How to expand your SaaS internationally with expats

This content was featured in our monthly webinar series, Monkey Business. Every month, Hela Kacem and Nataliia Deineha invite a SaaS leader on their show to discuss their challenges, opportunities and creative solutions to grow their SaaS business. As a SaaS founder or enthusiast, you’ll walk out with easy to implement yet powerful ideas to accelerate your own SaaS. In Episode 2, we’ll be talking about how to expand your SaaS internationally with expats.

Are you thinking of going global with your SaaS? It all starts with a good strategy to expand your SaaS internationally. In episode 2 of Monkey Business, we interviewed Charlotte Gréant, General Manager at Startups.be/Scale-ups.eu.

Charlotte is a seasoned expat who has worked for multiple SaaS companies abroad. She shares her advice on what it’s like working as an expat, and how to use your expat experience to expand your SaaS internationally. Rewatch the webinar, or read the full transcript below!

Lacking the time to read through the transcript? Here are our 6 key take-aways:

  1. The best way to adapt your strategy to the local market is to surround yourself with locals. Listen to local salespeople: how they talk, how they convince.
  2. Identify the cultural differences as soon as possible, and learn to adapt. For example, set aside typical European humbleness to blend in better in a US market that is known for its high self-confidence.
  3. Don’t forget about team spirit! Stay close to your home branch, and learn about team dynamics in your expat country. It will help you to understand the decisionmaking process better.
  4. In the US, never undersell yourself. Stay proud, stay confident.
  5. Sending an expat is a great way to start a foreign branch, to keep the connection with the mother company. The next step should be to hire local people as soon as possible. They understand the culture and the market better.
  6. Don’t be afraid, and take risks. Being an expat enriches you both personally and professionally. It helps you keep an open mind.

Nata:

Hello everyone, and welcome to the second episode of Monkey Business!

Hela:

Today, we’ll be talking about working as a SaaS expat, and how you can expand your SaaS internationally. It has benefits and challenges for both employees and companies. And there’s no better person to discuss this with than Charlotte Gréant, General Manager of Startups.be/Scaleups.eu. Thank you so much for joining us, Charlotte. Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and what you’re doing at Scaleups.eu?

Charlotte:

Yes, thank you so much girls for having me, I’m excited about this webinar! I’m Charlotte, and indeed, I’m the General Manager at Startups.be/Scaleups.eu. We help startups and scale-ups to grow faster by meeting the right people.

To do this, we organize a lot of events around 3 pillars: recruiting, marketing & sales, and VCs & funding. On the other hand, we have a good connection with a lot of big corporations who generally look for innovation. So as soon they have a challenge, we help them to open up innovation.

Nata:

Oh that’s really interesting. So, before joining Startups.be/Scaleups.eu, you worked as a SaaS expat, right? Could you tell us a bit more about your experience abroad? Where did you go, what were you occupied with?

Charlotte:

Yes that’s right. After I graduated, I worked for over 2 years in Benin where I launched a public transport company. Then, I moved to San Francisco, where I was a Community Manager for the Belgian Chamber of Commerce. And after that, I moved to New York where I worked for 2 years as a Business Developer for different SaaS companies, which you are probably most curious about!

How to adapt your business development strategy to expand your SaaS internationally?

Hela:

Wow, sounds like you’ve had such a rich experience! How would you say that the markets abroad were different from the market you’ve dealt with back home?

Charlotte:

Well, for example if I compare the US market to Belgium, the market itself is just way bigger. Business in the US goes faster, people are less risk-averse, they dare to take risks. I also had the feeling that I had really tapped into a startup ecosystem here, people all around me were working in tech and were trying to become the next Google. So, New York was a very inspiring entourage to be working in.

Hela:

Yeah, more vibrant.

Charlotte:

Different. Yeah, different. I think we, as Belgians, are often too humble and we don’t always dare to say how awesome our product is.

In New York, they say they’re going to change the world and if you ask about their product, they say: “Well here’s our one-pager…”.

As Belgians, we tend to think that we “just” have an idea, but actually we’re already doing sales, we have a couple of clients and we have a fantastic product. It’s interesting how different this is.

Hela:

The self-confidence level is way higher.

