At most digital businesses, international growth is led from the Sales organization. However, leaders of international expansion often struggle to get their Product team more involved with international growth efforts. Increasingly, the product team is a primary driver of growth at tech companies. Getting these team members engaged is critical to your company’s long-term international success.
Here’s why it can pose a challenge to get your product team more involved with international growth:
- Early international success can mislead product teams. If your product is successful in your home market, these wins will often naturally “bleed” into other markets that are linked by language, economy, or culture. This can lead product teams into a false sense of accomplishment. “We have users in 50 countries, we’ve cracked international!” And they’re not wrong — the success they’ve achieved with building a product that people see value in outside your home country is a clear sign that you can grow in these markets, after all. You can’t really have one without the other. There’s a difference though between just having customers in that market and being a local market leader.
- Product teams have plenty of other needs to solve for. These folks are, in a word, busy! They might be asked to build new features and functionality to cater to companies in different industries, of varying sizes, and for various types of users. They might be building new products entirely. Why solve for a tiny niche in a given country, as opposed to an entirely new segment? It’s really hard for them to prioritize international when they have a huge list of other priorities. “Build for international, I get it, but at the expense of which of the other 500 things I’m being asked to do right now?”
Here are ten concrete ways you can get your Product teams to better align with your international growth efforts.
1. Schedule “immersion” trips.
This is a high-impact strategy that very few companies make the time for. Skepticism about it can be high (“Is it worth the travel costs?”), but the pay-off is huge. The sooner you can get your product team members in front of real customers while staying directly in their local markets, the better. It’s a moment of eye-opening and enlightenment. It will get them to see things in a way they have never seen before, and in a way that is much more real than if someone just tells them about it. Some companies do this by having engineers or product managers visit the country at the time they are setting up an office, or at some point thereafter. Others have “rotations” to different offices to ensure periodic contact with local customers and teams. Yet others have local customer empathy visits, often led by UX research teams.
It’s important to bring product team members, but don’t underestimate the power of exec visits as well. As Anoop Kumar, currently the Head of International Strategy & Operations at Squarespace and previously Director of Business Operations & Growth at The Knot Worldwide, advises, “Bringing members of the product org can often change their perspective from being reactive to proactive around the needs of international markets, but it’s also helpful to bring executive leaders into the market to speak with local customers and understand the perspective of in-market teams. This can help create new allies within the org to help build momentum in addressing gaps in product and other functional areas.”
Talia Baruch, an international advisor who has led international product management at companies like SurveyMonkey, LinkedIn, VMWare, and Google, has seen immersion trips to be important as well. She explains, “When companies build products for a global audience, there’s often a blindside in product-customer-fit when it comes to international segments. PMs, Developers, Designers are passionate about quality user experience, but they’re not always aware of the cultural and regional nuance in their user expected behavior in some new markets. When I led International Product at Linkedin, we initiated a company-wide rotation program between our HQ and in-country hubs. We also regularly took product leads and cross-functional executives to visit our priority new markets (China, India and MENA at that time), so they could ‘breathe our customers’ air.’ After those trips, aligning my International OKRs with those stakeholders across the org was painless.”
2. Provide a view of the data that matters to them.
Most Product teams make decisions based on data. What data can you share with them? Revenue and growth data will of course be interesting, but depending on how your Product team makes decisions, you might want to show product engagement or usage scores. Do you have weekly active team (WAT) data that is significantly lower in a given market? Is there a hot new feature that is leading to new revenue in some markets, but not in others? Figure out which metrics matter most to them and dig into the country-specific cuts of that data to “speak their language” and help them see why raising scores in one country or region might help them achieve their global targets.
Talia Baruch shares, based on her experience as Head of International Product and Growth at SurveyMonkey, “One of the things companies going global should absolutely avoid is involuntary churn in Complete Orders — when they’ve invested in top-of-funnel new customer acquisition/engagement, only to lose these customers in the downstream Checkout funnel. At SurveyMonkey back in the day, we had a significantly lower Complete Orders rate in the UK vs the US and our goal was to bring that rate on par with our US performance. To provide the relevant data-driven insights to inform an effective triage, my team set up a temporary “human chat” in Checkout flow to identify the friction points. In addition to tracking the implicit product signals, I also flew to our Dublin CS hub to personally sit with our chat resources for a deeper observation analysis of the ‘voice of our local customers.’ That meant listening to what they were not asking, tracking query frequency tied to the unique user ID, top concerns and taxonomy sentiment analysis. This engaged “firsthand on the ground” experience with our local customers, literally walking them through the full funnel from Pricing all the way to Complete Orders, was paramount to prioritizing the right MVP fixes. I also ran geo-specific A/B testing on a regular basis, that measured the holistic unique user journey, from non-branded discoverability to retention. These international data insights were critical for optimizing key funnels in the product experience, with high impact to the business bottom line.”
