19 December 2013

Ass laden with gold and other means to conquer new international markets

Philip, Alexander the Great 's father, is said to have remarked that with a gold laden ass one can conquer an invincible castle. Such tactics are not appropriate in today's market conquest, but instead, this post presents some ideas on how a company can make its path to international markets easier.

As a prelude an example of GSM system sales in Germany early 1990s. Initially, our main target was just licensed mobile operator, Mannesmann Mobilfunk or briefly D2 (now Vodafone Germany). Our starting point was not good. As a system supplier, we were very poorly known in Germany, and we did not have anybody in the country to promote our business.
But after all, we had something over there: TV product development, manufacturing and maintenance, PC maintenance, cable machine operations and much more. Some of our German operations were also global market leaders, e.g. in rubber mats for airport luggage carousels. We utilised these assets to build our marketing messages: our local presence, commitment and capabilities to support mobile operators. But we were beaten. That time we did not win the D2 deal. But we learned and gradually built a more solid foothold in Germany - and as a result won very significant deals with Telekom (D1), E-Plus - and also with D2.

In the following paragraphs we take a closer look at where companies can find building blocks to break into new markets.

Other businesses 

A company, which already has an existing business in a new country, should make use of it. Typically, a new business is not known, it lacks credibility, it is not seen trust-worthy and it is missing connections with potential customers and other business-critical players.

An existing country commitment sends a strong signal that also the plans related to the new products are serious and long-term. Secondly, local company infrastructure, such as offices and websites, can be used as stepping stones for building local presence. Thirdly, it is possible to use the relationships and contacts created by the already established businesses and their key personnel to lower the barriers to create new customer relationships and other partnerships. Although in the German example above, we were not immediately able to achieve positive results, credibility and support created by our other German businesses greatly reduced the time to close the first deals.

Local partners

If a company does not have prior operations in a target country, also partners can become helpful. Besides rapid establishment of activities, partners can provide, for example, complementary resources, required local flavour or existing relationships with target customers. For example, we managed to win a GSM system deal with Austrian Federal Telecommunications Authority (ÖPTV) through partnerships with local Kapsch, Schrack, Siemens and Alcatel. The biggest benefit was getting involved in local, slightly political decision mechanism, but the partners contributed some know-how assets and customer understanding, too.

The spectrum of potential partnerships is very broad, ranging from agents and representatives to manufacturing cooperation and mergers and acquisitions. Besides longer term goals, also risk and control are important factors to consider when selecting partnership models. For example, a local distributor or reseller responsible for customer sales minimises risk, because there is no need to invest in offices, distribution, sales force, marketing and customer support. On the other hand, control of the market is reduced: for example, what kind of market activities are conducted and how much customer and market understanding is accumulated. All this limits degrees of freedom in company's future market operations. Greater control generally requires greater own investments - this also makes it possible to better define company's  future aims.


It is also possible to follow internationally domestic or other established market business partnerships. This is called piggybacking. Typically, customers and distributors are the players that you should look at.

When a principal company expands its operations internationally, its suppliers often have an opportunity - in practise often an obligation - to follow it. Especially in the B2B markets, this is a useful model of internationalisation. It is usually assumed that a supplier will invest enough in new markets. Besides sales and customer support, it may mean building of operations and R&D capabilities. But there is a risk that resources are too much focused on the original client company. This makes it difficult to acquire new customers in the territory and exposes the supplier too dependent on one principal's business fluctuations. Nokia mobile phone business and its subcontractors are an excellent example of this. Nokia pulled for example, Elcoteq, Perlos and Savcor to new markets, where these companies were not able to adequately expand their bridgehead positions.

If distributors, system integrators, retailers and other distribution chain players manage to create on one of the markets healthy and successful business with a company´s products, they have a strong incentive to try to repeat the same in other areas too. Distribution partners may be already present in these new countries or the countries may be for some reason easily accessible for them. If a company does not create own understanding of new market needs and potential, its long term operations and success may be at risk. As an example of distribution cooperation we look at the Spanish system integrator, Omnilogic. Over the years, we had successful cooperation in Spain, where Omnilogic took care of close to all customer contacts and deliveries. Later, the company expanded into Mexico and South American countries, thus opening the markets also for our products.

Other opportunities for international expansion may appear, for example, through technology vendors and financiers.

Digital tools

Digital marketing and sales, as well as compelling content, are a great way to pave the way for the creation of new markets. The key is to create in the target market company awareness among potential customers, their trusted thought leaders and other key stakeholders. Company website, localised for the new markets, is the centre of all action, providing target groups with important and interesting content. The target is to attract visitors to the website by participating in discussions both on traditional and social media.

In many cases, it is also possible to acquire customers through the web. A localised, or even an international online store, together with content marketing, can attract leading-edge customers. These are very important as the company penetrates more deeply into the new markets.

Modern inside selling tools can be used to sell also quite demanding products without a local presence. If, however, the complexity of the product, or other factors require local support, inside sales can assist to successfully pass the first customer decision criteria, thus creating better pre-conditions for the expansion to new countries.

Different business model

Business models that are different from the ones used in established markets are often a good way to penetrate challenging markets. There can be changes for example in monetisation logic, ways to approach customers and company's offering.

Licensing is natural for the companies that own a specific factor that is important for competitiveness. Such factors may be the brand of a product, its design, technology or manufacturing process. Licensing is also a risk-free way to get a new product on the market and customise it to local requirements. A locally established licensee partner gives an end product a local flavour, so licensing is particularly suitable for countries with high entry barriers. The challenge is the legacy that licensing creates, if a company later tries to build deeper market operations.

Franchising is a fast way to build a presence in new countries. Typically, it is used for providing consumer or business services.

