When I landed in Dublin in 2015, I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 26-year-old who had severely under-estimated and oversimplified the work in front of me.
I was the new Vice President of International Sales & Managing Director for a work management software company called Wrike. And I had been tasked to build out our new EMEA team (and later, I did the same in Melbourne, Australia; Tokyo, Japan; and Kyiv, Ukraine).
This opportunity gave me a huge amount of experience and training that has impacted how I think about building teams and how I think about coaching and communicating with people.
If you’re thinking about launching a team outside of the US or outside of your HQ country, I hope you can learn from my failures and successes here, and if not, hopefully, you can enjoy a good laugh or two on me!
Let’s dive in.
Starting Your International Sales Team
The key to starting an international sales team is having the right people in your landing team. Even if you’re part of a large org, you need to think of yourself as a startup — think fast and lean, and be prepared to wear several hats.
For me, my first day in the office was only my second day in Dublin, and while I only had 1 person on payroll when I landed in Dublin, we had spent the past 2 months preparing to welcome a handful of new team members.
My lone colleague in Dublin was a well-versed recruiter who had worked with and placed many candidates around the Dublin tech scene for years…so by the time I landed, we already had our first 3 hires signed and 3 other colleagues from 2 countries ready to make the move to Dublin.
This was our landing team.
The team consisted of our recruiter, 2 experienced AEs, 2 new hire AEs, 1 experienced CSM, and 1 new hire CSM.
Picking the right candidates
We took all of these hires very seriously. The success of our venture here would depend largely on the success of this initial small team.
The first thing we did was define the roles we wanted to hire for, and then we worked to define our candidate profile for each.
To determine which roles to hire for first, we looked at our organic traffic and our existing account base.
We were trying to understand where we saw an early adoption of our technology and then compare that against our addressable market by region.
The regions (and languages) that had the highest organic traffic, customer base, and large addressable markets made the first cut. These were areas where we knew we could secure early wins to learn from and expand quickly.
We used this information to determine what roles were most important initially.
Defining the candidate profile
Now, outside of the usual requirements that go into hiring for AE & CSM roles, we divided candidates into something we called “missionary versus mercenary.” A missionary is driven by the company/team mission and associated experience. A mercenary is driven by the sale.
While missionaries can be (and often are) also driven by money, that isn’t the primary reason they want to work for you. Similarly, while a mercenary can be invested in the company mission, it’s not ultimately why they want to work for you.
We made a conscientious decision to search for and hire missionaries when building our landing team.
Wrike wasn’t a new company, but our EMEA team was brand new, isolated on an island, and trying to expand into an unknown market eight hours ahead of our HQ in San Jose, CA. We needed a team that was committed to the journey and the team’s success.
Your founding team is more important than just another sales team. Take the time to really think about the roles and personalities you want on your landing team.
These initial hires will influence how you approach each region, how you build off your success, and what your new office culture is.
And office culture is invaluable as a new sales team in a new region. You can’t just force your company’s old company culture onto this new team. It has to be organic.
So, when hiring, choose people who you think will bring the right culture to your team. For instance, we wanted to build something that was Wrike but authentically Dublin.
Your Year 1 Focus
Your first year in a new region, you likely won’t be making a lot of sales. Instead, that first year is about laying the groundwork and answering two fundamental questions.
Where are we selling, and how are we selling?
I had loosely figured out which countries were a priority before I started (remember, I used that knowledge to help identify the roles we hired for), but I still had the job of breaking Europe into regions.
I only had a handful of reps and 2 CSMs, so I had to do my best to cluster countries together.
After a few generous Dublin sales leaders gave me some 1-on-1 time, and with a bit of researching on my own, we landed on our geographies.
In some cases, a rep was assigned to just one region. In others — where the region was considered a “B” or “C” market — we bundled regions to ensure we were investing the right amount of energy in the right places.
By organizing our regions and target markets up front and then bundling them, we put ourselves in a great position for when markets matured, as our CRM was already correctly tracking geographies.
For example, neither France (FR) or Italy (IT) justified a dedicated rep on their own when we launched. However, once we bundled them, their collective TAM and our existing customer base did.
Our CRM still indicated which country/geo the leads and accounts were in, but we distributed them and measured them collectively. This allowed us to easily break them apart once the markets gained maturity and justified dedicated teams.