3. Get local customer voices in front of them.
Most likely, your company already has a way to capture feedback from customers and users. The problem is usually that the voices in your home country and language tend to drown out the voices of local users. Using existing structures at your company, look at how you can make those voices stand out more. Find ways to amplify the local customer voices, give them a microphone, and get them in front of product leadership more frequently. Team up with local sales leaders if they have sway with product team members.
Talia Baruch shares more on this from her extensive experience in product-led growth for international: “An effective method I applied in different companies to guide our dev/design teams in user empathy for our international segments, was to curate for them our real customer profile stories from around the globe, each week featuring a different customer from a different country—these personal user stories, unveiling what they cared about, what they loved and didn’t like in our product experience, were often more meaningful than the dry implicit data charts.”
4. Share videos of customer stories.
If you’re having a hard time getting Product team members to spend time with local customers, of if you’re sharing things with them that they don’t have time to read, you can create a video that will have a high impact and hopefully offer some of the same benefits. To create the video, do some Zoom meetings with customers in other markets and record them talking about their pain points. Pull out some of their most powerful moments and turn them into a video that can make an impact, to help product team members really understand the most important challenges your international customers are facing. Often, a video like this is a faster way for a group of leaders to really understand the customer and hear the customer in their own voice. It simply has to be well edited to keep it concise, to ensure they have time to watch it.
Another thing you can do is create a Loom video with a collection of customer stories where you feature their faces and explain more about their needs. However, no voice is more powerful than the voice of the customer, so opt to leverage this instead, whenever you have the chance.
5. Don’t overwhelm them.
One big mistake those of us working on international expansion can inadvertently make is that we can overwhelm product folks if we have too many asks at once. Limit the requests to things that are tangible, specific, and can be clearly understood. They might not need to know about your engagement scores in Finland if 20% of your international revenue is coming from France, for example. International can be overwhelming for people to take in if they’re new to it. Try to simplify and narrow down your wish list.
Ideally, your country focus for product initiatives should align with your international revenue targets. You’ll also want to take into account the markets where you see the biggest gaps in product-market fit. Remember that not all metrics are useful for all markets. For example, in an emerging market, you might find that your retention numbers look weak. This might be less of a reflection on functionality or feature gaps, and more of a reflection on your pricing and packaging. In a market like Japan, you might see high retention even if you have huge gaps in features and functionality, simply because of the way people view business relationships in Japan, as more of a long-term commitment.
In other words, you can’t always use the same metrics for each country to prove gaps in product-market fit. This is what makes international work so challenging — it’s highly complex, and every market is different. So, you’ll want to be careful not to overwhelm your product team by bombarding them with too much information at once. Consider focusing on one country at a time, especially one that you know will have the benefit of solving for many others along the way. Once the product team builds up some competence in understanding that first country, you can move on to the next.
6. Align with their current roadmap.
If your product team is already working on roadmap items that are transparently shared at your company, see where you could attach some of your needs for international to those goals. How can solving for your needs help them hit goals they are already working on? Chances are they won’t sway much from their road map once they are committed, so this is likely your biggest way to ensure you can make impact for international. Meanwhile, learn more about how you can get on the road map in the future. Get that motion going, and you can keep building on it for years to come!
For example, if your product team creates an annual road map that is broken out into high-level stories of what the team seeks to achieve, analyze the road map carefully. Talk to people who sell into and service customers in your local markets. Ask them how they view these items. You’ll probably be tempted to attach an international perspective to every single item on their road map. Resist! Some teams will naturally care about international more than others. Your goal is to figure out which road map items will give you the most impact for international customers, and to see where you can make traction with existing initiatives.
