Growing from a local startup to an international scaleup is an exciting move for any founder. But when you start to dig into the logistics — from budgeting and timing to simply choosing your new market — it can get pretty complicated.
Still, international expansion doesn’t necessarily mean launching in enormous economies on the other side of the globe — it can also include moving in with your European neighbours.
Dutch ecommerce giant Coolblue spent 13 years with Belgium as its sole international location, before opening in Germany in 2020. Despite this, its turnover exceeds €1bn and it employs more than 3,000 people.
So how can founders get expansion right? Here are eight tips from Dutch startups who’ve gone global.
- Be sensitive to cultural differences
“When building a team, it’s important to know that Americans are very sensitive compared to the bluntness of Dutch people. It’s extremely difficult for a Dutch person to manage an American team remotely as you have to deal with both time zones and cultural differences. It will cause friction — it certainly did for us.”
When building a team, it’s important to know that Americans are very sensitive compared to the bluntness of Dutch people.
“We realised it works best when you have a Dutch employee there who works with the American team. You need someone to bridge the gap between the two countries.”
Electric bike company VanMoof’s founder Taco Carlier on managing international teams remotely.
- Consider local ways of paying
“If your product is one that requires users to pay, I always advise founders and entrepreneurs to understand how people in your local market want to pay. So, when launching from the Netherlands — where iDEAL and debit cards are popular — into France, you’ll need to consider credit cards or different local bank schemes and make sure they work with your payment provider. Make sure they’re presented up front in your product or service, as it will make it feel more French.”
Electric scooter operator Dott’s head of product Kristina Gibson on making your business feel like it belongs.
- Employ the Eiffel Tower strategy
“In France, it’s crucial to have a French strategy. We call it ‘the Eiffel Tower strategy’ [as coined by growth consultancy WeGrow]. The Eiffel Tower is very small at the top and that’s what we’re aiming for. You need to find that one person, one brand or one company that really makes sense to you and build a relationship with them. As soon as you start working with them, that little light will start to shine across the whole of France and you can expand your business.”
File transfer giant WeTransfer’s chief advertising officer Natascha Chamuleau on finding a local champion.
- Base yourself where your core customers are — but beware of hiring too soon...
“Choosing an office depends on where your core customers are. If you’re in manufacturing, look to Munich. Look at Cologne and Hamburg if you’re in tech. We picked Berlin as it is still more of a startup hub and has lots of talent, but it’s not where the majority of our customers are.
“I also wouldn’t hire a native country manager immediately, I would send someone from the management team who knows Bloomon with some natives to make it successful. In the past, we’ve hired local managers too early and tried to make it work — it’s tricky.”
Flower delivery startup Bloomon chief marketing and commercial officer Reinoud Haal on opening an office in Germany.
- ...or choose Scandinavia if you want to stay remote
“Sweden and Norway are extremely large countries, and people are used to working remotely because of the distances involved. Instead of driving for hours for a meeting, they use Skype, Zoom and Google Meet. You can use this to your advantage. You don’t have to open your own office there directly.”
Care company Active Cues cofounder Sjoerd Wennekes on making Scandinavia its first international expansion.
- Understand the sales culture of the country you’re working in
“Cold emailing in the UK is a waste of time. One of the things we learned is that sales in the UK is very event driven. There are loads of events being organised and they are a great way to get in front of hundreds of potential clients. It’s particularly important to get on stage at events to help build the authority of your products.
“Secondly, when people talk about expanding into the UK, most people are talking about expanding into London, as if it’s the only place out there. It’s not. Places like Bristol, Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham are great places to start your business, especially if you want to try out stuff. Everyone in the UK and Europe is trying to start in London, which makes it a very competitive market. If you want to start out easier and test your product, you might want to start elsewhere.”
In Singapore, there’s a five year cycle that changes the way they focus on strategic topics such as sustainability or fintech.
Job platform Magnet.me founder and managing director Vincent Karremans on winning clients in the UK.
- Research what your new country cares about
“Look really closely into the agenda of national governments and what their attention cycle is. In Singapore, there’s a five year cycle that changes the way they focus on strategic topics such as sustainability or fintech. Once they have a focus area, there are lots of grants and subsidies you can use.”
Blockchain startup Kryha’s head of business development Alexander Enthoven on funding opportunities in Singapore.
- Take your existing clients with you
“Follow the business traction. It’s most ideal when you have a customer that wants to go with you to the US. Ask your other clients if they’re willing to go as well — this is often a missed opportunity that can help your expansion.”
Visual analysis startup Dashmote CEO Dennis Tan on using your community to succeed in the USA.
Techleap helps Dutch startups and scaleups expand internationally. Use its expansion checklist to see if your business is ready to move beyond your local market or learn more about the programmes and tools available to entrepreneurs to grow.