What I’ve learnt from building a business model across multiple cultures
Expanding internationally is seen as a huge and often daunting step for a business. It’s the sink or swim moment for a company that determines whether it’s a viable market contender outside of its country of origin. Brands that have been phenomenally successful in one country have plummeted in others - take AirBnB’s struggle to crack the Chinese market, for example. So, the decision to take my on-demand laundry business overseas was not one I made lightly. However, since launching Laundryheap in 2014, we’ve expanded to work in 10 countries around the world, such as the UAE, Singapore and the US, providing a laundry service that users can access via an app, with a guaranteed 24 hour turnaround. But of course, there were trials and tribulations along the way. Here’s some of the lessons I’ve learnt.
Linguistic differences might catch you out - even in English speaking countries
After some mix-up with our UK-based customer service team about what US Laundryheap users meant by ‘pants’, it became clear to me that even the smallest linguistic and cultural differences need to be catered to when you’re expanding abroad, in order to provide as smooth a service as possible. Something that we take for granted when we set up a business domestically is that we instinctively have a sense for the cultural context and nuances that the organisation is operating in - this doesn’t always translate across international borders in the same way, and can impact the pick-up of your product.
If customers feel like the app doesn’t cater to them or their needs, even through relatively subtle differences, it can affect their chances of using it, as they instead revert to more familiar services. So, make sure to give yourself a crash course on the culture of places you’re expanding to - whether that’s scouring YouTube guides or speaking to someone you know from that country. Of course, you can’t learn everything about a place - but trying to get at least a basic overview can really help.
It’s possible to go global from your laptop in your living room
Ironically, we launched a lot of our global services during the coronavirus pandemic - a time where people were absolutely not travelling internationally. Trying to set up new branches of a business across the world exclusively from home and with no ability to go visit the new city for launch sounds like a crazy plan - but it was one that me and my team managed to pull off.
In the early days, we were all sitting remotely, ringing round cities far from home and trying to iron out logistics on the other side of the world. It felt so abstract and strange to launch in places we hadn’t visited - but actually, the process of setting up our international satellite operations remotely was incredibly efficient. So, to other founders, I’d say that you can dream big and expand globally, without necessarily needing to relocate or spend significant amounts of time in another place.
Creating a ‘New City Playbook’ is the best thing you can do
Obviously, each city has its unique layout, culture and set-up - so it feels strangely simplistic to reduce the entire process of international expansion to a simple checklist. But I’ve found that creating a ‘New City Playbook’ - a checklist of things that need to be done when we first enter any new market - has made translating our operations abroad a lot simpler.
For the first couple of cities we set up shop in, we were kind of just figuring the process out - I’d ring round and try and organise laundry outlets for our app to work in partnership with, then try and set up some local networks to source potential drivers. Starting from scratch was an exhausting process, but once we had done it a couple of times, we got the logistics of how to start from scratch in a new place sorted.
Our ‘New City Playbook’ now covers categories such as ‘People’, ‘Facilities’, ‘Equipment’, ‘Marketing’ ‘Customer Operations’ and ‘IT Updates’ as a one-stop shop on how to launch a new branch in a new city or country, that all of our teams can use as a guide, wherever they are in the world.
Make no mistake about it - launching a business globally is a tricky task. The secret is finding a way to create a structure that is easily replicable across countries, but also making sure that each new city launch is one that is unique and tailored to the location’s geographic and cultural nuances.