The Founder’s Guide to Entering a New Market

The Founder’s Guide to Entering a New Market

“How hard can it be?” – the four words that’ve sent many a startup into an early grave. The startup arena isn’t a kindergarten competition where everyone gets a ‘participation trophy’; it’s a gladiator’s coliseum, and not everyone gets a thumbs up.

Entering a new market might seem as straightforward as jumping into a pool. But here’s the thing: sometimes that pool’s depth is deceptive, and sometimes it’s teeming with sharks.

In short: Don’t do a belly flop. Do a well-practiced dive. Because, well… hubris isn’t a strategy—it’s a trap.

Now, I’m not here to scare you off, but a healthy dose of realism? That’s on the menu.

So, let’s dig deep and understand why thinking “how hard can it be?” can be a pitfall, and how to sidestep it.

1. You Can’t Educate the Market

When you march into a market, assuming you’re the professor and the market’s the student, you’re signing up for a lesson in humility.

A market isn’t a blank slate.

No matter how innovative, how game-changing your product is, remember: the market has its own dynamics. It’s got its years of evolution, its deep-rooted behaviors, and a pulse you might not instantly catch. 

Trying to “educate” it is a bit like trying to teach a cat to fetch. Sure, it might humor you once or twice (mine doesn’t), but it’s always gonna be a cat.

Instead of marching in with solutions, walk in with questions. Use tools like netnography – it’s like ethnography, but for the digital age. Search through local forums, social media, and even TikTok challenges.

Sure, the data is good, but the local intuition is something you don’t want to ignore. Sometimes, the loudest insights come from silent nods, the unsaid words, and the pauses in a conversation.

Your market isn’t a student. It’s a wise old sage, with stories, quirks, and a wealth of knowledge. Instead of breaking out the lecture slides, sit down, grab a notepad, and become the student. 

Because, you know, “He who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk.” 

Well, don’t just take a walk.

2. Selling snow to Eskimos

If you think your killer product will sell just as well in Delhi as it does in, say, Tbilisi, you’re in for a treat… or maybe a shock.

Here’s the thing – the most successful brands are essentially anthropologists in disguise. WIthout understanding the cultural terrain, you might as well be selling snow to Eskimos.

For example.

In many Western countries, the price on the tag is the final word. No debates, no drama. Now, off to…India.

Here, haggling isn’t just an act; it’s a national pastime. A dance of sorts. It’s not about penny-pinching, but a test of rapport-building and negotiation skills. If you waltz in with a fixed-price model, brace yourself for a cultural shockwave.

Or another example – the pure SaaS model does not work in India.

In most places, “software as a service” translates to “buy, click, done” but in India it’s “software and service”.

It’s weird. The country has almost a billion smartphone users, but they still prioritize personal touch over digital-only solutions.

A mere click-to-buy could be seen as impersonal. Indians cherish the human touch: personal sales pitches, in-depth demos, hands-on onboarding. Trust here is not built by algorithms but by human interactions.

Every culture is quirky for the outsider but you’ve got to get over cringing about it. You’re not just entering a new market; you’re entering the living rooms (in India that’s literally a thing).

So, enter with respect, not just a business plan. You don’t want to look like a colonizing businessman.

3. Competitive Analysis is Just Glorified Stalking

Standard advice is about checking out their social media, Crunchbase, LinkedIn and maybe even looking at their traffic on Similarweb and Semrush.

Sure, that’s good and I love doing it as a growth person, I’ll even recommend some tools in the next section but that’s not even nearly enough.

You gotta get your hands dirty though.

Sure, you could register on your competitor’s website, but why stop there? Request a demo. Talk with their sales. Engage with the customer support.

Each interaction, every overlooked detail, holds potential insights. How are they addressing pain points? Where are they dropping the ball?

And if their customer support is a beacon of patience and knowledge or a comedic disaster, you’ll know where you stand.

Another thing you could do is – talk with their employees.

It sounds sneaky, and, well, it is but this is war!

Get in touch with their employees with a job offer in your hand. People from sales and customer support are ideal because they know all the dirty stuff.

Interview them.

And maybe hire a few.

You’ll get more intel than you ever dreamed of.

