Just about every founder who aspires to build a startup hopes that it will one day become one of the largest companies in the world. But before that happens, a startup has to be properly set up to expand outside of its hometown.
The path to building a global business is a long and treacherous one, but it is possible to traverse. However, as to be expected in the startup world, rushing into a project without the proper planning is a surefire way to fail.
Luckily, we at the Founder Institute have gathered some of the best advice from some of the world’s top startup experts to help you set up your company for global expansion.
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Plan Your Local Expansion
Make Globalization Part of Your Company from the Beginning
To successfully build a global company, you first need to establish the foundation on which you will build. In the first installment of John O'Farrell’s “Building the Global Startup” series, he lays out the key principles for an effective international launch. Below are some of the most important points to consider as you begin to plan your expansion:
Your startup needs to have a mission statement that conveys your expansiveness from the beginning, as this will establish a culture of globalization within the company itself and permeate many of your most important business decisions. Also, having an all-encompassing mission statement for your company will also impact your marketing and how you are perceived by the world at large. Below are some mission statements from some of the world’s biggest companies:
Google: "To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful."
Nike: "To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world."
Facebook: "To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected."
Make the effort to find and recruit employees with international experience, especially for senior and management positions. In fact, it might even be useful to make internationalization and localization experience a requirement for these roles to bring in valuable expertise.
Be sure that your intellectual property (IP) is protected when and if your company goes global. Start by registering trademarks and domain names in the top 10-20 countries and regions you expect to expand to.
Define Your Global Expansion Strategy
Once you’ve taken the initial steps towards preparing your startup for global expansion, you must then define your strategy for international growth. These five questions, from “Building the Global Startup Part 2: Get Yourself a Strategy”, should help you lay the groundwork for a solid plan:
What is our goal? Your goal can be qualitative, like “Our company will be the top selling mobile game in the U.S. and Europe by 2020”, or quantitative, like “Our company will generate 45% of our revenue from outside of Asia by 2019”. Whichever it is, make sure it’s ambitious, specific, and measureable.
What countries will we focus on? Pick countries that will generate the most return with the smallest investment. For example, once you’ve established your company in your native country, expand next to countries that have the same language and similar markets. Create a quantitative spreadsheet that rank the world’s countries by the criteria that best suit your needs.
What product(s) will we launch? Unless you have a product that’s like Twitter that works exactly the same regardless of region, your product or suite of products are going to require customization depending on where you plan to launch next. Once you’ve picked the region you’re going to expand to, ensure that your product caters to that specific market.
How will we go to market? Each country you expand to will come with its own set of challenges and requirements. For example, if you are a mobile company, then partnering with a mobile operator is your best choice. If your company provides enterprise software, you may need to hire a direct sales force.
What’s our operating model? Your operating model should be based on the functions you plan on managing centrally, and which you plan on managing locally. The amount of autonomy you give to local offices will be determined by your company’s business and revenue models, your products, size, and marketing strategies, so don’t forget to give your operating model extra attention.
Establish Your Local Presence
Once you have a clear plan for expanding your startup to other countries, it’s time to put that plan into action and settle into your new region. In The Next Web article, “How to Take Your Startup Global on a Shoestring Budget”, Alec Lynch offers some useful tips to founders who are ready to launch into a new country. Here are several considerations to keep in mind as you establish your presence:
Localize Your Startup - Ensure that your company can properly do business and legitimize itself by securing a local domain name and a local phone number, and make sure that your company can accept the local currency. Once these tasks are finished, then you can begin the process of localizing the smaller aspects of your company, like sample clients and testimonials for local marketing copy.
Use Google to Grow Your Startup Locally - Because advertising online is the best way to market your company, you should employ Google for your marketing needs, including validating market demand and getting your first sales.
Establish Partnerships with Other Local Companies - Before launching your product in a new region, conduct extensive research into the local market to find preexisting large companies in similar industries that you may be able to partner with. You might even be able to leverage these types of partnerships to launch into even more countries.
Acquire Other Local Companies - This route isn’t for everyone, as this is an expensive way to take a company global and requires considerable capital. However, if your company can afford to go down this path, acquiring a company in a desirable region is an effective way to expand into a new country.
Employ Content to Grow Your Audience - As stated before, online marketing is currently the most popular and effective way to build a brand’s audience. Create customized content that caters specifically to your new international audience. For example, viral content, infographics, and in-depth industry insights are great at attracting audiences and establishing your startup’s presence.
Use Thought Leadership to Establish Credibility - For those not familiar with thought leadership, it is a type of content marketing that’s based on the expertise, experience, and mission of your company or community. Thought leadership is a great way to promote your company while engaging with your audience in a more personal, meaningful way that establishes trust.
Build Your Startup’s Brand - One of the hardest aspects of launching your company in a new country is building your brand. While many of the previous tactics will help build your company’s brand, the best method is a strong local PR push. Wait for the right time to launch in a new country by tying your launch to a current, local event, one in which your company’s services may be most useful.
Grow Your Company
Once your company is in a new country, it’s time to begin capitalizing on your progress and take your company to the next stage of advancement. David Becker, the co-founder of Zkipster, wrote about his personal experience of expanding his company in The Guardian article, “How to Take Your Startup Global Without Going Bust”. Below are some of Becker’s insights on how to make the most of your company’s expansion and ensure that your company is on track to succeed.
Expand your company, one country at a time.
Launching in any new country will come at considerable costs, depending on where you expand, so it’s important to firmly establish your company in one country before moving to the next instead of expanding to multiple global locations at the same time. Take care when deciding where to launch next and exhaustively plan each launch.
Remember, operational expenses, including office rent and legal fees, can be extremely high, especially in major metropolitan cities. However, because these regions tend to be the most desirable and lucrative for expanding your business, high costs of living and working shouldn’t deter you. When first physically operating in a new country, take advantage of local coffee shops and coworking spaces to cut costs.
Grow your local presence by establishing local offices.
Even if your company’s offering isn’t physical, it’s easy to assume that just because your product is cloud-based or mobile that you don’t need to have a physical presence in a new country. Yes, an app can be downloaded anywhere that has internet access, but without a strong local presence, the chances of someone stumbling across your app will be left entirely to chance rather than referrals.
It has been proven time and time again that companies that establish local offices experience exponential growth in international regions. Once your company has developed traction in a new country, it’s essential that you set up a local office to continue your company’s growth.
Make corporate culture a priority.
As your startup continues to grow internationally, it’s important that you ensure that all of members of your local teams share the same values that your company was originally based on. Even if your company’s workforce is still relatively small, if your reach expands across multiple countries, ensuring that all employees have access to the information they need should be a top priority.
Your founding team should also set aside some time to physically meet with local teams, prospects, clients, and thought leaders as regularly as possible. Remember, it’s an illusion to think that you can manage and grow a company simply through email and phone calls.