Evan Rudowski talks international expansion on the ‘Scaling Up Business’ podcast

Atlantic Leap’s Evan Rudowski recently made a guest appearance on ‘Scaling Up Business’, the weekly podcast hosted by Bill Gallagher - business coach and founder at Gazelles coaching firm Humanisteq LLC. The show regularly shares practical tools and techniques for building industry-dominating businesses, focusing on four major decision areas: People, Strategy, Execution and Cash.

In this episode, Bill and Evan discuss the topic of international growth offering tips and tricks for US companies looking to expand international. Listen to the full podcast below, or scroll down to read a transcript.

Bill Gallagher: Today’s show is all about international growth: when you’ve tapped out your home market, it’s time to go international. It’s a big world out there and we want to help you figure out how to get there.

Hello and welcome again to the Scaling Up Business podcast. I’m your host and Gazelles coach Bill Gallagher. On the show today is Evan Rudowski, he’s the founder and managing partner of Atlantic Leap, they help companies expand internationally. He is going to share some of their tips and tricks and some of the lessons learned from helping companies make the leap across the Atlantic, but I think you’ll find the ideas here are pretty universal.

Those of you who know me well know that I’ve done work in now, I don’t know, about twelve countries and dozens of cities around the world and across languages and cultures, so this is a subject near and dear to me. I mean even from a little boy, so I’m really happy to welcome Evan to the show. Evan and I actually have some past, multiple connections in different ways and I saw him last year in London and so I’m happy to welcome you again to the show, Evan.

Evan Rudowski: Glad to be here, thanks a lot.

BG: Now you’re joining us today from Bath, England, we’re connecting via Skype, right?

ER: Indeed.

BG: And technology makes all kinds of interesting things possible, but it doesn’t solve everything as I think you’ll learn today. So Evan, as I said before, is the founder of this company Atlantic Leap that helps companies go to Europe and he’s got a rich background too. He’s done writing in the world of technology and media in particular, we know each other from friends in common, Brett Bullington who he used to work with before at Excite, right, years ago?

ER: That’s right yes, Excite.com.

BG: And then we were both long term members of the EO, the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation, and they’ve done some work in telecomms and things like that, so Brett was one of the early Silicon Valley execs to move to London and he stayed there: he went there in the nineties and never came home when he realised there was something he’d learned how to do that others could do, so welcome to the show Evan and let’s, let’s tell your story.

ER: Yeah thanks, and yeah, I should say that Brett actually stayed in California but I did, I came over here and…

BG: Brett did, right.

ER: Yes, I’ve been here since 1998, so it’s nearly two decades now which is amazing to imagine when I remember that I was meant to be out here for three to six months and then go home again. We actually kept our possessions in a storage locker in Menlo Park California for eight more years before we finally admitted that we were staying, so yes it’s been a long and interesting journey.

BG: It’s funny how some things like that you don’t quite recognise what they began when they began, right?

ER: Yeah, that’s for sure, we just thought it would be a lark and a fun thing to do for a few months and then we’d resume our normal life in America, but as of now we haven’t yet resumed that and I guess it’s become normal to be over here instead.

BG: Now you were, you were just kind of hanging out there and then somebody, I think Brett, had a role in suggesting that you head international, right?

ER: Yeah, well, yeah, Brett had an uncanny instinct for figuring out what people were thinking and what they might be good at doing, and yes there was a moment where having spent two years at Excite.com I was starting to think about what I wanted to do next and whether I wanted to keep doing what I was doing, and that was the exact moment when Brett walked up to me and said, “you look like you could use a change”.

About a day or two later I was asked to consider going out to London to head up Excite Europe and I was told in kind of classic Silicon Valley style I’d have a day to decide and a week to get out there, so called my wife and said, “you’re not going to believe this…”.

It wasn’t a hard decision to make, we had no kids, we were, you know, we had an apartment, not a house, so we were very lightweight and flexible and we decided that we should take the plunge, so literally a week later I was on a plane to London.

I had never set foot in London or Europe before in my life and found myself on a plane, it was Virgin Atlantic and it was also memorable because Richard Branson happened to be on the flight, so it was sort of memorable and surreal and I guess I was welcomed to Britain by one of Britain’s great celebrity entrepreneurs, so that was kind of interesting as well.

BG: He certainly is.

ER: Yeah he is.

BG: I’ve been trying to find a good excuse to go to Necker Island for something for a long time, jealous of my friends who’ve taken the time to go.

