Learnings from Attensi’s remarkable expansion to the UK and US

Krister Kristiansen on expansion

Attensi’s remarkable growth journey and successful expansion into the UK and US demonstrate the company’s ability to navigate new markets effectively. Krister Kristiansen, Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) UK & US, shares valuable insights and ten actionable learnings for geographic expansion.

Interview with Krister Kristiansen, CCO at Attensi.

The facts and figures of Attensi’s UK & US expansion journey

Attensi is a Norwegian-originated technology company specializing in gamified simulation-based training solutions. The company was founded by Odd Skarheim and co-founded by Trond Arne Aas. Their platform uses gamification, virtual reality, and 3D simulations to provide immersive and engaging learning experiences for businesses across various industries. Krister was hired as their first sales director in Oslo in 2014. He was employee number 7, or 007 as he prefers to say.

Attensi opened its first office abroad, in the UK, in 2017, with Krister moving from Norway to the UK to lead the expansion. In 2022 they also opened their Boston office. Attensi currently has 80 employees in the UK and 25 in Boston. As such, Attensi’s expansion journey can serve as a blueprint for businesses seeking to expand globally.

1. Don’t hide it, be proud of where you came from

It took some time for Attensi to decide how to scale up in the UK. The most common advice Attensi received beforehand was to hire a senior English gentleman with access to all the networks in the members-only circles and golf clubs. Also, they should generally try to appear as an English company. Trond Aas decided to do the opposite and transferred Krister instead. According to Krister, it has been an asset to be proud of the cultural heritage they brought from Norway.

– We even cultivated the Norwegian heritage by introducing the “Viking of the Week,” a contest and award where we put a Viking helmet on someone who had done something extraordinary that week. We deliberately used a Viking theme, where our investor, Viking Venture, became a part of the identity we created, and we even had Erik Hagen, Managing Partner at Viking Venture, in full Viking costume figuring on our office wall. For us having a Norwegian identity has worked well, both towards customers, but it intrigues candidates in the hiring processes as well, says Krister.

Antoine Lavenant - Attensi's expansion
Antoine Lavenant “Viking of the Week”

2. Dare to ignore some of the well-intended advice

– When you establish yourself in a new market, you look to experts such as local recruiters, other companies who have tried before you, Innovation Norway, the embassy, market research, or the like. It is easy to get worried when listening to all the pieces of advice, especially because many companies fail in their quest, and the general advice is often to be somewhat cautious.

– In my experience, most people who fail at something try to explain their failures by making up untrue narratives. And this is an essential point because the message about showing caution can slow you down.

– In retrospect, I would say we entered the UK market somewhat over-cautiously. We dipped our toes in the water instead of taking a bigger leap of faith. As a result, and as an example, I, who was responsible for setting up the office in the UK, ended up spending as much time in Norway with Norwegian clients as I did try to get new ones in the UK. And this went on for the first 12 months. There are of course some benefits around this as well, as it minimizes risk and requires less of an investment, but the actual price you pay is that it slows down your traction in the new market.

3. Send superstars. It’s not right if it doesn’t hurt.

– Building on the previous point, and what I would say is one of the most crucial success factors; send superstars to the new market, even if you feel reliant on them in your existing market. It’s supposed to hurt, and it does indeed force you to fill the gap they leave behind. But in general, if it does not hurt to ‘lose’ a resource from your existing market, it is probably not the right resource to transfer.

– That is one of the critical pieces of advice I would provide, which Viking Venture was also clear on in our discussions with them. We applied it to our entry into the US, where we started by moving our two most high-performing sector leaders from the UK to the US, and we ensured they could let go of their UK work.

4. Specialise in sectors, both in pitch and people

– Traditionally, our salespeople in Norway worked as generalists. That meant that although I naturally focused more on some sectors, I sold quite broadly from a sector perspective. I could be at a logistics distribution center one day, a retailer the second day, and a bank the third day, and my pitch would be quite sector-agnostic. We found considerably less acceptance and traction in the UK with such a sector-agnostic approach and messaging.

