Product launches always tricky. Figuring out what market segment to play in, who competes in that arena, and how you are different are just some of the challenges. But, once a product has begun to expand well into a market, this opens up the opportunity to go global as certainly the problems your product solves are not just local.
A year ago, I packed my bags and booked a one-way ticket to Shanghai, China to help Kujiale.com, a start-up there launch their product, branded as Coohom, internationally. This is a particularly unique experience because most companies in China that decide to go global hire distributors as a way to expand into the market, without a high capital requirement upfront. I focused most of my time on building a brand through selling direct in North America.
This post aims to cover major areas to explore when thinking through global expansion into a specific market.
Study the differences in each market
Every geographic region has differences in the way that they operate. There are likely differences in rural regions vs. developed ones, and that brings about different ways for a company to capture a specific market. Studying the specifics of the culture, way of life, and market dynamics is crucial to understanding how a market can be adapted. Below is a short-list of items to investigate:
Economic expansions and how that impacts discretionary spending
How the industry you play in operates in that local market
Commonly used applications and channels for receiving information
To give some examples, in my experience, there were many things we learned along the way in our expansion. For one, the name, Kujiale.com, was something that the average American could not pronounce, so we had to localize the name. Coohom is a short version of ‘Cool & Happy Home’, the translation of Kujiale.
Another is that our product focuses on the furniture industry vertical, and because China is a powerhouse in manufacturing – most furniture companies are vertically integrated and handle everything from production to retail. Comparatively, in America, <10% of furniture is sold through vertically integrated firms, instead most retailers buy products from wholesalers. This had a big impact on the approach we took, as our go-to-market strategy in China focuses on vertical brands.
Learn about the local competition
People are always looking for opportunities to take advantage of arbitrage. So if someone figures out a way to build a fast-growing business in one market, it is very likely, an entrepreneur will copy that idea for a global market, or someone else has already started a company very similar to that. Competitive markets are healthy and expected to happen. You can think of the ride-sharing market globally – Didi, Uber, Lyft, Careem, Gett, etc.
The point here is that every market will have both global and local competitors trying to win market share out. Learning about each of these players, what their positioning is, and what your prospective customers think about each solution is very important. It very well may mean that what positioning worked for you in one market, may not work in another.
For example, in China, because we entered the market early, there were very few competitors vying for the 3D visualization software space in the home furnishings category. But since we were entering America later, there were many competitors who were already working with well-known retailers and brands. So we had to take a step back and figure out how to compete there.
Nail down the positioning
Knowing this, it’s crucial with any product launch, to figure out the positioning that you want to play in that market. This will work hand in hand with the go-to-market strategy defining exactly who your product serves and what value you provide. Nailing down the positioning also has to factor in the competitive dynamics of the new market you are expanding into, as each player may have already decided which niche they want to play in.
In my experience, the positioning that you may take in one market, may not be the exact positioning that you take in another market. The competitive nature and dynamics of that market may force you to change your positioning to be able to make your product successful in that market. At least, that was the case for me.
Kujiale.com’s core product in China is a 3D floor planner that enables people to design homes and render images in seconds. But, in China, there are millions of interior designers, while this number in USA is pegged at ~70,000. One reason for this is that China has a fast-growing middle class who is spending more money than ever before on home furnishings – driving up the demand for interior designers. While figuring out the product marketing plan for Coohom, we had to think through the exact ways we could deliver value within the same industry. This pushed us to pivot from being a floor planner to an entire 3D visualization suite.
Evolve the product
Tied to the positioning and go-to-market plan, the product must evolve to meet the global customer requirements. There are certain cultural expectations around the quality and usability of the overall product that may also play into this. So as with anything, talking to potential customers every day is very important to make sure that you are structuring the product roadmap to meet their requirements.
I ran into this frequently, as our team had to rethink the way our asset management platform for our software worked, and also add key features that were of importance to our global customers. If we did not do this, it was difficult for us to stand out and differentiate ourselves from the more established competitors.
To add to that – it’s also key to mention that in the product planning, you will now have two different sets of customers. One may be more adapted and integrated into the solutions you are supplying, while the other may be more new and a late adopter. For example, in my case – the Chinese market has adopted 3D technology to a much more deeper level than most US-based furniture companies. So as our product team plans our roadmap, we have to keep this in mind as Chinese customers will ask for higher quality and specific functions, of which, may be of no need (right now, at least) for the global customers.
Launching a product is always exciting. There is so much unknown and the team rallies around getting it right to make the launch and everything afterward successful.