Hello to Canada’s SaaS Community,
Expanding globally can be amazing for your business, but only if you have the right information ahead of time. Speaking with SAAS NORTH, Jim Lambe, the Vice President and General Manager for Canada at NetApp, shared of the questions every SaaS CEO needs to answer before going global.
- You can’t seek expansion simply for money—you need to know about your competition, operations, and what success means on a deeper level.
- Planning is necessary but you won’t know every cultural detail until you physically visit the place you want to expand.
- Milestones are essential and don’t need to be financial—they just have to show you’re on track toward success.
Co-Founder/Producer, SAAS NORTH Conference Editor, SAAS NORTH NOW
Wanting to expand globally is fairly easy to understand: there’s more opportunity, more customers to serve, and more revenue to be made. But wanting more money for the business is not enough by itself to warrant international expansion. This is an area that Jim Lambe knows well, having spent his career helping global juggernauts like Google, Stripe—and now NetApp—continue their international growth.
Speaking with SAAS NORTH, Jim shared the questions he cautions every SaaS CEO to know the answers to before embarking on international expansion.
Even in capital-flowing environments, international expansion is difficult. But throw in any sort of market downturn or difficulty into the mix and incorrect expansion could bankrupt the business. That’s why Jim is adamant that simply wanting to increase revenue is not enough. Instead, ask yourself questions in five different categories: money, market, operations, product, and post-launch.
Money questions to ask:
- What are your revenue expectations? By when?
- What will your investment be? I.e. what are you willing to spend??
- When do you determine if you’ve spent enough?
- What do you do when you don’t get that ROI?
- What % of the dollar value is acceptable vs. unacceptable?
Market questions to ask:
- Do you have experience in the market?
- Do you know about the competition in the market?
- What business problem do you think you’re solving in the market?
- Who is solving it today in this market?
- How does your value proposition stack up against incumbents?
- What’s the impact on potential customers if they don’t buy your solution?
- Who solves the problem for your potential clients if you don’t?
- How do you plan to cover the market? Direct, partners or other relationships?
- Who can help you?
- Are there ancillary Canadian companies which can be symbiotic?
Operations questions to ask:
- Is the product ready to ship in the Country?
- Is further product development needed for success?
- How are you going to ‘support’ these clients if successful?
- What happens if there’s too much demand? Is your supply chain ready? Do you have a contingency?
- What happens if there isn’t enough demand? Can you quickly recalibrate? How will you do that?
Product questions to ask:
- Have you met any localization requirements?
- Have you met any required regulations?
- Have you considered GDPR and other privacy laws and how they apply to you?
- Can you support the launch—distribution, admin, etc.?
Post-launch questions to ask:
- When do you officially measure whether you’ve succeeded or not?
- What is not success—the achievements you might be happy about but don’t constitute a successful expansion?
- What is your stop investment point if results are moving but underwhelming?
Jim was clear that these questions are not exhaustive—instead, they are prompting questions to not only help you think more deeply about your international expansion plans but also help uncover any issues or problems before they become massive risks to your business.
“There just has to be so much more thought that goes into [international expansion] beyond revenue,” said Jim.
The process of growth
Let’s say you ask yourself all those questions—and dozens more from investors, mentors, and team members—and the answers come up nicely. That is, you have a real plan for expansion.
What comes next?
Jim said it operates in four steps: doing your homework, getting on the ground, focusing your strategy, and setting up milestones.
1. Do your homework
This step includes both understanding the local market (which you would know a bit about from the prompting questions in the previous section) and then finding local partners.
During SAAS NORTH, Jim shared an example of what could happen when you don’t lean on partners: during his time at Stripe, a customer wanted to expand into a different country. That company wanted Stripe to power all their credit card payments, a seemingly perfect fit. However, Jim shared that Stripe’s analysis showed that many people in that country didn’t like paying by credit card and preferred other methods. Had the company leaders tried to expand on their own or go self-service with credit card payments, they might have made an error that would have cost them significant sales at launch.
“Rely on your trusted business partners for the vetting of your strategy and for the ultimate implementation of your strategy,” said Jim.
2. Get direct experience
You can do all the research you want, but you won’t get the full picture until you have “direct experience” said Jim.
The reason this happens isn’t because rules are written differently when you are physically present. Instead, it’s because of the on-the-ground knowledge you will gain of regulations, compliance activities, privacy, and the risk tolerance of varying executives.
Jim shared the example of data residency, which is when servers and data storage are located in the country a company is operating in—for instance, a Canadian company may want data storage located in Canada. While this is required in some specific instances, Jim shared that this requirement has softened over time. Today, data residency requirements are based on regulation or compliance. Previously, these requirements were based on the risk tolerance of the Boards or Executives who oversaw these decisions.
This kind of nuance can only be felt once you’re in a physical location talking to possible partners, so it’s imperative to get first-hand feedback from the geographies where you want to do business.
3. Focus your strategy
When Jim gives this advice, he said many people assume he means to be focused on the scope of your expansion. While that’s important, it’s not the key point.
“There has to be specificity to the customers for which you believe you are most apropos,” said Jim. “In short: be very specific in your customer targeting.”
4. Set up milestones
Instead of seeking purely revenue or growth targets, Jim’s advice is to find milestones within your control that signal if you’re on the right track. For example, that might be establishing a master service agreement with a certain number of companies in the first six months. Or closing a certain number of trials or demos within a specific time frame.
If you’re stuck identifying those milestones, one trick Jim recommends is for founders to write their own successful press release, then work backward.
“Write your press release from two years from now and what contributed to that success,” said Jim. “Think of it as a way to map your strategy by looking at the outcome first and then working backwards from the outcome to go, “okay, what are the very specific steps we need to take and when in order to be successful?”
This approach has been essential for Jim in his career and continues to serve him as he helps NetApp expand. But the real strength of Jim’s leadership approach is its flexibility. While it’s helping Jim grow with a larger enterprise, the same fundamental questions apply to any startup, of any size, when expanding internationally.