And lastly – find and just TALK with your competitor’s clients. They have nothing to lose by talking to you. Your competitors are for sure not going to be like:

“Oh you talked with our competitors?! You’re a cheating piece of crap, we don’t want you as a client anymore.”

No, everyone wants to retain their customers. 

Just make sure it’s worth their time to talk to you. Maybe a gift, a bribe, or a 99% discount. Whatever it takes.

And if you can’t do that then just visit software review websites or anywhere else where customers can write reviews and stalk your competitors there.

Digital Espionage is Still Good

Okay, I’m just going to list things here (most are paid, some are free(ish)):

Also, check customer reviews on Play Store, software review sites, forums, etc.

4. Insightful Experimentation

Market nuances are plenty, and one size fits none.

In early stages of a startup experimentation and growth should be founder-led but if you already have a dedicated growth team, then get their motor running. They’re your special forces.

Growth isn’t about who shouts the loudest, it’s about who resonates the deepest. Let’s take India, where multi-generation homes are common.

How about a B2C SaaS product offering family packages instead of individual plans?

Or in places like Indonesia, where mobile data is gold, why not run an experiment offering data-saving features or incentives?

Thinking culturally can open doors you didn’t know existed.

Instead of going on and on about experiments here, I’ll just point you towards another article I recently wrote about this specific topic – Why and How Startups Should Run Growth Experiments

Just remember, an experiment without insight is just playing darts in the dark. Switch on the light, take aim, and then shoot.

Some “Hacks” I Learned

While entering the Indian market we made a lot of costly mistakes BUT we learned quite a bit of “hacks” too. Here are the 3 most important ones:

Conduct job interviews yourself

Every conversation, every side comment about previous employers or market standards, and every seemingly irrelevant cultural tidbit is a piece of the puzzle. 

It’s a win-win, you either hire an awesome person or you gain the market intel that gives you the edge.

I personally interviewed over 80 candidates (PMs, marketers, sales, CBOs, etc) when we were entering the Indian market and we actually ended up hiring a lot of people.

Don’t neglect your LinkedIn

LInkedIn is so underappreciated. Really, it’s a goldmine for market entry. Think about it: this isn’t just a platform for job seekers. It’s a vast network of industry leaders, market experts, and potential advisors, all available at your fingertips. 

Want insights on a market segment? Find and connect with experts. 

Need guidance on strategy? Engage with seasoned professionals. 

Looking for potential collaborators? Begin a conversation. 

The key is to be proactive. Instead of passively scrolling through updates, actively seek out connections and engage in meaningful discussions. 

Remember, LinkedIn is more than just a digital CV—it’s a massive network.

And finally..

Get on the ground ASAP

You’ve got to get on the ground at some point (the sooner the better). 

There’s no replacement for the hands-on experience of being present in the new market. 

As much as digital tools and remote communication have bridged gaps, nothing can replicate the insights gathered from firsthand experience. 

You’ll witness the daily routines, consumer behaviors, and challenges that aren’t visible from a distance. 

Even if it’s just a brief visit.

Questions to Explore

Just as a quick summary. 

Here are some of the questions I think are crucial to answer:

  • Is There Even a Market Out There?

Let’s get real. If there are competitors out and about, it might just mean you’re onto something. But, remember, competitors aren’t always enemies. Sometimes, they’re just trailblazers showing you where the gold’s hidden.

  • Late to the Party or Fashionably Late?

If the market’s full of players throwing elbows, you might wanna reconsider. Or not! Maybe they’re all at the boring end of the party, and you’re about to shake things up. Or maybe your market is India and it’s huge enough to house all of your.

  • What’s the Governmental Weather Like? Any Big Shifts?

Regulatory changes, political moods, trade relationships – they’re the waves that can make or break your voyage. If last week’s headline screams “New Digital Tax Announced” or there’s chatter about changing foreign investment norms, it’s not just news; it’s your compass. Keep an ear to the ground.

  • What Experiments Can I Conduct to Check the Demand?

Before going full-on, try some guerilla testing. Throw out a limited-time offer or a pop-up stand (virtual or real) in a local hotspot. Host webinars or engage local influencers for soft introductions. Observe their reactions. Do they ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ or just give it a polite nod? Collect feedback, iterate, and go at it again.

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