Building Global Business: Five Sideways Reflections

Talking global is easy. In fact, it is not easy NOT to talk global. In this age of Internet, Facebook, Venture Capital, WTO, scale is the mantra: And, global is the only scale that really matters. 

When I started working in England in 2004, I worked for a couple of interesting E-Learning companies for the first few years. They had good products and good people. I was greatly impressed by what they did, and with the sophistication of their technology and approach. They had large projects covering their cash flows, and were strategically poised to expand. But when I brought up the question of going global, given that I had first hand experience globally and thought these services would be quite compelling, the answer I got was "No Thanks!" These companies did not want to go global but rather service the small e-learning market in the UK that they knew well. They did not see the benefit of taking on the extra complexity and was afraid of 'global'. At that time, new in England, I treated this as a very English peculiarity. I got wiser afterwards.

In fact, soon afterwards: I was doing well in my job but I couldn't resist when I was solicited by an Irish businessman who wanted to set up a global training and recruitment chain. I jumped at it, because, at the time, that was what I really wanted to do. Looking back, that might not have been the wisest career decision I took, because I loved the technology environment and did not enjoy the culture of a recruitment company. But, since then, my work was almost always very globally focused: Its theme almost always was about taking concepts and ideas to new markets. And, unlike my experiences prior to 2004, when I worked for a large company going global, these were medium size firms and start-ups, who were in pursuit of scale. Some of these projects worked and became very successful: Others did not.  But nonetheless, they all held lessons, which I now summarize along five broad themes.

But, before I talk about those five lessons, a personal note: I am at a point of time in my career that the novelty of air travel has truly worn off. Now, I claim, I get global. I have only worked in a handful of countries and not in all regions of the world, but I have been an eager student and now I know what works when someone is trying to get into a new country. My repertoire has some basic things, like respect, empathy and honesty, and I see that working everywhere. I am still fairly deficient in my global skills (when I can pause my life again, I would go back to reading Polish novels and practicing eating with chopsticks) but at least know what they are. I have come a full circle, falling in and out of love with the conversation about 'scale', the silicon valley way! From my experience, I know that the only way one can really 'scale' is by scaling one's mind, but that is almost impossible because global talk is, strangely, inimical to global thinking.

And, as I try to go local, here are the five lessons I learned while trying to play global:

First, Global Talk is usually reflected arrogance. While companies accept that the cardinal principle that all product development should start with the customers, they implicitly mean that this only applies to their home country customers. Large companies may have learnt the perils of this approach, but smaller companies, who need this even more because of their weaker brands, believe that such an approach is a large company thing: Being flexible hampers their dream of achieving scale quickly enough. Instead, they get into the missionary mode, and make the assumption that global customers don't know what they want. But without the magic and marketing budget of Apple, that's one wrong lesson to take from Steve Jobs.

Second, it is difficult to be Global. This may offend all those pursuing global dominance, but my favourite data point is that only 7% of S&P 500 directors are foreign-born. Given that we are talking about multinationals with huge global businesses here, this may surely reflect the difficulty of being global. In the small company setting, this is even more acute: The strength of familiarity that allow founding teams to work effectively also bars diversity. And, indeed, it is a strange phenomenon that while companies can't globalise internally, they constantly talk about global dominance outside. This mindset indeed comes from the mindset of capital, where a few elite bankers can dominate the global capital flows, but real businesses are far more messy than the value-neutral business of investing. 

Third, some businesses are inherently more global than others. Capital flows are a great example, which can, under the current setting, can flow across borders pretty easily. Money has no colour, indeed, though most will want to keep it green. However, other real life businesses are different. We already know products may have to be different: McDonald's only succeed in India by designing a new range of products. Sometimes, it comes at the cost of efficiency: Subway creating separate counter for Vegetarians in India surely breaks their usual business model but they made that trade-off because they won't have a business otherwise. The businesses that require people may have to understand the cultures fairly deeply, including, as Devdutt Pattanaik will claim, the mythologies of the place, the 'subjective truths'. And, some of these businesses, including Education which I am involved in, is value-laden: Here globality is actively resisted. This is not just about cultural difference alone: Deep down, people don't want an education which clashes with their other values. Cultural mash-ups are easier to do than value mash-ups, and education, as it invariably becomes about values and attitudes, reaches an intensely local territory.

Fourth, being global means accepting variability of regulations. The globalisers usually treat regulations as an annoyance, a distraction, preferring to take a direct-to-consumer approach. This is indeed borrowed from the culture of capital, and the thinking system it has created. However, regulations are there for a reason, and in a large part, they may reflect a collective preference, though not an active choice. My favourite example is India's Foreign Education Providers' Bill, which has not got passed for over 15 years. This piece of legislation does not get passed because no one really wants it: It is not legislatively important, it does not change anything much for the students wanting education. Also, Britain's draconian immigration rules, which has affected the education industry there, broadly reflects people's social attitude. The Chinese censorship exists because the Chinese mind it less than we do. And, I am sure people in Dubai know how to access porn though we may be blocked out of them through filters. Law in many countries stand for different things than it would be in Europe and North America, and the right response isn't to dismiss the legal structure and focus on  bypassing it. For me, being global is not about bypassing or dismissing the regulations at all, but understanding and respecting them - which may not necessarily mean following them blindly - and pragmatically adapting for them in the design of the business.

Finally, to put all of this together, being global means accepting the business model as a conversation. Business model, by definition, is not a spreadsheet, but a way of creating value and capturing a portion of that value for profit. Since the mechanics of creating value is different in different markets, the learning and conversation becomes of paramount importance in global businesses. And, as I see it, the world is converging on one plane, the culture of money, whereas diverging in other, the culture of living. Acknowledging this diversity, internally, in product design, in assessing the nature of the business and creating responsiveness to local regulations, are primary building blocks of successful global businesses.

So, in conclusion, the point is not to say that small businesses can't be global or global universities aren't possible (though I pretty much said that here). Indeed, one could argue that to follow the above suggestions would mean bidding good-bye to scale: However, to achieve 'scale' one has to 'scale' one's thinking. It remains perfectly possible to create a network of local engagements and relationships based on common values and weave it together in a global model: That, indeed, remains the only sustainable and scalable model of global business, one that's based on listening and engaging, and not preaching.


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