When I joined the four member TINT team about one year ago, little did I expect we’d be sitting here now: 20 team members, 2 PR firms and clients in over 86 countries. As a self-service Saas company, our platform is available to anyone at any time of day, so since the beginning customers have been trickling in from all over the globe. As we grew, support and sales opportunities began to come in at all hours and in multiple languages. We hired a ‘night ninja’ and had them work late hours to cover our international clients, but at some point as a company grows the question arises:
When does it make sense to globalize your workforce?
Signs You’re Ready To Go International
Say you are involved with a startup that begins to get some international traction. A customer in Germany, then Russia, a few in Australia and the UK. How do you know when the time is right?
Here are a few key factors that told us we were ready to expand:
- Over 55% of our business was from outside the US
- We saw the fastest organic growth in our European market segment
- Our highest value customers were coming from outside the US
- 25% of our demo requests were came in when our team was sleeping (12am-6am)
Another important factor to consider is the costs of adding new international customers to your business — will support costs increase? How about implementation?
Tinternational Tip: You don’t in need to have platform every language. One common misconception is that you need to do a lot of work to internationalize your platform, so startups often wait. If you are operating B2B especially, we’ve found that is not the case. A majority of the B2B clients for SaaS tools seem to be proficient enough in English to navigate a platform or can do so (and are willing to do so) with the aid of Google Translate.
Where to move first
Choosing where to make the first move was one of the trickiest decisions for us, especially because we had traction all over the map. Since most of our new customers come to us through referrals or content marketing and SEO, it made it very interesting to look at the breakdown.
If your business has clear traction in a specific market then my recommendation would be to head there, however when your stat sheet looked like ours, the current customer data wasn’t the clearest indicator.
We had over 29,000 users scattered across 173 countries, so we looked at a few key factors:
- Market Opportunity – Try to assign a dollar value, or just use a scale based on research
- Market Vulnerability – How ready is the market for your service
- Current Traction – What % of your business is currently in that market and how fast is it growing?
- Competitive Landscape – In innovative businesses, this can often make the most difference as first mover advantage in a new market is huge.
- Talent Accessibility – How talented or skilled is the candidate pool you can access
Tinternational Tip: If you can’t find the right person in a market, it might be better to launch in a less optimal market with a rock star than trying to force a great region with the wrong person. If you stick to talking to your evangelists in that market they will bring you great talent.
Based on these outstanding factors we chose to go to 3 markets:
UK – Over 10% of our current customer base
Middle East (Dubai) – Only major region with no competitors
China (Shanghai) – Our lead sales person ran a startup there for 2 years and had great connections.
Taking the First Step Starts with People
Businesses are made up of 2 core things: Products and People. Since we already had a product that was loved by an international audience we didn’t need to make any changes there, so our first step was the people. Your team determines how your brand is perceived by the world, and we knew having a great foundation was essential. In searching for our core team to begin the Tinternational expansion we decided to start with the most important people in our company: our loyal customers.
Your Customers Are Your Best Resource
Assuming you are already working with a few customers abroad, the one’s who love you the most are the best place to start to understand the market and get inroads to top talent. We were fortunate to have two amazing customers working for top agencies in the UK and Dubai who introduced us to a number of incredibly qualified individuals. I’d like to thank Helen Rankin (Dubai) and Grant Kemp (UK) for helping guide as we investigated and executed our plan.
We are now proud to have Stuart Thompson, former CMO at GDS International, heading up our European expansion and bringing his wealth of experience in digital marketing and social publishing to the team.
We are equally as honored to have Mohamad ‘Mo’ Akkad assisting our team, the former Director of Microsoft Middle East and the man who launched Windows to the Arab World.
Emanating Company Culture Internationally
For those of you that follow TINT, you know how much we value our culture and transparency. Thus it was incredibly important for us to ensure anyone who would be operating as our ambassadors understood our culture and fit with our team.
Stuart flew out to San Francisco and trained with us for two weeks. After spending his first week shadowing myself at various meetings around town, he did a round robin with each department to get a good feel for how the team worked.
I flew to Dubai and worked with Mo for two weeks as we attended the largest tech conference in the Middle East, Gitex.
Making A Splash
If you are ready to fully make the move to the new market, it’s ideal to go in with a bang to fuel some great opportunities for your team on the ground. Initial successes are very motivating and can really springboard a product and team into a new market.
Finding ways to barter or sponsor for promotion at a relevant industry event is always a great way to let the world know you are here.
If your business is more B2B like ours, one way to get some great reach on a budget is to host a smaller event or educational session for influencers in the space. To do this in Dubai, we rented out a swanky but affordable room at the top of Media One, the building where most digital agencies work in Dubai in the heart of Media City.
We did a series of education and information sessions and offered food, drink, and a fun environment with a view for everyone to chat with each other after about their excitement.
If budget allows, hiring a PR firm is another great way to get in touch with tons of potential clients. If you can find a PR firm whose clients are in your industry and also potential clients for you, it is ideal. We chose Limelight PR in the Middle East since their client base is already comprised of digital marketing agencies, which made for easy introductions. Knowing this could lead to a long term opportunity it is important to do a test run for the 2-3 months around launch. They will be eager to go above and beyond and bring tons of low hanging opportunities from their client network.
It Doesn’t Have to Break the Bank
Our total investment in the first 2 months of our expansion into 3 new markets was an all-inclusive investment of less than $100,000 including personnel, PR team, flights, accommodation, launch events, and sponsorships.
Business and Legal Logistics
It’s easiest to start with someone who has or can setup their own business and operate as a consultant during the first few months. This saves overhead of setting up the business and allows you to test the waters before fully diving in and having the tax implications of international office. Each country has its own rules and regulations for business permits and work visas.
Measuring Success and Moving Forward
We are still too early to give any meaningful reports on our numbers, but as a data driven company, we will be evaluating our growth in each market and deciding where to invest. Our original hope was that we would see a positive return in our expansion investment after 3 months, but we realize now that was very optimistic. A few factors skewed our estimates: our inbound sales cycle, where the majority of our customers come from, is very short. However, moving into new markets also means moving into outbound sales, and we are realizing it is a more extended cycle. With a product like ours, educating our potential customers about how it can be used is a big challenge, which remains a hurdle in some of our new markets. We are now looking to asses our growth in these markets after six months rather than three, to evaluate where we should continue to optimize for international growth.
So far, going global has been a wild and uniquely rewarding ride. I can’t wait to see where it takes us next.