Most founders will agree that timing can be everything when it comes to business success. What fewer people talk about is how crucial location can be. Not every business idea is born in the right market. And while you can’t win if your business isn’t born at the right time (I’m looking at you, pre-Google search engines), you can control where you are based.
In April 2013, I accepted Richard Valtr’s offer to join his startup, Mews. We were building a cloud-based property management system to run hotel operations, booking, payments and guest management, and given my decade of experience at various hotels, I thought we had something special on our hands. But for three years, we couldn’t pick up momentum, and it began to grate on the team. We couldn’t raise the money to grow, and we couldn’t grow enough to widen our pool of potential investors.
And so, five years ago, we moved Mews from Prague to Amsterdam — and haven’t looked back. We were just in the wrong location to make our company a success.
Here are my takeaways from moving Mews to the Netherlands, and some food for thought for founders who think they might have the right company in the wrong place.
Our culture clashed with local investors
In 2013, we began the process of raising seed funding for Mews. After three years, we had a couple of term sheets from Czech VCs. However, at that point in time, the Czech market wasn’t ready for the cloud and the level of automation we were working on. Western Europe has long been ahead of Central and Eastern Europe on this front — an issue that leaves many promising startups in the lurch.
Czech VCs were looking for B2C startups that could reach hypergrowth quickly, as opposed to B2B investments such as Mews. Our key focus at the time was to continue building the product. The terms we were offered weren’t agreeable, particularly on minority protection rights.
Most of our customers were based in Prague, but our plan was always to build a global company
The Netherlands has been a far better fit in terms of investors. The country is a haven for cloud and payments companies, so investors know the landscape well and aren’t so laser-focused on revenue in early-stage companies. As the market is quite developed, Dutch VCs are more confident in valuing potential in complex technology.
Our customers called us home
At this point in Mews’ journey, we had around 40 customers and £30k-40k monthly revenue. Most of our customers were based in Prague, but our plan was always to build a global company.
How (and how not) to run a startup.
About a third of our customers were located in the Netherlands, and they were our most supportive. As a customer-centric business, it made sense for us to be close to a community that "got" the product and wanted to help us make it even better.
It’s time to lower the barrier to startup success
Moving a startup across borders is painful. It was necessary for us to sell our own intellectual property to our new entity in Amsterdam — but after that, our most important big-budget expense was our lawyers. Attempting to draft your own agreements will waste more time and money than it saves (I’ve tried) — but a legal professional with expertise in tech and intellectual property will make a move easier.
The Western European startup ecosystem should do more to support early-stage tech businesses in underrepresented regions.
The longer you wait to move to a new country, the more complex and costly it becomes
Social media has no borders — and for founders who are considering moving abroad, it’s a great place to test the waters. I’ve been active on LinkedIn throughout my career, and found that it pays to play the long game. By the time Mews actually landed in Amsterdam, I’d made local connections who helped us hit the ground running, pointing us towards potential customers and employees in the Netherlands.
Always look ahead
The longer you wait to move to a new country, the more complex and costly it becomes. With just a few employees and an early iteration of our product, we had little to lose.
Now we’re on to the next stage: talent-first, location-second. That means being a fully distributed company that hires talent anywhere in the world. This year, we committed to becoming a fully distributed, global company. And while location is becoming less important the more we scale, it was key to get it right in our earliest days. I’d challenge more early-stage founders to ask themselves the question too: am I the right company in the wrong place?