Rhodri Thomas, vice president of business development for Swiftkey and Sarah Wood, co-founder and CEO of Unruly, know what it’s like being a fast-growing technology company and how much work goes into expanding internationally.

During a panel discussion at London’s City Hall at the launch of the Mayor’s international business programme, of which they will both act as mentors for UK tech companies looking to expand abroad, they shared some advice for startups on how to export a product, mistakes to avoid and why it is still the most satisfying part of their careers.

Boris Johnson at the launch of the Mayor's international business programme with Technology Will Save Us products
Boris Johnson at the launch of the Mayor's international business programme with Technology Will Save Us products

First steps

The promise of an entire new market to infiltrate was what drove Rhodri Thomas and his team to take the predictive keyboard product Swiftkey into international markets.

“We had to go and engage with the major smartphone players, most of which are located in Asia and the US. So we closed deals in South Korea, China and our biggest market in the states, San Francisco,” says Thomas.

The move paid off: “Our technology is now on over 300 million devices, so a few years ago we had to reassess what our ambitions were, because we had already achieved them [100m smartphone users].” Swiftkey announced that it had been acquired by Microsoft for $250 million (£174m) this week.

Sarah Wood set up the digital advertising platform Unruly in Shoreditch’s Old Truman Brewery ten years ago. She is still the co-CEO of the firm after News Corp acquired the firm for £58 million last year.

Wood spoke about her first foray into a foreign market, staying close to home by opening a Paris office: “We were a little bit slow opening internationally,” Wood said. “The received wisdom was to crack the domestic market and then expand internationally, and we hadn’t cracked the domestic market, but it was an emerging market so it didn’t really fit.

"I’m a big exponent of pushing open half open doors, and that door was half open. We were starting to run campaigns in the French market, we had French publishers, and we spoke some French, so all those factors made it look like the right market to push into.”

Would she do it again? “If we had planned it more carefully, maybe not. We could have definitely spent another three to six months coming up with a very well structured plan that measured our spend and had a strong rollout approach. As it was, we just wanted to take that first footstep. What we did later on was start planning more consistently. Once we had done Paris and had our first taste and learnt some of the issues, we realised that it is a lot of work, so we really need to think now about our future rollout.”

Breaking the US

Rhodri Thomas moved to San Francisco with a small team three years ago in order to strengthen Swiftkey’s relationship with key partners Apple and Google. He explained the decision, stating: “We believed that the cultural gap was small enough for us to still be effective and to lead the business in a way that we trusted there. In Asia it was more about hiring country managers and GMs to do that for us.”

Finding the right people to entrust your business to in new markets is absolutely key according to both Thomas and Wood. “How you find that local talent that you can trust is key,” said Thomas, "if the market is important enough for you to invest in then you have to do everything that you can to get the right people.”

As a mother of three, Wood didn’t want to move abroad, so she took a different approach, focusing on seeking funding to expand and hiring local talent in key markets. “We moved into the US without funding" she explained, "we moved into New York with a very small team and we could see that we would need to be able to scale faster if we were really going to take advantage of the opportunity.”

So Wood took a hefty $25m Series A funding round from backers and started entering key US markets like New York, San Francisco and Chicago. “One thing I did realise very quickly was that the US isn’t a single market,” says Wood, “Treating each city differently is really important. Thinking really carefully about who leads in each individual market there. What is their history and background. It’s a very relationships based economy. Also quite risk averse. So being able to evidence your previous success will go down really well.”

Advice on working across time zones

Thomas said that he learned to be an early riser when building an international footprint for Swiftkey. His advice? “Start work really early.”

Wood preached empathy when it comes to managing a worldwide team: “Always have empathy with people, members of your team that are in other offices in other time zones. If you think it’s hard to schedule your diary imagine how hard it is for them when they are far away from the mother ship.”

Final thoughts

Despite admitting that taking your company into international markets is a difficult task, both Thomas and Wood say that it is one of the best things they have achieved in their careers.

“The tools are out there to make it much easier than it was when Mad Men was based,” said Thomas, “growing your company internationally and winning business abroad is probably the best thing you can do in your career.”

Wood joined in: “It’s true, it’s amazing fun. It’s so exciting when you scale and when you scale as part of a team it’s the most incredible thing.”

Ending on a practical note, Wood set out her three factors for expanding Unruly: “When we think about scaling, we think about three different things: logistics, commercial and culture. Logistics is hiring, office space etcetera; commercial is asking if your product will work, what is the market like? and culture, and of the three, that is by far the most important.”

International business programme

The Mayor’s new international business programme will see London’s promotional body London and Partners running the scheme, which will bring an initial cohort of 50 high-growth companies together with mentors and the private sector to help them scale internationally and grow London’s export market.

Read next: London mayor gives £25 million to digital startups

The initial cohort includes 34 tech companies, such as taxi app Gett, innovative bicycle lights Blaze and educational tech startup Technology Will Save Us. The programme has the ambitious target of helping 800 companies expand internationally within three years. For a tech company to qualify they must show evidence of 20 percent year-on-year growth and have a minimum of ten employees.

The programme will allow the high-growth companies to take advantage of peer-to-peer mentoring, both in workshops and one-to-one, from the likes of entrepreneurs Sherry Coutu CBE, Sarah Wood (Unruly), Kathryn Parsons (Decoded) and Niles Gopali (cloudBuy). Selected companies will also get access to private sector backing and overseas account managers, who will help scope international opportunities in key markets such as Europe, North America, India and China.