What a ride it has been so far. In spring of 2007 I joined team TOPdesk in the headquarters in the Netherlands with the purpose of launching and managing a Belgian division. Since then I have not only had the experience of helping TOPdesk become a known player in the Belgian market, I also have witnessed the company take up extra floors in the company’s office in Holland, adding branches in Hungary, Denmark and Brazil, and further expanding in the UK and Germany to a point where we now have more than 500 employees and more than 4,000 clients. And now I am in the US setting up the first North American presence for company.
Because of my experiences building and managing businesses in two very different environments, many people ask me about the differences I experience between setting up TOPdesk in Belgium and in the US. Since our North American corporate office is located near Orlando, and because Disney is so close by, I can’t help but draw an analogy between the park here and the one in Europe. For example, take Disneyland Paris compared to Disney World in Orlando. At first glance, there are some very obvious differences, like the size of each park, but there also are a lot of similarities between them, as you would expect since they represent the same corporate brand. Because they are essentially designed to provide their clients with a similar experience, just in different locations, the feeling patrons get is the same. They have many of the same rides and even the food looks and tastes somewhat the same.
Of course, in regard to my experience with TOPdesk between the two divisions in two countries, working with them obviously is very much the same as we provide the same services and products, but there is a huge difference in size between Belgium and the US, for example. That alone brings certain business challenges. Using my Disney analogy, my first time going to Disney World it was very enticing for me to want to see and do everything at once. Reality taught me that it was just impossible to do so as the parks are just too big to see all in one day and I had to choose which of the parks I wanted to check out first, and then even choose which of the rides I wanted to try first.
Same thing goes for our business in the US where focus must remain an important factor. On the other hand, people are used to the size and distances and most of the business here is done remotely through web sessions and phone calls. That is different to what I am used to in Belgium.
Recently, when I was setting up a meeting with our local HR partner to discuss payroll and other business issues, I suggested going to their office to meet the team. Based on my Belgian experiences that was a very normal practice for me. What I learned was that the team here was spread out over different offices in the US so if I was to go to their office here, I would be sitting there with one person while the rest of the team were on the phone anyway.
Just like the similarities Disney World and Disneyland have, I experienced that, in fact, for a business such as TOPdesk, a lot of the processes around setting up a new office are very similar, too. Let me share some of the key factors to obtain success.
First of all, finding good partners for helping you deal with all the local rules and regulations is very important. Lawyers, accountants, HR partners, etc. will make sure you can focus on your core business processes.
Setting up a good sales organization with local people is another key factor for success. Everything starts with sales. No sales, no money, no business. It’s as simple as that.
This last factor brings up what I believe is the most important thing to creating a successful business: Finding the right people. And that can be very challenging.
At TOPdesk we put a lot of effort in maintaining the strong company culture that is based on three principles: freedom, trust and responsibility. We work with very smart people (the vast majority have at least a college or university degree) that thrive in an environment where they can take initiative and they get the freedom and trust to do so. At TOPdesk we believe working should be fun and there should be a good work-life balance. And we also believe offering employees a learning environment is key. If people feel they are done learning in one job, there are enough opportunities within the company to take up something else and move to a steeper learning curve again. The extra benefit of this is that gained knowledge and skills stay longer within the company.
To us, people are the core of the organization and they make sure we can achieve success. Because we work together as a team, rather than as a company that just hires employees to work in “jobs,” we feel it is exceedingly important to share in each other’s successes and really take time to celebrate wins together.
It takes people with specific competences to fit in this environment and bloom. They should not be afraid to take initiative, have an entrepreneurial spirit and be self-motivated with the confidence to develop their own ideas and create their own working environment.
What I learned is not to make any compromises on this and, thus, remain stubborn on this point in a way. When building up a business, you need people, so a pitfall many leaders often make is to hire too hastily and make concessions in the competences of the people they hire because there is work to be done. However, based on my experience this will always hit you back.
My degree of stubbornness works on various levels and maybe it is more about believing and sticking to that belief than anything else. When bringing TOPdesk into a new market, a good degree of belief on our success and approach is needed by me and I need to instill it in staff. The easiest excuse when starting in a new country and not immediately experiencing success is to blame cultural differences and, as a result, start changing the approach completely. I learned that is not necessary; you just have to hang in there and keep on believing in your strengths and things will work out, with a little hard work, of course. Cultural differences will have you change some details, but not your core processes and approach. That is a lesson I had to learn in the beginning, too, but I was fortunate to have enough people around me spreading that belief.
Of course, making mistakes is part of the adventure of opening a new business division or branch. If you don’t make mistakes, you are not getting out of your comfort zone, which means you are not learning anything. And, more importantly, accepting that you make mistakes and dealing with the consequences is yet another key success factor.
The last key success factor for me is to make sure to enjoy the ride. I must say that by taking on this adventure for the second time within the same company has made me more aware of this than the first time around. And, believe me, it will help you. If you are having fun, you portray that onto others and it actually is addictive.
I guess that’s also the reason everyone in Disney looks so happy …