Very good and deep insights by John O'Farrell about his experience taking a startup international.
I had the opportunity to live similar experiences while working at one of the main internet companies of the last 15 years (the most important "directory" and search engine until Google appeared). During my nine years tenure at that company, I could see how important it is to secure the funds to support the international strategy. And, as important as the funding, I could see how securing the internal support of the development and product teams was as key component of the success in implementing that strategy. The CEO and Senior Vice-Presidents might say that international is their big priority (you would usually hear that kind of grandiloquent sentences whenever the US market was failing to deliver good results), but without the real buy-in of the individuals that could really help you, it'd be really hard to have a successful international expansion over time.
Doing a startup is really hard. No one in their right mind would consider doing two startups in parallel, would they? And yet that's what going international is: A second startup inside your first one. And like any startup, it needs people and money to succeed.
Two key questions
Once you've got your strategy, you still need to answer two key questions before you can pull the trigger on international expansion:
1. How are we going to staff it? There are two pieces to this, Visible and Invisible:
- Visible: New people dedicated to international, whether at HQ or in country.
- Invisible, but just as critical: Existing people in the current organization who will need to do additional work to enable it--engineers for internationalization, support staff for ticket escalation, HR people for recruiting and comp work, lawyers for incorporation and tax strategy, etc.
2. How are we going to fund it? Again, two pieces:
- Visible: Direct costs for new people, facilities, travel, etc.
- Invisible: The hidden costs of the additional work required from the rest of the organization.
While you can't ignore the visible direct costs, there's a great temptation to ignore the invisible piece: "Come on, we have a great team, they'll just get it done." That's a big mistake.
In my first international startup role, I experienced that first-hand.
In every case, however, we mapped out up-front all of the work required to make our international startups successful, and assigned a funded budget for it--down to the finance, legal, and HR heads we would need to draw on for tax, incorporation and compensation advice.
The key takeaway to remember is this: If it's unfunded, it's not going to get done.