Thinking about launching your online business abroad? Sounds like a great idea. Simple on the one hand but also be complicated on the other. It obviously goes way beyond simply translating your website content into different languages but is it easier than opening up brick and mortar offices in other geographies? Let’s take a dive into this in more detail.

Back in the day, your location meant a lot to you. It was strategic and a significant competitive edge because it meant being close to your consumers. Your business grew because your customers could be reached easily either by your salesforce or by visiting your showroom or shop. Expanding beyond your regional outreach usually implied that you had to open up another branch in another city, region or even country.

Difficult steps, because the h-word was unavoidable. Finding and retaining local human resources, employees who perfectly fit your company culture had to be your highest priority. You had to find the right staff, and reestablish the company culture so carefully built up over the years in a new geography with new people from a different culture. But the list goes on. It’s not only finding the ideal spot, it’s investing in maybe a warehouse, some advertising, other support staff…it’s doing all the things you need to do to get your business off the ground and spending enough time to get the lay of the land of this new market in terms of costs, investments, revenue and pricing.

In other words, it is a real endeavor. It is like starting from scratch and having to bring in the right expertise to do the job from beginning to end. That’s why a lot of companies, that in the past, intended to expand internationally decided to acquire an existing company instead of setting up their business abroad.

With the internet all over as we know it and the growth of online shopping, the above consideration becomes irrelevant. Companies now seize the digital phenomenon as an opportunity to take their business abroad leveraging digital platforms to tap into new markets. Rabobank for instance, one of the leading banks in the Netherlands with a strong international agricultural background, tapped into the Belgian market in the early 2000s by cloning the Dutch website bringing some minor adjustments to the website, primarily based on internet banking.

Another success story is that of a Belgian company called DM lights. Jef de Meutter, son of Paul de Meutter, an electrician running his own business, started out selling from his garage next to his father’s business. He decided to move his business online. Today, the company boasts an impressive growth curve with 70 per cent of the business conducted online. The light retailer has expanded its operations from Heist-op-den-Berg to 11 countries in Europe, and offers home-delivery on a global scale. They have basically centralized their operations and use smart logistics to deliver across the globe.

If properly conducted, moving your e-business across borders is a definite opportunity for growth. But what do we mean by “properly conducted?” Well to begin with, maybe doing a bit of research to figure out what are the digital characteristics that determine the market(s) that you want to enter, is a good start. Differences in digital culture can make or break your initiative. For instance:


In some countries many languages are spoken. What is the preferred language in what region? What are the specific social etiquette rules, how do you address your customers, what are the important keywords in your messaging?

Cultural Differences

The culture and values of the country of choice are important factors to take into account. You will not only apply cultural sensitivity in the use of language, but also in pictures, metaphors, target group definitions and processes. Also be aware of basics like public holidays and cultural celebrations.

Digital Landscape

What are the digital, social and ecommerce platforms of choice in the country you want to enter? What is the digital buying behavior of your target audience? How mature, fast and available is the internet infrastructure in the country of interest?


Analyze your legal position thoroughly. Look into the differences in consumer protection laws (if you are a B-to -C business), privacy laws, contractual laws, anti-trust laws, etc.

Market Structure

Take some time to get to know the country you want to do business in. Look into the history of the country. What are the purchasing habits when buying products or services? Are they the same behaviors as in your country? Are there go-betweens or do customers buy directly from the source provider? Does the market have common distribution points? What are the standard payment options used? Perhaps you want to study demographics on a regional basis, to build understanding of the regional disparities.

Competition and Market Potential

Market potential is good to know. You can quantify this by combining the total market volume numbers with the maturity and growth figures concerning digitization. The numbers, however, will only mean something if you contrast those numbers with the competition you are facing and their dominant position of this competition in the market. Not only quantitively but also from a qualitative perspective. Why are they dominating the market? Can you provide your future customers with a better solution, on better terms and conditions?

So, moving your ecommerce business abroad will certainly be an extensive operation that requires some preparation. If you do your homework and get all the information you need then you’ll be able to decide on the adjustments and approach of your online business. You’ll also be able to provide and continue to enhance a great Customer Journey inspired by local preferences be it purchasing behaviors and payment options and so on. Nevertheless, you may realize as well that what makes your business successful at home could also be what makes your success abroad. Your product, distribution, service or brand strategy and positioning can still make a difference with some tweaking here and there. Doing business digitally sure makes business expansion a lot easier, but it still requires old-fashioned clever thinking!

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