ER: Yeah likewise, yes, I’ve been on a plane with him and I’ve been to his house once, but in London, not on Necker Island, so I’m with you on that one.

BG: Well, let’s go together then, let’s catch a good reason and…

ER: That sounds good.

BG: Make others jealous, so…

ER: Right.

BG: So you didn’t have any background really with international stuff, like I grew up all over the world and spoke four languages as a kid, but you didn’t do anything like that, yeah?

ER: No, that’s basically right, I knew American English and you know, kind of, Brooklyn English really and I managed a couple of years of Palo Alto English which is not that much different, but I had never really set foot in, well I’d never set foot in Europe or in London, I had been on a few vacations like most Americans to nearby foreign places, so it really was quite out of left field I suppose and I still wonder to this day why they thought I would be good for the role.

I think the only reason I can come up with is because I had been responsible for one of Excite’s first acquisitions I had taken responsibility for and it was based up in Portland, Oregon, so I’d fly up there once a week to work on that and then come back and I think they must have figured that, you know, it’s another remote location, Portland, Oregon; London, England, so I guess I had done well enough with Portland that they thought they’d send me a little further away, either that or they just wanted to get rid of me for a while, I’m not sure which.

BG: Right, well so you got good at going to a new place and then helping the company move there right, which has essentially become your business now, so tell us about how you stayed in that decision and created that company?

ER: Yeah, absolutely, so, you know, I walked into the Excite Europe office that morning, I was the new Managing Director at Excite Europe and immediately I had to get myself acquainted with the market and the dynamics and figure out what was going on there and perform well and report back to company headquarters in California, and try to leverage whatever support I could out of company headquarters, but at the same time learn how to operate autonomously, there was a big time difference and the dynamics of the situation were (and that still is the case for many companies going international) that the domestic business was still much more important, it accounted for most of the revenues, it’s where most of the employees were and asking for support and for help was something that people weren’t necessarily oriented toward providing.

It was something that wasn’t part of their KPIs and we really had to use persuasion and, you know, asking for favours and whatever else was helpful in order to get the support we needed, so I also had to learn how to be autonomous and to try to make things happen without relying on headquarters.

Luckily we had a team of people there, about ten people in London when I arrived, and some of them were from various European markets, so they had some familiarity with local markets and they were a huge help to me in, you know, understanding the dynamics that were happening around me, but I also had to make sure that we could manage growth and grow successfully and over ultimately what became three and a half years in that role we grew from ten people to about two hundred people.

We ended up opening offices in multiple European markets: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, London, of course, the Netherlands, and we also ended up in big strategic partnerships and joint ventures with lots of different players such as telcos and others, so there was a lot of growth really fast and a lot of responsibility and some pretty heady times and some memorable times. When the dot.com bubble burst, however, we had a personal choice: did we want to stay or go back to the US, and we actually decided we liked it in London and wanted to stay and that’s really when I got the idea for Atlantic Leap.

Originally it was just a way to brand my own experience in a way that it was something bigger than my own personal brand, something that could include other people over time which is indeed what’s happened, but it was really just a vehicle for sharing that experience and helping other companies make the same transition.

***UNFORTUNATELY WE LOST CONTACT HERE FOR 20 SECONDS***

ER: Well Atlantic Leap started in 2002, so it’s been quite a long time.

BG: Fifteen years.

ER: Hiatus yeah, it went on hiatus for a little while. I dabbled in a start-up, but then in 2014 when we exited from that start-up, we decided (or I decided) to revive Atlantic Leap ahead of people asking me, you know, “whatever happened to Atlantic Leap and why aren’t you still doing it?” One or two of them wanted to join me in reviving it and I realised that, you know, maybe more than ever there was still a need for businesses to get some help and support in growing and expanding internationally.

BG: So just to make it real for folks, right, and to paint a picture of it, you were sharing in preparation for the show stories of a couple of clients that kind of illustrate the work that you do and what it looks like and what some of the pieces are before we try to figure out what things people need to think about.

ER: Yeah, we had one client called the Media Trust, they’re based down in Vienna, Virginia, and they’re focused on kind of keeping the whole digital eco-system safe for publishers, for advertisers and, of course, for consumers in the end.

They had a great business system growing and had been very successful but they were finding that when they travelled across to Europe, it was hard to get the kind of traction they were looking for.

The problem with international is that it’s something that’s pretty important and you can’t really leave it to junior people because it doesn’t get done, but the senior people are really busy and they have enough on their plate so, you know, in the case of the Media Trust, the CEO and the CRO would both fly over to Europe and they’d have meetings and open up a pipeline of opportunities, but then they’d have to fly back and run the business again at home, so getting those opportunities to progress and to close was slower than they might have liked even though they knew that they were on to something and they were, their message was resonating.