Now that you know where you’re selling, you need to find out how best to sell in each of those regions.
This is where many businesses go wrong… They take their US sales process and force it down the throats of international buyers.
Doesn’t that scream success? Hopefully, you can sense my sarcasm here.
Whelp, when I started, I did just that.
I took what had made us successful in the US, I enabled our team on the approach, and we stuck to it like glue.
I had incorrectly assumed that researching, evaluating, and buying behavior was identical to the US way of buying. Thankfully, my team was quick to raise their hands and alert me that this was not working.
So, using customer research and data (we were a data-driven sales org, and I am forever grateful for the data resources we had in place), we learned where we needed to make adjustments or where we needed to change our assumptions.
Let me give you some examples:
In Germany, if the purchase price was over a certain amount and the technology impacted the day-to-day work of employees (like ours did), the purchase could only be approved via the Workers Council, which typically meets monthly.
This council approval process shocked our pipeline, screwed up our forecast, and stalemated our deal urgency plays because we weren’t prepared for it.
What did we change?
We brought this fact up early and often with our prospects. We game planned it with them and prepared them for that meeting — even practicing with them at times.
In France, we found that the translations we were using for our trial sign up page were wrong. Well, not wrong, but they didn’t mean what we needed them to mean.
We hadn’t gut checked our translations against our business buyers in each country — this was a big miss that we quickly corrected.
And there were so many other little things like this.
Calling a personal mobile phone in the US? Totally OK.
In the UK, also OK.
In Germany, no. Just no. Unless you have been given explicit permission, do not.
Don’t make the mistake I did. Do your research on each region, and make sure that you can, at least, answer these questions:
Do you have product-market fit in this country?
What is the title and authority level of your buyer in this country?
How, in your customer’s words, does your product solve their needs?
Are you applying your customer’s perceived value in your marketing outreach?
How does your customer buy technology like yours? What is that process, and how can you help them through it?
If something seems off, it probably is. Dig into your data to find out why and fix it as quickly as possible.
I’ve taken a long time to explain this simple concept — when expanding outside of your HQ, you need to think about each country and culture separately.
Do not generalize a region of many different cultures, as it will significantly hinder your success.
Lastly, measure each region separately. Only then can you take insights and make them actionable and impactful.
After some time, other markets will mature, and you will have built a model that allows you to scale them into revenue machines as well.
Don’t Do It Alone
While our team started small and focused, we were keen on growing this region into a significant revenue source for Wrike, and to do that, we needed to scale.
As we scaled, I found myself juggling more and more — everything from hiring, training, sales, marketing events, customer success, data reporting, etc. And while I will put my hand up and be the first to say that I am not a naturally good delegator, I did have a great support system at Wrike HQ that empowered me (and strongly *hint hint* encouraged me) to hire specialists.
After all, my experience was in sales. I hadn’t built and scaled a multi-language, geographically dispersed customer success organization, I didn’t know the first thing about building out a trade show campaign or launching a user conference, and I was certainly not about to dive headfirst into Irish employment law.
So as we grew the business, we grew the talent.
When I saw areas of my personal weakness that were hindering our growth, I hired people who were smarter than I.
I dropped that big ole sales ego of mine, and I found people who were absolute badasses in their fields in Europe. These were growth operators in their fields who had experience taking something small and making it big in the region.
Not only did they help us grow the business, but they helped me grow personally and professionally.
At the beginning of any new sales team, you’ll have to wear a lot of hats, but as soon as you can, build out your team with specialists to take over those roles.
They’re specialists for a reason. Let them do their job so you can focus on yours — leading the team and defining the strategy.
Do Your Research, Follow Your Data, and Trust Your Gut
Building an international organization takes time, consideration, and a tremendous commitment to data collection.
Everything I detailed above also applies to how we launched in Melbourne and Tokyo, but it doesn’t include the pre-work that goes into determining that you should launch internationally in the first place.
I’ll leave that for another post.
When launching in a new country or territory, do a tremendous amount of customer research, and go into it with an open mind.
You’ll make some mistakes along the way, and that’s OK. Put a process in place that allows you to identify the mistakes quickly and establish a culture that embraces the change.
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