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This article was published on June 16, 2018

3 basic rules for entrepreneurs who want to expand internationally

3 basic rules for entrepreneurs who want to expand internationally
Barron Ernst
Story by

Barron Ernst

Barron Ernst is Chief Product Officer at Showmax, a Naspers company. Barron Ernst is Chief Product Officer at Showmax, a Naspers company.

I’m often asked how the company I work for managed to successfully expand from Sub-Saharan Africa to Poland, a very different type of market, to say the least. It’s complicated but I can tell you one thing, we didn’t follow any existing playbook.

Instead, we followed some basic rules of the road that I would recommend to all entrepreneurs who want to expand internationally:

Understand your markets and customers

If you don’t take the time to understand how countries differ from one another, it will be an uphill battle to launch your product. There are vast cultural differences that can impact your growth.

Take a mobile product for example. It’s imperative that you consider the behavior of local smartphone users, as well as data costs and plans. It’s surprising how much this can vary across different geographies and it will have an obvious impact on product uptake.

For example, the cost of mobile data in South Africa is high on an absolute basis. When you combine that higher cost with a lower GDP per capita, it means you need to help your customers find ways to reduce their mobile data cost. That’s why early on in our history, my team and I introduced the ability to download content.

Think about the channels you use to market your product. Remember, Facebook targeting and clever ads won’t necessarily have the same impact as they did in your home country. To target your campaign in the right way, you must know the nuances of what and who you’re working with.

Also, audiences for specific channels in other countries may not convert as easily as in the United States or your home country, so you need to aggressively test and carefully consider the right acquisition channels for the country you are targeting.

Understanding customer perception is vital

Never assume that a design which has proven successful in one market will seamlessly integrate in another. WeChat, for example, has a user interface and experience that has proven incredibly popular in China, but not so much in other parts of the world. Much of this success is because it has been tailored to both the Chinese language and local mobile phone usage.

When expanding into France and Japan, the team at Pinterest assumed that translating the product language would be enough to make it a success. Wrong. Ultimately, the company had to retrace their steps and improve their understanding of the language, user experience and targeting to make it work.

It turned out that while users had similar goals, they wanted to share or pin items that were slightly different. Talking to your customer and getting a direct understanding from them is key to expanding your product to other geographies.

Find products that are already successful in your target market

This might sound rudimentary, but it can be a major stumbling point for a lot of businesses. You could develop a product that you’re convinced will revolutionize the market by following the two guidelines above, only to find that an almost identical product already exists.

Research, research, and more research is the only way to identify what will work. Consider developing relationships with successful local companies to get a sense of how they work with their customer base.

Then, consider partnering with a local company to help you launch. Oftentimes, working with a company that understands the market, the customer, and the trends, will help you avoid any initial stumbles as you expand into a new market. We did this in our expansion by hiring a great local Polish team which had previously launched and scaled technical and mobile products and who had a deep understanding of the Polish market.

The steps outlined above are the bread and butter of all successful market expansions. Although every expansion project is different and will encompass a unique set of requirements, customer and market research are fundamental.

And last, but not least, expect to fail nine times before you finally succeed on the tenth. Market expansion is hard, it takes time and you can plan on making some mistakes. Don’t expect any quick wins!