Network is everything: It's still who you know when it comes to international growth

Connected European map pinboard

Technology means individuals are connected more widely and easily than ever before. But in business, deals aren’t made based on superficial relationships through social media; it’s the depth of connections that matters. The ‘little black book’ is still a powerful tool.

Establishing and maintaining networks in your home country is one thing, but building them internationally is an entirely different challenge. But despite this challenge, developing networks across borders and oceans is vital for any company founder looking at international expansion.

Some recent high-profile cases have highlighted the pitfalls of parachuting into new markets without the right networks in place, so let’s look at those in more detail. Then we’ll establish some of the best ways for businesses to build bridges over the ocean.

Network = homework

Uber’s expansion into Europe was not unexpected: following a hugely successful launch stateside, an international push was the obvious step to maintain its high growth. However, Uber’s apparent disregard for the local landscape and the taxi culture in some European cities left it with sizeable legal bills and threatened to derail its global expansion plans.

Of course, it’s hard to paint Uber as a company whose internationalization efforts failed; its wilfully disruptive push across the Atlantic now sees it operating in 17 countries on the continent. But had senior executives at Uber established a network in the European countries they were targeting, they may have been more prepared for the challenges that they eventually faced, and the potential fallout.

Uber protests: The startup's aggressive tack led to protests like this one in Budapest

Uber protests: The startup's aggressive tack led to protests like this one in Budapest

By partnering with local transport companies to ease themselves more gently into the market, for instance, they would undoubtedly have caused less friction and fewer column-inches. It’s difficult to assess the tangible long-term damage of their decisions, but never underestimate the power of a ruffled EU.

Uber’s most recent battle? Proving that it’s a digital service rather than a transport company. You could argue that Uber would still be having this conversation either way, but there’s no doubt the way Uber moved left a bad taste in a lot of European mouths.

On the other hand, the Rubicon Project is an example of networking done right. The Rubicon Project is an advertising technology company who, unlike their Californian compatriots, established a European team early to prepare the way for expansion into the territory. Rubicon has since gained success on a global scale, with each new product quickly gaining traction in Europe and elsewhere, allowing it to operate one of the largest advertising marketplaces in the world.

So how does a business build a network from five thousand miles away?

On a mission

One of the most high-profile options is to get involved in a trade mission.

In the UK, London and Partners - a public-private partnership backed by the Mayor of London - promotes all aspects of London on the global stage, with a heavy emphasis on both inward investment and expanding high-growth businesses overseas. This is driven in part by the Mayor’s International Business Programme, Go To Grow.

London and Partners also back more sector-specific foreign trade activities. One of these is Silicon Valley Comes to the UK (SVC2UK). This not-for-profit initiative, which is also backed by commercial partners including Barclays and KPMG, is designed to bring together early-stage investors, tech entrepreneurs and first-time CEOs to foster relationships between Silicon Valley and UK tech hubs in London, Manchester and Cambridge. The aim is to tap into the wisdom of established players to help disruptive tech start-ups in the UK scale their businesses, both locally and across the Atlantic.

In addition to bodies with links to government, a range of private trade groups exist to promote the interests of their members in foreign markets. One such group is the British-American Project, which describes itself as ‘organised serendipity’, giving members access to the knowledge, experience and networks that others have cultivated. The British-American Project also run a number of conferences to promote transatlantic relations.

The main events

The conference scene is another popular opportunity to build new networks, either in the capacity of a sponsor or simply as an attendee. Europe has a number of cities vying to be the top tech hub, many of which host major global conferences and events. These include TechCrunch Disrupt in London; Slush in Helsinki (and Tokyo) which bills itself as Europe’s biggest start-up event; and the Digital-Life-Design (DLD) series, held annually in New York City, Tel Aviv and European centres such as Brussels and Munich.

Another option with a guaranteed international audience is publishing. Publications such as The Drum and Digiday, with a presence in both print and digital media, offer a platform to communicate with like-minded business people. By building a relationship with the publications themselves and providing quality content to them in the form of research or thought leadership articles, it becomes possible to reverse the dynamic and have others seeking to network with you.

Physical location can also have an impact on networking opportunities. Not just the country you are launching into, but the office you sit in. Co-working spaces, such as those provided by Central Working, offer not only a flexible and scalable solution for desk and office space, but are also likely to place your business adjacent to others that may operate in a related sector and could be at a similar stage in their growth curve. Powerful networks can grow from such chance encounters.

It is safe to say that networking will never die. With the right connections, it is easier to attract the right B2B customers and influence local industry, clearing the path to establish and expand.

One way to accelerate the building of these networks is to work with a partner who can open the right doors for you. With contacts on both sides of the Atlantic, Atlantic Leap can help get access to the right people at the right time.

Photo credit:

Connected map image via Pixabay

Uber protest via Wikimedia Commons