Ask A Good Product Manager

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How can you quickly evaluate international product expansion?

Posted on May 16, 2008 · 3 Comments

Question: What factors should I consider for a quick (2-3 days worth) evaluation for global product expansion?

I’ve been in a Product Management role for about 7 months. I’ve been tasked to determine whether it makes sense to expand a US-based product internationally. The problem is that I’m always feeling like I need to do deeper analysis when folks around me tell me that deeper analysis isn’t needed. I’m told that all I need to do is a quick back of the envelope to determine if it’s even worth it to conduct that deeper analysis. Biz school teaches the deeper analysis: Porter’s 5 forces, SWOT, etc. But quick evaluations aren’t covered.

I’d appreciate any tips and tricks you might have.

Answer from Derek Britton, Independent Product Management consultant: “Going global”, or at least beyond your home territory, raises some interesting questions about your product, your market and your organization. There are some important considerations concerning language, geographic market forces, cultural aspects, competition in each of these categories that may affect what conclusions you may draw from a quick-fire assessment of the possibilities. You are right that 5 forces, SWOT et al. are hugely helpful here, but you can get a lot of good material down just by being fairly simplistic.

Before we jump in, I would also add that while it feels somehow ‘wrong’ to made such snap judgments, actually this process is extremely liberating, is seen as an effective management tool (read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking for inspiration) by many, and supports the accepted mantra for the Product Manager, which is to live life outside of your comfort zone. Yours and your colleagues collective experience may add up to considerably more expertise than you may realise. And the good news is your company appears to be empowering you to do just that!

  • Your product. Considerations regarding going global on a product include the following but are certainly not limited to this list:
    • Documentation — Clearly you want to consider providing product packaging, documentation, installation and help manuals in whatever the target language may be. Some regions will insist on local language documentation (e.g. Japan, France), whereas it is less important elsewhere (Nordic regions for example may accept English language).
    • Codepage — Does your product (assuming its software here) support the relevant “code page” (which handles keyboard and screen input of local language) for the region(s)? If not, this is an engineering/testing effort.
    • Character Sets — In the western world your (software product) can work for all codepages and characters the region may need. In Asia, especially Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, the support needs to be multi-byte character sets (MBCS), which might need your software to be re-engineered to handle this. This is called “Internationalisation” and is a significant engineering effort, and would need ROI justification accordingly.
    • Cultural / Geo issues — If there is an incumbent competitor or “best practice” in a given target region, you need to factor into your plans whether you need to step up to providing some level of compatibility. This could be a big ticket item once again. If a Geo has a bias towards certain environments, product shapes, even pricing models (US pricing might be considered extremely high compared with, say, Latin America or Asia), you need to get inside the norm for the region and play out a few scenarios to test the business case.
  • Your market. It is very easy to think that the global market is just the same opportunity just divided by the number of possible clients per region. Not so. IBM dominates the high-end server market globally, but only has a modest share in Japan, where local boys NEC, Hitachi, Fujitsu are equally successful. Similar services organizations have a few global big guys but a lot of local niches. The same will be true for your market, which will be affected in ways that were perhaps hitherto unknown. It is hard to be too specific without knowing the product and the market in question but certainly if you were to list the top 10 characteristics of a market on a region-by-region basis, you will find notable differences that will affect how you take your product there. Culturally, remember US companies may not fare as well in certain regions simply because of the background, and a reputable local distributor/reseller might be a more appropriate route in, to help soften that blow. But then the margins on each sale drop dramatically, affecting your ROI.
  • Your company. The size of the company, its existing (global) market reputation, and the aspirations of its board, and its shareholders, without sounding too dramatic, may affect any decision about a foreign go to market plan. Natural beach-heads to test the water are probably obvious (a US product would naturally find a strong candidate market in the UK and Australia, for example; whereas a strong Hispanic market would lend itself then for a foray towards Latin America). The big question then is how is the company disposed to setting up sales offices, or negotiating with resellers, or making what must be considered a relatively speculative investment on such ventures?

If you had a paragraph for each issue, for each region, in no time you have at least highlighted some primary considerations, and pinpointed any significant knowledge gaps that might need filling. Using that as your basis, this is at least the right model for an initial discussion. Add any caveats to allow for change and refinement, and your company seniors will applaud the speed of response and professionalism.

3 other answers so far ↓

  • Gopal Shenoy // May 16, 2008 at 11:16 am

    Great post Derek. Here are some more I would like to add to the above
    1) Pricing:
    a) It does not necessarily have to be less than the US – the cost of doing business in some of these countries are higher than in the US.
    b) Take into account, impact on pricing due to currency fluctuations. Try to price in the local currencies (especially now since the dollar is weak)
    c) How are you going to sell to an MNC that has offices here in US and also in the new geo and they want to do one deal that covers both of their offices?

    2) US regulations – Will your product be impacted by any US export regulations especially if it contains things like cryptography. How long will it take to get required sanctions.

    3) Local regulations – Entities such as EU have their own requirements of products – this may range from
    a) you being viewed as a monopoly (ask the small company in Redmond) especially if the local companies feel threatened by your entry
    b) Information you collect like personal information may be against the local laws

    In jist, there is a whole lot more to it than it appears at first glance. I would go ahead and do the back of envelope calculation that your company wants, but present what else needs to be done to add more color to the picture. I would be interested in knowing how this went. Good luck !!

  • RA // May 17, 2008 at 9:31 am

    Great insight! Thank you.

    I noticed that there was no mention of the incremental revenue opportunity. I would think that the stakeholders would be interested in how much more they’d be making even if the numbers are rough, right?

  • Derek Britton // May 21, 2008 at 10:55 am

    RA – good point, always always this is about the money. The justification for a new geo campaign is driven by market share or revenue or some other tangible. This is presumably already part of the hypothesis that you are being asked to investigate. If not, it is item 1 for the territory – available market revenue / share. Then you start to layer on the factors affecting performance / penetration per my original note and away you go…
    thanks for the clarification q though.