The small business guide to international expansion

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Whether your eCommerce business is 100 years or one month old, there’s one thing that most online store owners agree you should be preparing for from day one: cross-border eCommerce.

When you think about cross-border eCommerce, your mind likely sees the massive opportunity. It’s hard to miss a $4.5 trillion market that’s been on an upward trajectory for the past decade.

Over half (57 per cent) of global online shoppers make purchases from overseas retailers. So, if you’re an eCommerce store owner, you’re likely already selling internationally. This means you may have profited from this global market without even allocating resources, laying out supporting infrastructure, and developing a go-to-market (GTM) strategy.

The opportunity is clearly there. But the real question is: is your store up for cross-border success? To truly compete in this massive market, you have to nail the global customer experience.

When should you start planning for cross-border expansion?

At what stage should businesses start planning to expand and sell internationally? In my view, there’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t be preparing for cross-border commerce from day one.

Think about it, aside from the obvious upside, the barriers to entry are zero and you can dip your toes to test the market (almost) risk-free.

Now, you may be thinking, “Why should I prepare from day one if I’m not considering expanding cross-border?”

The short answer is because your competitors are. And even if you aren’t in a saturated, local market, the competition will inevitably saturate it. So now that it’s clear that you need to set your e-commerce store up for cross-border success, let’s explore the two approaches you need to have in mind.

How to approach to international expansion

Without proper planning and testing, expanding cross-border can be an expensive waste of time. You need a clear plan on how you’re going to dip your toes into the market.

1. Test first, scale second

The biggest mistake you can make in business is making a significant upfront investment before validating your product and understanding how your brand resonates with target customers. The only way to avoid this is through low-cost experimentation.

You need to rigorously test, distil key learnings, and iterate. That’s the core of a key framework outlined in the Lean Startup: Test – Learn – Iterate. At every iteration, the most valuable yield is a key learning.

Lucky for us, the plethora of tools we have at our disposal have allowed for rapid testing with minimal cost. For example, you can easily test your products on marketplaces that serve your target region or country to understand what works before going all in.

The catch here is that the only way to know if your experiment was a success is to plan and commit for long enough to collect data that will point you in the right direction.

2. Plan, commit and invest enough to get a clear picture of success

In order for your testing to be effective, you need to commit and invest enough resources to get a comprehensive picture of success.

That means you need to have your e-commerce website optimised for international channels by localising currencies, language, and the overall customer experience. But without localising your website, you’ll have skewed data.

You also need accurate data to tell you to keep doing more of what you’re doing or to stop and test something new. Once you find out what works, double-down on what you’re doing and devote 80 per cent of your time and resources.

To limit the time and resources you invest during testing, you need to:

  • Set specific, tangible goals (a singular, numerical value works best).
  • Set a short timeline to bound yourself to artificial time constraints.

Come back from the losses of the past year and get the ball rolling on your business’ expansion plan now. You’ll thank yourself later!

Neil Luo, VP, Global Head of SME, Airwallex