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Growth Strategies / Global Business

#FounderGoals: Build a Global Company in #3 Not-So-Easy Steps

In today's global landscape, many businesses can benefit from an international outlook right from the outset
#FounderGoals: Build a Global Company in #3 Not-So-Easy Steps
Image credit: Shutterstock
Founder and Chief Product Officer, Zeotap
6 min read
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A necessary preface:

Not all founders need to (or even should) consider a global presence early in their company’s development. For some, it is sufficient to focus on building a successful local enterprise. For others, international expansion is a secondary concern after establishing a prominent domestic footprint. However, in today’s global landscape, many businesses can benefit from an international outlook right from the outset. Here are our experiences with and learnings from one such endeavour.

Today, three years since inception, our company is purportedly an “Indo-German” start-up (global headquarters in Berlin; product, engineering and data science ––two-thirds of our 75-member team––in Bangalore). However, we also have double-digit headcount in Madrid and Milan (Spain and Italy were our first markets), a fast-expanding office in New York as well as an incipient footprint in London. By all counts and measures, we are intrinsically international.

1. Culture is Everything

Daniel, my cofounder, and I have made many errors over the past few years. But there are two things we believe we’ve managed to do well:

Attract an outstanding cohort of individuals. They are concerned over core qualities such as passion, commitment and tenacity, but simultaneously bring an astonishing spectrum of beliefs/viewpoints to the table.

Nurture a democratic work environment premised on a culture of mutual respect irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity and/or perspective.While some of it has certainly developed innately from our hiring (our oldest colleague is 54 while our youngest is 21; our Spanish HR head leads a team comprising a Russian, German and two Indians), much of it has also come from fostering an atmosphere of equatability.

We’re not perfect ––far from it. Our gender ratio (30% female representation; lower in leadership roles) is a constant work in progress, as are other aspects of diversity. However, by actively eschewing biases, recognising disparities and embracing differences, i.e. going above and beyond just elemental tolerance, in particular with regard to nationality/ethnicity, we’ve engendered a global culture that is considerate and tenable. Importantly, in retrospect, the diversity of opinion and experience that has gone into shaping our company has made it both stronger and more durable.

2. Get Your Everyday Right

While laying the foundation for a respectful culture is critical to sustainable international organisational development, it needs to be actualized and reinforced in day-to-day operations so it weaves itself into the company fabric. Much has to be done in order to ensure coherence across different teams and functions –– from commitment to similar values to congruence on general focus areas to alignment on short-to-mid-term priorities. These range from the “harder” to the “softer”, the explicitly procedural to the subliminally customary/habitual:

Implement Company-wide OKRs. We’ve benefited greatly from instituting a cascading quarterly OKR (Objectives and Key Results) system ––made famous by Google–– thatoriginates as goals formulatedby the founders/management and percolates down to every member of the team in the form of measurable (as much as possible) targets. While theseresults certainlymanifestas input variables during our twice-yearly review/feedback process (one of a portfolio of factors taken into consideration), they play an even more important role in ensuring organisational transparency and alignment.

Install infrastructure that enables high-quality interaction. This is among the lowest hanging fruit ––eminently affordableand easy to implement solutions abound (our platforms of choice include, Slack and Hangouts)–– and goes a very long way.

Enforce face-to-face meetings (to the extentfeasible and affordable). We have a once-yearly all-hands, once-quarterly management team sessions and frequent individual travel between offices. These are certainly neither simple nor inexpensive, but we’ve found they more than deliver on the investment, both in cultivating interpersonal relationships as well as boosting organisational productivity.

Encourage communication– From Competition to Collaboration. Healthy rivalry between regional teams, whether coding challenges or revenue contests, can not only be an excellent motivator but also a powerful team builder. At the same time, these present the ideal opportunity to share learnings and leverage successful local strategies/experiences across markets.

Schedule calls, keeping everyone in mind. Of course, this is hardly easy when negotiating time differences that can run up to 12 hours, but taking turns at accommodating out-of-the-ordinary meeting times is important.
Pick software solutions that can be implemented across all teams/geographies. Like many startups, we run on G Suite globally.We’ve also opted for other tools to be used uniformly by our team members the world over –– from Brooklyn to Berlin to Bangalore. Of course, domestic regulation in certain cases may occasionally demand a divergence from the prix fixe menu, but in our experience these are few and far between. Overall, having the same tools reduces friction considerably and allows for better collaboration, faster knowledge sharing and easier maintenance –– maximal interoperability, if you will.

3. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité … and Equity

While the merits of different compensation models can and have been debated ad nauseum, I firmly believe true commitment to a mission can only come from a sense of ownership. In our organization, every single team member has equity in the company.

It’s categorically impossible to establish an identical salary structure across markets as contrasting as New York City and Bangalore in their cost-of-living indicators. However, the corresponding asymmetry in compensation can give rise to unhealthy interpersonal dynamics as well as foment feelings of resentment, particular in smaller organisations with more intimate cross-border relationships.

Make ownership instil the equitability that wages can’t. We’ve mitigated issues of disparity in salary by instituting strict ownership tiers such that colleagues at similar levels of seniority are offered identical equity packages, independent of team/region. An equity programme that is paripassu helps achieve a degree of parity across the company.

Be Liberal with Equity. It is the single-most powerful tool at a founder’s disposal to endow team members with a sense of ownership. As author Jarod Kintz astutely observed: “I love teamwork. I love the idea of everyone rallying together to help me win.” Generosity with equity inspires analogous levelsof loyalty and best positions the entire team for collective success.

In the Proverbial Nutshell

As I’ve come to learn over the past decade or so, there are few absolutes (in entrepreneurship as in other aspects of life). Every organisation is unique in its character and functioning. However, based on my experience, a rough blueprint for success is to

  • Bring good people on board and establish a healthy culture around the company's purpose,
  • empower the team with an effective operating framework and appropriate tools, and
  • make everyone feel as invested in the undertaking as you.

Of course, this is much easier said than done, but ex nihilo nihil fit.

Why Many Founders Should Think Global From the Start