Many companies will not see the uncertainty of a global pandemic as the perfect moment to go international, but for others (particularly in healthcare, online communications, and workplace mobility) the market is stronger than ever and companies are having to respond quickly internationally to both service existing clients and take advantage of the growth in demand.
We and our team at Taylor Wessing advise 50 to 75 venture-backed North American companies each year on setting up in Europe or Asia. We’ve helped companies such as TaskRabbit, Lime, Glossier, InVision and many others translate their domestic success to new jurisdictions and cultures and to thrive as global businesses.
This is a practical guide to international expansion with the challenges of the current time in mind. It’s a quick-read providing some practical tips and sharing best practices from peer companies to help you come out of the pandemic with a strong international presence. A great deal of this advice is evergreen and will serve you well whatever the circumstances may be.
In particular, we’ll cover the rise (and risks) of distributed workforces — a way for CEOs to hire the best talent anywhere in the world. This has taken on new significance with the boom in remote working as one of several options for CEOs looking for strategic growth during and after COVID.
Is this the right time to expand overseas?
Ten years ago, the timing question was much simpler. Founders would first of all focus on developing a product and winning over their domestic market, funded through their Series A and B rounds, and then go on to raise their Series C round, which investors would expect to be used to push into new markets.
Since then, with the age of the smartphone in full swing and international direct ordering ubiquitous, opportunities to sell into new markets appeared far earlier in a company’s growth and there is no longer a canned strategy for timing your international expansion.
The current circumstances have exaggerated this trend. There are many challenges in traditional sectors, but also many new market opportunities quickly appearing in healthcare and other technology sectors with founders wanting to move quickly into new markets.
Although it may be tempting to just get a few sales people on the ground to go for it, we would still recommend laying some groundwork and making some key decisions before diving in. For example: ensuring management can give sufficient time and attention to the new market; tweaking your product to comply with local regulations; reworking your sales approach.
If you are early-stage, tread carefully. Our belief is that the Series B round is still the earliest a founder or board should consider international expansion.
If you are early-stage, tread carefully. Our belief is that the Series B round is still the earliest a founder or board should consider international expansion. The companies we’ve worked with who have moved earlier than the B round will generally end up realizing it’s too early. They’ll end up pressing pause, or making a full strategic exit, tail between legs.
International expansion is a matter of focus, as well as financial resources. Once you’re selling into a new market, everyone in the business needs to be thinking internationally, including the CEO, CFO, general counsel, the board, engineers and staff. It can stretch everyone before there are the necessary resources in place to cope.
Decision made: How do you get going quickly?
Even in the best of times our advice would be to not experiment or push the boundaries when it comes to your international strategy, do that elsewhere in your business. You should follow the path most travelled at this stage. This is especially true in the current climate. If you’re thinking of doing something new, something your peers haven’t done before, we should have a conversation first.
Whichever market you’ve chosen, there are some universal first steps (although they might vary slightly between jurisdictions). For example:
- If you have a permanent establishment for tax purposes (i.e., the local tax authorities consider you established enough to be paying income tax and corporation tax), work on the basis that you’ll need to incorporate a company or register a local branch.
- Consider flexible options when it comes to taking on people (more on this below). Remember that in all cases local employment contracts will be needed (subject to the use of PEOs – see below).
- Perhaps most importantly, local agreements transferring IP ownership will be needed (see next chapter).
- There will also be some local filings (e.g., tax, corporate, payroll) where you will need a local service provider such as an accountant and payroll provider.
Common international expansion traps … and how to avoid them