That’s when we came into the picture and we began working with them on the ground on an ongoing basis to maintain continuity first of all, so, you know, taking a hand off on some of those existing conversations but then opening up our network and helping to introduce them to the people that we knew and I guess that’s the other thing just like anywhere, somebody spends some time and builds a network of relationships.

That network grows and becomes more valuable and of course, as one gets older a lot of our colleagues become more senior and the size of the opportunity grows in potential, so that’s one of the things that we also bring to the table for our clients: leveraging that network and opening up those doors when it’s appropriate to do so. So, the Media Trust was a good example of that.

BG: And they’re continuing to do business, so they’re fully developed now, how long has that been going on?

ER: Yeah, we’ve been working with them for a little over a year, maybe close to a year and a half now, and yes, we’re still working with them, but at the same time they’ve really grown out a pretty big book of European business, so, you know, that’s worked well for everybody and they’re getting much better known out here, they’re signing, you know, very big relationships with big publishers and other digital players and that’s worked out pretty well.

BG: Well that’s pretty exciting, a year to a year and a half to develop a big book of business in all new markets that you’re not used to going to I think is, those are exciting results, right?

ER: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, and I think, you know, not only for them but for any company that’s looking to grow to their maximum potential, sooner or later international has to play a role, and if you look at any of the big digital players like, you know, Facebook or Google or any of those, especially the ones that are more mature, they’ve reached a point now where more than half of their usage and half of their revenue is coming from outside the US.

So if you’re a big player like, let’s say Facebook, for example, and you’re looking to sustain your upward trajectory, your shareholder growth and shareholder value and investor return, then sooner or later as domestic growth starts to level off, you have to start looking elsewhere to maintain that growth and to increase it, and usually that can come from geographic expansion which is what we do, or sometimes from technological developments and improvements in efficiency, but it’s hard to think of a big digital player that hasn’t ended up having international play an important part.

BG: Well if you don’t go international pretty quickly, right, you’re going to develop international competition. If you’ve got an interesting new business business model and you stay kind of on your home turf for too long, somebody else is going to notice what you’re doing and then want to come at it from the other side.

I think we’re rapidly seeing some categories and cultures and stuff move very quickly, and certainly the tools make it easier today but the tools alone don’t get done the consistency, the human contact, all of that stuff and then the appreciation. I mean, I hear being touched on things from regulations and culture to just establishing a human touch which varies with every place, and I know, like, you know, I’ve led workshops and stuff all over the world and sometimes it goes really great because of their connection culturally into the topic and the work we’re going to do is fantastic, and then other times I misread something and one of the ones where I experienced the most sort of something was actually in England, then I came in and I did a leadership development workshop and working on, sort of, purpose and power and stuff with people and I made the assumption that we spoke the same language, right, English English.

Except there’s not just little word differences but there’s a world of cultural differences and some of the work that we did in that particular workshop was very sort of open and vulnerable and there was an aspect of it that didn’t, it didn’t play well with an English, from an English cultural standpoint and nobody had told me how to do that kind of thing there. You know. I hadn’t taken enough time and I made the assumption that I knew what I was doing that it wasn’t so far that we were more alike than we were.

I think there’s things like that all over the place so they show up and infuse culture for sure, but also then impact the regulatory environment and all of our human, our expectations, right? Americans just come right in and want to meet up, and I was in Germany a couple of weeks ago and, you know, the time taken to get to know you is much more important there, right?

ER: Yeah, I mean all of that is very very true and yes, it differs across Europe as well so as you describe they may react a certain way in England and a different way in Germany, so that’s something that takes time to navigate and understand and sometimes needs a little bit of trial and error for sure.

I can relate to what you’re saying about the workshop you held in England, because there’s definitely kind of the clichéd stiff upper lip I suppose, and it’s true that Americans are known for and maybe more comfortable with, you know, showing their emotions a bit more openly. Brits maybe sometimes kind of just need a little bit more encouragement to do that, or maybe they just need to be communicated with in a different way.

The one thing I found that works to my advantage is, you know, being American they also apply a different set of expectations to me than they might to a fellow Brit, so I can maybe get away with a little bit more, and being more American actually that works well for the Atlantic Leap model, because our job is to try to bridge the gap. If we understand the culture of our American clients then we can interact with them in that context, but then we can sort of translate and we present in Europe in the right context and, you know, then we’re doing our job.

