Turning international expansion into a success story

Apr 01, 2019
If your company is considering expanding overseas, there are three critical issues to address.

Expansion can be an attractive strategic option for businesses, whether mature or start-up, and there is significant motivation for both investors and businesses that are willing to accept the capital opportunities that exist. This willingness must include openness to the impact the investors can have on the business and the drive that investors may have to expand internationally, with all the change that can impose – both positive and negative.

The opportunity for this strategic option is significant as, according to the Irish Venture Capital Association, over €600 million was invested by foreign venture capital firms in Irish start-ups in 2017 alone. With foreign equity capital, there is added pressure to expand into foreign markets. This can be driven by investors’ ambition to achieve economies of scale in production and sales by accessing foreign markets. It can also be driven, however, by the need and/or want of the management team to be physically closer to the new foreign investor.

In selecting a start-up or business in which to deploy its capital, the foreign investor will go through the due diligence process. They will inspect the health of the business and determine the company’s projected growth, and compare it with their desired investment returns. The promises made at this point can determine whether the company should pursue international expansion to deliver the forecasted revenue growth.

To deliver the anticipated capital investment returns and avoid being one of the seven-in-ten start-ups that fail due to premature scaling, according to Forbes, companies must focus on three key issues. They are: product-market fit, which is too often assumed; office expansion, which must be tied to key strategic initiatives; and cultural and operational considerations, which concern the environment and what people do in it.

Product-market fit

A primary consideration for a company is the identification of a market for its product or service. According to Business Leader, however, 42% of small businesses fail because there is no market for their product or service. For a business to thrive, it must first identify a problem it is uniquely positioned to solve.

Product-market fit can be easy to define, but harder to physically identify. One can identify success in product-market fit when the product is delivering its value proposition to those first few customers; when the customers are promoting the product and encouraging further purchases through word-of-mouth; and when the product is selling faster than it can be distributed or shipped. As venture capitalist, Marc Andreesen, once said: “product-market fit is the only thing that matters”.
Having completed the product-market fit phase, the next step is to explore, research and frame markets that appear similar to the existing customer profile. Identifying markets with similar behaviours to the existing market will contribute significantly to – or even determine – the success or failure of the expansion. It is obvious, but critical, that thorough due diligence and research into a similar market space is completed prior to any significant investment of time and capital in international expansion.

Expanding teams and offices

For any international expansion to be effective, there must be clarity in the strategic reasoning such as product-market fit or strategic fit, specifically in relation to human resources. The lure of acquiring new talent is very attractive and the prospect of gaining comparative advantage by leveraging skills in other markets through expansion is often a strong strategic objective. This is why Ireland remains an attractive destination for US companies seeking to expand and establish a European presence.  Indeed, Ireland is the European headquarters for some of the world’s largest technology companies including Hubspot, LogMeIn, Facebook and Google. The country’s educated and technologically perceptive labour force can facilitate growth – and that’s before you factor in the country’s effective tax laws and ready access to the single European market. Irish businesses, on the other hand, often look westward to drive increased revenue through access to the large US market, which is currently very attractive for enterprise and consumer software businesses.

To facilitate the market fit, the fulfilment of factor and/or the resource needs, start-ups must focus on the people contribution. They must therefore obtain the right skills; establish a support team in the new country; and develop a centre of excellence in that area. Skills gaps in the areas of manufacturing and mass production are easier to satiate by outsourcing, in particular in non-high-tech or non-high-precision products. The aforementioned support-team approach suits companies that require a customer relationship presence without duplicating all services, and with a focus on local customer and marketing support. Customers generally prefer companies to establish a local presence as this provides the customer with clear access to the product or service provider. The third approach is to establish centres of excellence in cities with particularly strong labour forces, in order to drive the company’s research and development initiatives. Edinburgh, for example, is a burgeoning hub for artificial intelligence (AI) talent thanks in large part to the ongoing efforts of universities such as Heriot-Watt University.

Scalable company culture 

As a company expands its physical footprint, the day-to-day running of the organisation must evolve. The business structure will have various teams in different locations and different time zones, with potentially different perspectives on the organisation. As growing a business involves a group of people coming together to achieve a shared vision of how a product or service will impact on a market, conflict may arise in terms of people, processes, systems and structures. While trying to achieve the best product-market fit, management must also create a culture that can evolve while maintaining the organisation’s core values and purpose.

For people to effectively execute their function in a growing business, individuals must have complete clarity on the reporting structure. Keeping people in specific silos can often be counter-productive when it comes to solving the hardest problems, but management must ensure that individuals are not working on too many teams simultaneously or getting stretched too thin. Likewise, the inverse is also true. Management must be alive to the prospect of redundancy between teams, leading to unclear roles and despondent employees.

Communication is the key to striking the right balance, and this involves more listening than talking. Even the virtual experience of presence – using live digital feeds, for example – can connect people different locations in a meaningful way. Technology offered by Slack, Skype and others have made it easier than ever before for colleagues in different countries and time zones to communicate effectively, and thereby enabling a company to scale. Invision, for example, has a completely remote workforce. This intangible work environment and culture is built around technology and transparency, which facilitates communication and collaboration.

As good as these collaborative and communication tools are, there is no real replacement for being face-to-face with a colleague or – more importantly – a customer for building relationships. 70% of communication is said to be non-verbal and a lot can get lost in translation, as technology cannot give the feel of the environment and always creates a sense of distance unless the relationship is long-term and very well-established. Businesses must therefore balance the need to combine the capitalist fact of return on investment with feeling in satisfying the needs and wants of clients and customers.

It is imperative that a company with teams in different time zones works to create an environment or culture that promotes collaboration, thereby avoiding a ‘them and us’ culture. Intercom provides a good example. In the early days of expansion, Intercom installed a camera in its San Francisco office and transmitted live footage to a screen in its Dublin office to help colleagues in both locations seem that bit closer. This approach has privacy and GDPR issues attached, of course, but it can create a perception of continuous presence and connection.

Ensuring that project teams, or ideally the entire company, meet regularly is key to building strong relationships that endure. It is important to budget for these off-site gatherings and while they may appear in the financial statements as a cost, the positive impact may be seen in the retention of a key client or the improved delivery of a project, for example. Alternatively, colleagues may develop a joined-up approach to land a new account while working from different sides of the world. What would that say to a prospective client about the company’s cohesion and approach to integration?


International expansion requires a thoughtful and strategic approach, ensuring that expansion is commenced for the right reasons – be it to expand the sales efforts in a different market or to capture key talent in order to gain a competitive advantage. For any expansion to be successful, the company’s structures and processes must chime with the company’s overall culture. The key to solving most expansion-related issues is the company’s mission and vision – everything should stem from this.

David Andreasson is Director of Finance and Operations at Voysis. Fearghal McHugh is a Lecturer in Business Leadership and Governance at Chartered Accountants Ireland and GMIT.