Go International, Young Startup

Conventional wisdom says that startups need to embed themselves with American customers, sometimes for a stretch of years, before branching out to Europe and then Asia.

Like most conventional wisdom, it's nonsense (or bollocks, absurdité, 廢話 — take your pick).

It's seductive to listen to, especially if you're at all concerned about becoming profitable (a major preoccupation for nearly every entrepreneur, unsurprisingly). Traditionally, you'd start with the U.S. market and stay there, often for several years, because it's worth twice as much as the European market and three times that of going to Asia.

That was true once, but it's not anymore. The whole world is fast becoming one market — and money is a universal language uniting all, whether you're selling in China, marketing to the French or closing a deal in New York City. It may be a happy accident, but it's just as easy to generate revenue internationally as it is to do with your home base clientele.

That's why I think it's critical for companies — including and especially young businesses — to go international earlier, rather than waiting five, seven or 10 years. That was a decision we made for our company, Reputation.com, and it was the right move. It opened some good revenue streams for us and, almost more importantly, helped surface rich cultural intel about our products and what offerings would appeal the most in which markets. As a result, we were able to intelligently redirect resources to capitalize on the countries with the most initial promise for us.

A recent conversation with Dave Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, reinforced the benefits of international expansion.

"If you have a product business and you aren't focused on international, you are missing out on two-thirds of your potential customers," Goldberg told me.

SurveyMonkey was international from its inception, Goldberg said, in that customers overseas could purchase its services. But these customers could only see an English-language website and buy in U.S. dollars and most didn't really want to do business that way. "We were not optimized for international customers," he said.

All of that changed two years ago, when SurveyMonkey localized its site. Goldberg said the transition was fascinating to watch: "Our customer support was only in English, but the next day, those same customers were contacting us in their native language." Today, customers can select from 15 different languages and 29 individual currencies.

There are several lessons here, especially for startups, which would benefit hugely from rapid advances in market share, profit and capability:

Get international. When you focus only on customers in your backyard, you're effectively slamming the door in the faces of international consumers who might be very interested in what you're offering. There are few legitimate arguments for keeping your customer base to one-third its potential size. How can you really say no to expanding by 67 percent? After SurveyMonkey really committed to its international strategy, Goldberg says organic growth accelerated dramatically.

Speak their language. Sales and profits generally increase when companies pursue smart localization. Why? It's the same reason the late Tim Russert secured an incredibly hard-to-get interview with Pope John Paul II. He followed advice from his beloved father, known as Big Russ, to literally speak the pope's language. Russert's earnest letter, written in the pope's native Polish, made the critical difference. The point? Using the right language conveys respect for others — you're meeting them on their terms. It's also proof of a thoughtful commitment to convenience, making it easy for consumers to engage with you.

Don't be unreasonably constrained by cost concerns. Goldberg says the costs to launch a new language for SurveyMonkey are very reasonable, with the tab for annual maintenance even less. They work with a small company that handles the change management associated with multiple languages, and just one full-time employee is responsible for the workflow of these language sites and associated teams. The lesson is clear: Don't just assume international growth will be too expensive. Really do the research and think creatively to see if and how it can be done.

Consider an acquisition. Inorganic growth still very much "counts" as growth and purchasing another company is often an excellent part of a global expansion strategy. Even a small acquisition can open the door to rich opportunities in a new market, expansion of native capabilities, use of patented technologies, etc. Over time, these can contribute mightily to the bottom line.

As I helped ring the "remote" NYSE Opening Bell here in Davos this week, and throughout the meetings here, the markets have clearly been a key topic. For entrepreneurs, the U.S. markets are always fodder for discussion and enthusiasm — but what's interesting is the clear emergence of international markets as attractive contenders for startups. And at Davos, the vibrant discussions and global ideas are a great reminder that shedding inward myopia expands the potential for real and significant success.

Perhaps companies should put a fresh spin on the famous exhortation: "Go West, young man, and grow up with the country." While lacking that historic ring, "Go international, young startup, and grow the company," is absolutely the right advice for young businesses.

Put another way: get aggressive, get purposeful and get global.

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