Building an International Team
As companies get to the point where the product is more clearly defined and the use cases better understood, growth becomes paramount. And in many cases that means operating in new geographies. During the pandemic, operating internationally has meant relying on Zoom, but with the world opening up again, a lot of our member companies at Sports Loft are looking to make key hires in new markets and build their teams away from HQ.
At Sports Loft we are helping our member companies navigate the process of expanding internationally and establishing the best ways to do so. In this post, with assistance from some of the leadership execs of our member companies including Greenfly's CMO Tom Kuhr, Slate's COO Will Brooke, Satisfi’s CRO Bill Bailey, Tagboard’s CSO Linka Baumgardt and Fevo’s CBO Josh Rose, we look at the ways our companies are building their teams internationally.
Your approach internationally needs to reflect your product and business
There is no “one size fits all” approach to growing an international business – we believe that how you approach new geographies needs to reflect your business and what you are trying to sell. For example, do customers buy as a result of signing up on a website? Is there a long sales cycle where customers need a lot of support? Is it a product where the features are as applicable in a new market as they are at home?
For Tom at Greenfly, "We think the need for local reps has decreased significantly over the past two years, especially with small or mid-sized business targets. But large enterprises continue to expect a certain level of direct attention and strongly prefer local support. Selling into enterprises is more about building trust and long term relationships".
This is echoed by Linka Baumgardt from Tagboard, “It depends a lot on the complexity of the product, but also on how different the regional markets' needs are from the home market. If you have a product that is easy to understand, and the regional market needs are almost the same as the home market, you can probably make-do without a significant footprint, especially post-pandemic.”
One product that is very easy to understand and to buy is Slate, where COO Will Brooke puts a lot of emphasis on being able to scale a sales operation: “We’d prioritise someone’s enthusiasm for Slate and our mission, their industry expertise, and their “startup mindset”, over where they are physically located. We don’t really think there needs to be a local team to expand into new countries, there are other company-wide priorities such as being lean and ensuring your sales & customer success strategy is scalable internationally".
Making that first hire
Building a team starts with the people - so who should that first hire be? In most cases, the first hire in a new market is going to be a sales person, so identifying the person who has a ready-made network and book of contacts is going to be important. But what sort of sales person? Somebody who has a more consultative approach or someone who is much more sales target orientated? They also need to self-sufficient and very self-motivated – being the first person in a new geography can be a challenging (and sometimes isolated) experience without the immediate benefit of colleagues in a firm’s home market, so it’s important to have the right support structures around them.
For Linka at Tagboard, “The first hire in a new market needs to have a deep understanding of the local market and the forces that guide market shifts. They also need to be very well connected, and true self-starters".
The need for existing contacts is something we see repeatedly across the Sports Loft companies. For Bill Bailey at Satisfi, “we know which verticals our product works in and we can handle product training easily. However, as we look at expanding into the UK, we will prioritise people who have experience navigating the market and have known contacts already".
Greenfly's Tom Kuhr takes a similar approach. "The first hire in any new region (without customers) should be sales-oriented first and foremost. They must be independent, self-managing, "hunters" with excellent communication skills and preferably have existing relationships with prospects”.
As a company’s presence is built up in a new market and deals are won, there comes a point where one person is not enough and the local operation needs to be built-out. This is where it’s important to consider whether that first hire can develop into a country head, or if an additional and more senior might be needed. "The UK is a big opportunity for us and a market where we believe we can add tremendous value. We really want to build a brand and business in the UK. This means investing in people and infrastructure, recruiting and building out our UK team" says Fevo's Josh Rose.
How do you leverage the culture you have built, and take it internationally?
A company’s culture is often one of the big reasons why it has been successful. We have certainly seen the role that company culture has played in the growth of our member companies – so it’s important to be able to leverage such a strong asset when expanding into a new geography. A strong company culture can also be a strong support mechanism, especially when thinking about what principles can guide decision making in a new market.
