How to build an international ecommerce company
Posted by Anthony Constantino on
Last year, Sticker Mule shipped to 87 countries. It's been a long process to lay a foundation to support international customers and we still have a lot to do. Since the decision to go international is one faced by every ecommerce company, I thought it’d be worth sharing our approach.
Anyone looking to go international should understand 2 things before embarking on the journey:
- International business is difficult and initially unprofitable. In order to effectively support foreign customers, you’ll likely take a loss early on as you build international volume.
- Shipping worldwide is expensive and customers don’t want to be penalized for being far from your fulfillment center.
Despite the costs involved in growing internationally, there are a number of upsides.
Why you should sell internationally
Aside from the obvious potential to acquire international revenue, there are three additional benefits to growing internationally that are worth considering.
There's a lot of international web traffic to acquire.
Between paid and search traffic there’s a tremendous amount of international traffic to capture. International markets are not as saturated as the U.S. so it's easier to build both paid and organic search traffic.
International markets are not as saturated as the U.S. so it's easier to build both paid and organic search traffic. Click to Tweet
The downside is you need to manage a variety of country specific SEO & SEM strategies whereas in the U.S. you need to execute one strategy for a large market.
Internationalizing exposes you to additional partnerships.
I loosely define partnerships to include anyone that can send you traffic. By supporting an international audience you'll quickly notice that the variety of websites and people willing to send you traffic grows. Even bloggers that have a primarily domestic audience want to write about companies that support their foreign readers.
It aids your recruiting efforts to become international.
Recruiting internationally is a tremendous benefit to us. The best talent and potential team members live all over the world. To date, only 10% of our development team works domestically. We pay domestic wages regardless of location because it’s fair and hiring the best people is more important than saving a buck.
13 steps to building an international ecommerce company
Our 13 steps to becoming international are roughly sorted based on difficulty and importance. Steps that are easier and more important are at the top. We suspect most businesses will find it advantageous to implement these improvements from top to bottom.
1. Ship to foreign countries
An obvious starting point, but easier said than done. To start here, you’ll need a shipping system that supports international shipments. Initially, we used a 3rd party application until we were ready to build our own.
2. Ship to foreign countries with tracking
Initially, it’s tempting to ship without tracking because it’s considerably more expensive to provide it. However, as your international volume grows you’ll find not having package tracking is a substantial burden. Delays and lost packages are more common internationally so tracking is necessary to troubleshoot problematic shipments.
3. Ship to foreign countries quickly and with delivery estimates
Once you add support for package tracking you’ll find the next concern for your customers is to get their packages faster and with guaranteed delivery dates. This is mostly possible but at a considerable expense.
4. Support international currencies
Inevitably it will make sense to add support for international currencies too. We started with the most popular ones including Canadian Dollars, British Pounds and the Euro.
5. Support the metric system
Depending on your product offering this is more or less important but since size is a critical aspect of our product line we decided it was necessary to support the metric system.
6. Internationalize address forms
International addresses have different formats and it’s ideal to provide customers with an experience they recognize to help them fill in addresses correctly and avoid shipping delays. This is something I haven’t seen anyone implement effectively but it’s on our roadmap.
7. Internationalize text content
There are a variety of translation services and agencies to help with internationalizing content. It can be a considerable expense initially and challenging to maintain, but it’s a necessary step to becoming completely international.
8. Internationalize video content
The next step beyond internationalizing your text content is to internationalize videos. We took a small step in this direction with internationalized captions but eventually we want to internationalize the voiceovers and footage too.
9. Internationalize images
Familiar images help make customers feel more comfortable with your brand. Product photos, customer lists and screenshots all benefit from internationalization at some point.
10. Internationalize hosting
As your international traffic grows it’s worth looking at how to further globalize your hosting configuration. Your site might be fast domestically but you’ll want to ensure visitors from your most popular regions have a similar experience.
11. Provide customer support in foreign languages
Foreign customers are always happier to receive support in their native language. This is a considerable challenge and one we only started to undertake.
12. Operate international fulfillment centers
Hopefully, international revenue will grow to the point where you can justify regional fulfillment centers which will finally position you to provide foreign customers with the same experience you provide customers in your home country.
13. Advertise in international markets
Inevitably, you’ll want to build out an international advertising strategy. This is likely easier to do profitably once you operate regionally, but you could consider doing it sooner to build volume faster.
International advertising tends to be less expensive, but, unless you’re operating locally, your margins may already be so diminished that justifying an ad budget is difficult.
At Sticker Mule, our small team works from 8 countries including England, Ireland, Poland, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Brazil, Italy, Canada and the United States. Cultural diversity has been immensely beneficial. It’s both encouraged and enabled us to build a platform for international growth.
We still have a long way to go to fully execute the international roadmap identified this article, but we’re excited to continue growing our community of customers and colleagues worldwide. If you believe you can play a part in our international growth, we're hiring.