Francesco Grillo, co-founder and CEO of Steel Available, shares his experience of transitioning from a corporate culture to the startup ecosystem at blueprint, the B2B startup accelerator promoted by Swire Properties, and everything else you need to know in between.
Learnings from My Corporate Background
Ten years ago, I completed my Master’s degree and moved to Pakistan to set up the local manufacturing plant of Landirenzo SpA, a leading manufacturer of alternative fuel solutions for automotive. Two years later, I moved to Mainland China to manage the Chinese operations of Cavagna Group, a gas valves and pressure regulators manufacturer. I then shifted to the upstream sector, where I managed business development for the Asian market at a leading Italian forge master based out of Beijing.
Throughout my experience, I was always in charge of business development in new markets where I dedicated myself to creating value for the company and the other stakeholders. I learned that in order to create value in an industry, you must gain a deep understanding of what your stakeholders truly need and want, before producing any product in your plant. It is a give and receive process; the more value you provide, the more you get in return.
Business development is not just sales. Rather, you have to work towards building a long-term vision. In the corporate culture, you are constantly struggling with targets and deadlines that you sometimes miss the chance to understand the future. In order to create value, it is important to understand where the industry is going for the next 5 or 10 years.
The Birth of Steel Available
As an expat, originally from Italy, my work has always been project-based. I was assigned to different projects for a set amount of years. Eventually I wanted to create my own company, one that was more stable and exciting for my future and also built upon the weaknesses of corporate. When I decided to set up my steel products trading company in 2015, I soon realized that I needed to bring more value to clients by adding innovation. So, after talking to some friends with long experience in the industry and joining hands with them, I grew my company into a startup that is now Steel Available, where we are adding innovation on a more scalable idea, addressing the pain points of the heavy industry.
Starting Steel Available was a breath of fresh air, due to the more strategic approach a startup has to adopt and the startup ecosystem. Compared to traditional business where you tend to do things in a conservative way, at a startup you are asked to test and validate every hypothesis that pops into your mind. Instead of telling yourself this is the way it happens, bring more ideas in a proactive way towards change. Sit down less, and challenge more. We learn from our failures and the success of others.
The Main Lessons We Have Learned
Through testing and validation, we have learned many lessons along the way.
- We learned to deal with the stress of a longer time period to get results. The B2B market is much less crowded vs. the B2C market. Thus, the sales process is much longer.
- We learned to find ways to communicate our vision and what we are doing in an easy, concise, and complete way. In the overall industry, there is limited time and attention from stakeholders. We also utilized this as a way to generate feedback, and gain the support of others to share our vision.
- We learned to adopt a holistic approach to management. You must adapt to integrate all of the facets of a business, including: compliance, marketing, sales, product development, team management, fundraising, accounting, cash flow management, etc. My experience with a startup was as valuable as an MBA, but much cheaper! Even if there is a high risk of failure, the return of this venture is a priceless experience.
- We learned that work life-balance is crucial, so make some personal rules. Especially today with cellphones, tablets, laptops, etc. you constantly have clients on the other side of the world arranging meetings or sending emails. You risk to work 24 hours and to never take a break, and eventually this will affect your performance. For instance, I made personal goals to spend more time with my family, play more squash with friends, and enjoy outdoor sports. I also enjoy cooking, and I want to spend more time experimenting and making creative dishes from Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines.
All of these lessons beside, the ultimate challenge was finding the right people to join our team and in the case of global teams, aligning people that work remotely to the targets with the company culture.
The team is the highest value of each startup and it can be challenging to find people with industrial background and the startup mindset who also possess the same vision and mission. I define the startup mindset as an individual who is smart, autonomous, and proactive. They are able to manage and prioritize their own time, and understand that even the smallest tasks affect the big picture. However, at the end of the day, my favorite part of working at a startup is the people. I enjoy being around my team and I really like the people I am working with. After all, each of us plays a part in the supportive startup ecosystem.
Startups as an Ecosystem: blueprint
As I mentioned before, the breath of fresh air I experienced since starting my own company was in part due to the startup ecosystem. Since Steel Available was selected to join the blueprint accelerator in Hong Kong, I experienced this ecosystem on a much larger scale. The B2B startup accelerator program, blueprint, is a six-month long program offering mentorship, professional support, network of investors, and an active community with countless workshops, panels, pitches, speakers, and even happy hours. For us, the most valuable aspect of blueprint has been the very welcoming network of people. Everybody is open to share ideas with one another, which we found helpful in validating our business model. blueprint offers an inspiring environment where you are constantly learning and are exposed to resources and tools to help your business. Business aside, blueprint provides a pleasant, easy-going work environment.
blueprint Helped Us (Greater) Define Our Vision
Being at blueprint for the last six months has helped us greater identify our vision and future. In general, more and more accelerators worldwide in our industry are dedicated to B2B, especially those evolved around Industry 4.0, IoT and big data. During Industry 4.0, for large corporations, the challenge is not about spending the money to keep up. Rather, it is innovation. The biggest challenge is driving innovation and proactivity within the organization. It is better to create new ideas from within. In many industries newcomers have been a threat to established market leaders, because they were not able to bring disruptive innovation and challenge their own business models.
From this idea we became aware that at the end of the day, a startup can hardly generate enough traction on its own. It is a two-way street. Investment seeks innovation, and innovation requires investments. Building upon this principle, we have directed our next big step towards fundraising, and also sales and product development. We are in the midst of building up a global team of business developers and investors to acquire more resources and venture capital.
Our Biggest Challenge
Your product is a key part, and I would say that our biggest challenge that we faced while at blueprint was product development. Dedicating our project to a conservative industry, many times it is easy to think that it is almost impossible to achieve a digital transformation. To conquer this, I realized the immense value that technical solutions can bring, and that we have to be more aggressive in adding innovation and value to the market. In short, we learned the importance of transforming a MVP (minimum viable product) into a long-term vision and then incorporating it into your business model. You don’t necessarily need to have the finished product immediately. A word to corporate from a startup point of view would be to adopt the lean approach, which requires you to validate the business model, focus on the MVP, test it to see how customers respond, and make adjustments accordingly. Many startups fail because the market doesn’t need the product. Letting your product develop and grow, while adjusting to the customer, will save you time and money.
Saying Our Goodbyes
We finished the accelerator program last week, and it was quite a touching experience. During the six months, the 10 startups (29th Century, archiparti, Blockdox, ShopLovers, Green City Solutions, Latticespace, Swatchcloud, TingPark, and Trusu) that were in our cohort have developed life-long friendships. We worked together, shared ideas… and meals, exchanged contacts, and made great memories. We also helped one another get through our own obstacles. Fellow cohort startup, Latticespace, has shown us great technical solutions. As well as archiparti, we shared many ideas on how to manage a B2B marketplace.
Overall, being a part of the blueprint accelerator program has given us a priceless learning experience. It was indeed a great opportunity. What made it even more special was the birth, two months ago, of my baby, Damiano. A blueprint baby.
We are Steel Available, an online supplier relationship management and sourcing platform. We aim to connect suppliers and buyers from the heavy industry. We are developing the first ecosystem in the heavy industry which will allow clients to efficiently manage and automate their supply chains using web-based tools and services. Our goal is to reduce the hidden risk in value chains. We do it by providing the information that matters, from compliance to quality assurance, creating value for all stakeholders.
To get more information, please download our brochure.
Co-founder & CEO @SteelAvailable