Charlotte:

Yeah, I mean, you have startups that have raised $2M in funding but have no product yet.

Hela:

So how did you adapt to that, coming from a Belgian ecosystem and humbleness?

Charlotte:

I really tried to be in a local coworking space as soon as possible so I could hear local salespeople around me. To learn from the way they talk, the way they convince.

For me personally, the hardest thing to adapt to was the different sales cycle. For example, when I did Business Development for Cumul.io in the US, during the first meetings my prospects were always really interested, they loved the product, everyone told me it was “amazing”. But then, I never heard back.

Nata:

So, you get your hopes up but then in the end…

Charlotte:

Yeah, I prefer to have a hard time during a meeting, where people tell me that our product is crap or that they are not interested right from the start. Which is what we’re used to in Belgium. If a New Yorker tells you your product is crap, it’s probably the worst thing they have ever seen *laughs*.

For me, it felt frustrating to put time and effort into a meeting, doing follow-ups, negotiating, and then it didn’t lead to any result. But once you know this cultural difference, it’s less frustrating.

Hela:

Ok, so then you grew to understand a bit better when they say it’s “amazing”, if it really means they are interested or not?

Charlotte:

Exactly, yeah yeah. Exactly. The thing is, often they do like your product, but they just don’t have the budget at all. So you spend time on back-to-back meetings where the prospect doesn’t dare to say no because you have a good connection with them and they like to be inspired, but you’re not really making any progress.

There’s a saying that a prospect needs 10 contact points with your company before actually showing interest in a meeting. So let’s just say, it’s very easy to book meetings with irrelevant people, but you better spend your time on finding the ones that actually need your product.

Nata:

I see. Did you ever have a true aha-moment, where you suddenly realized & understood something about the market that helped you do business?

Charlotte:

Actually, once I was at a pitching event of Microsoft with about 250 people. They always preselected 4 or 5 startups to present on stage, but in the end 3 speakers didn’t show up, so they asked if anyone wanted to come on stage. And like, everyone in the room raised their hand. That’s New York, everyone is really outgoing and wants to pitch on stage.

I think I had joined Cumul.io as a Business Developer only 3 days before that event. But I did my best and I eventually got selected to go on stage. At that point, I really did it the American way. Not saying “I’m from Belgium and I just joined 3 days ago,” but instead I went up super confident: “I’m the General Manager in the US and this is what our company stands for.” As a result, there was a long queue of people lining up and I didn’t have enough business cards to hand out *laughs*.

Hela:

Wow, you really aced it!

Charlotte:

It’s so funny how different the American mentality is. In Belgium, if they asked us who wanted to go on stage, I would be like: “Not me!” But here, everyone was like: “Come on, let’s do it! Amazing!”

Hela:

Yeah, they are real go-getters. But indeed, in Belgium you wouldn’t expect something like this. It would be more organized, people will stay in their cocoon until we’re “obliged” to go out of it.

How to keep a good team spirit in both local and international teams?

Hela:

Charlotte, did you have any other challenges, culture-wise, in the workplace itself?

Charlotte:

Well, I lived in New York for 2.5 years, and for me it was hard to really become friends with the locals. When you meet new people, or even in the office, relationships are often superficial. Everybody is generally really nice & friendly, but it’s hard to build something more long-lasting.

We made a lot of new friends, but they were mostly Europeans.

Nata:

Do you think this impacts the team spirit as well?

Charlotte:

Yeah well, my team was actually in Belgium so it’s a bit different for me. I had a really good connection with my team, even remotely. At one point they even sent me cookies to support me when I had a tough sales call.

Regarding the teams locally, I think the hiring-and-firing mentality is more common here in the US than in Belgium, for example. A lot of teams do great stuff together, but if sales is not OK today, then tomorrow you could be out.

Hela:

So there’s no real personal connection?

Charlotte:

I wouldn’t say that, but it’s just different. It’s something you have to get used to because it has its consequences, and its advantages as well.

Hela:

Yeah, I can imagine it also pushes you to work harder and to be your very best. It also depends a bit on your personality if you can thrive in such an environment.

Nata:

Yeah, I do feel that a great team spirit is an important thing to have. It motivates you more to do great stuff. I think it’s a better motivator for growth than having to fear you’re doing something wrong. Just knowing that you’ll be backed up by your team when something goes wrong.

