We always assume that major, mature markets are not ideal for new entrants, as they are up against giant competitors who are not only the incumbents in their industries, but also untouchable.
It was fascinating, then, to see a start-up from New Zealand, with its most enthusiastic markets in countries like South Africa, appoint a CEO based in Silicon Valley.
Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, a Tanzania-born veteran of companies like Amazon and Google, took the reigns of cloud accounting firm Xero just over a year ago, with her office located in Palo Alto near San Francisco. Xero was ranked the fastest growing fintech startup in the world in the late 2010s, as it expanded from New Zealand and Australia to headquarters in the United Kingdom. It launched in numerous small markets, taking South Africa by storm and picking up more than 20,000 customers in its first years in the country.
Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, Veteran of companies like Amazon, Google and Xero.
The appointment of a CEO based in Silicon Valley was symbolic of the company becoming truly global – and also of the innovative ways in which new business models can be brought to sophisticated markets.
Cassidy told Business Times that the biggest challenge of addressing the US market was not the country as such, but how large its portfolio was.
“If you look at the number of geographies, channels, customer segments, and products we offer, I often say to people if you multiplied all those together, you would understand that we are spread across a lot of initiatives and efforts. The challenge for us is just deciding where to allocate our resources and global portfolio.”
Even the target market is not as simple as aiming at all small businesses.
“We have a business that is loved by accountants and bookkeepers in small businesses, it does essential work to help them understand their finances, and that’s a great place to be. But, like many tech companies, we were previously focused only on top line growth. When I look forward, one of the things we announced at our results in May was turning our attention to a dual focus of high growth and profitability. We have to focus on where to allocate resources more dynamically and how to build new skills and bring new capabilities and new leverage for growth.”
At the time she was appointed, Cassidy said her focus would be on the opportunity of a massive total addressable market (TAM), which suggested expansion across the US market.
The strategy turns out to be far more nuanced.
“Australia for us is actually quite a large market, and we still believe we have an opportunity to bring customers into the cloud. In the UK, only something like 30% of small and medium businesses (SMBs) are on cloud accounting. So I think the TAM in the UK is actually quite large for us as well.
“The US has an enormous TAM but it’s a bit of a misnomer. There are 34-million SMBs in the US. The US is such a large market that you need to segment it if you want to compete effectively.”
The answer is to identify highly specific sub-markets, and focus on growth within those segments.
“We’re not trying to go after the whole market. We’re trying to go after two specific segments. One we call the more complex SMBs. By complex we don’t mean hundreds of employees, but a complex business operations span across invoicing needs and payroll. So we call those ‘businesses with multiple jobs to be done’.
“And then we talk about accountants and bookkeepers, particularly in Canada, and those who are moving up into advisory services. In the US, our addressable TAM in segments we’ve identified is still millions of customers. Even those two segments by themselves are probably approaching the size of SMB markets of many entire nations.”
* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee.