This decade has seen the rise of technology hubs taking root in places outside the United States not traditionally known for technology. London, Berlin, and even my native Perth now are becoming startup epicenters. Companies that target consumers eventually face the reality that in order to effectively scale their business, they need to sell in the United States. And before you know it, you’re opening an office in the U.S. and managing people with two distinct cultures and trying to help developers in the original country meet the needs of a market that may not even exist in your home country.
Having founded a company with offices in Australia and Washington, D.C., I would like to share some lessons about managing and selling in offices that are more than 10,000 miles apart (or 18,000 kilometers, as our Aussie team would say).
I founded MOKO Social Media in Australia – I was living there at the time, and it made sense for me to be in the headquarters. But we have always targeted American consumers. Specifically, our community-based apps target American college students – a notoriously difficult group to understand and effectively reach, even for American companies.
After considerable thought and debate, we decided to open an office in the U.S. and then made that our new headquarters, but we kept our technical R&D, design, and development team back in Western Australia, even after I relocated myself and my family stateside. Why? First, the talent pool in Australia is extremely attractive, in large part due to the country’s high-quality education system and the fact that it has been focused on new media and digital development right from the early days back in the ‘90s. Plus, we have better access to the top talent in Australia because we don’t have to compete with the many well-funded tech giants for U.S. talent. Secondly, communications are a non-issue with Australia because the native language is English – as opposed to companies targeting a U.S. audience from Eastern Europe or Asia.
There are also financial incentives. A critical upside of having the technical center headquartered in Australia is that the government is very favorable to companies like ours, offering tax incentives. The cost of quality, skilled labor is also cheaper in Australia compared to the U.S.
Of course, there have been some challenges. One of the biggest challenges is that our solution caters to a lifestyle specific to a country all the way on the other side of the world. Even though we all speak English, there are many colloquial differences. For example, rankings in a sports league are “standings” to Americans and “ladders” to Aussies. Little hiccups like these can build up quickly into big challenges from both an app design perspective and a marketing perspective.
Opening up offices in the U.S. has enabled us to make immense strides: We’ve launched three apps that have been well-received – and downloaded – by the young American audience we target. Here are a few best practices that have contributed to our success:
1. Set up an advance team. You’ll need a small advance team – even if it’s just 1 or 2 people – to establish the beachhead in the U.S. In our case, they served to ensure the product the overseas team was developing was compatible with American trends. Even if everyone speaks English, what you get from the foreign team may not necessarily align with the exact voice of young Americans or the way that they think through things. Not just that, but simply having people on the ground in the market is key. For example, we learned quickly that the only way to get college students to participate as our campus “founders” was to meet with them face-to-face. And being in similar time zones has obvious benefits.
2. Make key hires in the U.S. To bridge across oceans, you do need to hire experts in the U.S. We hired an American who had previously operated and marketed mobile applications within the college space. Having a hyper-focused American counterpart who can provide insight into the daily life of your target audience is critical to operating as the translator for your foreign team.
Evaluating UI/UX expertise is also a critical element to consider when organizing a foreign team. In our case, the products we design and build are highly bespoke. We tailor the apps for individual colleges, so the infrastructure demands a very specific type of user interface. Thus, we needed to bring in UI/UX consultants in the U.S. who understood the American audience and had experience building mobile applications specifically for the millennial generation.
Part of hiring the right consultants meant finding folks who could sync up the development iterations of our app with our marketing and customer support. Obviously, to deliver a quality app with an agile model, it is crucial for your developers to understand all aspects of the product. Bringing in field experts ensured there was someone focused on meeting American expectations and standards.
We had the American consultants apply their insights and suggestions throughout our development process, which helped bring out some amazing ideas that would have never been conceived otherwise.
3. Focus on communications. Morning is night and night is morning time differences are about as bad as it gets between the U.S. and Australia, which can wreak havoc on critical communications. One time we had the Australian team working on a project that had already been finished the previous day by the American team – but in their hurry to meet the deadline, the Americans failed to let anyone know, and since they’re in the office at opposite times of day there was no one to ask. So it’s imperative to share results and ideas on a daily basis – whether it’s having five-minute Skype sessions when the Americans get into the office, or working from collaborative platforms like Slack or Google Drive. Results and ideas must be shared. Today’s technology makes this incredibly easy.
4. Match the tempo of U.S. releases. One important change we made after opening our U.S. offices was altering our marketing and customer support timelines to mimic the sprints (or iterations) of our app. Instead of waiting six months for one big “waterfall” release, which is more common abroad, we embraced shorter sprints with more frequent rollouts.
5. But don’t forget to keep harnessing ideas from your original team. Lastly, we made sure to be open to the insights of our Australian team members. It’s amazing how much insight on features of applications servicing the Australian Sports Community we were able to apply to the UX of our app. The ability to boast about scores from intramural games on our app came from the Australians’ deeply competitive spirit, for example. Ultimately, exposure to different user experiences and mobile applications in your particular vertical across two countries will give you a wider range of ideas from which to inform your decisions and best practices.
As CEOs, we’re all trying to keep costs low while delivering a truly excellent product. Operating offices with such distances between them can be seen as a double edged sword, but with the right processes, plans, and staff in place, it can actually lead to fresh ideas, new perspectives, and ultimately an even more successful workplace.
Ian Rodwell is CEO of MOKO Social Media.