Charlotte:

Also for me, as a person, a team is very important. Especially now during COVID, we can work remotely, but I’ve really missed the team. Some people go to the office from 9 to 5 and that’s enough for them, but for me personally, what I love most about my job is working together with a team.

Hela:

It’s funny when you think about it. We spend more time with our colleagues than with our family or partner even. We spend most of our time with them, so it’s important you actually get along with them.

Charlotte:

Yeah indeed, it is.

How to deal with cultural differences?

Nata:

Another thing: did you encounter any broken stereotypes? Something you thought would be a certain way, but it turned out to be nothing like the stereotype you had? Or what about Belgian stereotypes?

Charlotte:

I can’t repeat it enough: in Belgium, we’re just not proud enough about ourselves. We think we have a small idea, but actually software companies in Belgium just have a great product to be proud of. I learned in the US to be more confident and more proud of what you’ve accomplished.

Sometimes it can be frustrating as well though, because the US market is oftentimes more heavily funded. So imagine you’re standing at a conference with a small booth, next to your competitor who’s taking the whole floor. Even if you know that your product is objectively speaking way better, you have to be creative to win the battle!

Nata:

What about Belgian stereotypes that Americans have about Belgium?

Charlotte:

Haha, well of course we eat waffles, chocolate and drink beer 😄. But no usually, I did not mention the European roots of our company. I mentioned I had European roots myself but positioned the company as a US-based startup. If anything, I wanted to make sure I was “overselling” rather than “underselling”, simply because I believed in the strength of our product.

Nata:

Do you think it made a difference, saying you’re a local startup rather than international?

Charlotte:

I usually focused more on mentioning we have international hubs, for example in Belgium, and that we have clients around the world, etcetera. And we did have those clients, in fact, but in the US they consider it important. So this kind of name-dropping actually helps you build credibility.

In Belgium, if you mention during your sales meeting that you have an office in New York, they simply don’t care. Yet in the US, if you mention you’re headquartered in Europe, and are working to expand your SaaS internationally, you can wow them in the first 2 minutes of your meeting.

Personal growth as an expat

Hela:

Interesting, that’s very different indeed. Now on the other hand, we’ve talked about challenges. What about advantages of being an expat? Did it sometimes make it easier for you to break the ice? To get into conversation?

Charlotte:

On a personal level, yes. You share so much experiences and stories, especially with other expats. It’s amazing when you arrive in the big city with your suitcase and you don’t know anything or anybody. So on a personal level, you grow so much when working abroad.

But I guess you girls can agree, you’re both expats as well.

Nata:

Yes absolutely!

Hela:

Definitely, I think I grew more in these past years than I did during any educational system. You learn more from being confronted with situations, and having to make your way out of the unknown. And having to adapt, that teaches you a lot.

Nata:

You become more flexible, more agile. Now when I get a task I’ve never done before, I would know how to get started, even if I don’t know exactly how to do it.

Charlotte:

I also think it helps you to stay very open-minded. You’re confronted with a totally different culture, but I really do respect it. For example, we had friends who had very different political opinions. So we had a difference in personal beliefs, but it was interesting to better understand and learn how they look at the world. So on a personal level, it’s fantastic.

Tips for opening up a new market as an expat

Nata:

Yeah totally. And regarding business, do you think it’s beneficial for companies to have expats working for them? Can it help to expand your SaaS company internationally?

Charlotte:

I think it’s important when you open an office abroad, to have someone physically present. It’s hard to open up the US market if you keep working from Europe.

So you need someone present there, and I think both expats or local hires have its advantages. But it’s very important to have a link and good communication with the team in the headquarters.

In my opinion, the best way to expand your SaaS internationally is to launch a branch with an expat, and then hire local people as fast as possible. That’s an ideal setup.

For me it was important that I could make the translation towards the product team. Especially to translate the different way of doing business. I think it was good as an expat to make that first step and that translation, but as soon as you want to grow the foreign branch, I would advise to expand the team with local experts as soon as you can. You need to get to know the local language and culture as soon as possible, but you will never truly capture that solely as an expat.

Hela:

That totally makes sense. Do you have tips for expats for a good integration process into the country where they’re going to work?

