Niclas Kuipers, CCO at Gradyent: ‘An internationalisation programme makes you think and guides you towards a new market’
Interview with Niclas Kuipers from Gradyent
‘Germany is our most important target market,’ states Niclas Kuipers, CCO of Gradyent. The scale-up developed a technology that helps energy companies to use their district heating networks more efficiently and profitably, which saves a lot of energy. ‘The size of the country and their advanced plans for energy transition make Germany an important step in our international upscaling.’ To successfully take their operations across the border, Gradyent participated in the IMEC (International Market Entry Coaching) internationalisation course last year. Niclas: ‘The programme revealed that we still had a lot to learn.’
When the entrepreneurs applied for the IMEC programme, Gradyent’s technology was already being used in seven European countries, but not in Germany yet. Together with his colleagues, Niclas had already done some reconnaissance there. ‘We thought we knew the German market, but it turns out we didn’t,’ he admits. ‘Explaining what you do in English or poor German does not work. Certainly not for something as complicated and far-reaching as a new heat network system.’ That is why the entrepreneurs decided to sign up for IMEC. The effort paid off: ‘The programme raised our awareness in many different ways.’
One of those insights was that it will take perseverance to enter the German market. ‘The sales cycle takes twice as long as in the Netherlands’, Niclas compares. ‘Potential customers first want to know and understand exactly what you do. You really have to prove yourself.’ He was also surprised by the importance of offline marketing. ‘Here you don’t meet each other on LinkedIn, but through trade journals, trade fairs and events. Print is still extremely important, especially in a conservative market like ours.’
With IMEC’s support, Gradyent dusted off its traditional marketing tools. ‘We went to German trade fairs like the AGFW for city heating companies, produced brochures and print materials in German and made a lot of traditional phone calls. That takes a lot more time than sharing a message on LinkedIn. You really have to work harder at it, but that is how we connected with relevant contacts.’ The time investment offers another benefit. ‘Customers deliberately choose you and are genuinely interested; they know what they can expect from you. So the investment pays itself back.’
The culture session of the IMEC programme discussed several German customs, including the custom of addressing each other by last name and the use of the more formal Herr (sir) and Frau (madam). Niclas: ‘Even after several conversations, they continue to use this form of address. And you start a first meeting talking about everything you have achieved.’ He knowns from experience that jokes about these customs are not always appreciated. ‘Although this varies from sector to sector. Energy companies are often traditional and conservative, which also suits their mandate. The culture session at IMEC discussed these etiquette customs in great detail.’
– Niclas Kuipers, Gradyent
The scale-up focuses on larger utility companies with district heating networks. ‘They are the most interesting for us, but often the most difficult to reach,’ Niclas noted. ‘Especially if you want to speak to the CEO. And that’s what we wanted, because the higher up the tree you go, the better the results. But because German organisations are often still hierarchical, it takes a lot of effort to connect with managers.’
Once at the table, he noticed that Germans are less direct and have many different ways of saying things. ‘Even if you speak the language well, it can be difficult to interpret. Something may sound like a yes, but it actually means no. It’s a matter of experience to recognise that.’ He therefore advises entrepreneurs with Germany ambitions to work with a native agency, to schedule appointments and to discuss the content of the meetings.
For example, during the IMEC programme the German-Dutch Chamber of Commerce (DNHK) helped Niclas and his colleagues to make various contacts at the CEO level. ‘A native can get you in the door faster. And you achieve more during the meeting if you are already prepared for those differences in corporate culture.’ He sees an internationalisation programme like IMEC as a useful guide to the German market. ‘It’s innovative to exchange experiences with experts and other entrepreneurs. It makes you think and adjusts your approach. That makes it valuable.’
The Hague Business Agency and InnovationQuarter offer SMEs from the Hague region a route to make a flying start on the international market: IMEC (international market entry coaching). Read more about it here.