Going global: What 7 tech companies learned establishing international offices

by Andreas Rekdal
March 28, 2018

Establishing an international presence is an important milestone for many growth-stage companies — and an important one to get right, at that. We asked seven Chicago tech companies about the most important things they’ve learned in building their international teams, and how global footprints have helped shape their company cultures.

 

stats chicago tech company
Image via stats

A provider of sports analytics and technology to media outlets, leagues, teams and fantasy league operators around the world, STATS has had global offices for more than a decade. But the company grew its international footprint through a series of acquisitions in 2015. To Vernon O’Donnell, senior VP of data operations, building a global company culture is a matter of distinguishing carefully between employee experiences that can be shared across offices and local traditions that need to stay as they are.

You can never communicate enough, both in frequency and content.”

What is the most important thing you learned from launching internationally?

Too often, American companies try to force standardization, which can come across as tone deaf at best and colonial at worst. Performance conversations in Germany look different from those in Australia, and ignoring local cultural institutions — like holiday parties in France or New Year bonuses in China — can be severely detrimental.

You can never communicate enough, both in frequency and content. Ask a lot of questions, and listen. Share what you know, when you know it. It’s hard enough to scale operations internationally from a technological platform standpoint; bad communications are nothing but a hindrance. And that communication has to go both ways.

 

How has STATS’ international presence helped shape its culture?

People enjoy working for global companies because it makes them feel like they are connected to something bigger, and it gives them exposure to global practices that can be valuable throughout their careers. We amplify this feeling with global all-hands meetings that focus on a different region each time, highlighting the cities our international offices are based in during trivia nights, for instance. Additionally, we’ve been lucky enough to relocate staff from continent to continent, bringing different points of view into our various offices and providing great new experiences to our staff.

 

fourkites chicago tech company
photography by jay hagstrom

After demonstrating the viability of its supply chain tracking tools with companies across North America, FourKites partnered with several major clients to bring the same solutions to overseas operations. The company is currently partnering with Unilever to track European shipments and with AB InBev to track freight in South Africa, among others. Chief Product Officer Priya Rajagopalan said the international expansion has created major opportunities for growth and learning — both for individual employees and for the company as a whole.

International growth has created great growth experiences for our employees.”

What is the most important thing you learned from launching internationally?

Growing internationally has enabled FourKites to take a broader view of the market, and to expedite our learning. We've also been able to incorporate perspectives gained through operating overseas and incorporate them into our U.S. operations.

 

How has FourKites’ international presence helped shape its culture?

International growth has created great growth experiences for our employees, who have been able to travel to our overseas operations to lead program launches.

 

reverb chicago tech company
Image via reverb6

Reverb’s marketplace for used and new music gear has long been a destination for buyers and sellers across the globe. But the company started its major push for international expansion in 2016 with the hiring of on-the-ground representatives in the United Kingdom, France and Australia. In making those hires, said Director of International Strategy Kevin Drost, Reverb aimed to find brand ambassadors who understood the company’s vision — as well as the nuances of the markets they were launching.

You have to hire smart, self-motivated local team members who understand what the company is trying to build.”

What is the most important thing you learned from launching internationally?

We needed employees who not only understood our vision to create a global gear community, but who also felt as passionate as we do about bringing Reverb to their respective countries. Since hiring our first three international team members in 2016, we’ve increased buyers, sellers, orders and sales outside the United States by 500 percent. To see that kind of success, you have to hire smart, self-motivated local team members who understand what the company is trying to build and feel confident speaking when they see opportunities to improve your international strategy.

 

How has Reverb’s international presence helped shape its culture?

We have on-the-ground team members in the UK, France, The Netherlands, Australia, Germany and Japan, and we have transactions happening in more than 80 countries. Our international presence has not only enabled us to interact with incredible people, brands and businesses all over the world, but it has also allowed us to work on new projects and problems that challenge us and push us to grow as a company. It’s made our company feel both smaller, when we realize how many musicians of all shapes and sizes exist in the world, and bigger, when we realize that music truly is a universal language that has the capacity to connect people across the globe.

 

devbridge chicago tech company
image via devbridge

Devbridge Group partners with companies in manufacturing, financial services and technology to build custom software. Headquartered in Chicago, the company launched its first international expansion in Lithuania, where both of its co-founders were born. As Devbridge expanded its footprint to include London and Toronto, President Aurimas Adomavicius has been pleasantly surprised at how each international office has developed its own take on the company’s core values and culture.

