Three keys to getting global expansion right

Sudheesh is the CEO thought point. Before joining ThoughtSpot, Sudheesh was President of Nutanix.

It’s hard for a startup to know when the right time is to go global — but it’s easy to scale too fast or enter the wrong market. Almost every company starts with a single market, and determining when and how to expand internationally is a challenge that every successful company must ultimately address.

At ThoughtSpot, we are familiar with the ups and downs of global expansion. Since I joined the company in 2018, we have changed our entire business model. As you can imagine, international sales teams built around outdated business models were not built to succeed. We have had to take some strategic steps to reassess and restore our global footprint. In some cases, we divest from certain territories. In other areas, we expanded or shifted to a partner-led strategy. This is an ongoing process that is critical to our ability to achieve our corporate goals.

Through these experiences, we have learned some important lessons about how to do business abroad. Many times, U.S. companies customize products or services for their home market and then decide to expand. This is the recipe for disaster. The key to global success is simplicity in theory and complexity in execution—to go global, you have to be local. Here are three keys to getting this right:

1. Maintain your internal culture.

As an expanding company, there are some things you shouldn’t compromise on. One is the unique work culture that sets Silicon Valley startups apart. The innovation culture in Silicon Valley relies heavily on a lack of hierarchy and a willingness to aim high no matter who you are or how long you work.

Silicon Valley itself is a global place with a global culture. It’s living proof that blending people from all over the world can build great work cultures, products and organizations. I’ve lived and worked in multiple countries, and Silicon Valley’s irreverence and ability to challenge the status quo has put it at the heart of the global tech industry.

If you’re a Silicon Valley company, especially a tech startup, there’s no arguing about your internal culture. You want your local national leadership and colleagues to align with your culture, or you risk creating a microculture that is nearly impossible to undo.

2. Adapt your business practices to local conditions.

What you should change is everything around your go-to-market strategy. Successful businesses adapt to local customs. Most companies in the US understand what it’s like to work with a startup. They know that, as an early customer, they may be taking a risk on a promising technology that may not yet be fully mature.

In other parts of the world, this leeway does not exist. Foreign customers pay more attention to product quality, support plans and roadmaps. But be careful with your promises. If you say you’re going to release an update in July, then it needs to happen. Lack of milestones will weaken trust. How you communicate with people overseas is an integral part of the equation. In America, we’ve built a culture where it’s easy to say no. In other parts of the world, employees often say “yes” to unreasonable schedules and do their best. This resulted in missed deadlines that were completely avoidable.

When you arrive in a new area, listen and talk more. There are different ways of communicating globally. Your job is to figure out if a customer bought your information. Your ability to sell in certain markets will depend on third-party channel partners and resellers who can vouch for your products.

Finally, don’t assume that different countries share common values ​​or a common culture just because they speak similar languages. The way you market and position yourself should match the specific region.

3. Hire the right leaders.

As a CEO, it is impossible to get a complete picture of your operations abroad. That’s why the leaders you hire at home are so important. They are responsible for driving and distributing work, maintaining your culture, recruiting, eliminating nepotism and aligning teams with your mission. Performance management is especially important in engineering and product organizations.

Global representation is an important part of diversity. If you’re a leader in a Silicon Valley startup, there’s a good chance you’ll start building teams from your own professional network. Your first few employees may have shared work or academic experience. As you scale, look for different perspectives and experiences to understand the total value you’re trying to build.

This is especially important when building a global team. Don’t automatically assign Americans to lead your overseas expansion. True diversity means diverse life experiences, and global representation is a key part of that. There’s also the reality that some people have to work harder than others to get the same opportunities. If you’re choosing between an Ivy League graduate and someone attending a public university in a developing country, consider what it would take for a second person to compete for the same job. Consider how these experiences shaped their leadership. Evaluate the whole person and what they bring.

Final thoughts: go beyond sales.

In the past, U.S. companies have looked overseas to cut costs or ease back-office work. In a shrinking global economy, this is changing rapidly. An entire generation around the world is now growing up with technology that was unimaginable to previous generations. There are many talents from all over the world, so take advantage of it.

Widespread cloud adoption has changed the way we build companies abroad. The cloud is a great equalizer because organizations or individuals can use the same technology stack whether in Nigeria or New York. With world-class technology, more regions are developing top talent and seasoned leaders. Innovation centers are replacing remote sales teams as a first step into new geographies. Remember: you’re not just there to sell. You build there.

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