Going Global: How Huddle Handled The ChallengeCloud-based tools can help small businesses make the leap—but you have to change your mindset, too.
March 03, 2014
by Mike Melanson
How do you take a small business serving your local community and turn it into a worldwide phenomenon worth millions? You need a good idea, of course. But after that, you'd better have a plan for keeping your team tight, wrangling with paperwork and time zones, and dealing with unexpected costs.
That advice comes from Huddle CEO Alastair Mitchell, who runs a company that went from being a British sensation to a global corporation over the past few years.
Huddle is a business-grade tool for project management and document collaboration that started out small and now serves the likes of Kia Motors, Procter & Gamble, and arms of the U.S. and U.K. governments. When Huddle started back in 2007, CEO Alastair Mitchell tells us, it was a "bedroom startup with a team of two." In seven years, it has grown to employ more than 150 people in London, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C.
So, how has Huddle made the leap and what have they learned in the process?
The Global Mindset
According to Mitchell, the need to go global had become clear by 2010, when the company noticed that more than 30 percent of its customers were based outside of the U.K. and it opened its first overseas office in San Francisco. The move took some adjustment. Here's what Mitchell learned—advice that can help other small businesses considering the leap.
"One of the biggest challenges we faced is going from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in an ocean,” Mitchell said. It’s important to remember that regardless of how successful you are on the U.K. or European stage, you can’t expect to hop off the plane at San Francisco International, be welcomed with open arms by the local press, find yourself a trendy loft apartment, hire a team, close your first huge deals and be on the front page of Forbes in the space of a few weeks. It takes time, money, attention, a top-notch executive team and focus on owning a specific bit of what is a truly enormous and disparate market to be successful."
Teamwork Across Time Zones
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome internally, says Mitchell, is maintaining a cohesive team and ensuring that everyone is on the same page, despite being separated by hours and oceans.
"You need to keep the culture and ensure that your teams are communicating globally,” Mitchell explains. "One of the dangers of having geographically dispersed teams is 'Out of sight, out of mind.’ With teams in different time zones and locations it’s easy for people to start working in silos, focusing on their personal objectives rather than considering how they fit into the wider business goals. Holding regular company-wide meetings should help ensure that everyone had visibility of the company’s aims and understands how they fit into the bigger picture. The wonders of technology mean our London, San Francisco, New York and Washington D.C. offices can all meet via video link monthly to discuss the latest happenings. "
He also notes that cloud-based services, such as Huddle's own collaboration tools, can help deal with a distributed team.
The Nitty Gritty of Going Global
When it comes expanding on to foreign soil, there is inherently some red tape you'll have to deal with. To trade in the U.S., for example, you need to become a U.S. entity. Mitchell advises that you find a lawyer to deal with the mountain of paperwork involved in incorporating. Beyond this, he also notes there may be some points to plan for, such as budgeting for healthcare or other such regional differences.
"In the U.K., it’s easy to forget that free national health care isn’t available in some countries and U.S. employees will expect health care, which all needs to be factored into your costs,” he says. "If you want to work for your new U.S. company, you’ll also need a visa and, as with setting up the company, this is a paperwork-intensive procedure. Given that any minor errors may void your application, I’d recommend using a specialist immigration lawyer."
Know Your Business Before Crossing Oceans
Mitchell offers some final advice for the small business taking the big leap. Going global, after all, may not be for every business.
"I’d say the most important thing to consider is whether going global is whether you really want to drive your business to be a success on the global stage,” he says. "Sit down and ask yourself if you’re ready to commit the time, effort and expense on breaking into new territories. You need to really understand why people buy your product and if it’s actually related to the fact you’re local, or the problem you solve is specific to your locality. For instance, if the real reason you win is because your service is located in the U.K., why would that mean you win in the U.S.? Often your customers will tell you—follow them."