We’re constantly reminded that in this globalised and web-enabled world, regional business barriers have been destroyed. Some of the world’s most successful companies – particularly in the technology sector – have thrived by looking at what unites a more ‘global’ user base, rather than aiming to serve a limited, domestic market.
This is why the likes of Google and Facebook have set a new standard for world-beating businesses. But the global expansion of Google and Facebook were successful because of judgment, timing and capital. They first dominated their home markets, giving them the firepower for expansion.
So is international growth now easier than before? The web certainly makes it simpler for some companies to operate internationally, and a more globalised business culture has driven an undeniable (although limited) element of worldwide commonality. But unfortunately, the simple idea of a “global marketplace” underestimates the cost and investment required to capitalise on it.
Crucially, entering a new market involves significant up-front investment. The capital, resource and sheer effort required can be immense and should never be underestimated, even for web-based companies such as ours. When we expanded Moonfruit.com into France it took a whole year to prepare our product for multiple languages – despite our website-building business being transferrable across different markets. It then took further investment to support and develop that market.
Growth begins at home
The key to tackling international growth is succeeding in the domestic market first. Problems that remain unsolved at home are unlikely to disappear once your business goes abroad: if anything, those difficulties will be magnified when you operate in unfamiliar territory. Furthermore, customer acquisition in your home market is easier, quicker and cheaper than when you’re faced with cultural and linguistic barriers.
When it’s the right time to embrace the global opportunity, there are a few points to consider:
Look for cultural and market similarities – particularly in terms of buyer behaviour and language/culture. It’s also worth considering the commonality of that new market: the US, for example, has a number of structural advantages compared with the EU, which instead brings together a miscellany of different cultures, languages and local restrictions.
Establish a presence on the ground. Local presence is essential to operate successfully in any market. Search engines use server locations to determine local results, so even online businesses need to localise. This is why, as part of Moonfruit.com’s current expansion into the US, a member of the senior team flies over at least once a month, and our website is hosted in the US and UK.
Learn from the experts. Look for the resources available to guide you on expanding your business internationally. Initiatives such as Seedcamp have been created specifically to mentor new businesses and connect entrepreneurs with useful contacts.
Plan your funding needs
Scale your ambition. Your projected acquisition will naturally depend on your level of financial backing and available capital. Make sure you have a clear idea of the funds available to you before embarking on international plans, and be realistic about what you can achieve.
Live the American dream. It may be controversial, but the advantages of the US market –which is eight times bigger than the UK’s – cannot be ignored. Early-stage start-ups could consider a joint UK/US strategy right from the outset, to avoid being dwarfed by American competitors who have more power when they expand into the UK.
Innovate with new, low-cost channels. Mobile and social media channels can allow you to reach hundreds of thousands of people through recommendations, social campaigns and viral content. We ran a Twitter competition for Moonfruit.com’s 10th anniversary ¬– and as a result, we (globally) trended on Twitter for three days. This increased US traffic by 400% and permanently increased our customer subscriptions by 20%. 35% of our customer base is now in the US, fundamentally changing the trajectory of our business. It cost us just £12,000 and a few sleepless nights!
The international opportunity is important for growing businesses. But like most strategic decisions, timing is crucial – as well as the foundation, the backing and the passion to succeed.
Wendy Tan White is the founder and CEO of Moonfruit