Reverse globalization: How we took our startup from India to Asia to Europe to global

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Naveen Tewari is the CEO and founder of mobile advertising company InMobi.

When I co-founded InMobi in 2007, we took a novel “east-to-west” approach to our growth, starting in India before moving into other developing markets, then finally into more traditional “Western” markets as well.

Because this method of expansion didn’t have any precursors, and mobile advertising was at the time still a very new field, we had to chart our own course and set our own example. And as a corollary, we would have to deal with a number of challenges as we discovered that the mobile landscape was different in each geography we entered, and learn to quickly recover from mistakes.

I’d like to talk about some of the challenges we faced and how we dealt with them, as I believe it will be of relevance to other businesses that are trying to build a global footprint:

Learning while doing

Because we were experimenting with a new business model, we often had to rely on intuition as we calculated our next moves. When you are trying to expand across multiple geographies at a rapid pace, you are bound to slip, and we were no exception. For example, our first forays out of India into other geographies, starting with Indonesia and South Africa, did not yield initial success, and we could not gain a strong foothold in the market. Our lack of understanding of the ways in which brands, advertisers, and consumers communicated and interacted in these markets, and incorrect hypotheses about the overall advertising ecosystem, led to delayed revenue streams. But we learned how the ecosystem worked and began expanding our reach in these emerging markets.

Likewise, when we had to extend the capabilities of our platform to serve multiple regions/countries, we almost ran the risk of jeopardizing existing business in India by shifting focus away from it.

We learned quickly from such wrong moves, and this helped us templatize our forays into new countries, and that is the key takeaway:

An experiential learning approach works well if you can recover from your mistakes quickly and identify patterns and models from within a few iterations.

Recalibrating world view frequently

Working with an evolving technology and business model, and one that had numerous dependencies on the moves of key players in the mobile device and platform platform markets, brought with it another set of challenges: frequently making informed decisions on the roadmap of our technology platform, which was the pivot of our business.

In addition, our geographic expansion plan also compelled us to be agile and flexible.  Once we had tasted initial success, we laid out a plan to simultaneously expand in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore), Western Europe and Japan. Each of these markets had its own characteristics and was very different from one another. Western Europe was developed, and so was Japan, but the latter is a contained market with little in common with the European market. The emerging markets, on the other hand, were evolving and needed a totally different approach.

Clearly, we had to tailor our approach to suit each market, and this meant that we literally had to revisit our assumptions and plans every quarter.

In all of the above, our overall commitment to speed — in thinking and in action — helped, and our approach of trying out and making course corrections, rather than waiting and watching, stood out. To me, the key takeaway from this experience is staying committed to a strategy for the future, while adapting the tactics to the present.

Shaping Management Mindset

While the first two sets of challenges emanated from the market, the third was more internal and had to do with adopting the right mindset.

As a startup with global ambitions, we had several mental hurdles to cross. Learning to think big while being small was one of them. Some of us had a tendency to want to do one thing very well as opposed to developing broader competencies and skills, which is a prerequisite to build scale. Another issue was balancing our short-term needs with our long-term goals. Nowhere was it a bigger challenge than when we opened offices in new geographies and set out to hire the regional anchors. How much to pay, how long to wait for the right candidate, what profile should we opt for?  These were real questions we had to find answers for. We made a few errors of judgment here as well, like hiring candidates about whom we were not completely convinced, before we made the tough call to wait for the right candidates and pay them the right compensation.

The last thing we had to do, of course, was to transform our thinking, speaking and actions to reflect those of a truly global organization, and make the transition from being part of an “Indian” team to a cross-cultural one. This entailed creating a consistent corporate culture with frequent interactions between teams based in India and those in the other markets. By encouraging two-way travel, we ensured that teams from India understood market and cross-cultural nuances early on.

In sum, we learned to be open, introspective and aware of the consequences of your behavior and actions.

Thinking back, what allowed us to surmount the challenges we faced and mold our thinking and actions to suit the purpose was our total commitment to our vision and the excitement of creating an innovative and valuable business model.

That is the overarching message I’d like to leave you with: clarity of vision and purpose is the glue that binds a team together and acts as a lubricant to mitigate the friction caused by obstacles along the way.

For more information on InMobi’s East-to-West strategy, see Naveen Tewari’s first post, here.

naveenNaveen 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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