Scaling Globally From Singapore

TECHINASIA: Building a startup into a billion-dollar company is still a dream for most.  While it is easier than ever to start a business, it’s harder than ever to scale one. In the tech industry, many companies are “born global” by nature, but successfully scaling globally takes a special mix.  Over the past few years there has been a lot of valuable information and focus on starting lean, but little information as to how to cross the chasm and successfully scale into a profitable, global business.  So, what’s the magic recipe? I have assembled a short list based on my experiences of working with successful startups in the US, Europe, and Asia, and also asked local experts for their opinions.

Solve a big problem to go after a big market

Seems so simple, but make sure your product solves a big, universal issue and you have a good start.

Hire proven people. This means hiring the best people who have done it before!  Value your idea and mission enough to go after people who have spent years scaling successful businesses in your space, not your friends who have not. This is one area I see people consistently afraid to go after.  You need to believe in your business enough to go after the top talent in the industry. Really good people will take less money for great opportunities and stock. Look at the massively successful serial entrepreneurs, they start with teams from the best in the industry and you should too.  This means hiring for tomorrow, not today.

Dependable architecture. There is an entire industry around building production-quality code that can be supported, maintained, updated, rolled back, backed up, et al.  Consider the sheer volume you will need to support when you are the next big thing. Will it be one million users an hour? 500 terabytes of data per hour? And don’t forget security. This all changes based upon which market you are going after. The quality and type of your testing needs to go up significantly if your product is core to a large business. Basically, get the underlying code of your business right.

Develop reliable processes. This includes scalable organizational structure. Try to think of yourself as fifty times your current size. Build strong processes that standardize workflow, communication policies, and responsibilities. Regiment terms and conditions for customers so you are not supporting a mess of different agreements.

Take the right kind of money… at the right time. There are new angels, incubators, accelerators, venture capital funds, and grants popping up everyday.  Read the fine print and get support from those who understand your mission and situation to find the best financial backing for your business. It can be a mistake to take too much money too early in the process, but many don’t really plan for what they’ll need in 18 to 36 months. Raising money takes time – do your homework and understand all your options. Your best option might be on the other side of the world.

Be nimble, be quick, be curious. Open yourself up to consistently learn, progress, adjust, and grow. Get support from veterans and don’t be afraid to change when things aren’t working.

Be obsessed with your customers. Never stop listening to your customers. Make it part of the corporate culture to constantly share customer insights. Find out exactly what they want from you, why they might be working with competitors and what they will need in 12 to 36 months. Make sure you and your team understand their needs better than anyone.

Don’t just take my word, but those of local experts who have successfully grown global organizations:

Royston Tay, co-founder of Zopim (which was acquired by Zendesk in 2014): “Scaling globally required us to figure out product, people, and then processes, in that order. We were fanatical about building the right product, to the extent that two years after founding, Zopim was still in free beta. We didn’t know it then, but all that iteration with a diverse group of customers helped us launch strongly with a product that was relevant to small businesses in any part of the world. Getting the word out, and refining the product meant getting great people on board. Since we couldn’t afford huge paychecks in the early days, we found passionate, smart, fun-loving young people who were desperate to make a dent in the universe, just like us. As our headcount grew, the need to work effectively across teams kicked in and some processes had to be introduced. Today, as part of Zendesk, with multiple offices and almost a thousand employees worldwide, we’ve come to appreciate processes and meetings as necessary evils for the company to stay coordinated. Ultimately, one thing stayed the same, which was always thinking about customers first, that’s the true north in our growth compass. Product, people, and processes have to support, not encumber customers.”

Jayesh Parekh, entrepreneur and investor: “Best of class product is extremely important and that means the user experience fits across all regions.”

Poh-Kam Wong, professor at NUS Business School: “Singapore is full of people with incredible connections to Silicon Valley, Beijing, and other global marketing hubs. Tap into them to help you scale from Singapore.”

Natasha Foong, co-founder of IncuVest: “Find partners and/or investors who have good contacts in the countries you want to expand to.”