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Going Global: To China

Going Global: To China

Going Global • June 2, 2017

In this blog, I want to focus on Mainland China and talk about the nuances of managing this particular country, as well as listing some of our successes and challenges. Our offices in both Taiwan and China are managed by Meilin, our local director, and these two regions were established in 2011 and 2013 respectively. Let’s first focus on China. Challenges Management of these regions of course is challenged by the huge time differences and the peculiarities of the business practices within these areas. For example, the phone is heavily used as a sales tool in both Taiwan and China. In the western world of North America and Europe utilizing the phone as the primarily sales tool is highly discouraged as people prefer email or other online methods. Another challenge within China is purely cultural. First, our Chinese customers mostly don’t practice the idea of permission-based email marketing, this concept is a bit foreign here. They simply want to get a bulk list for as little money as possible and blast. Quick results from their marketing efforts are a must. Our local specialists have their hands full convincing them of the benefits of permission based marketing and ongoing customer engagement, some do understand this concept for sure, but it\'s not widely practiced. An additional big challenge is turnover. The typical employee has low loyalty when compared to other countries. They are constantly searching for better salaries and less work hours, some will jump from one job to the next for as little as $50 per month increase. Obviously, with China’s growth, employees are constantly looking for the latest and greatest thing. We do provide flexibility and a great working environment with competitive salary packages, but many times that is not enough. Actually, providing our email tools within China itself has not been easy. Even though we utilize a content and application delivery network company that provides us with good SSL speed, within China itself we are still affected by the Internet Censorship and speed reductions that the government imposes. In addition, even though we have local native language support it’s difficult at times delivering email into these domains (QQ.com or 163.com and sohu.com, these companies don’t actively publish guidelines on best practices for email delivery) which are very large within China. This has forced us to focus on local companies that want to market outside of China to the rest of the world. With regard to competition, local competitors are now starting to heat up. However, their feature mix typically does not stack up to ours, though they are improving. Lastly, as we grow and have success it’s difficult to transfer money outside of China (we take local currency payments and pay our employees from a local bank account to offset this issue), and we incur taxes of 16% or more. That is not based on profit, but simply based on transferring money outside of China. Success The benefits of being in China early are that the economic globalization and world multi-polarization is being accelerated. Mainland China is willing to absorb Western experience to enrich its own. With our local sales and support teams playing an important consultative role, Benchmark Email\'s solutions are actually the right tool for them. We are not only selling the tool, but teaching clients how to implement strategies with their marketing process. The power of A/B Testing, Automation Pro, Signup Forms and other key Benchmark tools are strengthening their understanding and usage of permission-based email marketing tools, while enhancing their overall marketing strategy. I hope this gives some insights into our process within China, I will expand upon other regions in my next blog.


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Going Global: Language Barriers

