If you’re building a business in the U.S., you’re likely familiar with the advice to “go east”–and for good reason. Given the sheer size of the market, as well as its acceptance and celebration of technological innovation, Asia bears exciting opportunities for growth and expansion that entrepreneurs in the West should at the very least consider. It is, in many ways, the next frontier.
I know this from experience.
My team and I at Skylum decided early on that we would expand our operations into Asian markets. We were inspired for a few reasons. First, we’re a photography technology company, and much of today’s best camera technology–along with the most dedicated photographers–is coming out of places like Japan. Photographers there take their art seriously, from older heads who work with more traditional technology, to younger generations whose work is holistically digital. The scene is diverse and vibrant.
But, secondly, after traveling within Asia to explore the different opportunities there, we discovered that a sizable portion of our users were in fact located in Asian countries. We recognized a certain untapped potential, in that regard–an untapped demand. This excited us, because wherever there is demand for your product or service, you owe it to your business to cultivate and nurture it.
All in all, we have been successful thus far in our expansion efforts. But in many ways, we’re just getting started, and in our short time there, we’ve become acquainted with challenges that are complex in nature and entirely unique to operating in this part of the world.
Here are a few of the most important.
The major challenge with taking your business to Asia is that each country is fundamentally different.
Photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev
This was the first thing my team and I learned as we really started exploring the idea of Asian expansion: each country–from Japan to Malaysia, and from India to Singapore–is unique in meaningful, fundamental ways.
Asia as a continent is home to hundreds of different languages, cultures, patterns of behavior, forms of art, and means of visual and nonverbal communication. This is true of the general population and of business cultures. In Japan, for example, business relationships are more important than money or revenue. Companies tend to build partnerships over years, and they remain loyal to them, even in the face of new, potentially more rewarding opportunities. In China, meanwhile, the opposite seems to be true: businesses pursue the most monetarily advantageous deal every time.
The populations of each different country, too, are unique. Each interacts with and appreciates different things about a company’s product and culture–and they’ll dislike different things, too.
Accordingly, nurturing demand for your product in these disparate places also necessitates a differentiated approach.
Of course, properly understanding each country and the markets that operate within them is challenging. To obtain that understanding, you have to spend time in each country, immersing yourself in the culture and seeking genuine understanding around what makes each place unique.
This, as it happens, is where most aspiring entrepreneurs fail. They think of Asia as a homogenous continent, rather than a collection of disparate countries with different identities, needs, and traits. A one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t work.
At Skylum, we’re approaching our expansion efforts knowing that it will take years to build up the sort of relationships and understanding required of genuinely impacting the markets. Before we start selling anything, and even before we start promoting our products, we’re investing time and money into building cultural awareness within each country we plan on working with.
Another mistake companies make expanding into Asia? They go for disingenuous reasons.
Yes, the monetary rewards for tapping into the Asian markets are potentially lucrative. But if you think Asian expansion represents a chance for a quick cash grab, you’re mistaken.
The monetary rewards of Asian market expansion will only ever be realized if you approach your efforts with an understanding of how long and serious of an investment is required. In fact, if your efforts are inspired primarily by money, you’ll likely fail. You should be inspired, more so, especially early on, by a sincere desire to bring something new and valuable to new markets.
In the beginning, you should expect nothing in return–you should only seek to provide value.
For us at Skylum, we know that means understanding what photographers in these new markets want and need, and then doing our best to provide them with that.
How you ingratiate yourself in a country to obtain this critical understanding will depend on what you’re trying to do there, but it remains that you will need to invest time and effort. You’ll need to visit, learn about what technology the people are using–in China, for example, everyone does everything with WeChat; in Japan, the go-to communication app is LINE–and you’ll need to stay for awhile.
The sort of mindset that’s most conducive to that kind of patience? One founded upon a desire to provide value–not to quickly grab some cash.
Focus on one or two specific markets where you have some traction.
Photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev
Now, because of how vast and sprawling Asia is, and because of how different each country proudly remains, you will be best served by selecting one or two specific markets to focus on building partnerships with.
One way to determine which markets to focus on is by assessing which ones you already have traction inside of. Where are you seeing web traffic, users interacting with your product, users talking about your product on social media–anything? Identify those places, and immerse yourself inside them by doing things like meeting with users face to face–a great approach to really getting to know and understand your customers.
At Skylum, we’re focusing on the photography markets in Japan and China.
We chose those markets because we already had traction there, but also because they’re so compact, and that’s important for us. Tokyo, for instance, is home to 40 million people–many of whom own cameras. Hong Kong, similarly, houses more than 7 million people. And both populations are enthusiastic about photography. Word of our product and the value we provide is more likely to spread.
At the end of the day, to capitalize on this exciting opportunity, you have to be aware of the inherent challenges and make sure you’re investing your time for the right reasons.
This amounts to approaching your expansion efforts intelligently and with an appreciation of how unique each different Asian country truly is.
One reason so few western businesses have gained footholds in Asia is they didn’t approach their expansion efforts with empathy or persistence.
Sure, ultimately, success will take a bit of luck. But more than that, going east necessitates humility and old-fashioned hard work. If you’re prepared for this, if you anticipate the challenges, and if you study the cultures, you just might make the sort of impact you desire.