When launching a startup company, the wisest entrepreneurs will take to heart the three commonly taught keys to success: Focus, Focus, Focus. Of course, this primarily means that the emerging company should put all its resources behind one product using a single, coherent sales and marketing strategy.
Often implied in this sales and marketing focus is a recommendation to concentrate all early sales engagements in one geographical area, referred to as the “alpha” and “beta” sites for early product testing. Usually, the chosen location will be close to the development team to improve responsiveness, reduce travel costs, and enable the company to gain a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their product through this customer proximity.
However, this geographical focus has become increasingly hard to maintain in the technology startup environment. Almost as soon as the first product is unveiled, the startup will be pushed by a local company or division to support branches or subsidiaries on other continents.
Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to say that, from the ground up, even the smallest startup is an international company.
The international perspective is brought to today’s startups by team members themselves. It’s unusual -- nay, almost impossible -- to find an engineering team that doesn’t consist of a multitude of talented engineers from various parts of the world. The trick is managing the human aspects of the business when trying to mesh the different cultures and different languages of the team.
Because only so many good engineers are available in one location, an expansion to different locations has become a common scenario. It may seem as though engineers all speak the same language. After all, the C programming language bridges the international community and most engineers have basic skills in English. It’s not as easy as it seems, especially when it comes to developing a complex product like a big piece of software with hundreds of thousands of lines of code. People from different cultures think and communicate differently.
The founding team, then, needs to factor in the differences of each member of the team. One way to overcome this is for the team members to meet on a regular basis, wherever they reside. Yes, it can be time burden on the management team of a fledgling startup to travel around the world meeting with individuals from the remote teams. It is also a financial sacrifice for the startup to fly management and engineers around the world.
It’s well worth the effort, though, to make the time to offer guidance and support for engineers and budget the money to ensure all employees are fully integrated in one cohesive team. After all, no one likes working in a vacuum.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on the operational side of the business. Managing internationally must be executed cleanly and that’s why the support of experienced professionals is so important. The legal aspects alone can be overwhelming as entities in different geographic regions are governed by different sets of rules and regulations. A local lawyer with good international experience can make a huge difference. He or she can help with the international tax liabilities as well. Doing it right is the only option; otherwise, it could derail any type of corporate expansion or exit strategy, including an acquisition.
All startup companies today must think globally. That includes the operational part of the business and, more important, the human aspect. The technology industry, like so many others, is a global village.
— Michel Courtoy is a former design engineer and EDA executive who sits on the board of directors at Breker Verification Systems.