Build strong connections

A lot of foreign entrepreneurs in Finland highlight the fact that they’re different to Finns and promote themselves in this way. Then they wonder why their product or service doesn’t sell. Some claim that the Finns are racist, xenophobic, or otherwise prejudiced against foreigners. Unfortunately, these phenomena exist, but I don’t think they’re necessarily the reasons why customers in Finland don’t buy from foreign-born entrepreneurs.

Let’s forget for a moment that foreign entrepreneurs are foreign.

I believe there are two main reasons for no sale: the product or service is too different, and the second is because customers don’t want what’s on offer.

Finnish society values conformity. They like it when people follow the rules, and they generally don’t like people who are rebellious. Conformity ensures a harmonious society, because everyone is doing the same thing, and they all hold roughly the same values.

People are naturally resistant to change. So, when entrepreneurs underline the fact that they’re different, it can turncustomers off. It’s much more important to stress what the entrepreneur and the customer have in common, because every relationship, be it business or personal, is based on communalities rather than differences. Common links build trust, and people who trust you are much more wiling to go along with your new ideas. If there’s too much difference to start, it can be at best unrelatable or at worst intimidating or even frightening.

Consider that when people try to explain new concepts, they often use analogies, which are parallel ideas that both parties understand. When children start to learn mathematics, the teacher doesn’t tell them, “Two plus two equals four.” They hear, “Mary has two apples and Timmy gives her two apples. How many apples does Mary have now?” Children know what apples are. They don’t know what the abstract concept “two” is without something to count.

It’s the same with adults. When the Internet was expanding in the 1990s, it was often called “the information superhighway”. We talk about money as if it is water, with liquid assets, cash flow and draining resources. Our business language is peppered with sports metaphors like “ballpark figure” and “run with that idea” and “kickoff meeting”.

So, the first question is: “What is it in my offering that my customers can relate to?”

It’s also important to ask customers what they want. That links entrepreneurs directly to their customers. Why would anybody buy something they don’t want? You might think you are selling something essential, but the market might not.Market research is basic business practice, and anybody that doesn’t do it doesn’t want to succeed. I’ve seen plenty of entrepreneurs fail because they didn’t try to find out what their customers wanted – they just made a lot of assumptionsbased on zero facts, and therefore a lot of unwanted products.

You may have the view of computer pioneer Steve Jobs, who said that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. There might be some truth to that. But you can’t force it. Think about the iPhone, first available in 2007. Everything about it had already existed for years. Touch screens were in use in the 1980s. The first virtual keyboards appeared in the 1990s. Phones had been connected to the Internet for at least a decade, portable mp3 players had been around for several years – Apple even had its own iPod – and mobile phones were already over 30 years old, shrinking all the time. What made it new and exciting?

Jobs answers that question at the Apple launch event: this device solves a number of problems. It eliminates the fiddly keypad. It allows software instead of hardware customisation. And it puts three devices into one that is simple and convenient.

Solving a problem is one of the main ways to build a market. You connect directly with your customers, because it shows that you understand them. Customers want to simplify their lives, and solving their problems helps do that for them.

So, the second question is: “What problem does my product or service solve?”

There are, of course, other issues involved in being an entrepreneur, including sales techniques, networking, pricing, dealing with competition, market scope, and many other things. I shall address these in later blogs. These principles apply to all business people, regardless of whether you were born in Finland or abroad.

For now, do your homework on these two issues: make sure your business solves problems, and make sure your customer is able to relate to you easily. These are the first steps on your road to entrepreneurial success.