What's behind Smarp's success? Last year's Arctic15 winner shares 3 tips for any startup

Last year Smarp beat over 300 applicants to win Arctic15. Since then, Smarp has more than quadrupled its client base, tripled its headcount and grown its monthly revenues over 10x. With Arctic15 coming up again soon, Smarp CEO, Roope Heinilä decided to share the keys to their success and tell how they have managed to grow the business exponentially during the last year.

Last year we presented our SmarpShare Employee Advocacy SaaS solution at Arctic15. At the time, the concept of turning employees into brand ambassadors was new to most of the audience and captured the attention of the judges. We had good traction and a promising business with an open market ahead of us.

With a market like ours, it all comes down to execution as competition heats up and the market matures quickly. In the last year over 20 new competitors have entered the space and big players are also starting to look at the market opportunity. We truly feel competition proves the market and when the market is not limited to a certain industry or geography there is always room for multiple players. Even though there will be some consolidation when the market reaches maturity, very few markets this size end up being owned completely by one provider. The competition keeps pushing us harder to innovate and stay ahead of the game and the pressure keeps growing to execute quickly and not miss the opportunity before others grab it. The competition has actually been a big boost to our team spirit and culture.

So how have we been able to grow in this market and keep ourselves ahead of the competition? Focus is absolutely the most important part of this. You should never lose track of what you are aiming for. In our case this was to be the leading global Employee Advocacy solution and “humanizing brands” this way. We were also facing competition from US startups that had much more funding than us so we would need to be smarter in the way we use our resources. This started with creating the most user-friendly and intuitive interface and focusing on the intrinsic benefits for employees, such as increased thought leadership and recognition in their networks, instead of just on the benefits for the company. The thinking here was that even if you have the most comprehensive solution, it is not worth much if no one uses it. Employee advocacy needs to be authentic and for that to happen employees need to want to participate.

This thinking was proved correct by our growing sales success which included winning fortune150 clients that had done extensive tenders between us and our competitors and come to the conclusion that our solution was simply better thanks to its user-friendly design and intuitive use. Thanks to our high client satisfaction, our clients have also been our best advocates as they have written blogs, promoted us in the media and referred us to their contacts in other companies further speeding our growth.

We have also been able to draw global attention by being featured live on BBC World News which has 76 million viewers in over 200 countries. No other company in our space has been able to get such earned publicity in recognized media thus far. This also helped us attract top talent with the former head of LinkedIn Nordics and their senior sales manager joining our team early this year to help us scale our sales organization.

We are now at a stage of hyper-growth and facing new challenges in the next stage of our evolution. We have learned much along the way but realize there is still a long read ahead with many new challenges we will need to face. We hope the companies participating in the Arctic15 final this year will be able to see similar success and hope our experiences can be of use to others. Finally, we would like to share some of the key parts of our success.

Top 3 tips to success for startups:

1. Focus on the team. For most startups, the product, market and competitive landscape are likely to change quickly. You need team members who are committed and excited about what you do and able to handle the uncertainty that goes with working at a startup. We have found that attitude is more important than experience as culture is not created by getting a ping-pong table but instead by the way team members act and interact with each other. A major factor in our success has been focusing on hiring people, not positions. Positions will change over time but if you get the right person they will find a way to add value in the most effective way with their skillset. Also, hire people who are passionate about what you do and allow them to take ownership of their work by granting them responsibility right away. If you get this part right you are much more likely to succeed.

2. Make your own luck. Everyone talks about needing some luck to be successful. I would have to agree but it is up to you to make your own luck. For example, if we had not participated in the Arctic Pavilion at TC Disrupt London and reached out to the BBC through a single tweet before the event we would not have got the huge visibility we did. Same goes for our first investor that I met during a weekend vacation trip to London where I simply reached out to a few contacts to let them know I was there. If you don’t try you are guaranteed not to succeed. You may not know all the opportunities you miss as many of them do come partially by luck!

3. Go international quickly, but don’t close any opportunities for your company. Before going international you should at least have successfully tested your sales process in your home market (unless your product is specifically catered to a specific geography or demographic other than your home market). If you can’t sell your own product, don’t expect anyone else to be able to do it for you. If you decide to form distribution partnerships, don’t give away markets through exclusivity before you see results.

Smarp is currently hiring and you can check out their open positions here.