Global Report

Why the U.S. isn’t always the best overseas market to enter first

Symbility Solutions turned to Europe for success

Hands holding device with real estate app

(Mareen Fischinger/Getty)

Like many export-minded Canadian tech upstarts, Toronto-based Symbility Solutions Inc. viewed the U.S. as a natural growth market, and it didn’t have too much difficulty leveraging a customer relationship with the Canadian arm of a large American insurance firm to get a foot across the border.

But the company, which has developed mobile applications for claims adjusters for property, casualty and health insurance firms, quickly smacked into an immovable object: Verisk Analytics, a very large competitor whose clients weren’t planning to switch systems anytime soon, even though Symbility’s technology was more advanced. “It was a pretty tough row to hoe,” recounts CEO James Swayze.

So the upstart firm responded with a drastic pivot. In 2007, Swayze, a long-time insurance executive with General Electric Capital, trekked over to the U.K. and embarked on an intensive push for business. “Our mission was to find a partner that would be a value-added reseller instead of blowing our brains out on a London office and a sales force.”

It didn’t take long for Swayze and his team to hammer out an alliance with The Innovation Group, a U.K. insurance-services firm that agreed to market and sell Symbility’s technology, as well as house the servers that supported the app. Innovation not only had large U.K. insurance customers; it was also operating in an industry that remained entirely paper-based: adjusters used forms for everything.

By 2009, Innovation had placed Symbility’s system with Royal Sun Alliance, and several other large insurance companies, including Lloyd’s of London, followed soon after. While Symbility began developing its technology in 2004, Swayze points out that the rapid U.K. adoption coincided with the advent of the original iPhone and then the explosion of the tablet market. But the company also took advantage of the fact that there were no incumbents in the U.K. with an earlier product, as was the case in the U.S. The insurers, Swayze says, “went straight from paper to an app.”

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Over the past several years, in fact, Symbility—which posted 2013 revenues of more than $20 million and ranked 127th on the 2014 PROFIT 500—has seen doors open across Europe, as well as markets such as South Africa. In five years, the company’s exports jumped from 15% of revenues to 77%, as the lion’s share of new revenues came from across the Atlantic. Swayze expects to establish inroads in Japan, Australia and Turkey over the next few years, mostly by forging alliances with resellers, specialty software firms or companies that provide claims adjusting services to insurers.

He also observes that Europe continues to provide growth opportunities. Many insurance companies are still using paper forms and most of the larger players have operations in many different EU countries, each with their own technology needs. “If you can sell into one, it’s a great lead into five more countries.”

Swayze admits that he met his counterparts at Innovation somewhat serendipitously—they shared a client, Allstate Canada, and met on site. Since then, Swayze says, his team has encountered many resellers and other potential partners at international insurance industry functions.

The key to making those alliances work, he explains, is to monitor closely how the resellers market your product, and not give them exclusivity in a region. “If you leave [those partnerships] completely unattended, they will drift. Your product isn’t necessarily their highest priority.”

With the company’s rapid growth—468% in the past five years—Swayze has added sales personnel in key markets as a means of driving direct sales. That kind of campaign requires co-ordinating with existing partners, but it also sends a signal that those resellers shouldn’t take the relationship for granted. “It tends to work out.”

Yet Swayze’s primary concern these days is Verisk, which has begun to focus more intensively on Europe. From Symbility’s early days in the U.S. almost a decade ago, Swayze realized that Verisk had their number—the two firms traded lawsuits over alleged patent infringement (the case settled out of court). These days, he also knows the company has a fully staffed London office and a European sales teams.

So far, however, Symbility has been able to win European business against Verisk because prospective customers that didn’t have history with the larger firm opted for the smaller firm’s more advanced technology.

Swayze, however, understands that their strategic advantage won’t last forever. “Our goal is to be in as many markets as possible before they get there.”