When Mika and I started Ikayzo seven years ago I got everything wrong. Because I enjoyed a good relationship with my previous two employers I was confident they would become my first customers. Surely I could easily sell to local companies as well. Although we were a new company, I had a solid software development resume and some experience with business development. I thought recruiting would be easy because we could offer the ability to do interesting work in paradise. I also thought I would be programming and doing interactive design work most of the day with maybe 20% being allocated for...well...CEO stuff.
Wrong, wrong and wrong.
About two months after launching the company I realized I was not going to be able to sell back to my previous employers. At my last two jobs I had very solid right-hand men and women. As a manager I had worked hard to build redundancy in my department because, as with mission critical software system, its important not to have any single point of failure. When I left the redundancy kicked in and best practices continued to be followed. The idea that these companies would need me for the same reasons they had when I was originally hired was a conceit. I had to start looking elsewhere for our first customer. That company turned out to be a neighbor at the Manoa Innovation Center. Over the years we ended up working with five other companies at MIC. Next came jobs from UH Manoa, which is just down the street.
Selling to local companies turned out to be harder than expected. The approach I had taken when I worked for companies in Tokyo and San Francisco didn't work in Hawaii. I needed to develop localized sales skills (e.g. a healthy amount of talk-story) to sell in the Hawaii market. Without local references it was hard to earn people's trust. It quickly became clear that building a healthy base of local customers was going to require years of reputation and relationship building. It took us about three years to get to where I had expected us to be in one, but persistence eventually paid off.
Recruiting top talent also turned out to be difficult. Many of Hawaii's brightest students move to the mainland for college and don't return. They don't think there are any interesting well-paying positions locally, and our industry doesn't do a particularly good job of advertising such positions. Its hard because there is no easy way to target all the top performers from Hawaii who are now scattered across the mainland. You have to network, network, network.
Getting people from the mainland to move to Hawaii is often surprisingly difficult, especially if they have families. Many potential recruits are concerned about being so far from family, the cost of living and the local school situation. I remember a Washington-based developer I really wanted to hire asking me, "I live on an acre of land in a five bedroom house. My three kids attend top performing schools. How much will that cost me in Honolulu?" As you can imagine, that conversation didn't go well.
We had to start on a long journey of finding a mixture of local people who left to attend college on the mainland and people from outside of Hawaii with a healthy sense of adventure. It was important to find people who considered our location to be a significant plus when evaluating offers. In those cases we could actually wrestle them away from the likes of Google and Apple, something that a company our size could never do if we couldn't offer the differentiator of working in paradise. Over the years we got better at finding these people via social media and traditional networking. Developing a good working relationship with local universities was also a big help. Being down the street from UH Manoa ended up being advantageous for many reasons.
I don't want to talk too much about Ikayzo specifically because this post isn't an ad. My intention is to share my experience with other Hawaii entreprenuers. Suffice to say that we've grown to a point where we are competitive in our target markets both locally and on the mainland. My average day isn't what I thought it would be. Most of my day is recruiting, selling and managing. Every once in a while I get to do a little development and design :-) That being said, its been, and continues to be, an awesome journey. There is nothing better than being able to get up in the morning and look forward to working with a great group of people in a beautiful place on interesting projects.