If there’s anything I’ve learned in the last six years of building Supahands, it’s that a company doesn’t have to be based in a global startup hub to achieve worldwide growth. 

Although Supahands is based in Southeast Asia — our HQ is in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia which is a far cry from Silicon Valley — we operate globally, with clients from Singapore, the United States, South Africa, and more.

There are a few things I’ve picked up over the years, some from challenges we’ve faced, others from common struggles we’ve seen in the market. And I’d like to share this knowledge with other startups that are thinking about scaling globally. 

Finding the right timing for expansion

When it comes to international expansion, there’s a right time to do it. If it’s done too early, the team, company finances and product might not be ready. The market itself might not be ready yet. 

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However, do it too late and local competitors might have picked up your business model and perfected it to become dominant in their home markets. Sometimes that local edge makes all the difference and if you go in at the wrong time, you’re setting yourself up for unnecessary competition. 

Here’s a thing to note: Getting into the market at the right time isn’t a matter of luck. It’s a decision that should be made based on data. 

Some questions we usually ask ourselves before expanding into a new market is why we want to expand. Is it because there’s a gap in the market? Have we been seeing an upward trend of enquiries from this particular region? 

Our main goal is to anticipate market needs. If we’ve identified that there’s potential in a particular market, we ask ourselves if we need to adapt our operations to address those needs. What are our potential clients saying? And how can we address their requirements in an efficient manner? 

It’s one thing to get in at the right time; the other thing that increases success is having the right strategy to hit the ground running. 

Finding the right product-market fit

A lot of startups begin their journey by solving a particular market need. The resulting product can sometimes be a very niche one. Although this might help initially, in terms of getting the business of the ground quickly, it can also result in later difficulties for scaling. 

Depending on the market a startup is serving and the kind of product or solution provided, the variance between one region and another can be vast. 

In some cases, a product may not even be able to function in a different market without new and expensive adjustments. Sometimes a startup might even need to build a whole new product. 

At the same time, there may be local businesses that have far more insight into the local market, which an expanding startup will have to contend with. 

This is another challenge that can be diminished simply by doing the right amount of research, collecting data from the right sources, running ample experiments and developing a sound strategy based on that. Just like building a new startup, when expanding to a new location, we aim to understand how big the market size actually is. 

We also ask ourselves what extra value we’re bringing to the market. Facebook is a really good example of this. It wasn’t the first product of its kind — but it was able to fill the gap that a lot of its preceding competitors failed at. 

Sometimes having local competition may be a good sign. It means there’s an appetite for your type of product. What you need to do next is ask yourself: Do I have a USP to capture some of this market? 

In this day and age, there’s no longer a need to go into a new market blind. There’s usually a wide range of resources that a startup could tap into — from white papers to local communities — in order to get the details required. Current technology makes it a simple matter to reach out by email or @ someone on Twitter or LinkedIn. 

While we may not be able to have the same insights that a local might have, we might be able to get that information by connecting with the right people. 

Allocating the right budget amount

This might seem like an obvious one, but there are many startups that aren’t able to realistically anticipate the budget they will need for a successful expansion plan. 

Although a startup might have a relatively large budget overall, they may not allocate enough for expansion in a specific region. Sometimes this is because they don’t know enough about their competition in the region or they may not have obtained accurate enough information during the research phase. 

As Supahands has continued to expand, one thing we always take into consideration is the slower ramp up time. We are aware that it may not be possible for us to hit all our KPIs straightaway in a new market so we manage our expectations accordingly. 

One thing that’s worked for us is that we look at our existing data to determine how long a normal ramp up would take. Then we add the relevant multipliers to get a more accurate benchmark. 

Different startups would have different considerations. For example, at Supahands, we place a strong emphasis on building the right tech that can meet the needs of the local market, as well as have the potential to scale further. In our case, moving into a “local” market wasn’t so much of a geographical market but an industry vertical.

This is also one area where it helps to have research data. We go in with an idea of what the market needs are, and what kind of education process local users might require. If a longer education process is required, we anticipate our capital runway to ensure that we don’t run out of funds before we’re ready.  

An expansion budget would have to take a number of factors into account, including timelines, local user landscape and tech development. Ask yourself: Can I afford to spend time and resources capturing this market while maintaining growth in my current market?

Developing the right partnerships

Sometimes, a startup will turn to partnership or exclusive distribution as a method of expansion. Although it may seem like a more efficient way to expand — lower upfront cost, better insight into the local market — it’s also a method that has its pros and cons and should also be approached strategically. 

At Supahands, we’ve explored a few types of partnership models. In fact, we recently embarked on a referral partnership with a partner who has experience in the market and industry that we’re targeting. 

But no matter what partnership model a startup goes into, it’s vital to find a partner that resonates with and understands your brand value and vision. This is why it’s so important to have the difficult conversations at the beginning of the partnership. 

Regardless of whether you’re partnering up with another organisation or an individual, it’s always important to find out why your partners want to work with you. Is it because you have an aligned vision? Or are they looking for something else that isn’t part of your set of values? 

What about the legalities of your arrangement? The bigger the organisation you’re looking to partner with, the longer the setup process and number of layers of approvals it needs to go through.

What we’ve learned as we’ve attempted global scale in the last few years is that we need to be conscious of the data we’re receiving. We need to know our numbers and the story they tell us.

When we enter into a new market or vertical, we look at our success ratio in other markets, as well as in other verticals. If we’re not hitting targets at a certain point, we’ll know that it doesn’t make sense for us to continue further. 

The phrase “growing pains” exists for a reason. Growing internationally is an exciting prospect, but can often be difficult and unpredictable. All the best-laid plans could be for naught if something unexpected happens. 

And if that happens, it’s important to pull the plug early and quickly.

Contributed by Mark Koh, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer at Supahands.

About the author

Mark Koh is the CEO and Co-founder of Supahands. He leads the organization’s growth efforts globally and ensures targets are met. As the strategic head of the organization, he also ensures the business is heading in the right direction. Mark keeps a close eye on market developments and adjusts the business direction in accordance to industry demand so that Supahands remains competitive and relevant. 

Mark has a passion for innovation and growth and creates a community of people at Supahands that can continuously drive the business in the present day and the future. He believes in focus and synergy to achieve success and drives the SupaTeam to collaborate under the same values to hit company goals and targets. 

Prior to his career at Supahands, Mark worked in the financial services industry, working at Asgard Wealth Solutions, a Westpac Bank company. Mark obtained his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Sydney, majoring in Economics and Finance, before he completed his Graduate Diploma in Financial Planning (G.Dip) and his Certified Financial Planner (CFP) accreditation through FINSIA – Financial Services Institute of Australasia.

Mark is an outdoor junkie. He is an Ironman triathlete, a road and mountain bike cyclist, a runner, an avid skier and a Divemaster scuba diver; Mark dedicates his time outside of work to his hobbies, sports and family.