What It Really Means To Think Global

We’ve all heard the “think global, act local” business principle, but if only it was that simple. Cultivating a global business is no mean feat. In fact, it’s a minefield of complex cultural challenges to navigate and overcome.

How do I know? Well, I spent more than two years building my now-global technology business in Asia Pacific before expanding into Europe and the US. I’m often asked how easy is it to tap into new markets, and my honest answer is – it’s tough.

Whenever I hear my Western counterparts discussing their plans to expand their thriving businesses into Asia, eager to contribute to the “fast-growing markets”, I feel compelled to step in and warn against the dangers of treating any region as a single market.

So how can entrepreneurs set themselves up for success when they expand business across markets and cultures?

There is no one-size-fits-all

Most companies expanding from the West into the East assume they can adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, without any serious consideration of cultural differences. One of the largest companies in the world, Apple Inc., is guilty of not tailoring their approach for each region – as such they are struggling to crack the Asian markets. The reality is that Apple may not achieve the same level of success in China and India that it currently enjoys in the US and Europe.

Fortunately for my business, our Eastern roots gave us the advantage of a relatively solid understanding of cultural differences. Originating from the fragmented market of South East Asia meant we knew first hand the challenges we would face throughout our expansion process.

Think Global, Act Local

For guidance on cultural intricacies, including local demands and expectations, it’s important to recruit resident experts. It can be tempting to try to manage remotely when you are “going global”. Sending representatives from flagship teams can be useful to impart the company’s core values to the wider business, but it’s crucial to have a team on the ground in each market.

High value clients will expect to have staff at their disposal with local knowledge. It is impossible to scale the business remotely without discovering the real cultural learnings –which only comes from delving deeper into these markets.

If you don’t succeed at first…

Expanding into global markets is a tough nut to crack, but keep persevering to reap the rewards. For example, when we expanded our business into Japan it was not without its challenges. After a number of positive meetings we couldn’t understand why these optimistic discussions were not converting into dollars. Then we realized we had been approaching the market with the wrong approach.

It was a local member of staff who informed us about the Japanese decision-making process, ‘Ringi’. Japanese businesses take their time and make collaborative decisions following proof of concept and discussion with all levels of seniority – very different to Western hierarchical models of management. After realizing this, we understood that not all meetings would necessarily lead to immediate closures. In our quest to embrace the Japanese way of working, we then educated ourselves on the ‘Nemawashi’ and ‘Kaizen’ business models, which among other things ultimately helped us to crack the market.

Keep watering the roots

Maintaining a solid, consistent company culture is always challenging, particularly for start-ups with a global presence. Aside from uncertainty, short deadlines and other milestones that go hand-in-hand with expanding a business, there is also the task of connecting disparate teams operating across time zones and in different languages – and ensuring everyone is reading from the same page, so to speak.

There is no global solution, and we recognize this. Striking the perfect balance between conserving company culture and embracing growth comes down to the workforce. I’ve always insisted team members adhere to the company’s mission while also allowing them freedom to put their ideas into practice and do what works best in a particular region.

The one-size-fits-all approach is certainly easier to implement and understand, but you need to ditch it for true global success, and fast. Expanding across markets introduces a whole new set of complexities to growing a business. Understanding cultural variations is a key deciding factor for company growth. Know your product, know your company and learn to understand the culture of the new markets you wish to intercept – after all, knowledge is power.

Also published in Huffington PostAdvertising Week.