Going Global? Seven Lessons Every Startup Should Learn
Building a startup in one country can be very challenging. Operating it – and expanding it – in another country is even harder.
At least that’s the challenge faced today by most entrepreneurs looking to go global. Sure, it’s always cool to be able to say you have an international office on the other side of the world, that you’re connecting with markets outside of your locale, and that your team is as diverse as the group of beauties in a Miss Universe pageant. There’s also nothing more rewarding than transforming your small, humble startup – your baby – into a full-blown, multinational business venture.
But, before you get the wrong idea: founding, building, and growing a global startup will require pretty serious work, too. As a founder, you’ll have to make big decisions, carefully plan your strategy, and invest in resources that you wouldn’t otherwise be prepared to invest in if you were staying put and staying at home. (And by “resources,” I don’t mean just paying for website translation services.)
The idea for my own tech startup, Review Trackers, was hatched in Medellin, Colombia late last year. Since then, I have set up our HQ in Florida, worked and lived in several cities, assembled an international group of team members working in several parts of the world – including: Chicago, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Canada, Russia, Manila (Philippines), and Hyberabad (India) – and begun working in Santiago, where Review Trackers was awarded a slot in Start-Up Chile, Latin America’s premier entrepreneurial and innovation hub.
While my startup is still officially starting up, my international experiences during the last one-and-a-half years have enabled me to gain and reinforce precious new insights on what it’s like for today’s entrepreneur to go global. I’d like to share seven of them with you now.
1.) Plan carefully.
It’s tempting to think that casting a wider net, putting up an office overseas, and expanding your operation will result directly in more explosive growth and better business diversification. Not so; at least not without a carefully laid out plan that addresses questions like: How are we going to staff the Belfast office? How do we adjust our tax strategy accordingly? How are we going to fund the new facilities?
It’s always best to know before you leap. Do your research. Make a note of all the overhead costs you have to plan for. Consider alternatives. Going global represents a significant undertaking, and thus poses significant risks. So before you jump in, make sure you actually have a plan for managing and minimizing those risks.
2.) Focus, and don’t try to conquer the world – yet.
It must have been breathtaking for Mark Zuckerberg to just sit there and watch his Harvard dorm room creation explode and acquire a billion users from every country imaginable. Breathtaking is what power feels like. And powerful is what you’ll feel like after conquering the world.
Still, executing a winning global strategy doesn’t have to be totally global – at least not at first. It’s infinitely smarter for a startup to take it slow, focus on one key overseas market, and try to grow in a way that’s not detrimental to your domestic business. Be realistic. If you happen to think that you can brilliantly serve, say, a specific segment in Latin America or Europe, then do so. But don’t forget about the leads you’ve generated at home, and don’t spend your energy targeting markets in Singapore or India or Malaysia that aren’t actually relevant to you right now. Create a history of success first – never mind if it’s a short history – so you can at least use it as a reference point as you move forward and attempt to expand even further.
3.) Be data-driven as well as people-sensitive.
As much as I’d like to hold an office in amazing Medellin, I couldn’t pass up the chance to be part of Start-Up Chile and relish the lure of Chilecon Valley. That’s being data-driven.
At the same time, the majority of my staff, consultants, and existing and potential customers are all still based in the United States. That’s why, even though I’m officially working here in Santiago, business still runs through the northern hemisphere. That’s being people-sensitive.
4.) Cover your bases and protect what is yours.
Did you successfully apply for a patent in the U.S.? Double-check to see if you’re covered internationally. Are you getting a ridiculous number of leads from London and Australia? Register those UK and AU domains ASAP (It is actually really hard to buy an .AU domain without an office, trademark, or incorporation status in Australia). Did you just discover a bunch of low-competition, high-search-volume keywords in one of your key markets? Get in there fast and gain an edge over your competitors. If your startup is expecting global success, take all the steps necessary to secure it before someone else does.
5.) Don’t underestimate the difficulties of cultural differences.
I don’t just mean the challenge of learning a new language. (I did learn very early on how different Chilean Spanish is from actual Spanish; those who have been to Chile will understand this.)
As your startup heads to foreign ground, it’s recommended that you learn as much as you can about what the local business practices are like, what the labor laws require, how local consumers behave, or how one goes about establishing business relationships and strategic partnerships with people who’ve never set foot in your home turf. Going global without first understanding other cultures can be extremely tricky and cause you to have all the wrong expectations.
6.) Don’t underestimate the value of cultural differences.
In today’s global economy, it’s no longer surprising to find deep pools of talent in places that you only just figured out how to spell. So don’t be reluctant to hire locally if you happen to find your rock star in Sao Paulo, Hamburg, Manila, or Bangalore. Not only will you be able to leverage their talent; you’ll also discover how helpful locals can be – with their own knowledge, resources, and networks – in smoothing out your startup’s transition from the previous base to the next.
7.) Communicate regularly.
One of the best ways to motivate your international team is to send everybody regular updates, promote a constant exchange of ideas, and get people to feel that they are a big, valuable part of the company. Obviously, this doesn’t mean scheduling weekly calls that force your programming star in New Delhi to wake up at 3 a.m. And if you think that your other internal policies are too US-centric, you might want to adjust aspects of these in order to demonstrate that you’re running a globally-minded team.
So…ready to go? Go ahead, dive in, and execute that winning global strategy!