The rapid growth of the start-up ecosystem has dramatically changed the face of the traditional business landscape.
Global venture capital investment surged from $52 billion in 2010 to $171 billion in 2017, a testimony to this shift. This report looks at the role of international expansion in the growth journey of start-ups.
The growth trajectory of 50 start-ups were analysed from the year of their founding until they reached 100m revenue. Several insights and confluences were found.
Summary of Findings
When we looked into the order of geographical expansion for the start-ups, we found that the most popular route for companies who first expanded into the USA was to further their expansion in the USA, making their paths USA-USA-USA, while those who expanded into Europe (EUR) conducted EUR-EUR-EUR expansion paths.
For those who expanded into Asia Pacific (APAC) first, results were equally diverged into three separate paths of (1) APAC-USA-USA (2) APAC-EUR-EUR and (3)APAC-No expansion. When we analysed the companies by looking at how often they’d expand into different regions (e.g. USA into Europe, or Europe into APAC, etc.), we found 54% of the initial 50 companies made it to a third region of expansion, illustrating the consistency and importance of international expansion.
We discovered that the initial first-on-the-ground employee was a senior with 15+ years of experience and was a local of the destination country of expansion. In APAC, the most popular countries for expansion were Australia, India, Japan, China and Israel. In Europe, the most common countries were UK, Germany, Netherlands, Ireland and France. For BSB companies in the software/tech industry activities such as talks, panels, forums, summit, conferences were the most effective to engage in before expanding to said country.
Furthermore, these companies were the main players in opening Research and Development (R&D) offices, which were primarily located in India. These findings will be further expanded upon in the research report below.
50 companies were chosen for this project. Each company had to fulfill the criteria of (i) Having 100m in revenue (regardless of whether it was based off VC funding or bootstrapping efforts), and (ii) had to have had expanded an entity (whether domestically or internationally). Companies found were on a first-find-first-use basis.
Of the 50 companies chosen, 86% of them originated from the USA. The companies are as follows:
When should start-ups expand?
Our findings show that start-ups started expanding at a median of 4 years after founding. However, there were some start-ups who expanded earlier and others who chode to do so much later. While 4 years was the average, it’s clear that the individual circumstances and business strategy of each company inform the appropriate time to expand.
Why do start-ups expand overseas?
From our research we found the key reason for expansion was for growing sales. This looked different for each company but included being closer to client bases that may be in another global region, recruiting new talent, testing out waters for demand, or strategic expansion to increase market share and dominance. While 40% of our analysed companies expanded for sales purposes, other reasons included business development/strategy (19%), management (5%), and engineering (4.5%).
Where do start-ups expand into?
We analysed the global expansion paths taken by start-ups by looking at where and when they had expanded in a different region. Twitter, online news articles, company press releases and pages, and external databases like craft.co were used in order to tabulate the location and time of expansions. Expansion methods included in the data set include:
- New offices (R&D/Normal)
- Product launches
- Pop-up stores
- Mergers and Acquisitions
- Warehouses openings
- Construction hubs
- Expanded services
For our findings, we looked at the expansion journeys through a micro and macro lens.
Our team also examined how many cities each company expanded into within each region (USA, EUR or APAC). For example, if x company expanded to APAC, we examined whether they expanded into one, two, or three plus cities. We used the following terminology to display our findings:
We broke these micro paths into three categories (Europe, America, APAC), based on where start-ups first expanded into. We wanted to get a clearer idea of how the first expansion affected subsequent pathways. Therefore, our micro paths analyse the first three places of expansion and tabulates them according to their region. The paths of two companies (4%) weren’t shown as each expansion started in Canada or globally simultaneously, making them the minority.
For companies who first expanded into the USA, the most popular path is USA-USA-USA (see highlighted route). Of the 50 companies analysed, 54% of them first expanded into the USA. Of these companies, 63% of them continued into the USA for their second expansion, while 83% of these remaining companies went to USA yet again for their third expansion.
