I’ve been working with tech startups and scaleups for many years, and if there’s one thing most tech entrepreneurs have in common, it’s that they’re very, well, entrepreneurial!
Everything’s about building the business from the ground up – grinding, hustling, disrupting. When it comes to business development and international expansion, startup founders love the hands-on, the DIY, the in-house. And that’s a challenge when what I’m pitching is: “Relax, we’ll do BD in Asia for you”.
Don’t get me wrong: we have good arguments. “We can do it faster and more cost-effectively” tends to hit the spot. The argument that we can also do it more sustainably has rarely elicited such an enthusiastic response. But I’m glad to say that’s now changing as the importance of decarbonisation and ESG can no longer be ignored by the tech industry.
The DIY way
“So, how exactly are you more sustainable than a DIY approach to international growth?” you might ask. Let’s do some math.
Say you have a prospective customer in South Korea. It’s a major one. You met at a trade show in Barcelona earlier this year and they seem interested.
So, you pack your bag, take your VP Sales in tow and head to the airport to catch a flight to Seoul. From London - if that’s your starting point - that’s 8,800 (km) times two (there and back), times two (two people), times 100 (grams of CO2 per kilometre) = 3,520kg of CO2.
You land in Incheon International Airport. You don’t know your way around too well, so you take a taxi to Seoul’s trendy Gangnam district where you got a sweet deal on a 5-star hotel.
You may get lucky and catch one of the fancy electric or fuel cell taxis but, more likely, you’ll emit another 10kg during this 70km ride. And this is just one of 15 taxi rides you’ll take during your week-long trip – “They’re just so cheap and convenient!”.
Let’s be conservative and say that’ll add up to 100kg – maybe some taxis will be electric, maybe you’ll use the subway for some journeys. And let’s not forget your two hotel rooms emit 30kg per night each, so that’s 420kg more CO2.
During your trip, you don’t have time to eat sensibly, reuse and recycle. You live on single-use Starbucks lattes and Korean BBQ (“It’s just so good!”). The impact of this temporary, fun, eating-out lifestyle is hard to calculate, and we won’t, but suffice to say the small choices you make add up.
It was a good trip. You seem to have made some progress and the customer said they’ll consider doing a Proof of Concept!
Now, let’s tally up the numbers. By my calculations, it comes to 4,040kg of CO2, and that’s excluding your trip to and from the airport at the point of origin.
That’s 2,020kg per person. To put it into perspective: your average annual carbon footprint is about 5,000kg, so you’ve added 40% to that in one swoop, as has your colleague.
But that’s not the end of the story. On the contrary, it’s just the beginning!
You’ll be sending a couple of engineers to set up the PoC in two months’ time, and if that goes well, in six months, you’ll come back to negotiate and sign the deal. Then someone will have to visit every six weeks to keep things running smoothly as the project ramps up.
Six or so visits over the year = at least 24,000kg of CO2. That’s equivalent to two small families’ annual footprint.
And let’s hope all this effort pays off and you do the deal. Because it would be a massive waste if it turned out – somewhere around your third visit, perhaps – that the customer was just being polite and you didn’t pick up on the subtle cues at the first meeting: we’re curious but there’s no deal to be done!
The greener way
“But this is how international business is done – there’s no way around it”, you might say. Not necessarily. Here’s how we’d do it.
We'd appoint a team at our Seoul office to be your feet on the street. We need to get trained up and, while it would be great to fly you out for an in-person induction, we can do it perfectly well over a series of Teams calls and be ready to hit the ground running in no time.
So, we set up that meeting with your key prospect. We’ve been to their HQ before and know which subway lines and buses to take. Public transportation in Asian megacities is great – and increasingly runs on hydrogen and carbon-neutral electricity. And before we head out, we fill up our coffee tumblers at the office.
After the meeting, we have another Teams call with you to tell you the full story. It was a nice meeting, they enjoyed the demo, and the main point of contact who took us in and out of the campus was friendly enough.
BUT, as we chatted in Korean on our way out, he hinted that, while your tech is cool, they’re years away from a commercial plan. We also suspect they might try to develop the necessary tech in-house, and we get the sense they’re talking to other people. Meaning, you probably would’ve wasted a trip …
But no matter – we’ve reached out to some of the prospect’s main competitors and we have a few promising leads. We’ll take the bus to see them tomorrow.
Fast forward a couple of months and we have several solid, commercially-viable opportunities on the go. And we’re speaking to the right people.
This is when, and only when, your visit is warranted. And since you have us in your corner, you can just send your VP Sales – the two of you would be overkill. We’ll find them sustainable accommodation, help navigate public transport and take them out to some hidden gem restaurants and independent coffee shops.
You also won’t need six visits – maybe one or two, perhaps to bring over a couple of your techier people. We’ll take care of the rest.
That’s 6,000-8,000kg of extra CO2 this year, tops – a third of what you’d generate by doing it yourself.
And we can go on like this for as long as you need. We’re there, we know what we’re doing, and we know how to keep a low carbon profile.
And quite honestly – you might not even need to come over at all.
Before the pandemic, we used to host client visits regularly, but the last two-or-so years have shown that we can close serious deals without you even setting foot in Asia. Like the multimillion Euro deals we recently secured in China for our German medtech client.
So, your extra carbon footprint from doing BD in Asia could even be close to zero.
This analysis, while admittedly back-of-the-envelope, can’t be far off the mark.
And this is a one-customer, one-territory scenario. Chances are, after you’ve come back from Seoul, you board a flight to LA the following week. Munich the week after. Then Tokyo. And on it goes.
“So, are you saying I should have an office in every country where I have a customer?” Maybe one day. A small, environmentally-friendly one, if you can.
But until then, to grow your business more sustainably, let a company with people on the ground in your target market help. You won’t only save time and money. You’ll minimise your environmental impact as well.
To discuss how you could expand in Asia in a more sustainable way, you can contact Michal at firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: Our calculations are based on data sources including Nature.org, Statista.com, Worldbank.org, Carbonindependent.org and Eurostat.