In 2007, I’d just wrapped up a stint at Harvard Business School, and I was restless to do something on my own. After a few months with a Silicon Valley-based VC firm, I decided to start my own company in the mobile technology market.
After testing the waters, my co-founders and I pivoted around mobile advertising to launch InMobi, the global company we’re proud of today. From the outset, we wanted to break the mould of the mobile technology market and rather than base ourselves in the U.S., which was the biggest market for mobile advertising at the time, we decided to build out the technology platform from India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore. We raised early venture funding from blue-chip valley firms Kleiner Perkins and Sherpalo and set out to grow the business.
The decision has worked in our favor; emerging markets were hot regions for mobile penetration and the abundant technical talent in India also encouraged us to invest in our platforms early, creating a solid tech foundation for the business. Initial business success spurred us to enter adjacent markets and by 2009 we were present in most Asia-Pacific countries (barring China, Japan, and Korea).
However, the true defining period for the business was 2009 to mid-2010, when InMobi transformed from an Asian-market-focused company to a global player. In these six quarters, we established ourselves on three continents: Africa, Europe, and the U.S.; and by the end of 2010, we were generating revenues from 150 countries with employees of more than 30 nationalities.
Focusing on an East-to-West strategy has been fundamental to our business success to date, and there are a number of key takeaways for businesses looking to take a similar approach.
1) East-to-West for new tech
East-to-West strategy makes most sense for businesses centered on new technologies — the Internet, mobile, and cloud being the obvious examples. The rationale is simple: New technologies are adopted almost uniformly across Western and Eastern markets and even if the market characteristics and sophistication levels differ, the East is still a viable option to base the business.
This is because Asian countries, especially India, have abundant and affordable technical talent, making it easy to create a solid technology-centered offering. The East has also historically been a place where mobile technology and adoption has developed at an accelerated rate compared to the West, so basing your operations there, especially if your business has a healthy mobile component, helps to ensure that you’ll be ahead of the curve compared to your western counterparts.
2) Global business ideas
The business idea should have universal appeal. That is to say, a successful East-to-West business will be understandable and attractive on both sides of the East/West divide.
This isn’t always easy. Some products and services get lost in translation. But InMobi focuses on mobile advertising, and with the mobile platform becoming ubiquitous worldwide, all businesses, irrespective of region, were experimenting with mobile ads when we took the business to market. Universal appeal is very important for scaling the business, and for launching into multiple geographies.
3) Timing is everything
Now is the best time to adopt an East-to-West strategy. Not only are China and India continuing to show promise as solid markets to launch a new business, but more established global companies are also eyeing them and adjacent markets in search of greener pastures.
This focus on the East presents great opportunities to connect with established brands that are trying to grow in comparatively young markets — an easier in than trying to forge the same relationship in the West — so if you can win the confidence of customers in emerging Eastern markets, you can use this as a path to capture larger business in developed markets too. Today, we work with many global brands in the U.S., UK, and Australia through initial business relationships established with their Asian regional headquarters.
4) Move fast
Speed of execution is critical. Starting in one market and expanding globally requires smart and swift execution; it’s easy to get caught up and slow down, especially when you are a small company with limited resources. Not everything will be the same market-to-market, but you’d be surprised at how many similarities you will encounter.
I would strongly recommend that you leverage the lessons from the first few countries you expand into and figure out the model of what makes a broader geographic expansion successful. In addition to your global team, consider a combination of local leadership for sales and operations, marketing, PR, strategic partnerships, and 24/7 support, depending on the needs of your business, that is more ingrained socially and economically with each market. But make sure that your business models, and business values, are implemented consistently, ideally in a frugal fashion.
5) Think globally
Having a global presence means acting like a global company. From the very beginning, we thought like a global company and didn’t compromise on hiring the best talent. No matter where you’re starting your company, East or West, you can’t afford to think small.
InMobi is in the advertising business, so we understand that local nuances and sensitivities are crucial for the advertisers’ success. We decided upfront that we needed capable local leadership that came with a good understanding of the region, culture, and way of doing business. We also spent quality executive time in hiring these leaders for the regions. As we moved from East to West, these first executives were able to impart immense knowledge on their newer colleagues, who came to their roles armed with this knowledge — and the freedom and flexibility to change what they needed to in order to make Western operations work. Thinking back, our conviction to hire top talent that could thrive locally and teach globally is probably one of the most crucial factors in our success as a company.
There is no standard formula for a successful East-to-West strategy, but I hope that the factors outlined set you thinking about a strategy that is relevant for your business. That said, I guarantee that you will face numerous hurdles and make multiple mistakes; I’ll be sure to share a few of my own in the next post.
Naveen Tewari is InMobi’s CEO and founder. He graduated from Harvard Business School and worked at Charles River Ventures and McKinsey & Company before starting InMobi. InMobi, based in Bangalore with offices in Singapore and San Francisco, currently employs more than 900 people and has taken $216 million to date in venture funding.
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