For companies who first expanded into Europe, the most popular path is EUR-EUR-EUR (see highlighted route). Of the 50 companies analysed, 36% of them first expanded into Europe. Of these companies, 44% of them continued into the Europe for their second expansion, while 62.5% of these remaining companies went to Europe yet again for their third expansion.
Of the 50 companies analysed, 6% of them first expanded into the APAC. For these companies, the ‘most’ widely taken path was inconclusive due to an equal split between all three paths, which were (1) APAC-USA-USA (2) APAC-EUR-EUR and (3) APAC-N/A-N/A.
When analysing these micro journeys together, several trends emerge. Companies that first expand in the USA have a higher chance of continuing with a LR. Similarly, companies with who first expand in the EUR also continue with a LR. From this trend, it makes sense for companies who plan to initially expand into either USA or Europe to continue their expansion path within the region, rather than outside of it.
This trend towards having a minimum SR in USA and EUR is further established in APAC’s first expansion path as paths were APAC-USA-USA and APAC-EUR-EUR, showing the propensity to continue expansion in USA and EUR.
Since the number of companies who first expanded into APAC was few, there was limited data to evaluate these paths. Nevertheless, based on current data, those who expand into APAC first only do so as a pitt stop since there was no continuation into APAC. However, there has been a continuation in APAC expansions in those who first expanded into Europe. For those who expanded into APAC in their second expansions (albeit a small 11%), 100% of them continued to expand into APAC for their third expansion destination. This suggests that continuous expansions into APAC may come later in the expansion journey.
For start-ups, this means having a clear look at your company situation, zooming onto your needs and current resources to identify which path is appropriate as there is no one-path-fits all. Where some companies expand internationally first as a core part of their business strategy, other companies prefer to establish a strong base locally. Although 54% of companies did expand into the USA first, 86% of the companies analysed originated from the USA.
Where specifically in each region should you expand into?
Between each region (APAC, USA and EUR) we identified the most common cities/countries that start-ups chose to expand into.
Destinations of expansion should be determined based on your company’s specific needs and product/service demands. Resources such as the founder’s familiarity with other regions (i.e. if they’ve grown up in another country and are familiar with the business landscape) can be leveraged. As language barriers prove to be an obstacle when conducting business, the preference for Australia and UK as destination countries may be explained by characteristics of dominant English-speaking countries.
Who to send for overseas expansion?
We analysed 157 team leads for international expansion to determine any significant overlaps. Using online articles and LinkedIn descriptions and details for analysis, we found that these individuals had 15+ years of experience, were employed in a position of high seniority and were locals of the country being expanded into.
For those planning to expand into another country for example, Japan, it’s recommended that the individual leading the expansion be a Japanese local. Interestingly, we found that for UK specifically, there was an equal split between employing locals and assignees.
Considering pre-expansion activities
For B2B companies in the software/technology industry, many engaged in several activities before expanding internationally and opening entities. By utilising Twitter, we traced these pre-expansion activities of companies through employee accounts, hashtags and company Twitter accounts. In total, 12 activities were categorised into 9 groups:
- Meet ups
- Misc “Events”
On average, these companies started these events 3 years after founding, with 38% of them doing them consistently throughout an average of 3.2 years, and the remaining 62% doing these activities as once-off events or dotted sporadically throughout. Activities were spread evenly between Europe, APAC and USA. The Summit/Conferences were found to have been done the most. However, in order to find the most ‘effective expansion activity’ we used the formula (see below) for calculation.
Our results were plotted on a spectrum ranging from 0-1. Zero being the least effective and 1 being the most effective. Findings showed that (1) Roadshows (2) Summit/Conferences and (3) Talks/Panels/Forums were the most effective.
Should you consider opening an R&D office?
