In an increasingly global economy, many young, fast-growing companies in the United States find themselves doing business internationally without having made any conscious effort to do so. If your product is accessible online and your customers want it, they will find a way to get it, no matter where in the world they are located. While online sales are great, they only go so far. At a certain point, you’ll need to think about extending your on-the-ground sales efforts to key foreign markets, particularly Europe, to supercharge your revenues.
However, Europe is a very complex market with multiple languages, time zones, cultures and currencies. As you grow, you’ll need employees that understand these complexities so you can better service and sell to your international customers. But expanding to where your European customers are often isn’t easy because such a move changes the dynamic, culture and overall nature of your company at the same time that it can drive significant growth — if managed correctly. There are many considerations and no two companies are the same in terms of drivers and needs.
In my job, I work with companies from all around the world that are expanding to Europe. For example, three U.S. companies open a European office in Ireland every month. Here are the seven biggest challenges that I see for companies deciding where to locate their EMEA sales operation.
1. The biggest consideration: Finding the right talent
Any company that has been through this process will tell you that access to talent is the most important factor when expanding to a new location. Without the right people with the right skills, expansion to a new market is pointless because you just can’t get the job done.
For example, a B2B SaaS company launching a sales and support office in Europe will likely need sales, sales engineers, SDRs and tech support as well as finance, IT and HR people that are used to working in a high-growth, fast-paced environment. This can be daunting but there are a number of tips that can make understanding and hiring local talent easier:
• Talk to companies that have set up operations in the location you are assessing that have similar talent needs.
• Visit your chosen city for a few days and meet with other companies there to see first-hand how they hire and scale teams.
• Ensure that the location is attractive as a place to live because it’s likely you may hire from across the European labor pool, not just locally.
• Speak to local recruiters and use LinkedIn and Glassdoor.
• Post some openings on jobs boards in your chosen geography.
2. When should you launch your European sales office?
There is no “one shoe fits all” solution about when the time is right to go to Europe. That depends on a number of factors but in the main, you need to look at the market. Do you have customers there and if so, are you able to support them properly from the United States? Do you see significant opportunity in Europe from a growth perspective? Ask yourself:
• What is my sales model? Can it be done remotely?
• Do I need to be closer to my customer?
• Is there a regulatory need for me to be there – particularly when it comes to issues related to data privacy, medical devices and financial services?
• Can my management team cope with managing a remote office or team?
• Do I have the bandwidth right now to deal with this?
For the most part, companies that have made the leap, without exception, always comment that once they verified the opportunity, they realize they should have made the move sooner!
3. Where should you locate?
Given that there are 28 countries in the EU with different languages, laws, legal structures and more, choosing a location isn’t easy. This is a good time to consider where your peers, customers and partners are located. What country have they chosen and why? Locating near your main stakeholders can help maximize success.
For a single-office location, pick a place that can tap into a wide pool of skilled international workers in an easy-to-access city and a location that understands both the U.S. work culture and ethic as well as the European way of doing business.
4. Understand policies, regulations and other red tape
The main driver of your success in Europe will be getting access to the right people to manage and grow your business. So labor laws and immigration policies should be top of mind. What are the country’s immigration policies? Will moving staff in from other locations, if needed, be problematic? And will labor laws make it difficult to get rid of employees who don’t work out?
In Ireland, for example, there are flexible labor laws that benefit both employer and employee. Also, there is no cap on the equivalent of H-1B visas.
Outside of labor laws and immigration, try and understand the costs, tax liabilities and benefits of various locations. Speak to lawyers, tax advisors and bankers for insights into the level of paperwork required to get up and running. Banking in Europe is very different than how it’s handled in America and can be a major pain point for U.S. firms, thanks to the EU’s Anti-Money Laundering Directive and the Know Your Customer initiative, which is part of its customer due diligence measures. Getting introductions to the right partners at the right level is important, so use your network to meet the people who know how U.S. companies work and can assist you in complying with these efforts.
You also need to understand your costs, tax liabilities and the potential tax benefits of locations. Brexit has delivered a curve ball in the UK, with the future now cloudy when it comes to tax-free access, regulations, hiring and other issues. Without a crystal ball, it’s best to examine a number of potential locations in light of the local work ethic, customs, productivity levels and attitudes to make the best selection.
5. The first hire is key
Having the right people is important at every stage of a company’s growth. This is even more true when seeding a new team in a new location. The first hire is instrumental to setting the tone, culture and success of the office. That person needs to get processes in place, will hire the initial team and deal with problems and issues as they come your way.
A common strategy that helps drive success in a new location is to send a “landing team.” This often consists of two or three senior sales, support and ops people who spend six to 24 months in the new office to help hire, onboard and train new employees. Their knowledge of company processes and culture as well as their relationships with HQ can make a real difference in the long term rapport and integration of the new office with HQ.
Having a landing team does help with this but ultimately, you need someone who has ownership of the new operation and that will drive it forward in a positive direction. Therefore, that first key hire is fundamental to your success.
6. The importance of establishing a corporate culture
Given human nature, hiring an office full of competent sales folks in Europe doesn’t always guarantee a smooth-running operation. While it’s tempting to let the culture develop organically, assuming some sort of “global culture” will emerge, in real life, a more hands-on approach creates better results. The idea is not to squash local subcultures that are innate — your employees will likely have different backgrounds — but to overlay the HQ’s culture while celebrating local diversity. Some proven techniques include holding well-planned all-hands meetings, bringing European team members to HQ to get tastes of the corporate culture, and having senior executives from the home office visit regularly.
7. Future-proof and plan for success
If your product is good and your sales organization performs, you will grow. Often, companies start with sales and support personnel in the new market but as they grow, begin to hire engineers and developers. And as the team expands, companies start to hire finance, legal, ops and other support functions to aid their growing teams. Thus you should assume you’ll need additional space for new hires soon or in the mid term. This means finding a location where you have the flexibility to scale across multiple business functions. You need flexibility in terms of real estate and talent availability and mobility across functions.
Using some thought, care and planning in launching your first European sales office can save immense headaches and needless costs that come from not thoroughly strategizing this important step. Even the fastest-moving young company would do well to spend time on developing a solid approach first.