Last updated on December 5th, 2018 at 12:00 hrs.
Together with his co-founder Virpi Europaeus, Erkki Tuomi runs Pro Growth Consulting Oy, a Finnish consultancy helping business-to-business (B2B) Information and Communication Technology (ICT) service providers accelerate sales at home and abroad.
I talked with Erkki about his views on sales growth and internationalization, and about ‘Software from Finland to European Markets’, an internationalization programme for software companies that kicked off in September and targets the Netherlands as its first foreign market.
The programme is sponsored by the Finnish Software & E-Business Association (Ohjelmisto- ja e-business ry) and supported by the Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment (ELY-keskus).
[For transparency: I will be contributing to the programme as an expert in the area of brand storytelling, content and inbound marketing, focusing on the particularities of the Dutch market.]
So much fun
Before combining forces with Virpi and founding ProGrowth, Erkki served in sales director roles in various companies, was a partner and CEO in a software startup which he helped grow and which was later sold to a bigger company, and started a couple of business units within Elisa Corporation.
“Starting new businesses is so much fun,” he says. “Everybody who has done it, knows that. There are so many opportunities, so many ways to grow, to innovate, to meet interesting people. Testing what works and what doesn’t is fun and interesting.”
“For me, the two most interesting things in working life are how you can make a company grow and how you do B2B sales effectively,” Erkki says. He is particularly interested in sales psychology, which is one of the reasons why ProGrowth publishes a bi-yearly report on the obstacles to sales growth as perceived by ICT service providers who sell B2B.
“First you need to make your growth plan. Who are our customers? What are we offering? What is our vision? What is our sales model? What kind of team should we have? How do we organise the financing? Making the plan is 5 to 10 percent of what you need to do in order to grow. And then, you have to act!”
Selective about customers
In Erkki’s experience, new growth always requires change. After all, if you keep doing things the same way as before, you will get similar results as before.
“For example, if you wanted to go abroad, it would be odd if you didn’t need new employees or resources, new know-how and different experiences to your team,” says Erkki.
“A common obstacle to growth is when a company tries to serve every customer they have with the same attention. Often they are not active enough with those customers that represent the biggest growth potential.
“We use our own method to help growth-hungry companies define their most important target customers and choose the best service model and sales approach. Some questions businesses need to answer in order to get there are: What makes us competitive? and What kind of customers do we really want?
Let a dozen SaaS companies bloom
A dozen Finnish companies will be participating in the ‘Software from Finland to European Markets’ programme from September 2018 to May 2019. All of them happen to be Software as a Service (SaaS) providers, albeit operating in a variety of industries, from finance automation to logistics and from Internet of Things (IoT) to food supply chain monitoring.
“SaaS solutions are relatively easy to scale,” says Erkki, “which makes the programme attractive to these companies. They are all interested in the possibility to go abroad and scale.”
Come May, what will success look like? Erkki: “During and after the programme we will help them start their internationalization projects. Everybody should at least have a plan and some will have new projects going on with new cooperation partners, customers, and pilots.
“As part of their growth plan, each business decides what kind of sales model to implement: direct, person-to-person sales, selling through a partner network, digital marketing, or a combination.”
Holland first vs. ‘born global’?
The Netherlands is the first target market for this programme. The intention is to address other markets later. As some of the reasons to choose Holland first, Erkki mentions Dutch people’s openness in their communication and towards new experiences, their English language proficiency, as well as cultural similarities with the Finns, including a relative lack of hierarchy.
“They say what they think,” Erkki says. “From a Finnish point of view, they are straightforward, direct and honest.”
Does he see any particular challenges for Finnish players in the Dutch market? Erkki: “I’d rather not talk about such things and focus on the opportunities instead.”
Asked if he sees ‘born global’ startups as a different paradigm than approaching one geographical market at a time, Erkki says: “Well, ‘born global’ is one kind of growth plan and some of our customers call themselves that. And we need more companies like that.
“But even then, in many cases, they’ve got their first customers in their home market, here in Finland. One difficulty for ‘born global’ companies is that, if they don’t have customers to pilot with, they don’t know exactly what their customers really need. This makes it problematic to market to the whole world from day one.”
Last question: Have you come across a good book lately? Erkki: “Yes, ‘Scaling Up’ by Verne Harnish. It’s the best book for growth-hungry companies that I have read in many years. We are using some of the tools from the book in scaling up our customers. For me, the main take-away was that it is as important as ever to be very conscious about building your growth team, so that you have the right people when your business starts taking off.”