Hi! I’m Francesco, the Co-founder and CEO of Steel Available. After 10 years of managerial experience at Asian industrial companies, I decided to start my own business, helping the heavy industry optimise procurement through digital solutions.
Where did the idea for Steel Available come from?
I have worked several years in the steel industry. It all came from my previous job experience. I noticed that I keep on receiving the most various requests for quotation from Asian clients for steel products. Those requests were not related to my range of products and even regular clients had no idea what products we were actually doing. The value of those request were huge and we kept on declining them. They had truly no clue where to source them. That was the moment when I realized that there was a huge opportunity.
Why did you decide to start this business?
I liked the challenge to provide visibility within the industry. The question we answer at Steel Available is: WHO DOES WHAT IN THE INDUSTRIAL WORLD? The answer to this question may not always be immediate. An intense research on Google or Alibaba may help but not with the level of precision our clients are looking for: the information that can be trusted. Steel Available instead answers this question, helping Buyers to understand “who’s really able to supply a specific steel product or service” and “how reliable is each Supplier”.
Can you imagine looking for a high quality pipe for the oil & gas industry and have thousands of replies on your Alibaba’s request with people spamming you on whatsapp, skype, email and linkedin provided by mainly traders without visibility? Therefore I am passionate about overcoming these challenges through digitalisation and collaboration with a trusted network of partners around the world.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Nowadays with our 24h availability and working in different time zone, we can easily work 24/7 and experienced break down. My strategy is to make the day as efficient as possible and to get the most value out of the limited 24hour. Being productive during the day includes making the team productive and find the time to process, meet and prioritize without spending countless time in meeting rooms.
My day is busy as every startup founder! But being also a dad since May this year, I experienced working days and nights depending, on how much sleep I can get. The only regulated part of my time is meeting the team from 9.30 am to around 7.00 pm at the co-working space “we work”. The working environment is relax and we have access to all the facilities with the opportunity to share good and bad news with others startup friends.
In our new office, we have unlimited fresh draft beer which is a good support when days are too long! We work on the priorities on the morning, have lunch together with the team, usually doing “pot luck” where everyone brings something to share, and in the afternoon Europe wakes up bringing endless calls.
Working with clients over the world gives the opportunity to schedule our time depending on their working hours. We try to spend as much time as we can listening to our clients, improving our processes and involving new partners on our platform.
One day can be resume as: espressos and cappuccino, few beers, feeding the baby, baking bread, cooking pasta, AND hours of calls, hundreds emails, literature about innovation in the industry, startup events, team meeting, brainstorming, getting feedback, fundraising, linkedin updates and social media activities.
You can read more about this year experience on our blog.
How does your business differ from your competitors?
We really want to disrupt such an old fashioned industry. In the heavy industry like Oil & Gas and Power Generation, there has been few evolution over the last 15 years. The only attempt to digitisation were limited to building online directories (aka Classifieds databases), or to niche markets (for instance ship-building).
The complexity of standards and procedures is used as a barrier to entry. No real quality benchmark, no transparency. Information is not a shared resource but a secret goods to be sold by each intermediation firm. This makes of Steel Available a disrupting new incumbent on the market, with strong and sustainable competitive advantages.
Many startups fail because the market doesn’t need the product …
What kind of new trends excites you?
We are excited about the Industry 4.0. This is the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. In the long term, we foresee an unmanned procurement of spare parts, where machines can perform predictive maintenance on themselves and to do so, they can procure their own replacement parts.
Another exciting trend is where startup and corporate collaborate on a daily basis. It is very interesting especially in our industry where innovation in the supply chain is the key for sustainable businesses along with long-term strategy that promotes mindset change.A successful startup-corporate relationship delivers new solutions and technological advancements in a shorter time period at lower cost. Startups can invent and implement solutions to improve productivity, but lack the financial capital, which mature companies can provide, to refine the concept and mass-produce to reach larger markets.
What part of your job do you personally find most interesting?
The sales cycle is quite fascinating. As in many steel companies, C-level executives and procurement directors are still not very digital and old fashioned. There is a big effort in educating the clients of steel industry clients about the huge Return-on-Investment about digitalization.
The ultimate challenge is to find the right people to join our team and in the case of global teams, aligning people that work remotely to the targets with the company culture.The team is the highest value of each startup and it can be challenging to find people with industrial background and the startup mindset who also possess the same vision and mission. I define the startup mindset as an individual who is smart, autonomous, and proactive. They are able to manage and prioritize their own time, and understand that even the smallest tasks affect the big picture.
However, at the end of the day, my favorite part of working at a startup is the people. I enjoy being around my team and I really like the people I am working with. After all, each of us plays a part in the supportive startup ecosystem.
Please describe one of your habit that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I believe in teamwork and delegating as much as possible to the team members. We all grow through responsibility. I expect leadership and strong commitment from all my colleagues.
If it isn’t a secret, could you please describe one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Keep it lean and start it from organic growth, while we you focus on bringing on board strategic investors. A word to corporate from a startup point of view would be to adopt the lean approach, which requires you to validate the business model, focus on the MVP, test it to see how customers respond, and make adjustments accordingly.
Many startups fail because the market doesn’t need the product. Letting your product develop and grow, while adjusting to the customer, will save you time and money.
Keep it lean and start it from organic growth …
From your perspective, what are the challenges that you have to face as an entrepreneurs and how did you overcome them?
There are multiple challenges, first of all combining business with family and personal needs. I try to keep the right work life balance, which is very challenging sometimes.
I learned that work life-balance is crucial, so make some personal rules. You risk to work 24 hours and to never take a break, and eventually this will affect your performance. For instance, I made personal goals to spend more time with my family, play more squash with friends, and enjoy outdoor sports. I also enjoy cooking, and I want to spend more time experimenting and making creative dishes from Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines.
The other big challenge we face is our product development in such an old fashioned industry. Dedicated our project to the heavy industries, many times we thought that it is almost impossible to achieve digital transformation but we realized that the value is in the innovation and the way we are communicating about it.
We learned to find ways to communicate our vision and what we are doing in an easy, concise, and complete way. In the overall industry, there is limited time and attention from stakeholders. We also utilized this as a way to generate feedback, and gain the support of others to share our vision.
Do you have any advice/business idea for our readers before they decide to launch their business?
It’s better to start your own business in an industry that you know well and where you know there might be a huge market and potential. It reduces the risks of venturing on a brand new field. You can put all your gained experience and knowledge in this project. But nevertheless, study is the key to success.
What Tools/Apps do you use to growth your business on a daily basis?
Oh there are many! Here are the ones that we use on a regular basis after trying almost all the “competitors”: Hubspot Sales as CRM, Google Calendar as time schedule, Fullcontact and Camcard for contacts management, myfairtool for exhibitions management, Slack for team communication, and many others!
We wrote a short recommendation of 6 free online tools, that boost business productivity nowadays, on our webpage blog. Take a look
What is your opinion, which book is a must to read before starting a business and why?
Definitely “The Innovation Dilemma”. I think understanding the difference between sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation is very important for any entrepreneur. But also I read a lot of articles about the steel industry, business productivity, marketing, startups, etc.
What do you think of the startup scene in Hong Kong?
The startup scene is growing everyday in HK and we can see valuables events, panels, networking, conference, pitching contest ect almost everyday. It is becoming hard to choose the best activities to attend or organize. So many exciting stuff are happening, and we love how startups share problems and solutions and grow together. We learn something new everyday! One of our source of inspiration is whub.io!