Going Global: Language Barriers

Going Global • May 5, 2017

This week has been a week of India travels for me. I am visiting our offices in Delhi, and then our programmers in Mumbai and finally onto our new CRM development team in Kerala. I am actually on that flight as I write this. I like the Indian culture and country. I always find them to be quite friendly and talkative when I do get a chance to chat. So, back to our Going Global series. What are the challenges that we are facing being a smaller, but global company? In one word, resources. Since we are a small company, we don’t have a lot of them for each region. Each country must wear many hats: business development, sales, content management, translations, accounting, administration and other chores that might be required. In this blog, I will focus on some of the large concepts and challenges that are created by being global. As an example, we recently just launched a new homepage, brand and logo. So, of course, the design must support all the languages we are in (English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese - simple and traditional - as well as Japanese). So, designing for nine languages is not easy and can really slow down the process. Does it translate well? Do we keep some of the English words? Is the spacing correct? We often have to get the translations from everyone to move forward, and if they are busy with other activities, it can take a few days which slows the whole process. In addition, almost every region has an opinion of what the page should look like or what is important for their region. This is understandable but again takes up time. We have a homegrown language Content Management System, which does give flexibility and an order of control, but the process still seems a bit lethargic. The top 5 issues with managing multiple languages for a small company, and maybe a large company as well, are: Getting the desired results from your web pages based on the nuances and meaning you are trying to communicate to a particular country. The management of getting translations completed for nine different languages in a timely manner. Business development. In China, the phone is used heavily. There\'s a lot of making cold calls and talking with customers to take orders and getting six-month or annual written contracts. Compared to the U.S. and Europe, where business is mostly driven by online credit card transactions. This makes the business development process hard to standardize, and requires a lot of customization, making it more difficult to scale. Taking local payments. In some of our regions, mostly in China, India and Latin America, we have allowed local payments to happen. We did this for a couple of reasons. One to get the business in the first place. Second, because in those regions companies can’t deduct the payments as an expense unless they get a service tax credit. That usually requires a local payment. Just plain old communication. Time differences are real and challenging. Even though we use as many tools as we can (Skype, Slack, SMS, phone, Whatsapp ... you name it),  people just can’t work at the same productive creative level all day long. It takes its toll. For most people, their thought process at 10-12PM is not as good as it was between 8-11AM. When you multiple that week after week, sometimes day after day, it gets tiring. Marketing is customized for each region, which again takes more time and doesn\'t allow for standardization. India, Brazil and other regions allow us to get very low-cost freemium signups, which we then can sift through to find the gems who will purchase our product. However, in the U.S., Europe and Japan, PPC is expensive to get free users. To summarize, it’s fair to say that managing a small, global company with many local offices poses it’s challenges in scaling the operation. However, one benefit of going global early on is that we understand the difficulties and start to iterate our processes. So, every quarter that goes by we get better and better. Kind of like an AI machine (if only we could iterate as quickly). Also, in some markets, we are the early offering with such a rich feature set that gives us some advantages.


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Sales & Support: We Found Our Guy

Sales & Support: We Found Our Guy

Going Global • October 26, 2016

In the early days, questions of sales and support and who would handle them needed to be answered. I knew it would not be easy. Thankfully, I was able to find the person for the job. Our support consisted of email and chat support in the first year. Virender was our lone support agent. We found him through chance after testing with some miserable results a few other choices. He possessed the qualities we were looking for, honesty and integrity, with a super strong work ethic and of course the communication skills that were required. He has proved to be one of the smartest things we ever did at Benchmark. He worked tirelessly for 12 hours per day, six days a week, responding to chats and emails. Any phone calls we handled locally, but eventually, he handled those as well. In 2006-2007, we saw more of the same. Eventually, we opened an office in Gurgaon. Again, I wanted to keep it inexpensive. Our early office did not even have A/C. If you have ever been to the Delhi/Gurgaon area, you know all about the relentless heat and dryness ... until the welcomed rains come, which kept coming later and later in the year and lasting shorter and shorter. We added the A/C in relatively short order to keep the sanity and peace. However, now we had to deal with power outages that would last many hours at a time (sometimes more than 8 hours). Next, we got a battery backup system, but then our batteries were getting drained. So eventually we moved to a location that allowed us to use a diesel generator, but then we were running out of fuel. Our office boys would run down and get fuel to fill up our generators, all while managing daily chores with all the other requirements of trying to grow and manage an office in India. Eventually, of course, we moved to a more modern and expensive facility where all these basic utility necessities were taken care of. One question you might ask is how did India Sales develop? I think in the first 3-5 years, we did not even attempt to sell our services in India as we were so focused on support for the US. In addition, following email marketing best practices was not widely practiced in India. Truth is, it was not practiced that well in US much either. However, India was a bit more wild in terms of harvesting or purchasing lists and we had to be careful. Since then it\'s gotten much better, but we still have to be on alert. [caption id=\"attachment_3055\" align=\"aligncenter\" width=\"1024\"] Our sales & support team in India would soon grow to what you see here, but Virender is there front and center (in the white shirt).[/caption] The fact that Virender was our only support person for a while is a testament to his hard work and trustworthiness. The time difference between Delhi and California varies from 12 to 13 ½ hours depending on Daylight Savings Time. This put a lot of stress on Virender, as he was basically working from 6:00PM to 6:00 AM, six days a week. Not an easy chore. Eventually, we added more people to help Virender. As mentioned earlier, one of the reasons we decided to support and develop from India was due to cost. Back in 2005-2009, we were able to hire college graduates who spoke and wrote pretty good English for $200-$400 per month (wow!). These savings allowed us to be profitable from the very beginning. Some early technology support questions we needed to sort out include how and if we were going to provide phone support from India. Two issues we faced here were the heavy accent and doing voice over IP, which was not as refined back then. We did get some complaints, but I think that was balanced by the professionalism and extreme courtesy our representatives gave our customers. One thing about the Hindu culture is they take pleasure in doing a good job serving their customers, especially when they are western. In my next blog, I will identify more challenges and talk about the move to a more global company.


