and use it

Silicon Valley is the most advanced ecosystem for technological startups on the planet. This ecosystem has taken years to develop and it’s not going anywhere any time soon. A lot of European cities are trying to compete with this ecosystem. That is foolish and counter productive.

The most successful European founders understand Silicon Valley, some have spent time there, and most have connections there. They use this knowledge and connections to build their business outside of Silicon Valley.

7. Use failure as a “built in feature” of your business

Failure is your friend, if you fail fast (and small). Try to “built in” failure as a way to learn and improve on your business as fast as possible and with as little damage as possible.

I think Boris Van Zanten of The Next Web said it very well when he said: “as an entrepreneur you fail all the time. You’ve got failure built into your business. You don’t really keep track of failure. You never really fail. I think that’s essential when you’re an entrepreneur, that you’re not afraid of failure. You embrace failure. Your whole business is based on trying out stuff, being ready for stuff to fail and just taking the next step as soon as you fail.”

8. When entering the US market, market yourself as a global company

A way that European companies found to lower the “resistance” of American consumers was to brand themselves as global companies, instead of French, English, German, etc.

Jos White, MessageLabs

Jos White, MessageLabs

This helps because most consumers are used to technology companies to be US based, so branding themselves as global, people just assume they are from the US. Here’s how Jos White of MessageLabs puts it:

”Europe has a lot of credibility in certain sectors, particularly media and the creative industry, but I think that in technology, generally, most of the world’s biggest companies were founded in the US and, therefore, the expectation in the US market is that in technology, they are going to be talking and buying from US companies.”

9. Be bold and ambitious

More and more entrepreneurs in Europe are starting to focus on being a global company from the start. The internet has leveled the playing field and more and more European entrepreneurs are going on to change the world.

10. Learn how to sell

Every founder, regardless if they have the responsibility or the experience, should know how to sell their product. The only way you learn how to sell is go out and sell it. This will teach you why the product is good for someone and in turn help you turn the product into something better.

There are many more things I learned from writing this book and it has been great to launch it but I hope this small list helps you in your current venture in making more successful european companies.

Photo: “Work in Progress”, blumpy, Flickr

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About the author


Pedro Santos is the CEO and co-founder of All-desk.com, a startup that provides a marketplace for professionals who wish to share and book temporary workspaces. He is also a director at Beta-i, an NGO whose mission it is to promote entrepreneurship and innovation. Also the author of European Founders at Work, Santos is a regular public speaker on entrepreneurship and innovation. You can follow him on Twitter.

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