In the first week of December, Anja Riemer-Grobe and I co-hosted a virtual event called Business Beyond Borders. Our aim was to provide some inspiration for inexperienced exporters or companies who would like to go international but were not sure where to start.
Consequently, we planned a transparent structure of 12 expert speakers across 5 different key themes, and sprinkled so-called “Windows on the World” about specific markets in between.
You can read more about the event and even get hold of all of the replays, live recordings and additional bonus gifts here.
Despite us having 5 distinct daily themes, a number of topics came up again and again in our interviews. Those are what I’d like to summarise in this post.
1) Have a Strategy
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to approach international business in an intentional way.
International expansion decisions don’t happen overnight (or at least they shouldn’t!). They come as the result of extensive research and planning triggered by market events, indicating potential abroad for your products or services.
Your goal is to expand into countries that are attractive markets for your business but where you also have a strong ability to execute and scale your operations. Remember, not all opportunities are created equal.Kathryn
The quote above is from my free ebook “How to Decide which International Market to Expand into” – if you don’t already have a copy, you can download it here.
That book is about choosing new markets, but it’s important to approach all aspects of your “Business Beyond Borders” in a strategic way. Be intentional and write stuff down. It doesn’t have to be a huge complicated plan if you are just starting out for the first time, but get it out of your head and onto paper. Consider all parts of your business: product, financial, supply chain, sales, marketing. It’s important that you get all departments involved in your international projects. Without their buy in, your chances of success are seriously reduced.
The very worst kind of internationalisation happens when an enquiry comes into the company and you get all excited because it’s “abroad”, rather than thinking about how it fits in with your overall plans. Doing Business Beyond Borders means you have to think further (metaphorically and physically) than usual. You need to know HOW to even get the products where they need to go and that they will be suitable for sale when they arrive.
If you don’t consider how each “building block” of your business will approach the international expansion you will end up with increased costs, wasted time and probably disappointed customers not to mention internal stakeholders.
2) Don’t make Assumptions
If I asked you about almost any market in the world, you probably would have some kind of mental picture of what the country is like. Trouble is, that might not be within a million miles of the reality.
Don’t assume that:
- your product is suitable for Estonia or Uganda.
- the content marketing from Vietnam will work in Sweden
- your business model from California will automatically work in India
“Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in awhile, or the light won’t come in.”~ Alan Alda
Just because your business is successful in your country, doesn’t mean that it will automatically have potential in another market. That also applies if there are superficial similarities. There are many markets worldwide who speak English but doesn’t mean that the USA will automatically like your folder which was designed for the UK (hint: they might, but they probably won’t). You have to do the research to see what consumers in any particular market are really looking for.
In the end it comes down to localisation (there are whole university courses on that topic!). If you don’t deliver what the customer is looking for, then they won’t buy – doesn’t matter if it’s a product or service. How do you know what the market wants? Keep asking questions!
So that brings me to my next point…
3) Do your Homework
Before you enter into ANY international market (yes, even if you are a Croat entering Slovenia or a Canadian entering the US – that counts as “business beyond borders”) then do your homework first. The more that you can learn about the business structures and cultural norms in your target market, the better your chances of success.
It means you are replacing your assumptions with facts. You can find such huge amounts of information on the internet that there really is no excuse for not doing the desk work up front of any project.
Anything that you can learn through secondary research by asking Mr Google (or your search engine of choice) or asking experts that you may know will directly increase your chance of success. There really is no excuse for trying to reinvent the wheel. Repeating the expensive mistakes that others have made before you, isn’t a good use of your time or financial resources.
Whilst doing your homework before starting out, is a key foundation to successful international business, you should never forget that…
4) You don’t know, what you don’t know
It’s all very well to do your homework up front, but what if you ask the wrong questions? What happens if you just didn’t consider certain critical factors? How can you prevent nasty surprises from happening? Actually, I should probably rephrase that to, “how can you minimise the nasty surprises?” as realistically speaking there are bound to be a few along the way.
