A smarter international expansion — Part I

Your international launch doesn’t need a marketing plan.

Conventional wisdom says you should go for a big international launch.

You’ve only got one shot. As a result, you need all the big guns: the end-to-end product experience, marketing, localization, PR, social media, legal, customer support, data analytics, finance, and depending on the industry, you most likely have to seed content as well. I recall vividly the Gantt charts we had when launching a new international market at eBay: hundreds of lines long, all neatly mapped to end exactly on that magical Launch Day.

Having worked on international expansion at TransferWise, eBay, and Amazon, and advised international teams across several other technology companies, I realize now that most of the time, companies are doing it completely wrong. And it’s both big companies and start-ups alike who make this mistake.

Fundamentally, we need to bring international launch playbooks up to the times. Like any new product or new start-up, it comes down to (1) lean testing and (2) speed of execution.

This is the first in a 2-part series on being smarter about international expansion. In this post, I discuss the why behind lean international launches. In Part II, I’ll go into more depth on how to execute them efficiently. To simplify the discussion, I will specifically focus on the relationship between the product and marketing, though of course, any of the components of an international launch mentioned above are worth evaluation.

Why have we bought into the concept of MVPs for new products but not new markets?

When launching a new product of uncertain success, the sooner you get a minimum viable product (MVP) out to real customers, the better. Seeing your product in the hands of users, getting valuable feedback, enables you to iterate on the product until it reaches product-market fit — that word-of-mouth inflection point at which you realize your product solves a pain point meaningfully enough that customers are willing to tell their friends about it.

Marketing is a growth accelerator. It cannot work magic if there is no product-market fit and customers don’t want your product. Before product-market fit, marketing is ineffective and ultimately unsustainable.

An international market launch is no different than a product launch. It is a brand new market, a new competitive landscape, a different cultural context. The biggest mistake is to assume that product-market fit in one market translates to other markets.

The beauty of an international launch without marketing is that you can effectively test silently and work out the kinks. There is no better MVP than launching a lot of markets, seeing the product working in a real environment with real customers, and then bringing in marketing for the markets that show affinity for the product. While marketing is driving growth in proven markets, the product team can meanwhile iterate on underperforming markets until they too are ready.

In the end, it’s all about speed

Ultimately, the lean approach to international launches unlocks speed of execution. The point here is very simple — the more teams and people involved in a project, the slower it inevitably moves. It therefore follows that splitting up components of international expansion — product and marketing in this case — and allowing each to operate independently enhances speed by decreasing the cost and time lag of coordination. No team becomes a bottleneck for any other team. And at the end of the day, speed is one of the biggest factors that drives the success of a company.

Let’s take that even further. When each team has the autonomy to independently figure out for themselves where they can have the most impact on growth, it allows each of them to operate at their optimal levels. TransferWise is one of the few companies I’ve seen do this well. At TransferWise, each of the teams, such as international expansion, marketing, and localization, operates independently of each other with distinct KPIs and roadmaps. And that’s okay — the aggregate of each team operating at its peak is much greater than forcing disparate teams to all work on the same area.

Possible challenges

Will it still be newsworthy when I’m finally ready for marketing?

You may argue that marketing or PR needs to actually be the date of launch. Otherwise, if you go to a news agency and said you have a story about how we launched a market a year ago, they probably won’t think it’s real news anymore. But the question is, how exactly do you define a “launch” anyway? Is the launch when you were beta testing or when you decided it was ready for marketing investment? Ultimately, the launch up to you to decide and few will dispute it.

I have a big competitor in the market and I need marketing to fight them!

This justification is one of the biggest indicators of a product that isn’t ready. I am always extremely disappointed to hear companies talk this way. Stop thinking about your competitors and how big the market is, and start thinking about your customers, please. If your value proposition for customers is so weak against competitors that you need marketing to get started, then you should not be launching in that market in the first place. Come back when you have a better product, one that can substantially improve customers’ lives over and above the existing solutions in the market.

My product is heavily regulated and it’s near to impossible to launch a lot of simultaneous MVPs.

Fair point. In my next post, I’ll cover a more on how to prioritize and effectively execute lean international launches. Stay tuned.