By Beverley Ferrara, European Representative
When we think about international growth, we often think about big organizations. But depending on customer needs and company offerings, overseas markets can offer meaningful opportunities for smaller companies as well.
One example is KenWave Solutions, a Canadian/Japanese firm that has recently been pursuing growth opportunities in the U.S. KenWave CEO and co-founder Harrison Richarz piqued my interest when he submitted feedback from an October meeting we held in Milwaukee for international firms:
“Seeing the joint commitment of the different state and local bodies to the water sector was very impressive, as was learning about the different programs available to support investment, finding talent and business growth in Wisconsin not just for large firms but smaller ones as well.”
I decided to follow up with Harrison to learn more about the issues they face as a smaller company pursuing growth outside their local geography. Below, a lightly edited version of our conversation.
Who is KenWave?
KenWave is a small yet fast-growing company that provides data to close the “buried asset information gap.” Our Tonal Pipe Assessment (TPA) technology provides reliable information on pipe wall conditions, leaks, air pockets and other anomalies without the risk of invasive inspection.
Why did you decide to grow your business in the U.S.?
After winning several substantial projects in Canada, we knew that our solution worked at scale. But we discovered there wasn’t enough of a market for us to get to the next level here. Conversely, U.S. cities are huge and the pipe network is vast. We quickly realized municipalities in the U.S. are doing condition and leak detection at a scale far beyond what’s happening in Canada. We knew if we wanted to become a serious player in the space, we had to break into the American market.
How do the American and Canadian markets differ?
It became apparent through participation in The Water Council programs that people in the U.S. are willing to take a chance. In Canada there might be one or two municipalities willing to take a chance on a new technology. But in America, where there are 55,000 utilities and maybe 10,000 large industrial companies, there are a couple of hundred organizations.
Any other differences?
We need to look at growing our team as well as our customer base. It’s hard to find people in water technology. Skilled people are retiring and the competition for trained workers is fierce. Not only did we find Americans to be “go getters” and more open to growing with a small company, but the U.S. has the talent pipeline we need as well.
How does education and training factor in?
In the U.S. there are at least 19 graduate programs in acoustics and dozens of college programs for people to become water operators. In terms of scale, Ontario is almost four times the size of Wisconsin by population and GDP and we have three places where you can train to be a water operator. In Wisconsin you’ve got five or six. Talent availability into the future is important for us.
What is the toughest part about growing a smaller business in the U.S.?
Right now, it’s supply chain issues. Because we were missing a quarter of the parts needed to fulfil a recent job, we had to shut down our operations for several days while the entire team focused solely on sourcing and logistics. Everyone was on the phone, sending emails. If we were a larger company, it wouldn’t have been so disruptive to remedy something like that.
What would you like your customers to understand about the main differences between you and larger organizations?
Being small doesn’t mean we are incapable of delivery. I’ve noticed that a small motivated team of three or four can do the same work as a team of seven in the more established firms. We can also respond more quickly to certain changes. We’ve never had an issue delivering our services.
Also, customer expectations are often formed by dealing with very large companies. Some of our big contracts put a lot of emphasis on client relations. With a small team, some of the interactions are going to be a little different, in a good way. We’re delivering the same or a better product but the way we interact is going to be different from a bigger company.
Just because you’re small doesn’t mean you’re less reliable. And just because our track record is limited doesn’t mean we’re practicing. We’ve delivered a small number of projects only because we’re new. The projects were successful.
What can a water hub like The Water Council focus on to help you be successful?
I think the mentorship and entrepreneurial training within the BREW program was really valuable. Mentors shared their own “war stories,” explained how to build a network, and provided training and guidance around business culture in the water sector. Coming from Canada, that really helped us.
The Water Council is also really good at networking and facilitating introductions. When you’re small, it’s really important to find partners who can help you. Small companies have longer-term strategies for getting big. We have to decide where we’re going to invest our limited resources to get the best amount of traction.
That’s where The Water Council can help us. They have the on-the-ground market intelligence to help point us to the utilities, jurisdictions, universities and programs that are a good match for our solutions. We don’t have the time and capital to work with consultants. And although Google is a great tool, it’s not the best way to grow your business.
How else has can The Water Council help?
America is a “show me” culture. The Water Council helped us to find a pilot opportunity, structure it, set goals and look beyond the testing to what we wanted to achieve with the pilot partner – things I hadn’t even thought about. If we hadn’t done the pilot in Milwaukee, we wouldn’t even exist today.
The last thing is really key: helping us to participate in trade events and conferences. Those are really daunting for small companies. I know the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) and The Water Council make a point of telling visitors to their booths about the solutions offered by the different SMEs they work with. This kind of visibility and endorsement from a respected source are really powerful for credibility. You’re not a stranger anymore.
So much can come out of a conference or show when you’re small. TWC and WEDC can really make a difference.
What advice would you give other small companies who are thinking about growing in the U.S. market?
Plan! Decide how you will enter, be it a branch office or subsidiary, a strategic partnership, a license agreement or by hiring an American sales rep. Find the right partners to help you navigate setting up your business and making those first crucial sales.
And have a thick skin. You’re going to have challenges and days where you think everything is against you. But if you know your solutions works, your team is strong, just push forward.
Remember that if you’re going to grow in America, you need to start thinking like an American business.