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  • Operator Sessions
  • 09 July 2024
  • 4 min read
  • Words: Northzone

Operator Session: International expansion

Expanding internationally will likely be on the roadmap of every single startup at some point in their journey. Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet for this challenge especially when each new market will require a different approach to the last. How to think about new markets, how to experiment, and how to hit the right balance between consistency and localisation is a complex equation.

In this Operator Session, we discussed the best practices for startups when expanding to international markets led by James Allgrove, former Head of Growth and Revenue at Stripe and current GTM advisor for startups.

Identifying the right markets

A common question is where to go first. Each market you expand into will require significant time, attention and resources. Therefore, you need to be thoughtful about which markets you’re going into before making the leap.

Firstly, start by looking at the problem you’re solving – you want to find markets that have a lot of potential customers needing a solution to the specific problem you solve. The US, for example, is a big, appealing market; however, taking that on first, without assessing the concentration of customers with a problem you are solving can lead to a difficult, and likely very expensive, false start. 

Not all obvious markets are your best next steps. For James, building out markets for Stripe wasn’t just a case of looking at where the most online payments are processed. The product is developer focused, solving a specific pain point that developers had. Therefore it was important to look for markets that not only had a high penetration of online payments, but also ones in which there were sufficient developers dealing with the pain point that Stripe could solve.

Somewhere down the line the need and appetite to expand into big markets like the US will naturally arise, but it shouldn’t necessarily be your first step. Think of local needs too. As an example, if you rank Spain vs Germany, the latter has a bigger economy, but Spain is a great market for ecommerce and developers, and at the time had more whitespace for Stripe to expand into.

Test before you jump

Wherever possible, test the market before putting boots on the ground. Timeframes will differ for each company depending on its product. If you have product-led-growth you can go a long way without support on the ground. Yet, if your target customer is more enterprise focused and your product more complex and customised, you’ll likely need people based locally sooner.

Nonetheless, strive to validate the market remotely as much as possible. While  cross-border remote work may not be ideal in the long run, it can help limit your initial investment and provide valuable data to support your hypothesis about  the market’s suitability. Test as much as you can before you jump in.


Once you have validated that the market is a good fit for you, you’ll need to determine the extent of localisation required to find your local product-market fit. This is eventually necessary across every function however, some can naturally be solved easier than others. Shifting customer focus in a new market is quicker and simpler than rebuilding your whole product to meet specific market needs. 

Therefore, begin by targeting customers in that market whose pain points can be addressed by your current product. Avoid focusing on customers with different problems, as this will translate into needing more local adaptations, slowing you down and adding complexity for your product and engineering teams.

Even if these customers represent a small segment of the market, it’s easier to gain traction and validate your product with them. Once you have a solid understanding of their needs, you can begin localising your product to better suit them, and gradually expand your target audience. Focus on selling what you have already rather than creating a new product for the new market. Although this may eventually be necessary, taking it on as a first step is too risky and will slow down each variation. Additionally, remember that different products require different amounts of localisation – take Slack versus Uber for example. Uber has far more localisation requirements beyond just language; things like local regulation, cultural customs (tipping, waiting times, etc.), invoicing, traffic conditions, and many more things need to be baked into Uber’s product for each market.

If and when you’ve established that specific and significant localisation is needed, ensure you allocate dedicated resources and investment to make it happen. Avoid subjecting your new markets to the same prioritisation process as your existing ones, especially if your home market is the US. Doing so will likely result in perpetual underinvestment in new markets, hindering their ability to gain traction. This is because a  minor tweak in an already large market or for an existing customer typically offers a more attractive ROI than the equivalent effort in a small, emerging market. 

Ensure that new markets have their own separate prioritisation processes and resourcing to help them achieve local product-market fit.

Move slowly and thoughtfully

International expansion should not be taken lightly or rushed into. Whilst exciting, it is typically costly for startups, both financially and from a focus point of view. Therefore, proceed thoughtfully and deliberately, recognising that it will require much more time and money to achieve your goals. Only a thoughtful approach to selecting markets and planning entry strategies, with sufficient testing and regular checkpoints, will minimise the risk of missteps.