Do’s and Don’ts for Startups Going International

In Startup Learnings by Sébastien FluryLeave a Comment

End of October, I had the chance to be invited by Switzerland Global Enterprise (thank you Gioia for recommending me!) to Sao Paulo & Porto Alegre for a « SwissICT Roadshow ». The goal of the roadshow was to promote Switzerland among Brazilian startups as a key location to expand to Europe.
Like most European countries, Switzerland is investing in fast-developing countries to attract them and create jobs in Switzerland. The key for such events is to promote the advantages of the location without hiding the potential disadvantages. Most countries do it pretty simply: they show up for a 1-2h presentation and explain why they are « the best place » for these companies when entering Europe. Switzerland Global Enterprise did it differently: let’s provide more value than a simple presentation!

The guys of S-GE in Brazil organized an intensive program to show more than the standard slides. The 3-days program comprised various workshops and presentations about going international, from the legal to the early-stage startup perspective. As well as experience sharing from Swiss guys who’ve founded a startup in Brazil. Or to present the quality of Swiss software engineering with SwissMadeSoftware.
I’ve been invited to hold 2 workshops (one at TECHNOPUC  and one at Feevale Techpark, both in Porto Alegre – the national equivalent of EPFL Innovation Park or Technopark Zürich) on startups going international. I first hold a presentation on « Do’s and Don’ts for Startups Going International », before diving deeper into the topic the 2 following days, sharing my own internationalisation experience with, The Mobile Fans Club. And of course, psychoanalyzing myself, what I’ve been doing wrong and why. Not painful, but always great to have once a bit of time to take a helicopter view, without being fully into execution.
It was completely new for me to prepare such a workshop, and I have to admit that I was not completely relax beforehand. But once you’ve started, the stress collapses. And that is also what we, entrepreneurs, do everyday: go out of our comfort zone!
It was a really cool new experience! I enjoyed it so much that I told Simon that he can invite me whenever, wherever he want to renew the experience ;-)!

The funny thing to be in Brazil this year to talk about internationalization is that I started an experience last year with a business developer in Sao Paulo (which didn’t bring us anywhere, though). So it remembered me one of those many stories you’re experiencing as a startup entrepreneur, which you do not realize when it happens that you’re learning new skills (that a MBA wouldn’t teach you!). I didn’t know much about Brazil at this time (I wouldn’t pretend I know Brazil now) and the key challenge was to analyze and verify what people are telling you. The best way (and cheapest way) I found was to ask Swissnex.

Following are some key points about Brazil, to keep in mind if you once plan to internationalize your business there:

  • Don’t expect people to really speak English! It was quite surprising to me, especially when you’re doing presentation to tech startups. 80% of them cannot really communicate with you in English. While doing my workshop, I had a professional translator alongside me – also something new to me! So if you want to enter Brazil and you don’t master Portuguese… think again! And hire Portuguese-speaking people.
  • If you want to win a Brazilian audience, start your presentation with some Portuguese words. It’s not complicate and show them you really consider them. It is of course the same for every audience you will talk to, but keep in mind that Brazil is the only country in South America speaking Portuguese. So, they are particularly warm with you when you do the effort!
  • Brazil is a huge country, with more than 200M inhabitants. Are you forced to go internationalize your business to be very successful? No!  Very different from Switzerland.
  • Sao Paulo is the economic center and its urban area counts more than 22M (!) inhabitants. 3x Switzerland. Imagine how you can deliver your products (e-commerce) to a very wide population in almost no time! For instance, we had the chance to visit the fashion brand Amaro (founded by 2 Swiss ex-… bankers!), which is delivering its orders in 2-3h…
  • In Brazil, there are only few relevant places to make business (at least tech business): Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Brazilia.
  • When you travelling by train in Switzerland, you just take a flight in Brazil!
  • Brazil is a country of immigrants, with lot of different origins, Portugal being #1, of course (Italy: 25M+ people, Germany: 12M+, Liban: 6M+, Japan: 2M). The south of Brazil (Porto Alegre) looks really like a European country in term of population.
  • Brazil is probably one the worldwide champion on protectionism: it is very difficult for foreign companies to go over all the administrative tasks and taxes. Almost everything that costs $1.- when it arrives in Brazil will cost at least twice. If you want to export products into Brazil, consider producing on-site.

I know this list is everything but exhaustive and I would love to complete it (just tell me in the comments!).

And lastly, here’s an extract of my presentation: « Do’s and Don’ts for Startups Going International »