I've lately had many discussion on how the break from the Nordics & Baltics and make one's service or product really global. Just recently I had this discussion here at Nordkapp where I work, so it does not only concern software products but equally all the service provides with international ambitions.
For a technology startup this question focuses many times on the issue of whether they should pack their bags and move to the Silicon Valley or whether they should build a strong user base first at home. Another viable option might be to reach out to London, but then again, many think that will only slows you down in your quest to global market share and you should head straight to the eye of the storm where the battle for the critical masses are fought.
This is more of a ongoing conversation than something that can be answered with a clear Yes or No, but here are some thoughts to start with:
- If you know which market you want to get to think about getting a board member, an advisory board member or an investor from the market. Instead of trying to bombard firms operating in the given market with a requests for shallow partnerships or just opening an office there, by aligning someone's interest with yours ie. giving them a stake in your success you can instantly tab into their network of contacts. These people already know who are the people you don't want to work with, because even though someone might have a nice resume they also might have a bad reputation among the local players, which would make your market entry a disaster. And vice versa: They know exactly who are the perfect partners for you and you don't end up taking the one you happen to know from a Trade Show two years ago. To get these people on board you need to focus, do your research on who is the right fit with you, work hard, dedicate time to it and make the offer really worth their time.
- For any consumer technology startup, don't just visit US and get a sales guy in there. Move there permanently for a few years if that's the market you aim for. And if you're building the next consumer web service, that is most likely the market you should aim for to get the traction over competitors. That said, you should still cultivate your network back at home so you can also benefit from that and link other firms from back home to your new contacts. This goes for the time of high growth when you're just building your product, but especially for the time after you have made your millions. You can have a huge advantage by having a network in both ends whether you start another startup or decide turn into an investor.
- When choosing an investor, you want to be careful for not choosing some small local fund, because they might actually limit your company to reach its full potential since they'll hold you back in fearing that they might get squeezed out in the later investing rounds. Also, since cycle times for an exit are growing (what was an exit in 5 years, looks more like an exit in 8 years now) you need a big enough fund that can follow up without running out of money.
- Same goes for advisory board members: Some people active in the Finnish startup scene have voiced their concern about the quality of people present in many of the more informal investor get-togethers. You don't want some former technology company middle manager from the early 90's influencing your vision, because they advice you to take the path they are familiar with which more often than not is something different from going global from day one.
- Even though Silicon Valley is the epicenter of much of the activity in the consumer technology startup world don't only look at the US. Do see how fertile ground India, China or Asia might be for your product. When they all start to look good, remember to choose your battles. As a startup you have very limited resources and if you'd like to push through you need to focus your efforts.
What else should a startup consider when trying to go international?
Here's Jaiku founders' advice on how to choose between London and the Silicon Valley when building a successful startup (original post here)