– We experienced that in Norway, companies were more used to “connecting the dots,” i.e., we could go to a bank in Norway and present the work we did for a retailer. Those sitting on the other side of the table would, to a larger extent, align to the concept and see how this could work for them. In the UK, the market felt very different.

– In the UK, we felt they were much quicker to disregard conceptual thoughts based on what had been done in other sectors. Thus, we adapted our approach. As an example, in the beginning, we did not go to the big learning conferences to meet a wide range of companies. Instead, we went to sector-specific conferences and then tailored our communication and pitch precisely to the target group we had in front of us. We were also much more focused on hiring people with sector-specific credentials and credibility than finding sector-agnostic salespeople.

Krister Kristiansen on stage, Attensi's expansion

Krister Kristiansen on stage.

5. Transfer all core capabilities, not only sales in an expansion

– The support you have around you as a salesperson is essential. When I moved to the UK, I felt very supported by the Oslo HQ, but in the day-to-day work I could sometimes feel somewhat lonely. Thus, as an ‘operational’ one-person band, in terms of Attensi experience, I had to contribute to every role you could think of. It has a charm and might give you some speed and reduce costs, but it also reduces your sales bandwidth.

– You can move faster if you leverage a wider talent pool from your existing office. This can be within anything from recruitment, account management and project delivery. It’s easy to underestimate how much of a time-thief it can be for local resources to teach people the in-an-outs of how you operate as your company.

– We have taken this to heart, and in all key roles for the US, we have now transferred both short-term capacity as well as some of our superstars from the UK. In that way, we are not only securing bandwidth, but we also ensure that the locally recruited talent learns Attensi best-practice from the get-go.

The last point is that when you start to see market traction, dare to hire when it feels a bit premature, meaning somewhat in advance. We had a lot of growing pains where we ended up using salespeople as delivery resources simply because we had no others to do the job.

6. Be thorough in your search for local heroes

– Another thing, and maybe the most important tip of them all, we’ve been really successful in hiring local superstars. On this point, we received much counter-advice, and the reason for that is that we created a lengthy recruitment process compared to other sales organizations with seven steps. The approach includes role-playing, personality profiling, aptitude tests, CV checks, and a thorough review of the candidate’s cultural fit. In addition, for almost all hires, we would include a final interview with Trond, our CEO, who is nothing short of incredible in assessing talent. In the UK, salespeople typically get a job after a second interview. Thus, we got recommendations from all recruitment partners to make the hiring process significantly shorter and more straightforward to attract the right talent.

– We were told that the most sought-after candidates most likely will choose someone else where they can get a job much quicker. However, we set the bar very high from the start and required the candidates to “buy into” our mission and be willing to go through these steps to get the job. In retrospect, we see that out of all our locally hired superstars, almost no one has quit for nearly six years. My tip is; only hire if you find people who excite you and passionately buy into your mission. And remember, if you bring in two or three people who do not culturally fit, you can quickly destroy the culture you have built up.

7. Let your people experiment and fail

– I learned something clever about growth mindset from Erik Hagen, Managing Partner in Viking Venture, which I have continued to use a lot. Before Viking Venture came on board as one of our investors, it felt like any proposal to spend money on go-to-market initiatives was a big ask, where I felt I put my honor at stake if the initiative did not generate the success we had hoped for.

– Erik Hagen, in one of their first meeting with the management team, said, “Don’t make decisions, do experiments. If they work, do more of them. If they don’t work, then stop. But make it a goal to experiment, and don’t expect all experiments to succeed”.

– The important lesson is that we must never be afraid to try. I implemented this mentality not only for myself but also for the other employees in the UK. I continue to encourage them to conduct brave experiments and follow the traction. It is a joint responsibility to develop ideas to succeed.

