U.S. Companies Need Connections, Clear-Eyed Vision in Global Market

Managing Editor


U.S.-based producers of academic content who are trying to sell in international markets need a lot of preparation and research before they make their move.

But they also need to be smart enough to recognize intractable roadblocks and red flags—and to know when the conditions in a foreign country just aren’t right for their product.

Those were some of the takeaways put forward by a panel of company officials and business representatives at the Association of American Publishers PreK-12 Learning Group’s Content in Context conference, being held here this week.

The speakers on the panel had experience trying to sell content and curriculum across a diverse set of countries, including China, India, and Australia, and across the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

One of the messages from the panelists was the importance, at least in many countries, particularly Middle Eastern ones, of finding local officials who can open doors for U.S.-based vendors and help make sense of the landscape.

In some of those countries, there are restrictions on the government doing business with a foreign company. That can mean that providers from the United States and other nations have to do business through holding companies, said Peter Schneider, the CEO of the ict Maven Group, which consults U.S.-based vendors on working internationally.

In those circumstances, you simply “cannot win a contract without a local partner,” Schneider said.

Just as important, local connections can help your company establish trust with government officials, particularly in countries like China, where so many decisions affecting commercial publishers are channeled through government entities, said José Borghino, of the International Publishers Association.

Local connections also help when it comes to translating materials from English into a country’s native language, the speakers said.

FasTracKids International, based in Colorado and founded in 1998, does business in 50 countries, with 22 different languages. Nancy Faunce, its president, said her company seeks to have native speakers of those countries do its translations of its early childhood curriculum materials.

“We’ve tried machine-translation to no success whatsoever,” said Faunce. She said arranging translation of curriculum can represent “the last big obstacle” for an education company working abroad.

Microsoft, which has a huge global presence, puts an emphasis on having native speakers of languages help develop their products, said David Langridge, a senior partner development director for the company. That strategy applies not just to languages found across many nations, but also to distinctly regional ones—such as Welsh, he noted.

But companies should also enter into foreign markets knowing the risks. Many foreign countries don’t offer the same legal protections against a competitor using a product without permission. A company that takes an unscrupulous rival to court in those countries is at the mercy of legal system with rules that may seem capricious, Faunce said.

For a long time, “everything is going great,” she said, “but if something goes wrong….” the court system may be of no help.

Companies also need to know that even if they’ve done their homework on a foreign country’s education system, and they’re convinced their product and price is a good fit, “the market won’t always accept what you have,” Schneider said. A company has to be willing to “fail forward, fast,” he said, citing the business motto, and look to nations that are a better fit.

Nor should U.S.-based businesses approach foreign markets with an overly rigid set of goals, Schneider said.

Taking the approach that “we’re only going to do business in India, or we’re only going to do business in the U.K.,” is a mistake, he said. “because that probably won’t happen.”

Microsoft’s Langridge agreed, giving the example of the company that sells learning management systems, and is determined to find a lot of buyers in the United Kingdom, where he is from.

“It’s a heavily saturated market,” he said. “I would say, why even try?”

In those circumstances, “your local guy is always going to have an advantage, because he’s local,” he said.

Companies can help themselves pick the right foreign market by following simple clues, Schneider observed. Education providers that are working online, for instance, have the opportunity to gather valuable information on prime foreign markets, just by gauging which countries are the biggest users of their products, he said.

“Go where the wind blows you,” he said.

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