I was fortunate enough to take a product globally (on a small scale) at a startup, and later scale a product in 45 markets as part of SAP. A discussion I had with a founder of a large, successful US SaaS company, made me think of some of the challenges and the dos and don’t when selling internationally. Much of the below is based on my own expereince, and targeted at startups taking their first global steps, but some of the lessons are relevant to large, more established companies as well.
Where should you start?
This is probably the hardest question. How do you pick the first country to go after? Should you go for the next biggest market? An English speaking market? Or maybe the most untapped market?
For most startups, the first market is selected by opportunity, and there is nothing wrong with that. If you are French, start with France. If you find out that 50 Brazilian companies are using your product you might want to understand why. If a great guy you worked with before just left his job in Denmark he might be the one starting up the market for you. The key to start selling globally is having a local market understanding. Knowing the language and market, or having customers in a country, will help you gain the knowledge you need, provide feedback as you experiment and allow you to learn.
Get on a plane
Before you do anything, get on a plane and spend good amount of time talking with any customers you already have, and other relevant prospects. Try to understand the market and the local needs, and see if your product addresses them now (most probably not) and how difficult it will be to add the missing functionality. I will go withJason Lemkin’s 20 interview rule and probably do it over 2-3 trips, so you can validate your findings, do some additional research and come back with answers.
Don’t hesitate to translate
If your first market is a non English speaking country, translate your product and website. There are many companies that offer translation as a service and can make this process easier. Don’t be tempted to do it later since “everyone in Germany speaks English” or “This is only until we see traction”. Your product will feel somehow foreign even when translated, so offering it in English only will make it feel irrelevant, and your customers will doubt your seriousness.
You will need boots on the ground
You need someone local. Yes, you can fly in and help closing a deal, or join a web demo, but you will need someone local that speaks the language and understand the market to be your eyes and ears on the ground. You will need to have a local phone number with a local person answering it. You will need someone to tell you that the copywriting for the Google ads you bought make no sense. You will need someone that reads the local news and has can build a local network. Remember how you sold your to first customers at home? You will need to apply similar tactics and you will need local knowledge for that. You might be able to use this resource across 2-3 similar countries, but you will need to have it if you want to get any traction.
You need someone that will hustle for you
Let’s face it: your product is not perfect even in your local market and it will be even less so in a new one. Without someone that will make it her life mission to promote your product, you will make no impact. This is one of these cases where a young, eager, talented person with not-much-to-lose-but-tons-to-gain is far better than the sales gun for hire, that has “proven” abilities, and a large rolodex, but will know how to deal with a young, immature product and organization.
Who should I partner with?
No one. Yes, I know it is not the answer you wanted to hear. You maybe already talked with a local partner, or approached by one of the “international expansion” companies that offers a “turnkey” solution. As tempting as it sounds, they are likely to fail you: you can’t really open a market for a new, early stage product, without being a bit crazy, take risks and think out of the box. This is not a situation where a process, or a well established rolodex can help with. Do you think any local partner could have sold to your first 100 customers at home? Yes, I didn’t think so.
You need a local partner to scale, and help you deal with the demand, not to get off the ground and force the initial demand.
But Facebook/Foursquare/Waze became global organically
Because they did. Consumer, viral products can expend in an organic way. If your product is this kind of product, you would know it by now.
If you read all the way down to this point, you probably serious about selling internationally. It is going to be hard, it is going to take time, but it can become a source of new growth, and a new adventure.