The Real Reason International Growth Is So Hard

International expansion is not for the faint of heart. Companies and businesspeople are often surprised by how hard it really is to scale their business across geographies. If you’re struggling and asking yourself why international growth is so challenging, and you’re wondering if it’s even worth it, this post is for you.

But the question to ask is not, “Why is it so hard?”

The question to ask is, “Why did we think it would be easy?”

The usual response to that question is, “Because we’ve done it before.”

But have you, really? 

Yes, you’ve achieved a certain level of success in your home market. You might have obtained some traction in local markets along the way. But what you’re probably underestimating is how much leverage you’ll really have when you take what you’ve learned from your limited experience in just one market into numerous other markets that behave differently. All at the same time.

When you start to really scale across borders is when international expansion really gets hard. The challenge is the sheer complexity. When you’re suddenly focused on many markets simultaneously is where the levels of complexity build on top of each other, to the point that it feels draining and may logistically be too difficult or expensive for your company to actually pull off. You’re not just taking lessons from a market and applying them to another. You’re trying to learn quickly and continually from multiple markets simultaneously, and achieve product-market fit in numerous countries at the same time. That is just… really hard. No two ways about it!

So, while I know this is going to sound a bit unpopular, the biggest reason companies struggle with international growth is a really simple but admittedly painful concept to talk about: ethnocentrism. Chances are that, while you’ve been growing your business, you’ve been centering around your reality, maybe assuming it’s the only reality that matters, instead of focusing on the many other local realities that exist all over the world.

Now, before anyone gets offended, let me explain that first, no one is totally immune to this phenomenon. All of us are guilty of it to some degree. It’s actually pretty natural to think that others have a similar experience to what we know, and to believe that our reality is what others experience too. Second, I’m referring to a very specific definition of ethnocentrism, which isn’t to say that you think that your home market is superior to others. I truly don’t believe most business people interested in pursuing growth in other markets think that way, but I won’t deny there is definitely bias at work sometimes too.

What I’m referring to, and what is far more common, is simply a lack of knowledge. So, when I use the term ethnocentrism here, I’m referring to what anthropologists would call cultural ignorance. While I’m not sure it sounds any less offensive this way, what it means is that people simply think their own way of life and thinking is the default or the norm, and they are just not aware of what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes in a different culture from theirs. I don’t mean “ignorance” here in a judgy way. I simply mean that if you’re that person, you just might not have had the opportunity to experience that other reality in the course of your life up until now.

It’s sad to me how many people often feel embarrassed about this! It can be a touchy subject to admit you don’t know much about the rest of the world. Many people, especially Americans, just didn’t have the opportunity aside from short and limited trips to other countries. It’s OK if you were interested in sports, or math, or something else that you became passionate about, other than life outside your home country!

What’s really hard to get across, if you’re in charge of international expansion or supporting it in some way at any business, is that you simply want to help enable others to understand local realities for customers in other markets. This is why I love terms that weave in an enablement concept, like globalization enablement or international enablement, because it places the focus squarely on the end goal, which is empowering and supporting others at your company to truly move in a global-friendly direction toward all your other goals.

But, in the process, if you’re not careful, you might actually come off as a know-at-all, or worse, as someone who wants to make others feel guilty about their lack of familiarity with those local realities. That isn’t what you’re actually trying to do, so it’s a shame if that ever happens.

The only cure for this very common international growth struggle is a reality check and a call for humility and empathy that has to go in both directions.

For People Championing International Growth 

If you’re working on international growth, chances are that you have some international experience yourself, or at least somewhat of an interest in other countries. Even if you didn’t start with that knowledge, the very work you are doing will quickly arm you with tons of experience and information that others haven’t had the chance to learn.

However, the longer you are steeped in international waters, the harder it is to remember that what you’ve learned is not always intuitive and natural for others to know. You’ll have to be humble to prevent coming off like “Ms. Global” or “Mr. International” at your company. You want to help, but you don’t want others to feel like you’re scolding them or coercing them into supporting international growth either.

Often, people who don’t work on international topics simply feel embarrassed by what they don’t know. The only way to make them feel comfortable talking about international growth with you is to admit you don’t know everything yourself, to try to learn from them first, and then build your relationships from there. The last thing you want is for them to dread seeing you out of fear they will hear a lecture. You want to support them and help them first, starting from a place of true empathy. Also, you’ll need to practice humility to get out of your own head and into theirs. That’s not easy! Chances are, you take your own international knowledge for granted and assume this knowledge is easy to access. For many folks, it’s just not.

For People Being Asked to Support International Growth

Unlike your counterpart who is driving the international agenda, you’re probably steeped in your own KPIs and other objectives, your day-to-day work life, your highly local or functionally-specific reality. That knowledge and experience are incredibly important, and give you a deep understanding your international friends don’t have. Make sure you overcommunicate about what your own goals are too. Information exchange needs to go in both directions.

That said, you also probably have a long way to go before you can truly understand the nuances of the customers in the local markets you serve. That will take time. My advice to you is, give in. Bite the bullet. Commit to learning about just one local market that is very different from your own, to get started. The sooner you do this, the faster you’ll come to understand that your local reality is not the global default, but rather one of many local ones all over the world. You’ll start to realize that multiple local realities really matter. This can be an uncomfortable place, where you have to unlearn some of what you think you knew, but that’s what growth really looks like. And once you get to that place, you’ll be surprised by how much easier all conversations about international growth can be.

The Hardest Part of International Growth Is Recognizing It Requires Personal Growth

Tough love, but it’s true. Admitting you don’t know what you don’t know is the most difficult part of international expansion. Many people have to have enough humility to admit that they don’t know things, and they’ll have to learn new things. This makes people feel really uncomfortable! But, it all really boils down to human ego, at the end of the day. And remember, this advice goes in both directions. 

The people leading international growth can’t come in with an attitude that they know more than anyone else about the topic, because it simply isn’t going to help them get their points across. Leading with humility and compassion is really key when it comes to international growth. The growth of every individual at your company begets faster international growth, and that includes the people whose very job it is to lead it.

Of course, people who lead other functions need to grow and evolve as well. They can’t make out like their knowledge of their domain can be universally applied to other markets either, because it simply can’t in most cases. It might help a little, but there will be significant growing to do.

Bridging this gap, and acknowledging the need for individual employee and team-level growth to enable faster international growth, is one of the hardest professional goals most people will ever work toward in their business career. It can be grueling, because you’re not always in control of the teams whose support you truly need, or you might not have the ability to make that evolution happen very fast.

So, the only way to rally support is through influencing, building relationships, and creating operational models that will ensure international has a recurring seat at the table. 

That takes not only professional excellence but phenomenal people skills and patience. These, along with your own growth as a leader, no matter what your role at a company that’s growing across borders, are the key elements you’ll need to lean into to ensure true global success for your company.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly leads localization at HubSpot and has previously held diverse roles in marketing, international operations and strategy, research, product development, and localization. She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and business. Nataly grew up in rural Illinois, lived in Ecuador, and resides in Boston (for now).

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