Our six values and company mission, ‘slay dragons,’ are the foundation of how we act day to day.”

What is the most important thing you learned from launching internationally?

Both Toronto and London are headquarters for strategic clients we are doing business with, so establishing Devbridge offices nearby made a lot of sense. Nothing beats being able to walk to a shared space and collaborate when we’re building software. On the flip side, though, building a well-communicating organization that aligns around the same values does require more work when you are distributed.

 

How has Devbridge’s international presence helped shape its culture?

Our six values and company mission, “slay dragons,” are the foundation of how we act day to day. These are well understood and shared across the offices. What is unique, and something I did not expect, is that each office develops its own flavor on top of the shared core — from the communication dynamics, to the daily language and practical jokes. That’s to be expected — all countries we operate in are fundamentally different from each other.

 

rise interactive chicago tech company
image via rise interactive

Rise Interactive uses data analytics to help marketers allocate their digital budgets better and understand how campaigners are performing across channels. When launching its first international office in Buenos Aires, said Chief Operating Officer Scott Conine, Rise devoted a lot of energy to learning about the local culture and market from people who live there.

[Our Spanish phrase of the day email is] a reminder that we are an international company, and that we're all in this together.​”

What is the most important thing you learned from launching internationally?

Our recruiting team immediately started to speak with candidates to learn about the culture​ and the market,​ and I flew to the location to ​search for the perfect office space and meet with vendors.​ Listen to everyone you speak with from that location, and take great notes on ​any information they can give about the culture and work environments​. Gathering that information will be imperative when building your plan, and it will set you up for success in managing an office in another country​.

 

How has Rise’s international presence helped shape its culture?

It has been fantastic! We've added ​internal communication tools like video conferencing and chat features to make sure that our international office feels integrated. We've also created a “Phrase of the Day” email, in which we send out a Spanish phrase to everyone in the company so people can pick up on the language. It’s a reminder that we are an international company, and that we're all in this together.​

 

spotme chicago tech company
photography by Chris murphy

SpotMe established its first international office before hiring its tenth employee. CEO Pierre Metrailler said one of his co-founders moved from Switzerland to Chicago in the middle of winter, with a plan to tour potential office locations by bicycle. The company has learned a thing or two about planning since then, as well as about fostering trust and collaboration across international boundaries.

The smallest deal with a big name will make all the difference when you start talking to other prospects.”

What is the most important thing you learned from launching internationally?

Before launching in any new market, build up initial traction with highly visible clients. The smallest deal with a big name will make all the difference when you start talking to other prospects, and it will help you establish trust. It’s also important to connect with like-minded entrepreneurs in your industry, participate in trade conferences, reach out to potential partners and join the local startup ecosystem. There are so many ways to grow your network during your launch phase. No one will ever want to join a small, obscure European company by applying on Monster. We’ve also had some difficult moments in our 10 years in the United States. You can’t go through those without creating a personal connection with your local teams.

 

How has SpotMe’s international presence helped shape its culture?

Between different ways of providing feedback, making decisions, trusting, disagreeing and constantly switching between low-context and high-context languages and working with people of 30 nationalities, it’s easy for things to get lost in translation. We put a lot of emphasis on explicit communication. We also strongly believe every office should have its own culture. But we have defined shared values — and these are the same around the world. And we always conduct important business face to face.

 

codifyd chicago tech company
Image via codifyd

Codifyd, whose software helps companies manage and optimize content about the products they sell online, has international offices in the United Kingdom and India. President and CEO Sanjay Agarwal said the company’s primary focus before launching an international office is to establish relationships with prospective clients and get the infrastructure right from the get go. From there, he said, his team works to ensure that the cultural exchange between offices is a two-way street.

It is important to have mutuality in building the culture, rather than to have a U.S.-driven culture approach.”

What is the most important thing you learned from launching internationally?

Once we had identified a few prospects in Europe, our team flew there to get client commitments. Quickly thereafter, we retained small accounting and law firms to help us set up the infrastructure.

Focus on getting the infrastructure set up correctly. This allows people to focus on customers and employees. Also, hire outside professionals to help set up the infrastructure. While this costs a small amount of money, it significantly accelerates business success.

 

How has Codifyd’s international presence helped shape its culture?

While it is a matter of pride to have an international presence, certainly there are challenges to integrating teams across borders and to driving a unified culture. In doing that, it is important to have mutuality in building the culture, rather than to have a U.S.-driven culture approach to our international locations.

 

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