But we get away with a little bit of both, you know: sometimes I seem a little bit more European to some of my American friends than I might once have and I get away with being a little bit more American too, but you’re right, you know, it’s actually very important, especially in a business context where there’s a lot at stake, you can get away with only so much before you really do have to show that you understand the considerations that are important to the people you’re dealing with and to their market.

A good example that comes to mind where maybe that hasn’t played out as well is Uber and it kind of brings up everything you just said about the urgency of needing to move quickly before a competitor might emerge in an international market and then, you know, close out, close off the opportunity. It is certainly fair to say that Uber has felt that urgency probably around the world and in the US, but…

BG: Well you can’t get an Uber in Germany, that’s for sure.

ER: That’s right, and the reason for that is probably because they were a little bit culturally insensitive more than anything else. They took that Uber approach of, you know, we just need to make things happen, we’ll break some china if we need to do it because time is short and now is the time to capture market share.

It’s a very Silicon Valley mentality and anybody who’s spent time in the Valley can understand that and relate to it, but at the same time if you just take that approach without any kind of translation and drop it into a place like Germany, they don’t really appreciate it, you know, they have more of a cultural feeling that you follow the rules and you follow the rules because it’s fair to everybody and it’s important, so to listen to people and hear what they have to say and consider it, that’s why they have employee representation on corporate boards there and things that would be really foreign and strange to Americans.

There it’s about getting to a consensus first before making a decision, and if you just show up and start immediately doing things your own way then they push back and they’ve got some teeth, you know, they have regulators and they have other people who can actually enforce the cultural norms if you’re not willing to share that you understand them and that’s what’s happened to Uber.

They’re not necessarily gone for good, but they certainly had to pull back and my worry for a company like Uber would be if you’ve got a valuation that’s as high as theirs, you can’t afford to cede a lot of future growth opportunity if you want to sustain that valuation, so they’ve already sold off China and you know they’ve had to pull back in places like Germany, so they need to make sure that they can progress internationally as well as get driverless cars up and running if they want to sustain that valuation and fulfil expectations.  

BG: Well, Germany in particular also has a pretty strong fixation, or fixation is maybe a negative word, but a preoccupation, interest, in privacy, right, so data privacy and personal information is really something that I know from experience they hold quite dear, whereas we’re a lot more permissive in the States with the whole thing.

ER: Yeah that’s right, and you know what’s interesting is there’s now a new European-wide privacy directive that’s coming into force next year called GDPR and it will actually affect any business that touches consumers in Europe, so even if you don’t open up a business unit in Europe, if you’ve got a service that’s being accessed by Europeans, then you’ll be subject to those regulations. They’re a lot more strict than they used to be and the penalties are quite severe, it can be as much as 4% of annual global revenue as financial penalties for violating.

BG: That’s a pretty big penalty.

ER: Yeah, that’s a flag for people to pay attention to now, basically, and that is an interesting point really. Europe’s influence extends beyond its own borders, and since the internet is essentially borderless, people have to think about whether they might be affected by these rules and regulations even if they’re not physically present.

BG: Well, we’ve seen Google and Facebook and others modifying their approach in each market. When I think about going internationally for a variety of things, whether it’s as a speaker and a coach or whether it’s as a CEO or an executive taking manufacturing, sourcing, distribution, all of those, I’ve always, when I’ve been successful, had a partner, some kind of a partner.

I’ve even had some partners a little bit like Atlantic Leap where they helped me to make connections and to establish my presence to represent me in some fashion or another, but from legal issues to just face time to all of that kind of thing, having somebody who’s on your side who can help you figure it out can make a massive difference because there are these things to go. In getting ready you also talked a little bit about another one of your clients, Parsec, that I thought was interesting.

ER: Yeah, yeah, Parsec are a New York-based company and they provide a solution for time-based advertising on mobile web pages. The challenge with advertising in a digital realm, as we’ve been hearing a lot lately, is that advertisers are becoming more suspicious of the viewability and how much attention they’re actually getting when they pay for their digital campaigns: are people actually watching or looking at what they’re being shown or are they just skipping right past it?

The measurement of that is a bit dubious at times, so Parsec’s approach is that advertisers should only pay for the time that their ad is in view, and because in places like Europe and in the UK the mobile web is very well developed and very ubiquitous, they are finding that it’s quite a receptive place to be operating.

