There is a rare breed of individual who is as comfortable sharing tea with a CEO in Kuwait as he is drinking soju and singing karaoke with a group of Korean executives. This person has achieved the secret highest status at five airlines, speaks ten languages and can travel for weeks at a time without complaint. He has a network of thousands of personal contacts on six continents and can negotiate and sign distributor and reseller agreements around the world in only a few months.
You will be tempted to try to find someone like this. You will find many people who claim to be this. More likely, you will find someone who is strong in one or two regions, for example, someone who knows Europe and Latin America very well but has little experience in Asia and Africa. But be prepared, if you do hire him, he will likely be the highest paid person in your organization. And there’s no guarantee that he will deliver revenue.
This approach is the most common approach taken by startups, yet ironically it is the riskiest. There is the obvious economic risk of the high salary and enormous travel expenses, which can easily exceed $500K in a single year. Then there is the opportunity cost. If you hire someone and after a year or two they haven’t performed as expected, you’ve lost critical time in a fast-moving market. In many international markets, the first company to enter can quickly gain all the market share, creating an enormous barrier to entry. Do you want to risk all of this on one person?
There are hundreds of companies out there that will gladly take your money and then give their best shot at developing international markets for you. These companies are staffed by experienced sales, marketing and business development professionals with expertise in a wide variety of international markets. These companies often are able to deliver on their promises and bring you international revenues quickly and with little hassle on your end.
However, as with the first method, there is the risk of choosing the wrong company. Even if you’ve done your due diligence, checked references and ensured that the company has a proven track record, there’s no guarantee that they will be successful with your particular product.
Also, these companies often represent ten, twenty or even fifty different products in a wide range of product spaces. How can you be sure that they are focusing enough attention and effort into selling your products? You could pay them only on success (i.e. a percentage of actual revenues generated by them). While this limits your financial exposure it does little to motivate them. Because they have no skin in the game, if they have other, more lucrative products to sell they may simply sign an agreement with you and then put only minimal effort into your product. On the other hand, you could pay them a monthly retainer in order to ensure that they focus on your product, but then they might just sit back and collect fees for as long as you’re willing to keep paying. It’s a catch-22.