WE LIVE in an age where every business that operates in the digital space has the potential to make an instant global impact. Just look at Tweetdeck – a London startup that was snapped up by Twitter last month for $40m, just three years after launching.
Many other digital businesses in the UK are looking to make a similar impact and this often means taking something that works locally overseas. But it is easier said than done.
Early stage businesses face enormous challenges when pushing for international growth and some of the most difficult challenges come when looking to grow in Europe.
I first arrived in London from the US over a decade ago, to set up Ticketmaster’s online business in Europe. I led the international team at Match.com that took the business into more than 43 countries. I then set up Seatwave, Europe’s largest online ticket exchange, which now operates across a dozen markets.
We launched in the UK for a host of reasons. It’s a country with a fanatical passion for sport, a world leading music and cultural scene, plus it was a market ready to shift away from touting – the primary means of exchanging tickets for decades.
In the four years since we launched we’ve built a highly effective way for fans to buy and sell tickets safely and securely, but we’ve had to deal with a host of challenges that led to invaluable lessons along the way.
For a start, you have to be ready to adapt to the vast differences in consumer tastes, diverse economic conditions and contrasting regulatory regimes across Europe. This provides a constant challenge when trying to scale a business and the nuances between each market cannot be ignored.
Just take the lack of legal harmony between countries. While our customers are permitted to resell football tickets in Germany, they’re prohibited in the UK, so we need a completely different approach between the two countries.
That’s a small example but emblematic of the hurdles a business looking to serve multiple European markets needs to overcome. And these inconsistencies mean that online businesses based in Europe often spend more of their time figuring out how to operate in markets rather than actually operating in them.
Many commentators ask why Europe hasn’t produced a Facebook or a Google, but the reality is that European businesses face far tougher challenges to scale than their US or Asian counterparts.
While European businesses tend to focus on markets of 40-90m people, their US rivals start with an audience of more than 300m. Their Indian and Chinese counterparts are starting with more than 1bn.
Skype and Spotify are rare exceptions that have built a large international audience. Their scarcity neatly highlights the difference between a US start-up and one from Europe.
My advice to European entrepreneurs is to target a global audience from day one. Given Europe’s excessive red tape and exclusionary approach, it requires the same overhead to aim your business at a market of 500,000 as it does one of 20m.
By developing a model that translates internationally, businesses then have the potential to become global success stories, just as Skype, Spotify and yes, Tweekdeck have done. The key thing is to think big from the very beginning.
Joe Cohen is the CEO and founder of Seatwave.com