We firmly believe that an international team should be an extension of the existing business, not a separate entity. It’s important that organisational culture can be maintained across markets, and that global teams feel connected to the mothership – and that takes effort both people in the geographic teams and by senior managers at HQ, especially as the company scales.
This approach to culture is very evident in the companies at Sports Loft. For Will at Slate, "we aim to have all company culture initiatives be consistent across the organisation, regardless of role and location. To get a sense of unity across the team, we have all-company calls at least twice a month, and use digital water cooler tools like Donut to ensure departments & team members located in different geographies are easily able to connect".
"Visiting HQ is always the best way to get people to immerse themselves in culture, but that's not feasible or cost effective after the team grows past a certain size" says Tom. "Regular staff meetings with the entire global team are hard to schedule, but a great way to keep people learning and growing together. Executive tours of different markets, especially creating market strategy and goals, are also very effective at getting good cooperation and building trust between offices and staff".
For Linka at Tagboard, “to set up new hires and the company's expansion for success, they need to spend a significant chunk of time at HQ to learn the company culture and get a strong sense of the home market. In order to establish healthy expectation setting between home and international market, both HQ and the new hire need to have an extremely good understanding of both markets and trust in each other".
The importance of boots on the ground - local industry knowledge
On one level, having “boots on the ground” shows a commitment to the market for prospective customers. For Linka at Tagboard, “Boots on the ground are key in order to make serious inroads into a new market. It's better to spend $1m on a true effort than to waste $100k "trying it out" without true focus and strategy".
However, it also builds an operation that really understands the nuances of the market that is being sold into. While there may be no language barrier between the US and UK, the sports industry operates in a different manner on either side of the pond, or even between sports within those markets. The optimum approach in the US might be to target a league deal with tech then deployed to its members, while in Europe, it might be necessary to go club by club. This applies to US companies coming into the UK and Europe, just as much as it does for companies expanding in the other direction.
"Generally finding a person with local market knowledge will be more effective to jumpstart any region, although finding someone you trust is the main challenge" says Tom. "Locals with relevant market knowledge understand customs and culture when it comes to sales, marketing and communications with customers and prospects".
For Josh at Fevo, local market knowledge is paramount. “We’ve been working in the US sports market for years, and understand the nuances of how the leagues and teams operate, the pressure points and the opportunities. Really understanding the market, the people, and the community is key to success. That’s why it’s important to focus on gaining local market knowledge and acceptance".
There are also very practical benefits to having people 'on the ground'. For Bill at Satisfi, “we have a really good pipeline, but having someone who is easily able to "swing by and grab lunch", or run into a prospect at an event, is hugely valuable".
One way to balance the benefits of local knowledge with building on a company culture, is to combine hiring locally with bringing someone over from HQ. For Linka at Tagboard, “the key to success is a mix. Working with a local ensures a strong understanding of the market. Having someone from HQ work in partnership with them enables a close connection to HQ, allowing for establishment of a similar company culture and values in the regional market, which will drastically improve your communication between HQ and local markets. Having a HQ/regional floater is one of the most valuable things you can do when building a local market from the ground up".
Finally, will you be hiring internationally in 2022?
Will: Definitely! At Slate, working with team members regardless of location is key for us. We prioritise the best talent and those that are most excited about our mission.
Tom: Greenfly is definitely expanding internationally, and we've found video conferencing over the past 2 years to have really accelerated our international sales. We have invested in the European market for a number of years and are really seeing sales accelerate over this past year. We will continue to grow into new regions through partnerships (like with Sports Loft) in the immediate future, and as new markets develop momentum, we will hire local full-time employees.
Bill: Yes. Growing internationally is a key plan for this year – we’ll be looking to define the right structure and find the right people.
Josh: We have huge penetration in the US sports leagues, so we are going to be looking internationally. Our initial focus will be the UK. We’ll be making a number of trips over and will be building a local team.
“The first hire in a new market needs to have a deep understanding of the local market and the forces that guide market shifts. They also need to be very well connected, and true self-starters.”