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How the C-Suite can accidentally kill international expansion

I’ve had the privilege at working with a lot of different companies to help them launch in new markets. So I’ve seen a lot of different methods for expanding internationally. Some opt to acquire companies and take on the burden of integrating a company and a country simultaneously. Some go into globalization without a comprehensive plan, but they start with countries that speak the same language. And some try targeted development to realize opportunities. Regardless of how a company starts global expansion, many fail miserably. To be clear, global expansion is not difficult but it takes a C-level commitment and understanding that few companies can muster. So if you are a C-Suite member this entry is for you.

The excitement for a technology, or in this case a market is inversely proportional to the understanding of it. It’s obvious that total addressable market (TAM) outside the US is large. And if you’re in the C-Suite you’d be derelict in your duties not to figure out a way to expand internationally. But without preparation and the right people working with you, all you have is excitement, a potential failure ahead, and a tough discussion with your board or investors.

Future posts will take up how to be successful, but “speaking truth to power” is the only way I can help you not fail miserably and prevent your errors from affecting the organization/organism and the individuals you have committed to help succeed.

What follows is a list of ways you as a C-Suite member may inadvertently cause the failure of global expansion at your company. After I list them I will address each one and explain how it may lead to failure. In a future post I can evaluate how some of these strategies can lead to success.

  1. Hire a single person and expect they will solve it.
  2. Hire more than one person, but bury them in a group within your company without the C-level support they need to influence roadmaps and drive change.
  3. Over commit to new features for existing customers and expect global to get done simultaneously.
  4. Allow sales teams to drive new feature commitments with little oversight.
  5. Expect that your product is so good that just localizing it will expand your markets.
  6. Acquihire or acquire your way into new markets with the hope of expanding inorganically.
  7. Depending on native applications to support app localization for your products

Hire a single person

I’ve seen this strategy fail many times. A single person will not be able to shift the whole company and drive towards global. A single person can present a vision and do the difficult work of building the business case for global expansion, but even one person answering to the CEO or COO cannot help a company launch globally by themselves.

Hire a group without C-level support or direct access to the C-level.

Hiring a team and burying them in some org (product, operations, UX. etc) will ensure failure. Global is equal parts persuasion, education, and company mandate. A team buried in an org chart will find it difficult to influence the whole company even if the team owns a platform that everyone depends on. And without a direct line to the C-level exeutives to brief them on progress, one of the C-Level executives will try and solve global with a more “expedient” method that will lead to failure.

Over commit to new features for existing customers

Teams are limited in their ability to plan a product and deliver it. This capacity is further burdened by updates and KTLO work. If commitments are made to existing customers, global will continue to be de-prioritized.  The C-level’s job is to make sure global is funded and well understood by the board so the pressure to increase revenue is not met with short-sighted and haphazard feature delivery at the cost of the foundational work for global.

Allow sales to drive product development

A sales C-level executive will push forward sales at the cost of global development of there is not a comprehensive plan. This is usually a result of pressure from the board or shareholders that want immediate revenue growth. It is true that revenue may be easier with existing customers, but this sacrifices the ability to support new markets.

Localization as a strategy for global growth

Content people and ill-informed product teams will assume spending money to localize content will garner global success. And development teams will advocate for MT and GenAI as solutions to the difficult issue of global expansion. These are only half measures and are more likely to cause poor UX and bad publicity than they are to drive global growth.

Acquihire or acquire

This sometimes ill-advised strategy is usually initiated by strategy or corp dev teams. It is true that acquiring companies in other regions provides you a presence but it doesn’t usually provide an unfettered revenue stream. You are trading one problem (making a global stack) for another (integrating software, teams, and supporting new teams in new languages). Even if you book instant revenue you have also acquired significant expense and technical debt that makes it harder to create a single global stack that can accelerate global expansion and lower per country launch costs. With meticulous planning and the right people this can work, but not always.

Depend on native apps to support app localization

Another common practice I’ve seen is to leverage native mobile applications to help you create a global presence. It is possible to leverage native i18n and l10n to localize the UI but it will just lead to a mixed language experience. The backend and runtime content will be coming from your systems, and unless you’ve localized all of it, you will have products in two languages. This gets even more confusing depending on how the UI strings are triggered vs. the dynamic content.

Another common issue is that the webpage and web app will depend on different code, so they will function differently. And now your teams are stuck addressing technical debt across different experiences rather than optimizing experiences for specific markets or user segments.

Towards a holistic global-first framework

So now that you know some of the ways you can fail to go global,  it might be good to confirm once again that it is possible and really not that hard to make a scalable, extensible architecture that can support global growth and make global expansion a business decision rather than a technical decision. But before you can create a global-first framework, you have to adapt whatever you’ve created to new markets. If done efficiently your first migration can serve as a template for how to plan and execute an international launch.

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