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One of the great things about working in the Startup Chile acclerator is being surrounded by entrepreneurs from all over the world. We’ve got people from India, the UK, Brasil and elsewhere. All of us are going after different markets and are focusing on different niches; some have all local teams and some have distributed teams. In fact, its like being in business school, but everyone is building a business instead of studying business.
I was talking to a Chilean contact the other day and during the course of our conversation, we kept coming back to the challenge of building a company in Chile primarily for English-speaking markets. Yes, it is hard- but as all of my startups/entreprenurial companies I’ve worked for have been international to some degree, I’m not sure if it is significantly more difficult than a local venture. I can offer a few observations, though.
I solidified the plans for PingPigeon in Tokyo, I started building the company in San Francisco and moved from a proof-of-concept prototype to a beta version with customers down in Santiago. Along the way, I was working with engineers in the UK, Serbia, and Chile + designers in Macedonia and Serbia along with a business intern who went between Vermont and Santiago. What helped me along in this journey?
1) Over-communicate. This is, by far, the most important rule for smoothly working across borders, time zones and cultures. This means being clear-even redundantly/annoyingly clear- in everything that is written and said but also to be consistent in the delivery of the communication. This means no slang, American business-sports metaphors, and no cutting corners in laying out specifications. We were agile about building PingPigeon, but before development started I still wrote a 40 page document explaining the wireframes + the high-level application architecture. Of course things changed and came up during development, but because we had all started off on the same page, things went smoothly.
The consistency of communication was helped by religiously using productivity/communication tools throughout the process. For development we use Pivotal Tracker which is really just about the best tool I’ve come across for dynamic, highly-collaborative project management. Tracker is obviously at its best when it is used for “building things” but I would be curious try it in other contexts- executing M&A deals for example. For other communication and minor projects I used Wedoist, an application being built by another Startup Chile participant. Most importantly, we’ve been disciplined about keeping most of our communication on these tools (not email), which makes the process highly collaborative & deliberately transparent, helping along the communication.
Other communication tidbits: After two mis-understood/unclear messages, always have a quick Skype chat. Always assume it is your fault; if something is not progressing smoothly go back and see how the original communication was conducted and see what can be improved- there will always be something, and this exercise will almost always help the project as a whole, if not the specific off-track task.
2) Be Flexible. There is a tendency among the business press to assume that everyone working globally never sleeps and has a Blackberry glued to their hand. In my experience, the only time this happens if the project degenerates into constantly fighting fires. The more important aspect is to establish a disciplined schedule, creating a flow everyone can get used to. Stand-up calls, daily status postings (WeDoist is great for that) that happen no matter what make life predictable for everyone. BUT, inevitably the need to “be flexible” will come up. Be ready for that.
On a startup level, being flexible involves many other small things like buying one way instead of round-trip air tickets (your dates will change), taking a short-term let instead of signing a lease, and keeping your team as lean as possible to maintain that flexibility.
3) Still talk to your customers. This has probably been the most challenging aspect of doing a global startup. As my main customer is English speaking, getting feedback while in Chile vs SF has been hard. Basically, this means I need to work harder to talk to customers while in the states. Also, talking to anyone through Skype has been surprisingly good at getting qualitative insights. Usability testing has mostly been through my peers here in Chile. Still, this hasn’t been detrimental, but it has taken a good deal of effort.
Startup Chile has great parties as well (again, just like B-school), and as always, I have trouble answering the question “where are you from.” At this point, the fact that I’m not “from” anywhere is almost set in stone, and I’m sure this has helped me work on PingPigeon from different parts of the globe. There is so much opportunity everywhere, and all it takes is a bit more effort to run a global startup.