– Also, our flat organizational structure is even more unique in the UK and US than in Norway because UK and US businesses are typically more hierarchical, and you are used to following orders rather than leading your way. In addition, we focused on building pride and did this through, among other things, “the Viking of the week” award. We rewarded those who had done something with a wow factor every week. We celebrated this with a social gathering, took pictures of the winner for that week, and hung them up on the wall. In that way, they became a visible part of the story we built.

Erik Hagen Viking Venture - Attensi expansion

Erik Fjellvær Hagen, Managing Partner at Viking Venture.

8. Focus on land AND expand

– The next piece of advice concerns leveraging the potential in your customer portfolio, especially when the customers are much larger than in Norway.

– When working in Norway before moving to the UK, we preferred to make “all-inclusive” price offers. Once the relevant licenses were purchased, the customer could in many cases increase their engagement with us without license implications.

– When working in a larger market where the companies are often 10, 20, or even 100 times larger than the equivalent in Norway, the price tags could become prohibitively high with that approach, making it challenging to get the initial win. Therefore, we focused on how to re-package our offer so that we could start small and create a win-win journey if this was a success for them. Thinking strategically about the upsell potential and journey, rather than putting all your energy towards constantly chasing new logos, has been critical to our commercial success.

9. Fake it till you make it with high-quality videos

– One of our most precious success factors, and one that I am personally very fond of, was our initial marketing hire, a former YouTuber who used to make travel videos with millions of views. He has incredible capabilities in video production and helped us appear considerably more polished than we were at that time. I am also proud that we hired him even before we had landed a single UK customer. He is my longest-serving partner in crime, a true superstar, and he made us punch well above our weight from the very get-go.

– Specifically, although we only had a few English solutions and customers, we seemed much more established through the videos he created. A video producer can contribute a lot to how prospects perceive your brand when you are new and a smaller player in the market. Of all the hires I have ever made, he ranks right in the very top tier.

10. Behind every sales star are… the other stars

– There is also something magical about creating a scalable support system around the sellers. In the beginning, we hired superstars who had to be good at the whole sales journey when they came on board. They had to be good at generating leads, doing demos, understanding the in-and-outs of our technical setup. As well as, being sector specialists, understanding the customer, and building customer-specific return on investment (ROI) cases. They also often created their own visual assets to bring to their sales meetings.

– We now see that we get much more traction when we support the sellers with other superstars at critical moments in the sales process and let the sellers focus on orchestrating the process rather than having to be an expert in every field.

If you could go back in a time-machine to 2017, what would you advice yourself to do differently? 

– Let me start by saying that I am very proud of what my team has achieved, so overall, I think we have done more things right than wrong. That said, I am not going to do a cop-out of this question, and I would probably advise myself three things.

1. Dare to go all-in. As Norwegians, we are typically quite risk-averse, so it always feels more ‘sensible’ to be somewhat overly cautious. Dare to believe in the adventure.

2. Double down on industry sectors with traction. I firmly believe it is easier to multiply traction in areas where you are already succeeding, rather than constantly trying to expand into new, and very different sectors.

3. Balance the focus on big and small logos and focus on the ‘unlock’ brands. In a market like the UK, it is easy to be attracted to the most well-known, prominent logos. Still, they often take a long time to get on board. Sometimes they are not seen as the most innovative thought-leaders and pioneers in their industry. So having them as a reference customer is not necessarily as powerful as you first think. Balancing your approach with small, medium, and large logos and thinking through which of these brands (also of the smaller ones) are highly respected by their peers allows you to shape a much more strategic go-to-market plan beyond the initial win.

– To conclude, although all the three points I just mentioned are about mentality and market strategy, there is no doubt that our incredible people are the most important asset in Attensi. In my opinion, the easiest way to reduce new-market risk, is to be ruthless in who you transfer and hire. You need to nurture and empower your employees and let them find their own way to success.

What’s next for Attensi’s expansion?

– This is just the beginning. We are only scratching the surface of what Attensi will become, as we are currently leveling up in so many parts of the business. So, although I am proud of the achievements behind us, I am actually more excited about the quest ahead. Game on!

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