6 things you need to know before trying to expand a business overseas

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Jeromy Wells shares the lessons he’s learned growing Whispir from a startup in Melbourne to a global communications innovator, with offices across Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, San Francisco, New York, Seattle, and Beijing.

We’ve always had huge ambitions for the company, but turning Whispir into a global success has been an intensive education in how to build an international business.

From constantly evolving market regulations to customary gifting in Japan, Whispir’s international expansion has been a journey defined by successes and material challenges that have required genuine business model innovation to overcome. Along the way, we’ve learned some valuable lessons about conducting business across borders.

1. There’s no single marketplace

If you have a product that’s working and making money, most opportunistic entrepreneurs will agree it makes sense to take it to a wider market.

Expanding internationally is exciting and rewarding, but the hard reality is that every country in which you operate is different. It’s impossible to know all the variables you’ll encounter until you get started.

Cultural barriers, legal variances, conflicting values, and wildly different sales cycles are often just the tip of the iceberg. Language, too, is nuanced and can mean very different things in different places. Even when both parties are speaking English, it’s difficult to be sure you are aligned; questions can be raised as to whether you’ve really agreed to a deal or whether the other party is simply being polite.

The best advice to overcome this multiplicity of the global marketplace when scaling internationally is to invest time in recognising your knowledge gaps and getting advice. Start by engaging quality people to build an awesome team in-country who understand the local market better than you do; you need a trusted advisor.

2. You’ll make mistakes scaling

You’ll be taking big risks and making big decisions, often without all the information you might like. We’ve been guilty of being overly ambitious about how quickly we could take the company from startup to stable in the new countries we’ve entered. This enthusiasm swiftly taught us that scaling in one market is very different to scaling across multiple markets.

Most of Whispir’s early years were spent in Australia, which was instrumental in shaping our operating model and providing us the opportunity to build solid partnerships and channel relationships for global reach.

There has, however, been a big learning curve involved in adapting the business quickly to meet new conditions and simultaneously replicating those growth lessons through markets across Asia and North America.

To scale internationally, you need to be realistic about how much change can be implemented quickly; something which will materially impact your go to market assumptions. Sometimes, good things really do take time.

The value of spending more time upfront building people capacity cannot be underestimated. That way, when you start trading you have the expertise to really understand local conditions and well established partner relationships that are aligned and incentivised to help you.

3. Building a cohesive team across borders takes top down commitment

It’s a challenge to try and create a single, unified culture when growing quickly in multiple markets and time zones. Having teams spread across geographies makes it tricky to bridge gaps in values and culture.

We’re no longer convinced that trying to force a single culture works. We’re much stronger embracing our diversity, with a variety of ideas, insights and values shaping our broader ideals.

As a business leader, creating a strong team across borders means understanding that you’re going to travel a lot. There are so many great tools that allow teams to work and collaborate across borders, but only spending time in the same room allows us to fully understand the nuances of our local people’s needs.

Getting side by side with your staff – wherever they’re based – lets you understand what’s important to them, lets them understand what’s important to you, and helps you build a cohesive culture, together.

Making a point of having lunch with different people from our offices every day means we learn so much about our strong team and their amazing ideas and stories.

4. Have access to the capital you need

Understand how much capital is required to be successful. Being undercapitalised means you risk disappointing stakeholders, and ultimately, disappointing your customers.

Once you go to market, new problems will emerge that you won’t have considered so it’s vital your financial foundation is in order. Invest in governance early to avoid legal and compliance issues slowing you down just when you need to be accelerating.

Independent auditing of all aspects of financial, legal, technical, ethical and compliance obligations should be considered as genuine risk mitigation, rather than an overhead.

5. Have good reasons for scaling internationally

Growing your business internationally means taking risks, and requires a lot of hard work and upfront capital. There should be compelling reasons for international expansion based on solid business logic, not just ambition or vanity.

For us, it was clear that the problems we were solving in Australia were the same challenges faced by businesses and governments across the world. We ran the numbers, quantified the business case and looked at what was important for us to scale the business and exploit our IP globally. It meant modifying aspects of our go to market strategy and letting go of some sacred cows to be relevant in new markets.

International growth is more than just an opportunity to make a difference in other countries,
it’s an opportunity to build new relationships, and develop stronger technology product and human communication capabilities.

Being international is also attractive to investors; we’re lowering the risk of operating in a single market and opening much bigger markets for our products and technology. When more than 30 per cent of revenue comes from outside your home market; your whole business more stable in the longer term.

6. Embrace tools for growing an international team

There’s no substitute for being face to face, but the daily realities of having internationally distributed teams means you need smart tools that let you collaborate across borders effectively and transparently.

Slack lets our dispersed team members chat about the different projects on which they’re working together. We’ve also found there’s no beating the productivity and workflow power of the Atlassian tools – Jira, Confluence, and Trello.

One of the biggest software changes we made was adopting the Google Suite. There was initial resistance to leaving the familiarity of Microsoft Office, but it soon became clear that the Google products were built from the ground up for businesses just like ours – global, nimble, and efficient. The simplicity of sharing calendars, scheduling meetings, and creating Google Hangouts with video takes away much of the pain and cost of staying connected across borders.

Jeromy Wells is founder, CEO and chairman at Whispir.

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