We kick off our Pioneer stories with Brynne Kennedy, CEO of Topia, the company redefining the corporate relocation category

Brynne Kennedy on stateside expansion

We kick off our Pioneer stories with Brynne Kennedy, CEO of Topia, the company redefining the corporate relocation category

Topia is redefining the corporate relocation category with an offering that meets new needs for businesses on the one hand and an increasingly globalised workforce on the other.

For companies, Topia offers a platform on which a HR team can manage all of its mobile employees. Complex and burdensome processes (tax, immigration, medical, housing, shipping etc) are all dash-boarded for easy management and suppliers optimised with centralised visibility and full analytics to reduce costs.

Interestingly, where relocation consultancy was once very hands-on and only economical at the long-term executive level, Topia makes proactive management of travel valuable for e.g. the field engineer on a one-month project.

Both the employee and the business get a better mobility experience.

And the employee?

They get an interface through which they can manage their mobile life, to settle into a new city, connect with suppliers, manage their projects and feel at home (and add value to their employer) fast.

Topia taps into the latent value in a workforce which now feels at home on the road: most current HR technology is built on the premise that workers go to the same office every day, yet this is looking increasingly outdated and fails to recognise the value to enterprises who can benefit from leveraging a team in a borderless world.

The epitome of a business with a global outlook

CEO Brynne Kennedy is unsurprisingly a global citizen, and Topia had a global outlook from the start.

An American, she founded Topia in 2012 while she was studying for her MBA at the London Business School. “We were based in the UK but we’ve been global from day one”, she says. “The nature of the business is international and above borders; the UK was the most logical place from which to capture that international footprint. As we got bigger, we shifted more of the business towards the US because a lot of our customers are there. And then we raised some capital and founded the executive team there, which has shifted the balance.”

Brynne commuted between London and San Francisco from 2014-16, finally moving to the Valley full-time at the start of this year.

But that’s not to say that the soul of the business has moved. If anything, a global perspective has made Topia rational to the point of statelessness.

Product management is split between the US – where customers are, the UK – still the engineering centre and Tallinn. “We acquired a technology company in Estonia, so we decided to double down on the idea of an engineering hub between Estonia and London, and it’s worked well from many perspectives”, says Brynne.

San Francisco is the operating HQ, the UK remains the legal headquarters, and there is a maturing field sales organisation in the EMEA, the US and Hong Kong.

The engineering talent challenge

“We like Europe as an engineering hub. There is really great talent, strong company loyalty and a unique global perspective that combines to build great products. We combine this with a US product management team to ensure we are driving our roadmap from our customers, many of whom are US HQ’d,” says Brynne. Topia truly has built a global product and engineering team across the Atlantic.

But it has not all been smooth sailing as the company expanded.

“We found building our culture and benefits challenging in the US. You have to think about employee retention very differently in the US compared with the UK.

We make a big effort to be equitable globally, but it was a big surprise to me, not having worked in Silicon Valley before, how benefits-heavy the culture is here. You’re surrounded by companies that are growing very quickly, and they’re lovely places to work day-to-day.

So it’s crucial to consider that as you build your culture the employee experience is important and expectations are high. It’s also important to consider what is important to you as a company -- for us it’s fulfilling work, deep learning and family balance -- rather than overt benefits like free lunch.”

De-risking US expansion

Even with plenty of connections across the globe, Brynne de-risked expansion wherever possible.

“Opening US operations was led by customer demand and funding. So it’s a bit chicken-and-egg. We needed enough interest from a customer and funding perspective to do it, but you need the office set up to interest them. We balanced it pretty well: there were flexible office spaces so we dipped our toe in. It’s low-cost and low-risk. We got a junior American employee in the UK to be our first member of staff in the US, so we didn’t have to deal with the immigration issue. And then I’m American, so it was easy for me to go back and forth. Yes, we then recruited a couple of key executives in the US, but only after a lot of travel from me. Now that I’ve moved here, I’m maturing the US office into our Headquarters from a cultural and leadership perspective; but we grew from very basic beginnings.”

Brynne had, like all the founders we have spoken to, initially planned to hire a US sales team; and her first hires were indeed the heads for a field organisation.

Many founders opening operations in the US make this a key aspect of their sales strategy, realising that an essential function of working across continents is to feed customer insight into the (remote) development team.

Similarly, a Customer Success appointment followed – again a commitment to the rounded customer experience required for successful territory sales.

Today, finance, product, marketing, and other functional teams have made the US office a fully-fledged HQ, and in January Brynne moved full time to the US herself. This US presence is critical as the company scales.

“In the US, there is more of a playbook for creating a category in the enterprise software space. It requires engaging with analysts and influencers, lots of writing, work on the brand side and getting customers to validate the way you’re creating the category and your hypotheses. We’re quite early in the journey - we just had the first Research Note about the global mobility management market published. So it’s early days, but here there’s a real roadmap and for the first time we can say that our category is defined in the market.”

Key takeaways

  • You will keep a more reasoned approach with a global outlook rather than seeing the US as a behemoth.
  • Keep R&D in the commercial shell location of the business.
  • Talent expectations, often relative to actual skill, are unreasonably high in the Valley.
  • De-risk your expansion plans where possible: at the very least, get clients in place first.
  • SaaS sales is always about service: you won’t sell without a customer success organisation.
  • To lead in your category, invest in PR and brand.

From Notion's Crossing the Atlantic Report

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