There are quite a few resources that you can call upon for help even if you’re not really sure what kind of help that you need.
Most countries have Chamber of Commerce type structures who may be able to able with both general and specific enquiries. They potentially have experts who can advise you at minimum cost on the basics of entering into a specific market. They may even have details about some key industries. The disadvantage though is that often this advice can be quite general, so whilst useful, it may not be relevant to your specific situation. However, any kind of formal institution can usually give you great support with:
- Rules and regulations
- Horror stories of things that went wrong in the past for other people
- Recommending further sources of info in your local language or at least English
Informal Expert Contacts
LinkedIn and sometimes targeted Facebook groups can be great sources of advice. Build a network of connections in your field and exchange ideas about your projects. This could be with complementary industries if you want to avoid the risk of direct competition. I’ve received support from my LinkedIn network in the past when I’ve been
– searching for specific information about importing used tractors into Vietnam
– needed a speaker for an event
– trying to help a mentee find a virtual internship.
Additionally, we couldn’t have reached so many people for our Business Beyond Borders Event without the functionality of LinkedIn.
Under certain circumstances it might be worth your time to engage a consultant to give you really targeted support. If you consider going that route, then it’s important that you look for someone who has deep knowledge of the markets you want to penetrate. That means country and industry.
2 additional learnings that intrigued & amused me:
a) The Underwear Effect
The Project Underwear report builds on a concept developed by Renato Beninatto, that consuming content, and communicating in our own native language is as private and personal as it gets—and what is personal is what ultimately drives buying decisions.
“That is the Underwear Effect, the term to describe situations where consumers are making their buying decisions during their (almost) most private moments, with their mobile phone in hand wearing nothing but their underwear. And what does cling to a person even more closely than his or her undergarments? Why, their language, of course.
The study addresses the question whether consumers would purchase more online if the content is available in their native language. The conclusion is a definite yes, so let this be a call to truly localise your content for your target markets.
b) Are you a Peach or a Coconut?
I was asked this question by Vivian Manasse, towards the end of a really fun conversation about intercultural intelligence. It intrigued me as I’d never heard it before although I spent my whole career doing “Business Beyond Borders”. I can’t be the only one who’d never heard of it, can I?
Well, basically, the question refers to how easy it is to get to know you…
If you originate from France, Russia or Germany, then the chances are that you are a coconut. A coconut is really hard on the outside, but sweet and delicious once you’ve taken the time to break into it. It takes a little bit of effort, but is well worth it.
In practical terms that may mean that you are less ready to engage in conversation with strangers. You might come across as being a bit unfriendly or unapproachable at first. However once others have “broken” through the shell, then deep friendships can ensue.
A peach is sticky sweet on the outside with a hard stone in the middle. Typical peach cultures are the USA or Japan, who are friendly to people they just met. They smile at strangers, chat, share information, and are very nice and helpful. Once you get past the initial friendliness, it’s hard to get to their true self as that is protected by the hard shell of the pit. (Random fact, the bit inside of a peach pit is poisonous – contains cyanide – if a truck load is consumed). This can be seen as superficial to say a Russian.
“It depends” has to be the best answer ever…not
This is always going to be relative though. As a Brit, I probably come across as a coconut to an American. On the other hand, to a French person I might come across as a peach.
If you’re working with international teams then you need to consider this. Otherwise, your US developer may feel that the German project manager is being aggressive. The German on the other hand may feel that the American is shallow or oversharing.
I know that there’s quite a lot of literature on this topic out there, but the phraseology was new for me!
I’d love to have more insights on the very subtle differences within regions though. So say between Baltic states (my guess is that the Estonian sees the Lithuanian as a peach) or Caribbean Islands. What about the differences between the republics who used to form Yugoslavia? Do they become “peachier” as they get further south?
And what are you? A peach? Or a coconut? Leave me a comment below!
I hope that you enjoyed the Business Beyond Borders event and found this roundup of themes useful. What were your takeaways from the event? Let me know what you found most valuable so that we can create more of that kind of content.