And, if you are allowed to share any details of your company’s road map with international customers, via a customer advisory board or panel of some sort, do so. Capture their feedback and make sure it’s clear if there are any gaps that you can bring to the product team. Make sure your customer panels and advisory boards include plenty of international representation as well.
7. Consider Quick Tests and Low-Lift Efforts To Make a Strong Business Case.
It might go without saying, but if you want anything to go on the team’s roadmap, you’ll need to make a solid business case for it first. On top of the product metrics that the team is working toward, what are the overall corporate KPIs that matter? Can you help the company achieve one of those, while also getting some items on the product road map to help them with theirs? Ideally, these are aligned, but not always. Often, the business metrics will be separate from the product road map. It’s important to also be able to make a strong business case — and not just any business case, but one that truly connects to objectives the company is already aligned around and working toward.
Sometimes, the best way to do that is to think small, and build on the success from there, so that you can build a stronger business case over time, working hand in hand with your product teams.
As Anoop Kumar explains, “Product teams typically want to have conviction that a new feature will work in a given market before implementing, and more often than not, it’s impossible to make guarantees due to imperfect data and research that is tangential in nature but doesn’t address the exact question being asked. In these instances, I’ve found it effective to go after low-lift pilots to gauge interest and help build the business case.”
To provide an example of this, Kumar elaborates: “Knowing that India is a market that has an over-indexed preference to communicate via phone vs. digital means compared to other markets, we were able to launch a low lift button to gauge initial interest in phone inquiries between our users and customers which eventually paved the way to make more strategic decisions such as rethinking free vs. paid features for the market and pursuing higher lift features like call tracking. This allowed us to capitalize on market trends instead of fighting against them. Quick tests like these can help product teams gain the confidence to place more robust features on the roadmap and help build credibility for future requests pertaining to international markets.”
8. Donate a headcount to the cause.
This is an extreme measure, but if you can’t find many other ways to get some international attention, consider donating a headcount from your own team for the cause. Good candidates might be people who have strong product knowledge and relationships, are well respected by the product team, or have some sales experience, but also “get” international. They’ll need to be excellent communicators, and will need to know how to “speak” the language of product if they’re not already part of the team. Just make sure that you get solid-clad guarantees that this role will not be “shifted” into some other role later on. You’ll need to ensure that someone can stay consistently in this role to help advocate for international from within the team they need to influence.
9. Encourage hiring from local markets.
The sooner your product team starts hiring people from local markets, and ideally who work directly from those markets, the faster the product team’s knowledge of those markets will increase, and the faster you will see traction for international. It’s simply a mathematical equation. If even 1% of their team is located in the markets you seek for them to better understand, that will have a huge ripple effect on momentum within those teams and overall. It’s 1 out of every 100 people who probably works with 10 people every day. That means 10% of 100 will be affected. Over time, as teams move and change, you can see how a little international know-how starts to permeate the broader team. It’s a beautiful thing to watch! Hiring people with international backgrounds also helps, but nothing works faster to convey local perspectives than to hire people directly in the local markets.
10. Find an exec champion, or a few.
You’ll need to get on the radar of product leadership sooner or later and build relationships with the people who are driving your product teams. Who are your product execs and other leaders of influence? Do you know them as people? What are their goals? Who are the team members they count on? Do you have relationships with them as well? How can you better understand their goals? Truly, truly listen and resist the temptation to blab about why international is important. That’s important to you, yes. What’s important to them is what you really want to know in order to advance the international cause. Otherwise, you won’t be able to find a point of alignment in order to make real traction. Once you’ve built those relationships, keep working on them! And hopefully you’ll have support from others on the product team at every level.
Have Patience and Watch for the Right Timing
If you’ve tried all ten of these strategies and haven’t seen traction yet, the only other piece of advice I can offer to you is this — give it time and have patience. Often, your timing has to be just right to hitch your international wagon to your product star. It’s probably on its way, but you might have to keep an eye on the sky until it shoots across the galaxy giving you just the right momentum. Be patient, keep trying, and just know that at some point, your efforts to advocate for international will all pay off.
No one can resist international growth mastery forever! If you have a great product, local markets will keep pulling you toward them. And, most product teams are naturally curious to learn more about international customers. They might just be really busy and having a hard time prioritizing that work above other work. At some stage, your product team should definitely be motivated to get more involved. Hopefully these tips will simply help you achieve that goal sooner.