What we’ve been helping them with, is again leveraging our network and making connections with publishers who might be interested in implementing that kind of cost per second approach on their own pages, and that has been going well and you’re right, for a company like Parsec which is still a young company, being able to sign up with well-known publishers helps provide some credibility as well as, of course, the direct business opportunity and it validates them in the market.

That’s something that we’ve been helping them with, those partnerships do make a difference and it is something that has to happen market by market. It’s only so impressive to someone in the UK that a company is American and that they have American partners, they still want to be able to point to somebody locally and say they’re working with these guys and these guys are a credible brand here, so getting a local set of relationships in each market is really important.

BG: So we opened the show with, like, when you’ve tapped out your domestic market wherever that may be, it’s time to find new markets, but I have also seen some folks be really successful when they see that there’s a particular market opportunity for their product or service in another place because of a cultural thing or a regulatory environment.

We’ve touched on a few things, but trends is another thing, I think both to be managed and to create opportunities. We’re always seeing various trends: social, political, regulatory, technological, entertainment, like that, and you’ve got a major one going on over in that hemisphere with Brexit. The whole Brexit, anti-Brexit thing is taking shape and I’m curious how you’re helping people to be aware of and manage and think about that?

ER: Yeah, it’s been an interesting time because the, I think a lot of the institutions that we thought were all settled and just trustworthy and reliable, they’re suddenly being called into question and subject to change and that’s not something that I would have ever expected, even though I’ve been over here and presumably understand the cultural trends and the winds of change a little bit better.

But I think we were all taken by surprise by some of the political developments in the UK and in the US also for various reasons, so yeah now we suddenly have to navigate a shifting landscape and although we notice some of the outlines of the landscape, it’s still not clear what the final contours will be I suppose, so we know that Britain’s voted to exit the EU, it’s not something that I think is a particularly good idea but the decision is made and now the question is, what will that look like over the next two years?

So for our clients they have to ask a similar question, and our basic premise has been that Britain is the entry point to the EU and, of course, for an American company starting out in an English-speaking market it’s handy and convenient and in spite of some of the cultural differences, it’s still reasonably comfortable and familiar. Then moving from there elsewhere into Europe makes sense, but if there’s a hard Brexit, for example, and if we end up with the EU basically being separate from the UK and the UK kind of crashing out without a trade agreement, then some of that might change.

For now we’re advising our clients to keep on setting up in the UK and operating from there, and of course the UK will continue to be a big market of English speaking people, a first world market with lots of spending power and opportunity, that won’t change...but will it be necessary to look elsewhere in Europe sooner for further opportunity, will Berlin emerge as more of a hub as it already has been over the recent few years, will Paris become more attractive especially as the new leadership there starts to become a bit more business-friendly if they succeed in doing that?

Those are the kinds of questions that we try to help our clients think through in their particular context, and of course that depends on what type of business they are in and what’s their offering. That might vary from client to client, but those are some of the big macro questions that they need to answer and that we try to help with.

BG: I think we’ve hit on some useful points for people, I’d just like to recap so people are clear on some of the, what we hope their takeaways are. One is that going international, entering new markets is achievable, you can do this, it does represent a really great way to expand your growth opportunities, so I think of interest to all of our listeners and it really does help to find a partner, whether it’s a company like Atlantic Leap or somebody else, having a partner who can help you deal with a few things.

You want to be thinking for sure about the regulatory permit, which is where a lot of us tend to think the mechanics of stuff like, how are they going to ship it in, what are the taxes and licences and things like that, but then there’s all the cultural and linguistic stuff that we have to deal with and then there’s just time, right, time and human contact, face to face meetings where you look at people, where you build relationships and so on.

A partner can help you with all of those kinds of things to navigate that and you have to do some yourself, but this whole process I think gets a lot easier when you work with a partner. I know that you’ve got more information on this and so if folks want to learn more about what you do and read up on you, they’ll find you at Atlanticleap.net, Evan Rudowski, Atlanticleap.net and then I just want to encourage people to go to our website at Scalingupbusiness.com and subscribe first off and then you’ll get a new podcast every week with some business ideas and things like that.

You’ll also start to get access to all of our other tools and resources for growing your business, so worksheets and check lists and things like that we’ll provide to you to help, so the beginning of that is all subscribing at Scalingupbusiness.com. Thanks again for getting on the show with us today Evan, so great to have you and looking forward to seeing you again soon.

ER: Yeah thanks, it’s been great to be here, really appreciate it and yes, I hope to see you soon in person on one side of the pond or the other.

BG: One side or the other. Until next time.