Nokia's U.S. market entry utilising Tandy - Radio Shack brand and distribution chain is an example of complying to local requirements in customer interface. In a similar manner, Nokia cooperated with Alcatel and AEG in GSM base station development and marketing to create access to new, previously closed markets, such as France and Great Britain.


Spearhead tactics can build a beachhead in a new country. The goal is to use a selected product or service to create relationships with first customers and then deepen this relationship by selling more. Since the first deal is not yet meant to produce profits, pricing can be aggressive or the product or service can be even provided free of charge. Low-cost experiments, or pilots, are often used to reach the same target. The Internet makes it easy to create free service offerings, whose sole purpose is to market a company and make actual product sales possible.

The last example is from the same country as the first one, Greece. We sold the local Telecommunications Authority, OTE, a cellular network planning and measurement tool. The sale was not as such profitable, but it enabled us to create a client relationship and also awareness of our capabilities in the market. Later, we were rewarded handsomely.

12 December 2013

With a little help from my supplier friends

It is no use to develop only a little bit better product. Just adding new features is seldom the way to build company competitiveness and increase sales. Customer value is created by bringing additional benefits or pleasure. This often requires business model change.

Also Finnish companies have a lot of room for improvement. Too often business growth efforts are product-driven, with only marginal product improvements or changes.

When innovation is customer-centric, there are no more limitations to consider also skills outside the firm. Innovation can be based on building blocks originating from customers, suppliers or academia. This post focuses on the supply partners.

First we shall go through an example in which a company had a strong vision of disrupting an industry and bringing new value to customers. Because the company did not have in-house all the competences needed for the new products, it created various partnerships with technology suppliers. As a final ingredient for success, also a new, innovative business model was created.

Somewhere in California

In November 2000, I spent half a day at PortalPlayer, a company in Silicon Valley to meet their management and experts. The company was small, about 100 people; I came from a large, successful mobile communications company. The core know-how of PortalPlayer were solutions for portable music devices. The solution consisted of a dedicated music microchip, embedded software and a PC application. In addition, the company was able to provide a reference design for customers' own product concepts. In our company we were studying ways to expand our business and music-related products were also under consideration, thanks to the emergence of first MP3 players and Napster.  Although I was impressed by Portal Player´s capabilities, we did not start any cooperation with them nor were capable of developing music related businesses at that time.

Around the same time with my visit, another Silicon Valley company and their CEO envisioned creating and providing new, music-related experiences and solutions to consumers. The name of this company was Apple.

Apple had already made the decision to bring music management software for iMac computers. It was based on the SoundJamMP product, whose developer Apple acquired in July 2000. After some further development it was first launched under the name of iTunes in January 2001. But Apple wanted much more than that. The next step was supposed to be a portable MP3 player. Extremely high requirements were set for the player, with usability and value to the user raised to a whole new level compared to its competitors in the market. It was not important for Apple to design the electronics and the operating system by themselves, so they signed an agreement in early 2001 to use Portal Player reference design as the basis of the new device. iPod was launched in October 2001, and supporting iTunes music store in April 2003. The rest is indeed history.

Back in Finland: Too few ideas and too much risk avoidance

Also Finnish companies need to continuously improve their competiveness by bringing new products to market. Very different types of targets can be pursued. According to an often used breakdown, a company can expect benefits in one or more of the following areas:
  • Improved customer experience and customer engagement
  • More streamlined operations
  • New business or business model
Synergy recently published a research paper, in which it examined innovation capabilities of 50 Finnish companies. All the companies operate internationally and all have significant development activities in Finland. In addition, the results were benchmarked against corresponding international research, consisting of 200 companies. The conclusions were clear: Finnish companies' projects focus too much on marginal improvements and the companies also have a shortage of good ideas. The study has other good observations, but this post is not discussing them further.

Innovation in Finnish firms vs. global benchmarks
When the results are investigated in detail, it is found that Finnish companies avoid risk compared with international counterparts, see also the image on the left. This is reflected in the high proportion of product improvements and modifications as well as additions to existing product lines. Although a better customer experience would be a key objective, probably also lower material and personal costs are important drivers. This is not the way to build competitiveness.

Similarly, compared with the control group, the Finns invest lazily in projects that create new businesses or new, genuine innovations. And since the improvement of customer experience and retention are often outcomes of new business models, many of the companies are thus loosing the potential for higher margins.

Synergy's research also showed that many companies rely too heavily on in-house expertise and resources in generating new product ideas. There is not enough attention to understand customer needs, and the appeal of ideas is not tested with customers early enough. Similarly, if a company culture over-emphasizes technical or product-related know-how, suppliers and partners are easily left with a mere implementer role. As a consequence, new ideas and solutions, which would make it possible to take bolder development moves, are often effectively hidden.


Both the results of studies and the above example show that customer orientation and open-minded cooperation with other companies are the key to a successful business.

The great promise of seeking ideas and solutions from other companies is to have access to the best experts in each of the competence domains. The challenge is to find the right partners and to be able to create a close and trusting relationship with them. In order to partnering be truly useful, a company must be able to build through customer understanding a clear vision of the new brave world that will be available for their customers.

In addition, company processes need to support innovation with others: division of labor between own and other companies´ efforts as well as integration of the outputs. Also, there must be changes, how potential partners are discovered. The key is to keep eyes and ears open for companies that have an offering that could help to implement the targeted customer benefits. Thorough preparation of specifications for external purchasing and strict competitive tendering are well suited only for marginal product improvements and extensions. In some cases such advanced cooperation models as consortia and innovation communities might prove to be most successful.

And finally, in the development of new business models, supplier partners are - if possible - even more important. Besides ideas and solutions, these might have such kind of knowledge and insights that will help clearing up the previously insurmountable obstacles.