going global

At a growing company, there’s a point where you want to expand internationally, usually to increase revenues and users. There are a number of factors that go into making that decision but let’s assume that you’ve made it. So, now what?

At Google, I took the ability to expand internationally for granted. Why wouldn’t we would launch every product in 40 languages and have it work seamlessly around the world? It was only when I left Google that I realized what a strong foundation of processes and tools existed. For example, the first time that we translated uber.com, we realized that every change in content required multiple code changes and redeploying the entire website each time. When you have to build everything from scratch, you really come to appreciate what’s involved in scaling internationally. To that end, I wanted to highlight some learnings from my experiences.

This is far from a comprehensive plan. It outlines some major areas to consider and how to approach them. Also, not everything needs to be done from the outset but will be important to ultimately scale. At Uber, we launched our first international city, Paris, in 30 days. There was a lot of manual work to continue launching in other countries and languages while we didn’t have a core set of international systems  - we had to charge everyone in US dollars for several months. In parallel, we built out the foundations and kept moving pieces onto the new infrastructure, which allowed Uber to keep momentum and still scale.

Good planning and fast execution are a delicate balance. Or, in the words of George S. Patton:

“A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.”

There’s a lot to cover with expansion, so rather than addressing it all at once, I’ve broadly grouped things into three areas, which will be addressed in separate posts:

  1. pre-planning - defining your geographic expansion strategy

  2. content - marketing, communication and design (COMING UP)

  3. operations - payments and legal (COMING UP)



To start, it’s important to set a structure for where you want to go. You don’t turn on every corner of the world overnight. Rather, you work your way through different geographies in some priority order. I’ve suggested countries as the geographical unit because it’s large enough to allow for expansion but small enough to be targeted - this may vary depending on your company model. It doesn’t and shouldn’t be weeks of planning but it’s worth taking the time to do some research. Broadly, it helps to group countries into three tiers:

  • tier 1: as soon as possible

  • tier 2: within the next 6 months

  • tier 3: everything else

Each company will need to come up with their own rubric for evaluation based on their user mix and company goals. It helps to have a general understanding of population, literacy rate and internet penetration regardless of industry to understand the growth potential. However, digital advertising companies building publisher tools will obviously have different considerations than a consumer company building out social networks. Some questions to consider as you define this include the following:

  • on what devices do people use your product?

    • mobile v. desktop

    • smartphone penetration

    • OS and device mix

  • connectivity

    • 2G/3G/LTE

    • wi-fi cost and speed

  • what is the segment of users you want to address?

  • if your product isn’t free, can you price it appropriately?

    • average salary of your segment

    • comparables (e.g. with Uber, compare price to taxi)

  • are there barriers to entry?

A great example of understanding the market is Facebook’s expansion into Asia and Africa, where the majority of people typically don’t have high-end phones. There, Facebook is testing Facebook Lite, which is only a ~250KB download and specifically built to address low-quality 2G connections. At the same time, it’s a native Android and takes advantage of push notifications and the camera, remaining true to how people use Facebook and what the product goals are.

A diametric example is Netflix’s expansion into Cuba. In Cuba, it’s estimated that 26% of people have internet access and it’s often not at high-enough to stream video. It’s also priced at $7.99 in a country where the average monthly salary is $20 and requires a credit or debit card which most of the country doesn’t have. This is a strategic play - a forward-looking view on growth in the country anticipating the political change in US diplomatic relations.

As you can see, different companies have very different approaches. The key here is to figure out what matters for your company. Create a strategy and be ready to adapt when things don't go as you plan, as they invariably will.

Coming up in the next post - how will you create content that is in the right language and resonates with the local market? Until then, adiós, sayonara and au revoir.