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Scaling a business while borders are closed

For a while there it looked as though we were finally going to be able to plan some international travel in early 2022! However, this week the COVID Delta variant escaped in the community here in New Zealand and has sadly extinguished those dreams again. Once again, we find ourselves in the bottom right corner of the world physically feeling more and more disconnected from everyone.

Rainy, cold and wet - winter in New Zealand with closed borders often feels so remote from the rest of the world. An outside world ravaged by COVID-19 which is still open for business. This physical distance between countries has never felt so far - for those of us with family overseas and for those of us who choose to be founders of startups attempting to Go Global.

So how do you scale when you can’t travel?

In a pre-COVID world, we would often say ‘nothing beats a face-to-face meeting’. It’s true, eye contact, body language and nuance (our favourite word!) are the quickest and easiest ways to create engaging interactions in person.

However, the world has changed, and for many of us this is no longer an option - so how do we build new relationships in the startup world?

Video Conferencing

Video conferencing (generically referred to as Zoom) has become the standard du jour for communications and meetings across the globe. In many ways it provides a huge advantage for startups seeking connections in global markets - whether for customers, suppliers, distributors, talent, offshore funding or potential export partners. Zoom meetings tend to be easier to secure, shorter in time and much cheaper than flying to far parts of the world for face to face meetings.

Where they really stand up is in cancellations. If you fly to the US for four meetings in a week and two are cancelled, your time and money investment is high. While Zoom cancellations still occur, they have a much lower impact on the business and can be re-booked without needed to re-book expensive travel and hotels.

Being Human

Over the last 18 months we have all learned a lot about video etiquette. Novel backgrounds, roaming pets and children asking for water are now all common occurrences. These glimpses into our personal and human lives help us to create the trust and closeness that mimic those of an in-person interaction.

One of the biggest mistakes I see is people only treating zoom calls as “professional calls” forgetting to take the time to small talk and socialise as we would do in real life meetings. We are still people, still needing connections and engagement in precisely the same way, yet zoom meetings tend to have a “lets get this done” attitude and often forget the importance of socialisation.

New Opportunities

Being unable to travel also provides opportunities. Closed borders provide time and space that would have been spent on the road for other things, like deep research. As a founder there is always too much to do, but this 'free' time could be used wisely to identify markets or industries with a strong product market fit.

Finding new markets is one thing, but making the right contacts on the groud there is the key to successful scaling. This is where channel partners are worth their weight in gold - get them to ask their investors to find their best connections and make introductions.

Things Have Changed Pre-COVID it was the norm to schedule a meeting for an hour to be a good use of time. However things have changed. Sixty minutes on a video call with a new contact is a long time! One of my top tips is to request a 30 minute intial meeting, in my experience you are much more likely to get one than if you request an hour. Even in these short meetings there is plenty of time for a 5 minute small talk intro before getting into the nitty gritty for 20 minutes, plus it will help you to stay focussed on your meeting goals.

The world of business has changed too. Over the last year I've seen Letters of Intent, Terms of Reference and supplier contracts signed before a physical meeting between people has ever taken place.

Ask and Listen

Don't forget to listen! It can be easy to switch to broadcast mode when you are on a video call, but if you are thoughtful and ask good questions the conversation will roll. If you do find that you are a great match but your time is up, just request a follow up time to continue the discussion. Not every conversation is with the right person, but don't lose the chance to meet the right person! Regardless of the outcome of the conversation you are having, remember that you’re in an ideal position to generate your next conversation. Ask “Who else do you know that I should be speaking with? Are you able to please make an introduction?” - you never know who they might know. Several short meetings are be%tter than one long video call and repeat contact is, in itself, a relationship builder. You’ll have taken notes from your past meeting and be able to recall your small talk and open with it. “Hi George - did the Knicks win on Thursday?”

Build For The Future Building your team means finding the right people for the job and video conference recruitment has opened up the workforce big time! Previously it would have been rare to hire a new staff member without meeting them in person, yet now founders can identify and recruit the best talent for them - wherever in the world they might be knowing that the world of remote work has changed for everyone around the globe.

The relationships that you build today will mean that by the time we are able to travel your international contacts will be keen to see you and much less likely to cancel on you. Investing in building new international relationships now will result in contracts, customers, funding, employees and so much more.

Scaling a startup is not easy at the best of times. It’s certainly not easy when borders are closed. But it is possible. And whoever runs a startup because it’s easy?

Adrien Gheur is a co-founder of Nuance Connected Capital - a deep tech VC fund with international industry channel connections globally.

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