Building an International Organization
CTO and co-founder at PandaDoc
"Our problem and journey started in Belarus, where we founded the company. The uniqueness of Belarus is that we have really strong engineering talent, but with our history in the U.S.S.R., we do not boast much talent in the way of sales and marketing. In many cases, people make products, but they struggle in understanding how to take this to the market and sell it. It is also physically not easy because you need a visa to go pretty much anywhere. We just wanted to build a product and serve our customers from the home base of Belarus, but many people questioned how we would do this. Setting up a business and growing it is a much easier task for those who can more closely focus on the market around them by talking to customers, potential clients, and traveling. However, in my case, with a small country like Belarus this was inherently more difficult."
- Focus on the market from the very beginning by talking to your customers and starting to understand them. Initially, we only focused on the international market, mainly being in the U.S.
- Establish the sales function where you are actually selling. This is something that needs to be done by yourself until you understand what works and what doesn't. When we hit 10,000 in MRR, we understood there was something there because of the traction and interest. From there we started to build our marketing and sales functions out of Belarus. Due to the fact that we were only succeeding in the area of marketing, my cofounder decided to move to the US in order to build a stronger sales function.
- Start growing in the local market. I stayed in Belarus to focus on product and engineering while my cofounder started to build the sales and marketing function in San Francisco. He first started alone, then hired people, and we began to grow from there.
- Create a communication channel and sense of transparency between the two offices. How we did this was by me going to the U.S. in order to be the glue between the product side and the rest of the organization. I needed to be able to empathize with the customers and have people understand the importance of what we are building. I was only able to leave once I knew the product and engineering part in Belarus was strong enough to run itself.
- Hire people early on that can do a lot. It is part of our culture code to get people who are hands on and have initiative over experience. In my experience they are able to learn a lot and figure out the problems that need solving. We deployed a lot of content and optimized often which gave us the momentum to hire later.
- When you build an international organization you need to have a presence in the location you are selling. In order to do so, you need to move there. In order to move there, you need to have a foundation. In order to have a foundation you need to have a team you can rely on.
- If your foundation is too thin, it will break. You need to revisit these areas all the time and not build your wall on a single standing brick, but on multiple bricks or in parallel with each other.
- Do not be afraid to make mistakes because there will be many in the beginning.
- "I think for us, focusing on the international market from the beginning was the right thing to do because you start thinking of the international customers as your actual customers. I've seen many cases when someone starts building something locally and then bring it to the international market. In many cases however, its not applicable because you have to change the product completely or you are trying to push something to a market that doesn't have this problem."
- As you build the sales function yourself, you will probably not be perfect in this, but it will give you an intuition of what will and won't work based on your own personal experience. It's difficult to judge this if someone else takes control due to bias and/or varied experience.
- When you have two offices at an 11 hour time difference it becomes a challenge to align. The two start in parallel with each other, then begin to diverge. It is hard to establish this communication channel and bridge between two parts, but it is much easier with two founders in different offices. In this way, you are on the same wavelength. As the company starts growing however, there become more people who have less context. This is where it's important to establish communication channels.
- It is important to put the right team foundation in place so you can scale and move later. You need to have a very strong team that you trust and which shares the same core values and culture so that when you are not in the room, they will speak the same language and complete things without you. Otherwise, it will just collapse because of a disconnect.
- Team is extremely important. Something I learned and failed at many times is to start hiring early, especially in management. It is important to understand who you need, a good year out from when you will actually need them. If you hire too late, you will have problems. In my experience, it is better to keep a network of people close who you are considering, even if you are not ready to do the hiring yet.
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