What do senior executives say about the top 9 challenges they face when going international

We put together a list of top challenges businesses encounter when it comes to expanding their international markets.

The list is curated based on: (1) Our years of experience in working with companies in different sectors helping them with their global development; and (2) Our interviews with twelve senior executives of multinational (small to big size) companies who oversee or are responsible for their international market expansion and growth.

The purpose of this article? To share. When we had our interviews with the senior stakeholders, one of the things they are keen to hear about is the problems they share with their peers and issues others are facing which they might not think of.

For this reason, we deliberately do not include recommendations and advice for each challenge in this article, but in separate, follow-up articles.

Challenges in Going Global

1. Not sure which market(s) to go into first (or next)

This is one of the top challenges most companies face. You know you are ready to go into another market, but you are not able to decide which country/region would be your best option. The decision can be especially difficult to make when it is your first time breaking into a new market outside your home country or when you do not have sufficient data or insights to based on.

“We did finally narrow it down to these three countries as the top candidates based on what we learnt in the past and from market research. The problem now is, the market insights we received don’t really tell me the full picture of those markets, well, not enough to give me the confidence that I’m making the right decision.” - Head of International Development

2. Don’t know where to start and what they need to do next

Many of you found that launching into a new market can be daunting especially when it comes to unfamiliar markets: What is the first thing I need to do? How should I go about planning my expansion plan? Who should I talk to? Who should I involve and how? Where can I find the relevant information that I need to make the right decisions?

“When we launch in other parts of Europe and the US, we already have some insights into these markets so that helped. Now we want to go to Asia like Japan, we know nothing about them. Where do we even start?” - VP of Product Insight

3. Being overwhelmed by the amount of information out there

You can literally find any information online these days. Type in “Going Global” or “Selling in [country]” on Google, you have articles after articles that show you how to set up a global operation and logistics, the trends in that specific country and so on. They offer different types of advice: some are too generic, some contradict each other, some might make you question about their validity and accuracy. The tricky part which most companies are encountering is to assess and make sense of the available information and to make informed decisions accordingly.

“Where can we get our resources from? There is so much stuff out there, so many people offering different things. It’s sometimes hard to know what we need and what is relevant to us.” - Head of Marketing

4. Choosing the right people or partners to talk to/work with 

Expertise in different forms is available to help you set up your global expansion plan. The challenge we often hear from our clients is to find the right people to talk to and to work with. You want to make sure your money is well invested. You want time to be well spent so you can meet your milestones or deadlines. You want to find useful knowledge and expertise that is relevant to you and your business (e.g. finding the right research or innovation companies).

“I don’t mind spending money to get external support and expertise which we don’t have in-house. Not only we need to find someone that has the knowledge we’re after, but also one that knows our business well. From my experience, there’s not many out there, or at least to me, it’s not a straightforward process.” - Head of Global Marketing

5. Lack of industry-specific insights and incomplete view of the competitor landscape

Another challenge that made it to the list is to be able to collect data and insights which are specific and relevant to your industry including your competitors. This is even more the case when you are not in the common sectors. Understanding the competitor landscape enables you to well position your business so you can stand out in the possibly crowded market. Without knowing who you will be competing with in that market, what are the similar products out there in that market, what features do they offer, it is almost impossible to determine what you can do to be different and unique.

“What we are offering is very unique. Yes, we can learn about the general trends from all the resources out there. But not to the extent we needed. More often than not they are not that relevant to us.” - Global Head Digital Marketing

6. Lack of capability (in-house or outsourced) to translate insights into actionable solutions or recommendations

As we discussed above, there is a lot of information and insights out there about a market and its local audiences that can be gathered. What comes next is crucial. How to translate those insights into actionable plan or solutions? What do the insights tell you which you can then convert into something useful and relevant to your business and product? One common mistake companies often made is to take what they see and hear, and apply directly to their strategic plan. There is a danger of doing that. Many senior executives we talked to are aware of the risks and most importantly, they do not want to be just one of their competitors in that market, but be innovative and be the one that stands out.

The issue is, very often businesses do not have the internal capabilities, knowledge or resources to convert insights into actionable plans and execute their global development strategy. Even when they get external help, they still hold similar concerns where external agencies or consultants often only do the research and then report the obvious. This is not particularly useful to the team in deciding what to do next with the output.

“Market research was doing kind of classic market research things, e.g. identifying personas based on demographics and trends but without meaningful behavioural elements which are related to products. We have to then interpret that for our purposes rather than being involved in the production. That’s the difficult part.” - VP of Product Insights

7. ‘Understand the local market’ is a hindsight point

This is especially true for engineering- or product-focus companies. There is often a false misconception in organisations that to launch a product in other countries, all they need to do is to translate and localise. Many senior leaders who we talked to are facing this challenge. They spent most of their time educating and getting the rest of the organisation to understand the need and importance of knowing the market, what the market wants or needs before or at least during the development of the product.

“I’ve seen it many times in every place I work, products are developed and then that (understanding the local markets) become the hindsight point. That is really something you need to consider up front. Yes, it takes additional time, but it just saves so many headaches down the road” - VP of Product Insights

8. Decisions are often made based on assumptions rather than fact or insights

There are many reasons which contribute to this issue. The key one is the unwillingness of the top management to invest money and time in doing it right, for example, to understand the market and its audience before product build or launch. They want to get their products out quickly. They think they know the answers. They make decisions based on what they believe without evidence. 

In most cases, data might already exist in different formats, collected by different departments in the organisation or from the local team or partner. The challenge is to gather everything together and make good sense of it. Unfortunately, when there’s no capability or resources, or the unwillingness from the top management to invest money or time in putting everything together, many senior stakeholders had to make their design and business decision purely based on assumptions or beliefs that they hold on.

“Like many companies, our company at the moment is not as fact or data-driven as it should be. A lot of the things we’ve done in the past were based on assumptions. If we want to make it in China, for example, it’s ok to have some assumptions, but we also need to find ways to test those assumptions if we are right or wrong, and what we do about it.” - Head of Commerce

9. Setting up the right international expansion framework

There are two folds to this issue. First is the framework: When moving into more than one markets, it is crucial to set it up in the way that it is efficient and cost-effective to maintain, govern and grow in the long run. You don’t want to have to spend a lot of time and money whenever you’ve, for example, a new update. Second is sharing: How to make sure different teams are sharing the knowledge they have when designing for different markets? How can the learnings from a previous launch be shared easily for the future launches? This can be tricky as the team gets bigger. The consequences of not doing this right? Senior executives are left to face these problems: redundant efforts, knowledge not fully utilised, inconsistent process, ineffective use of time and money.

“There’re so many different teams but it’s difficult for everyone to know really what’s going on all the time. A lot of roles of leadership in design and product make sure info get shared, relevant people know what happened. That process might need a bit work.” - Global Marketing & PR

What does this mean?

You might be able to associate one or more of these challenges with your business. You’re not alone.

These are only the top 9 challenges we’ve picked out. If you’ve other challenges that you’re facing which are not listing above, share them with us.

If you’d like to have a chat with us about any challenges you’re facing, give us a shout. We would love to discuss, explore, help and support wherever possible.