International Product-Market Fit: Making sure your product will sell… before you start selling

International Product-Market Fit: Making sure your product will sell… before you start selling

When it comes to selling internationally, big mistakes are often made around international product-market fit. It’s easy to understand how it happens. When companies are intimately acquainted with the desires and expectations of customers at home and have been meeting those to a high standard for a long time, they sometimes get complacent. When the time comes to expand to new markets overseas, leaders tend to think “we know people buy our product and we know what works best for our clients. We’ll replicate what we’ve done at home overseas and everything will be fine”. But this just isn’t the case, as a bunch of companies have learnt the hard way.

Why Starbucks failed in Australia

The initial failure of Starbucks in Australia is a great example. Starbucks has coffee shops all over the world. There are more than 28,000 locations and 76 markets, from Shanghai to Guantanamo Bay. But when Starbucks launched in Australia, it discovered that ‘the land down under’ was one of the toughest markets in the world to break into.

The company opened its first Australian shop in Sydney in July 2000 and expanded rapidly.

Because of its success elsewhere, Starbucks believed that it could ‘copy, paste’ its business model to Australia without customisation. What it didn’t realise was that when it comes to coffee, Australians are spoiled for choice. They’ve been immersed in the nuances of cafe culture since the mid 1900’s, when Italian and Greek immigrants began arriving in droves, bringing espresso coffee with them.

Cafes in Australia were born out of the Italian culture of meeting a friend and knowing your local barista. The cafe was a local meeting place where everyone knew each other and coffee was one part of that experience. By the 1980’s, Australians were fully engulfed in cafe culture and had also grown accustomed to specialty menu items like a flat white or an Australian macchiato.

Starbucks brought with it a very different, American-style coffee culture, which focused primarily on coffee as a product. It had a basic menu and offered a range of sugary drinks, which most Australians didn’t like. Starbucks also charged more than local cafes. Australians responded by opting to pay less for coffee they liked from a local barista they trusted.

starbucks in australia

By 2008, there were 87 Starbucks stores across the continent, but the company had accumulated losses of more than $105 million and borrowed an eye-watering $54 million from its parent in the US. The same year Starbucks announced it was shutting down 61 stores, two thirds of its Australian business.

Starbucks has since adapted its strategy and re-engaged with the Australian market. However, its story confirms that even if you have a wildly successful brand at home, it won’t necessarily work overseas. That’s because how customers perceive and engage with a brand differs from country to country.

There are several indicators that signal that a company doesn’t have its international product-market fit nailed. These include launching in a new market without:

  1. A clear value proposition for that specific country.
  2. Insight into how well a product meets the customer’s desires in that market
  3. Confirmation that the company can make sales in that market.

If you start selling internationally without this knowledge, there’s a real risk that your sales results won’t match your revenue forecasts. And yet, newbies in the international space make these errors all the time.

The solution?

  1. Get clear on the value proposition for your ideal client in the international market you’re targeting.
  2. Make sure that your offering solves a problem for that particular client. 
  3. Provide evidence that clients in your target market will pay what you’re asking.

Getting Clear on Your Value Proposition

The easiest way to get clear on your value proposition for a particular client in a particular segment is to create a Value Map, which describes the features of an offering in your business model, in a structured way.

A Value Map breaks a value proposition down into three parts.

Products and Services

Product and Services is the list of what you offer – think of it as all the products that your customer can see in your “shop window” – anything they can buy from you.
international product-market fit value map

This bundle of products and services helps your clients get things done or helps them satisfy basic needs.

Your value proposition could be made up of different types of products and services including:

It’s important to remember that no matter how great your offering is, products and services by themselves don’t create value. Value is created only in relationship to a specific customer segment and the goals, challenges and desires of the people in the segment. That’s why not all products and services have the same relevance to all your customers and why some parts of your offer are essential to your value proposition, while others are merely nice to have.

Pain Relievers

Pain relievers describe exactly how your products and services address the challenges that your clients are facing. They explicitly outline how your offering eliminates or reduces some of the things that annoy your customers before, during or after they try to accomplish a goal, or anything that prevents them from doing so.

Great value propositions focus on challenges that matter to your customers, in particular extreme challenges. You don’t need to come up with a pain reliever for every challenge that your client is facing, you just need to overcome a few extreme challenges very well.

Strong value propositions also recognise that a pain reliever can be more or less relevant to a client, depending on their circumstances.

For example, imagine that you sell a pocket-sized portable speaker with bluetooth capability, a 10-hour battery life and a waterproof case. The speaker itself relieves the pain of picnics and beach visits without hi-fidelity music for consumers all over the world. The waterproof case also relieves the pain of having your speaker ruined by a sudden downpour during a picnic. However, the waterproof case relieves a pain which is far more real for consumers in Britain than for consumers in sunny California.

