Making sure that a startup company has a clear vision, a carefully crafted company culture and a business model that has been thoroughly validated by customers should be the focal points of the company’s Board work. What else is relevant?
Global Intelligence Alliance Group (GIA) introduced the idea of “market intelligence as a service” to the corporate world. During 15 years and with the support of CapMan, 3i Group and private investors, the Finnish startup grew into a 15MEUR business with 11 offices around the world and 150 professionals as employees. M-Brain Group acquired GIA in 2014.
Markko Vaarnas, Jouko Virtanen and Leif Backman were part of the Helsinki-based founding team of Global Intelligence Alliance Group, or GIA, in 1999. GIA specialized in Market Intelligence (MI) services and software, helping global companies organize and operate professional MI programs. During 15 years, GIA grew into a professional services company with offices in 11 cities on four continents.
In 2014, GIA was acquired by M-Brain Group. At that time, the company had 15 mEUR in annual revenue with a healthy EBITDA margin, 150 employees, and a position as a globally recognized thought leader in the field of MI.
Disrupting the MI industry
The Market Intelligence industry in early 2000 provided a lucrative opportunity for ambitious growth entrepreneurs. The need in global companies to organize their business information management was universal. The companies did this in very traditional ways, however: They hired analysts, purchased software tools, subscribed to databases of business information, and occasionally hired MI consultants to do some analysis work. Because of the nature of project work, most of these MI consultancies had remained small and local.
There was room in the global MI marketplace for another, disruptive business model, whereby companies would instead rent dedicated analyst capacity, software, and database subscriptions bundled into a continuous service package. Breaking away from project business and establishing long term service partnerships with global customers became the secret of GIA’s expansion.
Finland as a test laboratory
Some say Finland is all Western economies in mini size, which makes it an ideal and affordable test bed for ideas. This was certainly true for GIA: The MI partnership model was well tested in the Finnish market with a number of globally operating customer companies. Based on the good experiences and customer feedback, the founders of GIA were convinced of the global applicability of the MI partnership business model.
Investors, too were convinced. First 3i Group and later on CapMan joined on board to support GIA in seizing the global opportunity. GIA started its internationalization from North America because it represented the single largest market potential for MI services. The growth continued in Europe, Asia and Latin America as a combination of greenfield operations, partnerships, and acquisitions, depending on what was judged as being the best local strategy for getting a foothold.
Built to last
One of the defining characteristics of GIA was that it constantly seemed slightly larger than it was. GIA’s marketing messages were aimed at the global arena from early on. GIA implemented robust leadership development and talent management programs. GIA developed tools and trainings for knowledge transfer during stages of growth that would have kept employees busy enough even without any of such extra work.
Yet it was all a reflection of the ambition level: GIA was determined to build a solid global business and organization. The processes and tools to support that vision were built to make sure things would not get out of hand along the way. For GIA, growth was no accident but it was made, and it was prepared for. Many employees over the course of the years appreciated the strong global culture that was built as a result. Indeed one of GIA’s great assets continues to be its large and active network of alumni.