Appeared in LinkedIn
In a recent piece I contributed to Billboard, I had the opportunity to talk about why we need to think differently about globalization. It’s a conversation we have been having at CD Baby and AVL for years, one that culminated this year in a rolling set of announcements about our expansion into new markets.
I feel like I covered the principles guiding this big global year pretty well in the Billboard piece, but I also think the nitty gritty of translating these principles into concrete business decisions is interesting. So in true DIY fashion, I’m going to share some lessons we learned here in more detail.
First and foremost, you have to share the mic with those different from you (speaking from the perspective of an American CEO). This can’t simply be a blunt export strategy, with policies or products dictated from afar, reskinned for what you think new customers might want or brought into basic compliance with local law.
We’ve learned that globalization is really localization, and that localization needs to get deep. At the most basic is the interpersonal level, you have to learn to listen and take people seriously who come from a background different from yours. This is a bit of a platitude nowadays, but to actually do it requires conscious, humble effort to look at the structure of conversations and actively encourage, include, and lift up people with strong local or community knowledge. Diverse voices don’t magically appear, if you just sit back. There needs to be an active process in place to turn them up in the mix (to take the mic metaphor a step further).
Part of this process means hiring. You should be hiring in new markets, even if it means hiring on contract at first. But you have to hire people who are there, not people who travel there but live outside the local culture and scene. No matter how awesome an entrepreneur or business person you are or how cosmopolitan your team, you simply can’t execute a impactful strategy in a dozen markets remotely.
Hiring is one of those things that’s easy in theory and challenging in practice. It’s challenging to identify and retain people who are the right fit for your business in a market where you’re just getting off the ground. Given some of the strictures around hiring in some countries, it can be really difficult to hire in general. But it’s essential. As as a business leader, doing as much of it as you can in person it critical, even if, like me, you don't like getting on a plane and being away from home.
It’s also great for business, we’ve discovered, boosting our sales by several times in countries where we have on-the-ground representatives. This makes it more than worth the effort of hiring, and shows what empowered local reps and employees can do, if you give them the right tools and listen to them.
About these tools. There are deep localization strategies to pursue on the product side, as well. Language localization is simply not enough. There’s a cultural component that only local knowhow and vision can shine a light on. In CD Baby’s case, we needed to figure out how artists create music in a specific place and how they experienced our service. An artist in Colombia may experience our platform differently than an artist in Mexico, though they both speak Spanish as a first language. The experience artists are having, and our local representatives are sharing with them, has to be relevant.
We’ve found the easiest way to find out how people are experiencing our service is to talk to them directly, by opening up regional contact centers for key markets. We opened our first non-US contact center in the UK this year, and were able to recruit representatives that speak multiple regional languages, such as French and Italian. In 2020, we’ll be opening our first South American contact center in Colombia, offering support in Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese.
There’s one other element we’ve found is important to localization. When you’re working in a market, you have to spend time there (again, speaking as an American CEO). Even with all the tech out there, you can’t build good working relationships remotely and you can’t learn all you need to know via video chat. Heli Del Moral, our incredible VP of International Development really proved this point at our recent summit for international reps in Mexico City. He and our colleagues in Mexico City put together an experience that could never have been conveyed via conference call.
We got to meet two very different artists in person and hear how their careers have gone. One was a pop band refugee who had launched a solo career and was working extremely hard to put the pieces together. For example, he struck a deal with a fashion house to sponsor a very professionally produced video, trading product placement within the video in exchange for the video's cost of production. The other artist was a transgender Folk performer who channels a specific subgenre of regional Mexican music. They told an incredible story about how their career in art evolved along with their understanding of self. To really get what made these artists and their situations unique, you had to be there, interacting with them and other professionals in person. It was great to have 25 members of the extended AVL and Downtown teams there in person to engage and understand.
So, in short, immerse yourself and encourage your core team or lead people on certain projects to do the same. They need to know first hand what their colleagues are talking about.
This sounds fun, but it can really suck in reality. It’s hard to leave home and family obligations for the time it takes to make this work. I myself clocked 200,000 or so air miles outside the US in the last two years and frankly, I’m not looking forward to getting on an airplane again as we start the new year. That said, I am eager to keep engaging with and listening to our representatives, artists, and partners around the world, and excited to watch our localization approach mature. The impacts to our business and personal growth continue to be outstanding.