Ask any startup entrepreneur if they'd like to "go global" and you're likely to get a resounding affirmative response.
But "going global" is much easier said than done. To get straight talk on how to go global from someone who has actually executed successfully, I talked with someone who has done it, as well as anyone on the planet. Patrick Llewellyn is the CEO of 99 Designs, an online graphic design marketplace based in San Francisco with offices today in Melbourne, Berlin, Paris, London and Rio de Janeiro. This is what Patrick shared:
A startup that wants to go global has to build trust in each new market locally. Customers respond to companies that provide a service tailored to their needs, so localization is essential. But it's both time-consuming and expensive. As an Australian company, 99designs needed to think about this from the start. Australia is a small market (22 million people) with little venture capital, so we were always US-focused, in terms of both our URL and the currency we used. In 2010, we physically moved to the US to further localize for that market, and today we have staff in the US, Australia, Europe, Brazil and Japan. Despite our current reach, we still think like a bootstrapped startup, and we've managed to go global while using a minimum of resources. Here's how:
1. Start Simple
Localization, when done correctly, is a multi-pronged approach, requiring time, development, and support. The obvious minimal starting point is a website on a regional domain operating in the local language. But your next step should be to hire one support person to give you feedback about local customers' desires, or their complaints. You can hold off on other aspects of localization, such as offering adapted payment options, while you are building your initial presence. But you do need that crucial element of a person fluent in the local language and culture who can relay feedback.
2. Localize Your Support
We have learned that in each new market we need to quickly be able to offer the full complement of local language support--phone, chat, and email. We offer these in the languages of all of the localized versions of our site and one way we have done it early on in the testing phase is by hiring native speakers through freelancing sites like oDesk (now Upwork). This lets us affordably test how much and what kind of support we will need before we hire ongoing staff.
In a similar way we contract with local PR people to help check the translation of our website, design local marketing or branding materials and create local events and a social campaigns.
3. Buy to Build
One way to enter a market affordably is to acquire a smaller business that already has local traction and presence. This gives you both market entry and instant local reference data to test against and, unlike just opening an office, it also creates a newsworthy event. There are obvious PR, social media, and SEO benefits to that kind of event, but just as importantly it shows your commitment to the region or country.
4. Use Managers as Mini Startups
Even though we're headquartered in the US, we believe that markets are best managed locally. Our one major hire in each new market we enter is a country manager. We then ask that person to treat their operation as its own mini-startup. After initial support from local PR and marketing, our country managers do it all solo: they drive strategy, head up the marketing, create events, and do all the ongoing local translation. This streamlined model means each country manager owns that market's metrics. We work together to set their goals and targets, and every week they report back to our head office on how they're doing.
There are huge advantages to this model. The country managers learn the business in incredible depth. They're actually more efficient within their market than we could ever be, because they are truly immersed. They're able to create an authentic tone with customers because they understand both the region and our business. Meanwhile, as they launch, test, and iterate, we learn what we will need to build out in order to support that market on a sustainable ongoing basis.
5. Find the Right Tools
In a global company communication is essential, and time is money. 99designs relies on a few basic tools to keep our teams together. Dropbox, Slack, and Basecamp are great tools familiar to most people in startups. We also use Trello for project management and Blue Jeans for video conferencing. Information sharing we handle with Atlassian Confluence, dashboards are displayed using Geckoboard, and for real-time collaboration, we use Google Docs. We also use Smartling, a translation management platform that lets us quickly launch versions of our site in different languages, while controlling costs around translation.
Going global is costly in terms of time, money, and focus. It's a great way to grow your business, but it's a longer-term investment that you should only take on when you are well-capitalized and have organizational bandwidth. Even if you are well-capitalized, your best chance of success lies in sparing your resources and developing a strong connection with your new market. But it's also worth remembering that, in the words of Nelson Mandela, "It always seems impossible until it's done."