Charlotte:

Don’t be afraid. Go out there. Drink a glass of wine and just start shaking hands *laughs*. I think it’s scary for everyone to meet new people, you have all your friends at home and you think: “why am I doing this?”

Sometimes when I went to networking events and I didn’t feel in a good mood, I would just set myself a limit: “Ok Charlotte, just 2 contacts.” And then sometimes you end up chatting with someone and have a good connection. Sometimes you don’t, and that’s ok too.

Nata:

Is there something you wish you know in advance? What would you say to yourself when you were just moving to New York? In terms of work, or personal growth?

Charlotte:

Well, I kind of underestimated the paperwork. People say it’s hard to get something arranged in Belgium, but it can be even harder in the US. And then the weather *laughs*, it gets very hot in summer and very cold in winter. So buy a good winter coat! 😅

Professional growth opportunities as an expat

Hela:

Were there any growth opportunities you were hoping for, and did you have any personal fears before leaving?

Charlotte:

Not really… I guess I’m kind of a risk-taker, I was living in San Francisco at the time and when I got the job opportunity, I moved 3 weeks later. Maybe I should have thought more about what and how, and when and where. When I arrived to New York, it was also more expensive than I thought. I shared a 3-bedroom apartment where I could literally touch 3 walls when lying in my bed. But it was an amazing experience!

Hela:

I think those are the memories that stick with you the longest.

Nata:

Did you feel more local after a few years?

Charlotte:

I think the biggest difference with for example my time in Africa is that… well I liked the fact that if you look at my face, I look similar. In Benin, I was the only white person in a city of 100,000 locals. People would see you from afar just because you’re not a local.

In New York it’s different because you have so many cultures, people from all over the world. I loved the mix of cultures and diversity. A silly thing, but you wear whatever you want and people won’t look at you for wearing a gothic outfit or yoga pants.

Hela:

Yeah, you have more space to express yourself. So how was it to come back home actually, and to readjust?

Charlotte:

Well we had planned to move back home, but we moved back during the COVID crisis. But I love to be back with my family and friends, I love my new job. So, so far it’s going great! It’s totally different, although I really try to keep that “tourist spirit”, whenever I’m going somewhere I try to appreciate the sights and experiences that we have close by.

In New York, we tried to go to different restaurants every time, and we’re doing the same now in Belgium to keep that curiosity alive.

Nata:

And in terms of professional experience, is there anything you’ve brought back home from the US? Anything that changed in your daily work attitude?

Charlotte:

Be proud. Be positive. Well, realistically positive. And another thing is, in Belgium we’re very well protected as an employee, which makes that people stay too long in a specific situation for the wrong reasons.

Personally I’ve never done that, but I want to make sure that I will never do that. I want to make sure that being positive and proud is not a task. That it’s something that happens because I like what I’m doing.

That’s a mindset that I really appreciated. In New York, if you start complaining, in 2 days you’re fired. And then 2 days later, you can start at another job. It goes faster, which has advantages and disadvantages. But in general, I think it keeps people happier.

Nata:

Ok, that’s very interesting. So what will be your next destination? Would you go back to the US, or would you rather explore something in Europe? What are your crazy ideas, tell us.

Charlotte:

Good question. Don’t tell my mom though because she wants me to stay. I’m reading a lot about Asia and how fast they are innovating. So maybe that’s a next step but I don’t have anything planned. I’ll definitely be in Belgium for the next year, and then whenever there’s an opportunity, I’m open to discuss it and see where things lead.

Nata:

Exciting! Well thank you so much, Charlotte, for sharing your experiences so openly. I believe it’s a really nice story, also challenging, but it gave you ways to learn more about yourself and different cultures. And it made you more open to things.

And in general, being an expat helps you to grow both personally and it helps the company you work for to grow. Because being an expat myself, having lived in different countries, I can say that whenever you join a new adventure, it always makes you think outside of the box.

As you mentioned, you really get that go-getter mindset. You’re more of a risk-taker, because when you need to approach something new, just think of it: “I moved to another country, so hell yeah I can do this.” And that’s a quality that startups and scaleups are definitely looking for in their team.

Charlotte:

Exactly. Well thanks for having me ladies, I enjoyed it!

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