In a vibrant region like Southeast Asia, expanding your business beyond the borders of your original market holds tremendous opportunities. A larger audience is only the beginning.
Breaking past your established boundaries pushes your company to grow, learn and adapt to incredible new opportunities. The founders of Ninja Van, one of the first companies in our portfolio, grew their leadership and customer experience dramatically during their regional expansion. They grew to better understand its service and role in the region, elevating their own skills both entrepreneurially and personally. All of that growth boosted the company’s revenue and performance in turn.
Companies that expand across the region can bring incredible benefits for Southeast Asians as well. People in the region have vastly different experiences and knowledge that they can share. The Internet has already enabled more people in the region to share ideas and cultures, but businesses can—and should—positively contribute to this philosophy as well.
But the move across borders can be a risky one. Many startups that were successful in their first fundraising round falter once they move into another market—more often than not, because they didn’t fit into the culture.
Here are five areas around localizing founders need to think about when expanding regionally:
Get local advice on regulations
When a startup decides to cross borders, compliance with the local government is critical—and it often requires more time and commitment than early startups may initially consider. It is possible for new and expanding companies to navigate these regulations on their own, but generally startups would benefit from consulting an attorney or advisor within the new location. In some countries, it may be critical, as there’s no guarantee that the officials you must consult can speak or read the same language you do.
Additionally, venture capital firms can offer guidance, forge connections and assist in navigating red tapes in the markets of their experience and expertise. If your company is aiming to expand after its next round, your existing or potential investors’ geographical presence and background can be leveraged to help you navigate the uncharted water in the new jurisdiction.
Invest in translations
The easiest starting point to help you integrate into a new market is through the language. Even if English is commonly spoken throughout the region, many users may have only a rudimentary vocabulary. A company also risks losing a major segment of its audience if it does not support the local language.
Your service or advertisement might sound more eloquent in English or in its original language; however, that should not stop your company from offering a version in the local language—or even with hints of dialect. More crucially, offering local-language option ensures your customers can choose to interact with your business in the language they’re most comfortable with.
Though not mandated by national regulations, investing in translations of your product or services should be considered a mandatory expense in your budget.
Adapt your payment methods
Adapting to local payment habits is another small shift in your company that will relax and reassure new customers who test your service or product, particularly for B2C startups. Southeast Asian countries are all at different stages of digitization; even within national borders, levels of tech adoption can vary. Your company will most likely have to embrace both cashless and cash-only users. If a tech-savvy urbanite is forced to fumble with coins and bills, she will be frustrated with your payment method, while those still relying on paper money will shrug away any product or service that requires cashless payments.
This may involve shifting your interface in some manner. Grab is a great example of localizing payment methods. Most of its Singaporean customers are comfortable connecting a card or payment app to facilitate cashless payments, and the app allows for crossover into other Grab services. For example, users can transform ride points into discounts at restaurants or on deliveries. However, Cambodia’s developing market is still cash-reliant; the credit card penetration rate is just 22 percent in the capital city, Phnom Penh. So while Grab users in Cambodia have the option to link their cards, most opt to pay in Cambodian Riel.
Understand local cultures
A startup can capture some of its new markets’ cultural nuances through the language and payment methods, but founders’ research should stretch beyond those basics in order to capture new customers.
Before you enter a new market, you obviously have to assess the landscape and possible competition to understand how your company may fit in. But beyond that, you will need to understand work habits, social habits and methods of communication. Sometimes this can be as basic as figuring out when rush hour is, how long the locals tend to linger in coffee shops, or which messaging service—like WhatsApp, Line, WeChat or Facebook Messenger, for example—is dominant in each country. Knowing these habits will allow you to estimate peak engagement times or the best time to advertise your service on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or any of the messaging services. From the beginning, your company must carve out space in customers’ schedules, so you should be prepared to do adequate research to achieve that presence.
With a better understanding of local trends and communication styles, startup teams can start to customize their marketing messages, content, and branding to that specific market. It may make sense to build new ad campaigns or even new products tailored to the local audience. For example, Indonesia’s GoJek went as far as to change its brand to Get and GoViet when it expanded to Thailand and Vietnam respectively.
Effective localization also requires founders to engage with the local tech and startup communities in the cities or countries they enter. Even emerging markets have platforms and meetups for developers or budding entrepreneurs. Connecting to these groups positions your company to gain recognition, stay on top of trends and developments, and—when the time comes—to hire new local talent.
A strong local staff can navigate nearly every, if not all, challenges your company will face when entering a different country. Often regional bureaus will be smaller than your headquarter’s team. But taking the time to find the right people—and ensuring they are committed and invested in your company’s success—will put you in a position to perform well from the first days of your international operations.
Of course, hiring a staff abroad can be a difficult endeavor, as your founding team often has to trust them to perform on their own from day one, with minimal direct supervision. And just as social habits differ among Asian countries, work habits and motivations vary as well. However, managing a team abroad will strengthen leadership skills among your founding team. From the start, local teams can provide the familiarity and knowledgeability that will provide a better overall experience for your new customers—and gain their trust at a much faster rate than your founding team could alone.
Successfully localizing your products and services in different countries is key to regional and international expansion—and it is entirely achievable with some careful planning and research into your new markets.