As you create your value map, make sure that you are clear about which pain relievers are essential for your international customers, and which ones are just nice to have. Essential pain relievers fix extreme challenges, often in a radical way and create a lot of value. Nice to have pain relievers fix less significant problems and tend to be features which the product could still operate well without.
international product-market fit value creators

Value Creators

A value map also includes value creators: ways in which your products and services create value for clients by helping them attain their desires. Value creators explicitly outline how you will produce the outcomes and benefits that your client expects, desires or would be surprised by.

As with pain relievers, value creators don’t need to meet all of your clients’ desires. Focus on those that are most relevant to your clients and on areas where your offer can really make a difference.

Pain relievers and value creators both create value for the client in different ways. The difference is that pain relievers specifically address challenges in the client profile, while value creators specifically address clients’ goals (things that they are trying to get done by using your product).

It’s fine if aspects of your product address goals and challenges at the same time. The real objective is to make it very clear that your products and services create value for your customers, in ways that they care about.

Finding international product-market ‘fit’

You achieve ‘fit’ when clients get excited about your value proposition, which happens when you address important goals, overcome challenges and fulfil desires that clients care about. When you’re operating abroad, international product-market fit happens in three stages:

  1. You identify the goals, challenges and desires of potential clients overseas, that you believe you can address with your value proposition. 
  2. Clients react positively to your value proposition and it starts to get traction in the new market. 
  3. You find a business model and delivery channels in the new country that are scalable and profitable.

To find out whether your product fits with what your Ideal International Client is looking for:

Clients expect and desire a lot from products and services, but they also know they can’t have it all. The key is to focus on the things that matter most to clients and how you can address them. 

Once you understand your client and his/her preferences, you’ll be able to work out whether your product as it stands will do the trick, or whether you’ll need to modify it in some way. It will also help you to understand whether you can sell your product or service at a price that makes sense. 

Will they pay?

One of the mistakes that I see people making when it comes to international product-market fit is that they don’t know before they start selling in a new market whether clients in that market are willing to pay what they are asking.

The customer’s willingness to pay should be at the core of your international strategy, because if something costs a lot to make and distribute but no-one wants to buy it, you can end up losing a lot of time and money. Ironically, most companies postpone marketing and pricing decisions to the very end, when they’ve already developed their products. They begin the long and costly journey of product development hoping  they’ll make money on their innovations, but not knowing if they will. The same goes for companies taking existing products to new countries – knowing whether your international customers will pay is often left until the last moment, or overlooked altogether – sometimes with disastrous results.

international product market fit... will they pay?
Some years ago, a colleague of mine, Peter, owned a company that sold dried Australian fruit and nuts. It expanded around the world, including to China and the United States, where it had customers including giants like Walmart. Peter’s dream was to see his products on the shelves of UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s and he made plans to launch his product there. He says:

‘Selling in the UK was something I’d always wanted to do, but I didn’t look at pricing at the very start of the process. Luckily before we got as far as beginning to sell, I made a visit to the UK, and as I stood in Sainsbury’s looking at similar products, I realised that my plan wasn’t going to work. The prices of competitor products were much lower than our proposed process and there was just no way we could compete. It was a bit disappointing, but I’m glad I found out the truth about what UK consumers would pay before I’d made a big investment of time and money, pursuing the wrong strategy’.

Most companies develop an offer for an international market like this: they design, then build, then market, then price. I suggest you do the opposite. I believe you should market and price, then design, then build. In other words, design your offering around what people are willing to pay. This is especially relevant if you are going into a country where you are competing with a range of other companies, selling products that solve the same or similar problems.

How do you do that?

The “Will they pay?” conversation…

Whether you’re launching an existing product into an overseas market or designing something new for one, one key step you can take is to have the “willingness to pay” conversation early.

Essentially, this means talking to potential customers about your product or service, finding out which parts of the offering are most valuable for them and getting their feedback on the pricing you have in mind. If you don’t do this exercise early on, you lose the opportunity to prioritize the products that you choose to sell to the new market or the product features that you develop especially for that market. Most importantly, you won’t know whether your potential clients will pay before you make a big investment in a certain strategy.

International product-market fit case study:

Gilette's success in India

Gilette case study in India

I’ll close this blog with a story about Gillette, a company that does international product-market fit and pricing better than most.

In 2009, Gillette razor brands accounted for more than 60% of razor and blade sales in the US and about 70% of the world’s total razor and blade sales. But in India, a market with the potential to be four times bigger than America’s for shaving products, the company had just a 22% market share, because its products were expensive for the Indian market.

To increase market share in India, the company realised that it had to target the lower-to-middle income segment of the population. To do this, Gillette decided to create a new product for Indian men, but before they did so, they spent a lot of time interviewing people in India and other emerging markets. Gillette observed potential clients at home and on shopping trips to understand what features razors had to have, and which features were nice to have.

Gillette designed and priced a new razor, the Guard on the basis of its research, creating a razor with a single blade and a hollow handle, which cost just 34 cents, cost a fraction of the cost of a premium product. The results were swift and stunning. By 2012, the Guard had captured 60% of the razor category in India, tripling Gillette market share there.

As the Gillette story shows, taking the time to make sure that there is international product-market fit between your ideal international client and your product has the potential to dramatically improve your results in international markets.

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