Sudheesh is its CEO ThoughtSpot. Prior to joining ThoughtSpot, Sudheesh was President at Nutanix.
It’s hard for a startup to know when the time is right to go global — but it’s very easy to expand too quickly or into the wrong markets. Almost every company begins life in a single market, and determining when and how to expand internationally is a challenge that every successful company must eventually face.
At ThoughtSpot, we’re familiar with the ups and downs of global expansion. Since I joined the company in 2018, we have changed our entire business model. As you can imagine, international sales teams built around an outdated business model were not built for success. We had to take some strategic steps back to reassess and restore our global footprint. In some cases, we divested from certain areas. In others, we expanded or shifted to a partner-led strategy. It is an ongoing process that is critical to our ability to achieve our goals as a business.
Through this experience, we took away some critical lessons about how to do business overseas. All too often, American companies build a product or service that is specifically designed for their home market and then decide to expand. This is a recipe for disaster. The key to global success is simple in theory and complex in execution — to go global, you must be local. Here are three keys to getting it right:
1. Maintain your internal culture.
As a growing company, there are certain things you should not compromise on. One is the unique work culture that makes Silicon Valley startups. Much of Silicon Valley’s culture of innovation depends on a lack of hierarchy and a willingness to aim high no matter who you are or how long you’ve been around.
Silicon Valley is itself a global place with a global culture. He is living proof that mixing people from all over the world makes it possible to create superior work cultures, products and organizations. I’ve lived and worked in many countries, and Silicon Valley’s irreverence and ability to challenge the status quo have made it the heart of the global tech industry.
If you’re a Silicon Valley company, particularly a tech startup, your internal culture is non-negotiable. You want your leaders and colleagues in the local country to align with your culture, or you risk creating microcultures that can be nearly impossible to undo.
2. Adapt your business practices to local contexts.
What you need to change is everything around your marketing strategy. Successful businesses adapt to local customs. Most companies in the US understand what it’s like to work with startups. They know that as an early customer, they may be taking a chance on a technology with a lot of promise, but that may not be finished.
In other parts of the world, this leeway does not exist. Overseas customers are more aware of product quality, support plan and roadmap. But be careful what you promise. If you say you’ll deliver an update in July, it needs to happen. Lack of milestones will erode trust. How you communicate with your people overseas is an integral part of this equation. In the US, we have built a culture that allows us to say no. In other parts of the world, workers often say yes to an unreasonable schedule and then give it their best shot. This leads to missed deadlines that are completely avoidable.
When you arrive in a new area, you listen more than you talk. Global communication styles vary. It’s your job to make it clear whether customers are buying your message or not. Your ability to sell in certain markets will depend on third party channel partners and resellers who can vouch for your product.
Finally, don’t assume that different countries have common values or a common culture just because they speak a similar language. The way you market and position yourself should match the specific area.
3. Hire the right leaders.
As a CEO, it is impossible to have a complete picture of your operations abroad. That’s why the leaders you hire in the country are so critical. They are responsible for driving and allocating work, maintaining your culture, hiring, eliminating nepotism, and keeping the team aligned with your mission. In engineering and product organizations, performance management is especially critical.
Global representation is an essential part of diversity. If you’re the leader of a Silicon Valley startup, there’s a good chance you’ll start building your team from your own professional network. Your first hires likely have common work or academic experience. As you expand, seek out different opinions and experiences to understand the overall value of what you’re trying to create.
This is especially important when building global teams. Don’t automatically put an American in charge of your overseas expansion. True diversity means varied life experiences, and global representation is a critical part of that. There is also the reality that some people have to work harder than others for the same opportunities. If you’re choosing between an Ivy League graduate and a person who went to a public university in a developing country, think about what it took for that second person to compete for the same job. Consider how these experiences may have shaped their leadership approach. Assess the whole person and what they bring to the table.
Final Thought: Think beyond sales.
In the past, American companies looked abroad to cut costs or offload back-office work. In an ever-shrinking global economy, this is changing rapidly. An entire generation of people around the world has now grown up with an understanding of technology that previous generations could only imagine. There is tremendous talent all over the world, so use it.
The widespread adoption of the cloud has changed the way we build companies overseas. The cloud is a great equalizer because an organization or individual can use the same technology stack whether they are in Nigeria or New York. With best-in-class technologies available globally, more regions are producing top talent and experienced leaders. Innovation centers are replacing remote sales teams as the first foray into a new territory. Remember: You’re not just there to sell. You are there to build.