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India: The Early Years

India: The Early Years

Going Global • August 30, 2016

In January of 2005, I was creating pencil sketches of what benchmarkemail.com should look like. I must admit it was not pretty. I can remember taking some inspiration from our competitors at that time for sure. Basically, looking at their process and figuring out how to improve it. The process consisted of me drawing out on graph paper, scanning that and sending it as an email attachment. Initially, I took pride in being neat and trying to explain everything, eventually as we became more comfortable with each other, it started to look like chicken scratch. Our developers would in relatively short order create an asp web forms page for me to review. I would give my notes via a skype call (Skype was founded in 2003, so we were early adopters of their technology). We would continue to iterate that process in the ensuing weeks until I felt comfortable with our results. We did not have a testing server, only our production server, the changes we were making went live quickly. It was a very fast process to develop, but I must admit our creativity in terms of doing things differently was lacking a bit. Our technology stack back then was basic HTML and SQL and web forms all running on one server. We expanded and grew our technology out of that. I don’t want to chronicle our technology changes as that is not the purpose of this post. I simply want to show how we were doing things. The early conversations with our developers went quite well. Sometimes people ask me how I found this team and if it just by chance. I can honestly say that I went through at least two other teams trying to get them to execute my ideas. However, things were difficult with my initial developers, communication was difficult, fixes were tiring, Skype had more issues, etc. You get the point. It just did not feel right. Kind of like dating the wrong person, but you are trying to make it work. Eventually, you just give up and move on. Once I did find the right group things became much easier. They communicated well and spoke English fluently. Our early developers were quite personal as well. Ash, Kishore and Mark (two Hindus and a catholic) were willing to engage in just about any conversation and have a good laugh. This willingness and ease of communication were not easy to come by, as the cultural differences can be quite strong and an understanding of nuances and laughter are sometimes difficult to come by. My guys were from the southern parts of India (Mumbai and Kerala) where English is more prevalent. In fact, I have been told that the South (especially programmers)  prefer English even over Hindi (actually the four major languages of the south are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam) and this obviously worked to my benefit. So the development was proceeding smoothly and we were making excellent progress. Once we started seriously selling the product in 2005, I became convinced that Benchmark had legs and would become successful. We were having brisk growth and clients were flocking to us. Quick digression (my internet slang in the early days became QD, Quick Digression,  as that would allow me to digress onto many different  points I needed the developers to consider, they liked it as well, so long as we did not digress too much, like what I might be doing here :)),  I must talk about my first trip to Delhi. I was flying to meet Virender, our only support person at that time, in Gurgaon, which is a suburb of Delhi. The flight was a direct one from Chicago to Delhi. If my memory serves me correctly, it was at least a 17-hour direct flight (UGHH!). I flew coach in an older, uncomfortable 747. I did not sleep a wink. As I was walking through the airport, I saw many automatic weapons and armed guards which were a new experience for me. Handguns holstered and machine guns in their arms. It was a bit shocking to an average American who had not traveled to that part of the world. [caption id=\"attachment_2452\" align=\"aligncenter\" width=\"768\"] While this photo was taken on a later trip, it\'s amazing to look back to even this long ago and realize how far we\'ve come ... and how much younger our kids (and us) looked.[/caption] The language and fragrances (I do love curry) were foreign. The people dressed differently and I remember walking out to this big area and seeing a sea of faces and honking of horns, all waiting for others, with signs in Hindi and English. Virender finding me and welcoming me to India could not have come quicker. I felt relieved when we finally met and immediately felt at ease with this new land and my new friend and colleague. In my next blog, I will talk about how my early team and I overcame our challenges and kept moving forward.


