What you need to know if you’re dipping your toes into international waters

Taking your business global can be a make or break moment: Here's how to avoid the pitfalls from one who's been there.

If you are serious about scaling your business internationally, some dedicated, early validation and market research will go a long way.

This is because spending time evaluating the landscape will give you an initial indication of the market opportunity – and if there is indeed one.

But before you take first steps to take your business overseas it’s worth looking at the initial triggers or signs that you have the potential to grow your business internationally and this is not as straightforward as it may sound.

If like me, your goal has always been to become an international business, you may have considered the scalability of your offering when you first started out, there may be a more obvious route to progressing in an overseas market.

For some, the reverse is true and transitioning overseas is an idea that has materialised as your business experienced greater growth and success. The first thing to say is, just because you are successful in the UK, doesn’t automatically mean the same will happen the minute you set foot into a new country. There are lots of aspects to consider first.

Further reading on international expansion

Spotting the early signs

Every invention ever created is designed to solve a problem or issue. Taking your business internationally is about ensuring that those same issues exist in the country you are targeting and that can only be discovered by testing the water. For my business (which was established in the UK), the issue was about problems faced in the UK market that our technology could solve. I’d like to say that I knew the same issues existed across the rest of the world, but in all honesty I didn’t know – what I did have was a strong suspicion.

The first signs that we could really scale beyond the UK came very early on in the lifecycle of the business because some of our first customers began to ask if they could use our technology overseas in India, China and Australia to support their own growing businesses. I guess the message here is, listen to your customers. If you hear rumblings that customers are interested in your service or products abroad it’s a safer and useful way to test the water first.

Watch the below video on taking your business global

Of course, it doesn’t always happen like that, sometimes you have to be the one leading the party. So if you are considering an overseas venture, start with your existing clients and your partners by putting feelers out. Do any of them have ambitions to internationalise? Do they already have operations overseas that could provide you with some low risk, early conversations and introductions into those new markets? These are pretty basic questions to ask but the simple fact is, those questions could unlock a whole new opportunity for your business. Those clients could even become ‘anchoring’ clients as you build your operations overseas.

Dedicated validation

As mentioned earlier, dedicated validation is vital. As your looked to scale into new markets consider creating a dedicated international project team who can actively conduct thorough market research into competitors in those countries, what products they have, who their customers are, where they are based and how they operate – leave no stone unturned here. This will give you an early insight into the market opportunity and an indication of whether you have potential to succeed in that area.

The next step would be to reach out to potential customers or suppliers who trade overseas and ask them about their own businesses and their international frustrations. These early conversations should help you to understand any cultural nuances and to understand the possible changes or adjustments that may need to be made to your own business model, your products, services or your team as it stands.

Language hurdles

Language is the first hurdle when expanding internationally (and that has nothing to do with your level of fluency). We found that the most common terms used by our customers in the UK actually meant nothing (or sometimes something entirely different) to equivalent customers in English-speaking international markets. Finding people who have deeper knowledge and experience of your overseas customers and market is crucial to getting this part right. This is a big hurdle because it affects so many elements of your business operations, for instance, your sales team will find leads very difficult to warm-up if they aren’t resonating with the target market. You’ll also want to consider protecting your brand and of course making sure you don’t break any advertising laws or standards when you do start making offers to a new market.

Time zones matter

Every business is different, but we haven’t experienced much in terms of cultural faux pas so far. As we are a B2B technology firm, the most important thing for us was that businesses operated internally in a similar way to how it does in the UK. Fortunately for us, the business issues translate overseas but our biggest challenge was in providing the same great level of support and advice through our online-chat services when our customers need it most (if you consider time differences etc.)

Time zones are key when going into international markets
Time zones are key when going into international markets

Businesses operating overseas should expect to rework their support team’s hours or find a solution to keeping dialogue going at any time of the day, as well as offering evening/weekend cover.

My top tips for expanding internationally would be:

  • Find someone with intimate knowledge of the new markets you are targeting and pick their brains. You’ll be able to quickly validate, rightly or wrongly, many of your assumptions.
  • Ask for introductions from your existing network and pick up the phone to potential customers. Don’t try to sell and you’ll learn a lot.
  • Validate early on how compatible your current solution is with the new market. If you have a technology business like ours, it can be costly to make changes to the product and if you are a service business you may have to retrain or hire new staff. This might be enough to put you off, or to convince investors that you know what you’re talking about.

Expanding into New Zealand and Australia…

Our growth in New Zealand and Australia has been very natural. We had some early customers in the UK who also had links to similar businesses in Australia and New Zealand. Their international businesses were experiencing the same growth challenges and were unable to find a technology partner who could offer the same level of support and functionality that our business offered and so we agreed to make the necessary adjustments to allow our product to transact in Dollars rather than Pounds. We’re now beginning to see organic growth as a result of new referrals generated.

Wellington, New Zealand
Wellington, New Zealand

We are still early in our international expansion phase and so we are still trying to understand which territories require physical operations and what the scale of those operations will involve.

Finding similarities

For me, expanding internationally has been very rewarding and once you have something to learn from, you can perfect it the next time around. I would encourage other businesses to look at international opportunities if they have a strong suspicion that their product or service will translate overseas. What is often surprising in our international experience is how similar customers are in terms of the things that worry and challenge them and also the solutions they are looking for.

It’s also worth considering the sheer scale of doing business abroad. When compared with the US, China, or India, the UK is very small and what you might class as a ‘large’ business in the UK can actually be quite a standard operation in these much more densely populated countries. Either way, it’s worth getting your toes wet, you never know what you’ll learn in the process.

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