The notion of introducing a product or service internationally can often seem daunting and overwhelming. From not understanding where to start and lack of knowledge about the international demand for a product or service to specifics such as localization, pricing structures, marketing, and language translation, there are all kinds of issues that make the undertaking extremely challenging. Occasionally, though, we find examples of organizations that begin internationally from the start, with no fear at all. Why are some ready from the get-go and others wary of entering the international arena?
For many, readiness may simply be a by-product of circumstance and chance, according to Aytul Ercil, our guest on The Global Marketing Show, episode 109. Aytul is an applied researcher and co-founder and CEO of Vispera, an image-recognition company providing retail execution and tracking services to grocery stores and suppliers worldwide. From the outset, Türkiye-based Vispera operated as a global company: “We were born global from the very first day, so we were never afraid of going international,” says Aytul. “Because sales cycles are usually longer in Türkiye than elsewhere, the Turkish population didn’t trust us as much, so we looked outside of the country for our first clients. And I had lived in the US for nine years, so I understood international life. I was always involved in international life.”
Initially, clients found Vispera by word of mouth. The company built its website solely in English and yet, from inception, fielded requests from potential customers worldwide. In fact, the first sales request came from outside Türkiye; thereafter, Vispera quickly expanded into 11 countries due simply to project extensions from that initial organization. Today, Vispera’s technology is implemented in 35 countries, with clients such as Coca-Cola, Circle K, and Unilever.
Long sales cycles did shorten over time; however, without an initial marketing budget, growing organically proved extremely challenging. In fact, Vispera survived the first three to four years without a dedicated salesperson. And although North America is now its largest target market, the company first worked with companies in South America. Since then, the company has expanded into Chicago (2021) and London (2022), and now has an experienced managing director in the US and Europe. The company expects to grow by 20% in 2023.
Common Obstacles to International Growth
Vispera’s rapid international growth may be unusual for most startups. Aytul cites the major challenges for startups seeking international sales as a lack of money and marketing resources. Furthermore, the ability to hire good salespeople takes time, she says: “You first need to build up your reputation in order to attract a good salesforce.” Physical presence, or touch, is also a key ingredient made even more challenging by the pandemic. Because so many aspects of the sales process went remote, the physical element of building relationships was lost, and “in-person interactions are so important in building any kind of relationship,” she emphasizes.
The lack of an entrepreneurial system and venture capital “angels” also makes growing internationally difficult for any startup. “When I started my first company, we worked from project to project initially, instead of by building a product, but that turned out to be a mistake,” recalls Aytul. “But we had no alternative. We had no money, so we had to work that way.” After many initial mistakes, especially in the financial arena, she learned through trial and error: “I didn’t even know what a P&L statement was at first! So, some of the financial decisions I made at first weren’t good, but I learned. And the sales force made mistakes because we couldn’t afford good people. But over time, as we grew, we were able to hire better people.”
Unlock Growth Through Creative Partnerships and Fundraising
Aytul’s first company specialized in machine vision and experienced resistance simply because, at the time, no one expected Türkiye to produce high-tech products. The company’s trajectory improved dramatically once it began collaborating with a German partner to create a product, rather than just moving from one project to another: “I think the key for any startup is to think creatively about your fundraising,” advises Aytul, and “[i]f you can find a partner to help, even better.” The team first met its German partner through a European Machine Vision Association (EMVA) conference and was eventually purchased by the partner company. Following the sale, Aytul and her R&D manager took the lessons they had learned and started Vispera, bolstered by continued financial backing from its German partner.
Effective Leadership Drives Growth Through Translation
Having good leadership is absolutely critical to the growth of any organization. Vispera conducts weekly meetings with its managing directors and monthly meetings with regional managers to discuss common goals and plans. The company also conducts a three-day strategy meeting with global managers on go-to-market strategies, ensuring that marketing messages are consistent and globalized. “Basically, our clients have the same issues wherever they are. In some countries like India, the problems may differ slightly since stores are smaller mom-and-pops, but with large retailers the issues, criteria, and methods are pretty similar.” All communications are conducted in English including documents and presentations. Even internally, English is the standard language.
Conversely, the technical vocabulary within the company’s software is relatively limited, which makes working in various local markets somewhat easy; other types of companies, in different industries, may find that step more difficult. The software is also flexible, so can easily be customized into any language. And wherever the company requires more detailed market orientations it hires bilingual employees.
Build a Strong Global Foundation to Accelerate Growth
The key to building an international organization from the start, underscores Aytul, is to develop a strong international base upon which to build. To start:
Hire good people. Make sure that you have solid managers or directors in each country that know the region, understand the industry, and have good management capabilities. They need to be able to create a strong team and a pipeline of prospects through their connections.
Have a good on-boarding strategy. It’s important to have a solid documentation process to understand all the internal processes within the company, both for clients and new employees.
Unified communication. It is critical for everyone to be aligned around the same goals. If not, the entire sales effort and production process simply won’t work. Everyone needs to agree on and follow similar messaging with the same ultimate goals.
Perseverance and resiliency. Resiliency is so important, especially when beginning an international venture. Things may not go your way at first, so the ability to pivot and refocus, and be flexible, is an important attribute. Sabir! (Patience!)
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About the Author - Hannah Pentz
Hannah Feldman Pentz is an experienced marketer and content communicator, especially for professional services, Business to Business, and inbound marketing. She has extensive experience working with management consulting firms, helping them to create and implement marketing plans geared toward Fortune 500 global companies, as well as smaller non-profits. A graduate of Vassar College, (B.A., English) Hannah and her family live in the Boston area.