For many startups, conquering the domestic market (and indeed the local market) would be a prize enough. Yet others have broader ambitions, and see a place in the world for their idea. For those individuals, there is no time to waste in getting their product to market, and guiding their business to greater success, globally. Starting and operating a business is difficult enough without fostering expansion, though. It’s often said you shouldn’t run before you can walk, but with the right planning, there’s no reason why you can’t hit the ground running. Here are just a few tips on how to scale your business model for the global market, and position yourself to conquer the world.
Solve a universal problem
Regardless of where you are in the world, people are more or less the same. Sure, there are cultural differences and language barriers, and certain concepts will rely on social norms and behaviors that differ from place to place. In the majority of cases, however, people want and need the same things. As such, the startups that successfully scale globally are those that offer creative solutions to widespread problems.
A more efficient solar panel, a shirt that doesn’t need to be ironed, a healthier fast food alternative; all of these ideas are eminently exportable. A brilliant new football helmet design probably isn’t.
Work to address common problems, and make sure your central concept can be communicated in only a few words, or a single image. Breaking down barriers in your design and formation phase is a good sign that you’ll manage the same thing when you move abroad.
Avoid the temptation to micro-manage
One of the great advantages of being a startup is the ability to react quickly to change. A smaller chain of command and fewer human resources means you can move faster to cater to trends and address issues, helping you to compete against the big boys.
The risks seem so vast that it can be tempting to dictate every decision from afar, but you need to be able to let go, and allow the new offshoots of your business to grow and develop with relative independence.
In the short term, international expansion may just mean shipping worldwide from your home base. Eventually though, you’ll want to shift fulfillment, production, customer services and other elements to each region, in order to be more efficient and competitive with local businesses. What’s important is to stay reactive and agile, never losing sight of your origins as a startup.
Delegate control of your various international operations to people with experience of expansion, and preferably direct experience in that local market. They will be much better placed to read the market and react accordingly, capitalizing on clear opportunities and adjusting your approach to local consumers. If they feel that your product or marketing needs to be adapted slightly to better address the needs of consumers, trust them.
By the same token, don’t get too bogged down in extending your product lines beyond what’s already performing well, and chasing new and exciting ideas. Expanding internationally is difficult enough without muddling your message. Focus on the thing you already know you’re good at and what works well, without stretching yourself before you’ve even made the leap.
Don’t be afraid to take your time to scale
Many businesses looking to scale their startup globally want to do so rapidly. After all, there’s a latent fear that by dithering on expanding into certain territories, someone will see your idea and copy it, or come up with a competing product or service of their own. While there is some pragmatism to this approach in some territories (China is particularly notorious for its patchy application of copyright) it’s more often a mistake that can cripple businesses.
A good example of this is Uber, whose entire strategy for expansion was based on a “move first, ask questions later” approach. They managed to set up fast enough to be the only player in the market, but encountered myriad legal issues and cultural barriers due to a lack of research. This saw domestic competitors move on their position quickly, and very soon outcompeting them, while Uber had spent all of their early-stage kudos by annoying locals. They were eventually forced to close or sell off several divisions, including their entire operation in China.
Don’t just make the product – learn to sell it
While delegation and consultation are key, it doesn’t hurt to do some research into the markets you plan to expand to. The internet is a perfect tool to conduct this research, be it through local directories, social media or Google Maps. Check your destination for similar businesses and products. See how they are priced, how fierce the competition is and whether there’s anything they’re doing that you aren’t (or vice-versa).
A huge element of scaling your business internationally is gaining the trust of the consumer. It’s natural that locals prefer products that are made in their own country, and are made specifically to address their needs. You will likely face a trust gap when you first enter a new country, which will only be accentuated by any mistakes you make in your branding and approach. Look to ingratiate yourself, making your marketing distinct to each locale. Where possible, ally yourself with local businesses, and invest in the community with training or outreach programs.
Translation is obviously key, at least where your market does not already speak English. But translation of concepts is equally important. You might pay to have a phrase translated as your slogan, but the phrase itself may not mean anything.
Consult closely with a native speaker to find analogues for your marketing language, and ensure that you aren’t accidentally causing offense. Consider too that certain colors, gestures and innocuous symbols may be considered rude or offensive in certain cultures. Showing an appreciation for this, and even referencing the common confusion of foreign businesses, will help to win your newfound audience over.