When I set out to start my own business three years ago, I never imagined bright lights and private jets to New York or Shanghai for business meetings. Good thing I didn’t because it is nothing like that at all. It was a struggle from day one and I had to embrace the grind to grow.
This is probably why today, my company has offices in four countries across Asia. We started from a humble place and are still growing. We have a long way to go, but I have learned some crucial lessons as a company founder headquartered in Singapore, which is Southeast Asia’s startup hub.
One of the things that benefited my business and my personal journey as a founder, was honest accounts from others who had taken the journey before me. That’s why I will be sharing some key takeaways that can be applied by small businesses looking to expand their scope across countries and regions.
Pick the right time rather than the first opportunity
It reads like a textbook rule, but this is a fundamental principle that any business founder needs to follow when planning their growth. Think very carefully about the right time to expand internationally. Your staff, financials, and product all need to be in order, and you should ensure you have done your market research thoroughly.
One of the things I see most entrepreneurs get wrong is their budgeting. Do not underestimate the budget allocations required to expand in your new region and sustain growth in your home market. Your expansion should not come at the expense of the work you have already established.
“Scaling is only difficult when you grow your organization like a tower instead of a city.” – Jurgen Appelo
As entrepreneurs, we need to do better at supporting our peers. Relationships between business starters can be soured by various factors: jealousy of success, placing value only on the opportunities offered by leads or contacts, and lack of shared experiences once businesses have varying levels of success.
However, it is important to understand that collaborations and partnerships can be extremely valuable in helping business starters to overcome many hurdles they face, not only in terms of shared knowledge but as a therapeutic support network for a job that comes with a unique set of stresses and challenges. We need to work harder at building each other up and becoming a valid resource of support.
Partnerships are also the most cost-effective way to scale and generate business in my experience. My network has been instrumental in generating revenue at the beginning and also during the pandemic, which was critical to us being able to weather the storm and come out stronger.
Being an agile business
If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that stability should not be taken for granted; the entire world can turn upside down alarmingly quickly. While businesses have continuity plans that allow for a sense of preparedness, it is also vital to think flexibly and be open to pivoting quickly when a crisis strikes. Agility is the key to survival and scaling.
Bass & Flinders Distillery in Australia is an excellent example of being agile, especially in such trying times. This startup adapted immediately to the circumstances of the pandemic, working first to produce hand sanitiser and then focussing on online sales and virtual tasting sessions to cater to a house-bound market. Through swift adaptations, they were able to survive a pandemic that has been devastating for the hospitality industry.
Understanding that each market is different
The importance of fully understanding the market where you intend to move cannot be understated. A product that works in one region will not necessarily work in another. Sometimes costly adjustments are needed. Other times you may need to design a completely new product to meet a similar market need.
By their nature, businesses that are operating locally will have a deeper understanding of the local market. Expanding startups will need to grapple with this if they are to flourish in their new environment – remember success in your home market is no guarantee of success elsewhere.
Many of these challenges can be reduced by doing effective research. Make sure you are getting information from accurate sources and have conducted proper testing.
Related to the previous point, it is crucial to have teams on the ground in all your operating locations wherever possible. We have teams in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and India- every single market where we have clients. These ground-based teams have proved invaluable in ensuring that we provide our clients in each market with a seamless service. I meet frequently with each of these teams, (virtually or physically) to maintain our strong collaborative relationship.
While there are cases of successful companies being able to sell or provide services without being there in person, I find that in my experience and industry, having local knowledge and expertise is paramount. Trying to expand in countries without fully understand the local nuances is a challenge and an expensive one at that.
“The gap between what’s expected and what you deliver is where the magic happens, in business and in life.” – Jay Baer
Do not let irrelevant things hold you back
Sometimes it may seem that a lot of things need to be in order to get any startup running, let alone expanding the business across countries. This can be a stumbling block of a lot of people who never actually get their startup or business off the ground.
To better understand this, I spoke to a great entrepreneur, Mathew Stillone, on my podcast Business Over Drinks, about his protein empire that started off from a garage and now makes products for supermarket giants across the globe. Prioritize your focus on your product and generating sales. Learn to prioritize. Producing a solid product and making sales is far more salient than realising your dream office space, for example.
Expanding your small business into new markets can be an exciting way to grow your business. Expansion to new markets can be daunting, but by ensuring you have the right product, budget, and have done thorough research, you can set yourself up to prosper across multiple locations.
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