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An Introduction to Going Global with Benchmark

An Introduction to Going Global with Benchmark

Going Global • July 14, 2016

I have decided to write a monthly blog about our company history and the benefits and challenges of having international offices. This came as an outgrowth of our leadership meetings. Other team members of the group were sharing how they have learned things which have helped them do their job better by reading blogs of other companies and how they had overcome their challenges. We can improve by understanding new concepts and utilizing tools that we might never have heard of except by reading those blogs. I hope that the reader of my posts can glean some insights that can help them in their business success, especially as they think about growing internationally. How did Benchmark start? In 2003-2004 I had just come out of the financial services industry and was looking for a new challenge. In the previous 10 years leading up to Benchmark, I had started a couple different companies mostly focused on desktop publishing and printing. I was moderately successful in those industries, but I was quickly losing interest and wanted to embrace the new online opportunities and technologies that were developing at that time. After a few months of reviewing, dreaming and tinkering I decided upon the email marketing space and registered the name benchmarkemail.com. I liked the name Benchmark for obvious reasons. I dreamed of the product being the standard in the industry. The rock, or benchmark, by which our clients would evaluate email marketing. Plus, I am very competitive so the name was a good fit for my psyche … and hence decided upon benchmarkemail.com. Now came the challenge of building this service (back then I did not even call it a service ... we looked at it more as a website that had cool features and tools) of email marketing. Where would I hire the designers and programmers? Where would the money come from? Should I get my family and friends involved or an angel investor maybe? I decided to bootstrap the entire operation. I opted out of an angel investor as I wanted to grow at my own pace and not be pressured. Both my wife, Denise, and I did not want to ever have to explain to our family and friends why things did not go well. Failure meant a loss of our time and money only! First order of business was to look overseas for my team, as I knew the cost would be high in the US. I decided upon India as the location to look for talent. There were a couple of reasons for this. One was the high tech level that developers had achieved in that country the other had more to do with the integrity and trust factor of the Hindu culture. I think somehow subconsciously, in my younger days, I was influenced by the movie Gandhi, starring the incredible actor Ben Kingsley. India just felt right. [caption id=\"attachment_1820\" align=\"aligncenter\" width=\"1024\"] The original sign that hung outside our office in Gurgaon, India.[/caption] [caption id=\"attachment_1822\" align=\"aligncenter\" width=\"1024\"] On our first trip as a family to India. What better way to see how far we\'ve come as a company than to see how young my son looks in this photo?![/caption] I was helping my wife at that time with a small printing business and we had some desktop publishing products that we were selling online. This allowed us to have some income while we gave Benchmark a chance to grow. We were located in a small medical building (our first office was a room within an office, maybe 400 sq. ft.) next to dentists, optometrists and podiatrists, but the rent was cheap and it allowed us to spend money on the product. In the first year of operation, we had one support person out of India (Delhi), four developers (Mumbai) and myself. I would sketch out a design and list some logic on graph paper, scan it and send to our team in Mumbai. That’s it! Very barbaric by today\'s standards, but very effective back then. My working hours were quite long. Full day at the office ,then usually at least 3-5 nights of 2-3 hours on India daytime hours. Back then I was a bit younger :) and loved the challenge of this new idea. As you can see Benchmark was born as an international company. In my next post, I will talk more about these early five years and the specific challenges and triumphs we encountered.


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