Top Five Insights from Building a Global Company Panel with Slack, Lime, GGV & UpWest Labs

Last night, my colleague Oren Yunger and I moderated a panel at GGV’s SF office on the topic of “Going Global.”  Our panelists included Neil Shah of Slack, Andrew Savage of Lime, my fellow GGV Capital Managing Partner Hans Tung, and Gil Ben-Artzy of UpWest Labs, and it was a great discussion.  As the tech world gets flatter, the opportunities and challenges of going global confront startups more quickly than ever before.  We dug into some of the key issues with our terrific panelists.  Here are some of the highlights:

  • Going Global is Not Binary – Prepare and Stage Rollout.  As Neil suggested, going global isn’t a binary condition.  For Slack, despite the product being only in English and the company only accepting US dollars for payment, usage of the product early on was very global in nature.  Places like Tokyo and Berlin became very popular for Slack, alongside SF and NY.  This helped identify where the product would be well received and Slack began a limited roll out in four other languages after about two years from launch.  Lime had international roots from day one, taking inspiration from and having founders from China.  Andrew suggested the company focused on the US for seven months (actually a long time for fast-moving Lime) to get the model ironed out, and then began to roll out to international markets.
  • Smart Localization is Key.  Lime has leaned in to its Chinese roots – accessing the rapid innovation cycles from the Chinese bike, e-bike and e-scooter market to bring superior product to the US, while at the same time customizing the solution for the US market.  As Hans stressed, you need to understand the market you’re going after – there is no one size fits all.  As Lime has rolled out to other countries, they’ve customized the price per ride to match each market.  Slack was careful not to raise customer expectation of a local service by going halfway (such as just launching Slack in a new language without offering local language support nor the ability to pay in local currency).  Customer satisfaction is a function of reality less expectations, and recognizing that expectations would climb for international users if Slack launched in a new language, Slack has planned accordingly, launching localized versions including localized support and local currency to match expectations. But, Slack hasn’t localized everything (for example, the APIs remain documented in English only), focusing only on maintaining or enhancing customer experience.
  • Building the Team For Success.  Gil from UpWest stressed that he advises his Israeli entrepreneurs to come to the US for extended periods of time, long before they plan to move to the US.  There are cultural differences and to bridge these, founders should focus on building relationships and understanding the market before trying to get transactional.  As Lime has grown to 15 countries, they’ve moved to a launcher format, with specialized teams to launch markets and then hire in the local talent to operationalize after launch.  In this way, you can train the local team – as a global startup in multiple markets, you still have to feel as local as possible in each market.
  • Local Market Context Dictates Competition and Expansion.  For Slack, their biggest competition in each local market is what people are used to doing, whether its email, wechat or something else.  Knowing this can help dictate which international markets are right for Slack.  Similarly, Hans suggested that Chinese companies have realized that users in South East Asia and other markets such as Latin America and the Middle East are, similar to China, more tolerant of early and rapidly iterating products, so these markets are ripe for Chinese company’s to consider expansion.
  • Maintaining Culture Gets Complex.  Everyone agreed that maintaining a strong culture as you expand globally is difficult.  Co-locating the DNA of the company is one strategy the panel suggested.  Andrea Carcano, one of the Nozomi Networks founders who was in the audience, also stressed the importance of understanding the context of each market. Some countries are more open to a foreign company bringing in an experienced employee from the home country to set up the new market, while other countries will react better to the addition of a very local team when a foreign company comes in.

A huge thanks to our panelists the lively and engaged crowd who joined live for the event.  We’ll definitely do something similar again – this is a hot topic for founders!