We live in truly amazing times.  Back in the internet stone age (the year 2000) there were only 350 Million online globally, and the content was largely English language focused.  Today, 2.6 Billion people are online and the dominant country is China.

As access to the internet has exploded over the past few years, some digital powerhouses have done a great job of taking their businesses global.  Facebook, for example, had such a rabid following that they were able to crowdsource the initial translation of their site – largely for free.  This allowed them to rapidly expand and capture market share across the globe before local competitors could provide a scaled alternative.

Unfortunately, most brands don’t have millions of loyal fans standing ready to translate their sites and localize their customer experiences for free.  So below are a few thoughts on going global in a hyper-competitive landscape where speed is key and copycats abound.

1.  Think through your start-up’s overall white space strategy first

While the complexity of going global for consumer web products without a clear revenue model beyond advertising has been reduced  (witness the quick global rise of Facebook & Twitter) things get trickier if your start-up is focused on enterprise software or eCommerce.  So, even if you are dying to get moving, it’s good to pause for a moment with a team of specialists and think through your international go to market plan.  You’ll want to make sure you’re clear on cost of market entry, etc. first.

2.  Look beyond the UK

Most US start-ups like to target Europe first, which is a solid approach. But once you’ve been through your white space strategy work, your team may want to consider entering larger markets first (e.g. Germany) before the copycats start winning market share in Europe’s biggest market.  You might also want to consider entering one key Asian market.  Whatever you decide, you’ll want to have a deep look at what it will take to position your brand for success in that market.  And, you’ll want to have some experts consider the global payment and tax issues your company will encounter abroad as well.

3.  Start identifying the key capabilities & partnerships required to execute in market 

It’s hard to give up control over your start-up after it has performed so well in its home market.  However, to move quickly and get into white space before competition, you may want to consider making a strategic partnership with a local team that can get you up and running quickly.  If you are thin on funding, you may even want to consider setting up a license or distribution agreement.  Additionally, if your start-up is on the enterprise side, you’ll likely need to connect with business development partners who understand how to sell to corporate clients.

4.  Build a winning plan

In the start-up product world, we’re used to operating within a lean context and iterating quickly.  We often don’t have time to think through our mid-range product road-map, much less our overall global plan & approach.  However, launching effectively into a new market involves more organizational and technical complexity, so it’s good to have a solid plan and fully understand the real cost of doing business internationally.  Developing a robust plan that captures the financial, organizational, technical challenges will help you navigate this new phase of your business.

5.  Get ready for continual software localization

Internationalization and localization is not just about making sure your software strings are “externalized” and then sent over to a local translation office for a 1-off translation make-over.  You need to consider how your localization might impact your database. Then, you need to figure out how you’re going to put a process in place for ongoing, continual updates.  In a nutshell, you are going to need to put a localization strategy in place to ensure you are ready for the onslaught of changes, updates and road bumps that come with the technical localization process.

6.  Marketing in a social world is all about content, experience and engagement–and that needs to be local

Once you’ve got your software up to speed and you are confident that your web/mobile presence is fully localized, you’ll need to ensure that you have a local marketing team capable of getting get the word out.  You’ll want to partner (or hire) local experts who can help you build relevant digital experiences to effectively engage your local customers, while maintaining brand consistency.

7. Execute, iterate (and don’t run out of cash)

Step #7 connects to the larger strategy & planning theme through steps 1-4 above.  Localization is trickier than most people think, so projects very often suffer from under-scoping in an embarrassing way.  Teams can easily wind up running out of money and taking “two-steps” back while competition moves ahead diligently to take your market share.  Don’t let this happen to you 🙂