Research and Development (R&D) offices were also frequently opened by B2B companies that were in the software/tech industry. We tabulated our findings by reading online articles and company press releases that shared information about the type of office being opened. The most popular location for R&D offices was India, with 24% of our researched companies choosing it. Germany and USA were also common choices, with 18% of our companies choosing them respectively. Australia was chosen by 12% of companies.
The popularity of India may come as no surprise due to competitive pricing, proximity to other other markets, strength in the IT sector, and the current growth of engineering, science and tech. For these reasons many MNCs have chosen to conduct R&D there alongside support and significant investments by the Indian government.
B2B/B2C companies and product/services companies
Although we looked into the differences in expansion patterns between B2C and B2B companies, and product and services companies, there were no unique expansion differences between them.
About this research report
This report looks at the expansion pathways of companies who reached 100 million revenue. Our team looked primarily at Twitter, online articles, LinkedIn and company website pages to find information for various data points about the start-up’s international expansion journey.
Some of the more important data points collected include industry type, geographical regions and cities of expansion, length of expansion, expansion types, and details of first employee leading the expansion. See for the full list of data collected. Throughout the report, each key finding detailed the respective method and sources used to obtain the appropriate information of each section.
Drawbacks of our research
Throughout the research, there were various gaps and assumptions that needed addressing in order to make the findings as holistic as possible. The validity of the findings may therefore be impacted. This section of the report shines a spotlight on these holes.
For many start-ups that have achieved 100m revenue successfully, enthusiastic international expansion has played a major part in their journey. For start-ups thinking of developing an international presence to capture market share, win new talent, and increase growth, these trends can help inform how and when expansion should happen.
Based on our findings, we recommend the following:
- Place importance on your initial hire
As the first person hitting the ground running, they are the key to penetrating new markets. Hire a local of the country you’re planning to expand into that can establish new connections, hire new recruits, and manage current sales. As your team grows globally and new offices are opened, your initial recruits are crucial in opening future opportunities for your company
- If you are first expanding into the USA or Europe, continue to solidify your bases in each respective region before moving globally
Established and sustained success in one market helps to mitigate potential risk that comes with international expansion moving forward.
- Research local laws, requirements and practices to help with hiring talent in a compliant manner
The more knowledge and expertise you have in these areas, the more safeguarded you will be against surprises and the more success you will have retaining talent and in future expansions into other countries.
- Your reason to expand should be relevant to the place you expand to
Pinpoint the current needs of your company to help deduce what type of expansion is required, and where. For example, companies thinking of opening R&D centres should consider India, U.S and Germany as potential choices. Furthermore, consider other factors such as ongoing costs, current talent and existing company resources and connections in considering where to go.
- Think outside the box to gauge initial levels of interest in your company.
We recommend engaging in (1) Roadshows (2) Summits and Conferences, and (3) Talks/ Panels/Forums as methods to strengthen product/service demand, build contacts and aid in familiarising yourself with the local landscape.
Development in both the literature and research space of start-ups, while plentiful, still has room for more growth. This is especially true as start-ups continue to become more prominent in the business landscape. While out of the scope for this research project, there are a number of related topics we’d like to continue exploring in the future.
- Start-ups who achieved 100m in revenue without expanding internationally.
- Gather larger sample sizes of start-ups that are from EUR and APAC who have expanded internationally. Analyse their expansion paths, to track whether they are prone to first establishing base locally before expanding internationally, or if they expand earlier.
- The correlation between revenue to expansion. Look into patterns of expansion after reaching x amount of revenue, and/or after receiving series funding.
- Explicit driving factors for sales expansion that make them go overseas (e.g. Launch of a new product, testing waters, part of the business strategy/vision, prompted by investors etc.)
- Current methods start-ups use to hire internationally, and the problems associated with it.
While we take great pride in our work and findings, the recommendations and findings here aren’t guaranteed for to reach 100 million revenue success. We have not shown the success-failure of these expansion paths for a multitude of other start-ups (particularly those who have ‘failed’, or that haven’t made it to 100m). These start-ups could have taken the same expansion patterns yet never reached the same success.