Early customers in a new market

Building sales in a new foreign market – lessons from my startup experiences

I got a question yesterday about how to expand into a new market (the question was specifically about expanding from India to the US or other markets) and the approach / strategy one could take to grow the business.

I have personally good knowledge only of the US, UK, German and Indian markets, since I have stayed at and sold in all these markets. I have also advised companies who have started in US and India and wanted to sell to the other country.

I am going to make some assumptions about the type of company and stage, to make things easier. First, I assume you are a startup with a B2B focus, not consumer or eCommerce. Second, I assume you have some initial customers in your own market who have validated that the need exists, and your solution provides some value. Third, I am going to assume that your product costs more than $10K, which means you will have to “meet and convince” your customers to buy your product, instead of asking them to self serve or buy online.

If you do not have some early customers, in your market that you currently operate in, I recommend you do that first. If your product costs < $10K annually, you should focus on making the process of acquiring, trying and using your product simple and seamless, so you can focus purely on self-service approaches to getting customers.

The best way to think about a new market or region is to assume you are starting a new venture all together. I would focus purely on getting the first few customers in a new market via referrals from either existing customers or from friends and colleagues.

Before you start to “scale” your marketing and sales efforts to acquire customers who have no background or experience working with you I’d recommend you get customers who you “know”. Focus on building your pipeline either by tapping into your own network, or if you don’t have a network, I’d suggest your attend a conference or two in your space and find a way to start (as an attendee) and build a relationship with 3-4 people who you could start to talk about your product with.

The first few customers are critical to helping you establish your credibility, so while there may be an “ideal” customer with a large budget, immediate need and willingness to take a risk with your company, I’d err on the side of someone who you can get instead of the ideal customer.

To find the early customers, I would also build an early target list that would focus on 4 characteristics – the industry (I prefer finance, technology and telecommunications since they tend to be early adopters), size of customer (mid-sized customers have budget and move quickly, whereas smaller customers don’t have budget and large enterprises move slowly), title of the buyer (marketing, sales and services move quicker than finance and HR) and location (US  – coasts are better than Japan or Europe for example, since they are risk-friendly).