Erika walks us through how the On Deck team approached scaling their community internationally. Hear how they prioritized regions, learned to accept that they needed to do things that wouldn't scale, and came to understand the importance of leaving space to incorporate local influence on each sub-community.
Hello, and thank you for joining this session, and thank you for the invitation to the Orbit team. I'm really excited to be here. I'm going to just quickly share my screen so you can see my slides up. I'm Erika, first of all, and today I'm going to be sharing some lessons learned from growing On Deck internationally. And I will explain what On Deck is and who I am in the next few slides. First of all, I'm Erika Batista. I'm VP of Expansion at On Deck. I've been here for about a year and a half at this company and cannot believe what a ride it has been. I was born, raised in Dominican Republic, which is where I'm currently dialing from. Been living in France for the past nine years. I was actually a fellow on the community before joining the team, so I got to live firsthand the experience of what our product is like, what our community is like, and was blown away by it. That's actually what convinced me to join.
In true startup style, from the time I accepted the job offer to join On Deck and the time I joined, the company has changed completely. When I accepted the offer, I think we were about five people in the team, and then by the time I joined, we were already 15. Nothing compared to that kind of growth we saw in the year after that. But also, we had gone from just having one founder program to having three different programs. Now we have over 20 of them.
Before joining On Deck, I was a founding team member and director at The Family, which is one of the first startup accelerators in Europe and had some great success, some challenges as well, but it was a crazy journey building or helping build the European tech ecosystem and specifically in France where we had the most impact. Before all this, I was actually a lawyer. Believe it or not. Couple of other fun facts, I have been active on Clubhouse as one of the early members and even the app icon for a brief period of time. I love tarot card reading. I actually see tarot cards as a way of in introspection. So each card tells of a universal human experience, and it's a really great tool for introspection. And I speak a lot of languages just from my living in many countries and living abroad for a long time.
All right, so let's get to it. Today, we're going to be talking about a case study of growing On Deck in Europe and beyond. And then a few more lessons learned along the way towards the end of the presentation. First up, for those who don't know On Deck, we are a community business. On Deck helps people, as I said. This is a screenshot from our website. We help people start companies, find their next role, and invest in their careers, and do so by really doing it through community. On Deck started, actually, a long time ago. Probably five or six years ago. Originally it was a series of dinners where our founder, Eric Thomburg, who was at the time early employee at Product Hunt, he was looking for his next thing. And so, when doing so, he realized that he wanted to be surrounded by other people who were also thinking about what's next. And turns out that great people are always thinking about what's next, so he was quickly able to set up a community of people who were like-minded and were doing similar things.
That quickly just ramped up into a fellowship a few years later where they built a program specifically for people who wanted to meet a co-founder, find a startup idea. And then the next pivot of the company happened during the pandemic where this fellowship that I was mentioning was happening in-person in San Francisco, but they had to quickly pivot to online in order to continue with the program. But then what happened was and then the following cohort that was also online started getting applications from all over the world, and that's when I came in the picture. I joined the fourth cohort of that fellowship from Europe, where I was living at the time. I was blown away by the community and the people, and then they offered me the job to launch our first international market, which is Europe. And then from there I continued our international expansion around the world, which is really fun.
There's an example of what a typical On Deck community looks like. This is a On Deck No-Code community. This was the first cohort. As you can see, was really, really spread out all over the world. They had probably 40% of people that were outside of the US in that first cohort, and that number has only gone up over time.
One thing is this is very recent and something that we did internally, so you're getting it firsthand, but this is an attempt to articulate what On Deck does. First off, who we serve is talented, ambitious individuals, whether that is founders or people wanting to level up in their careers. What we help them do is build companies and careers. And then how we help them do it is by finding their people. So we're really leaning into the fact that we are a community business and that we help people achieve their goals through community. Yeah, the tagline would be then, we help talented, ambitious individuals build companies and careers by finding their people, which is I'm very proud of this articulation of the On Deck mission.
But back to our case study, which is the main topic for today, growing On Deck internationally. First of all, the first thing I had to do when trying to think about international expansion was think about framework for us on how to prioritize international markets. That was a very helpful exercise for me to... Sorry, oops... for me to work on. So first thing that we consider when growing a market internationally is obviously demand. How many applications are we receiving from the market organically already? The second thing we consider is ecosystem size. One of the things that we take into account for measuring ecosystem size is the venture capital industry. So how much venture dollars we're invested in a given year? Because we really focus on technology professionals, that is proxy for market size for us so far.
The third one is time zone. Because we're remote first and online, we do have in-person events and local hubs, but because majority of the experience is happening online, we do think about time zones because we want to have those synchronous moments. We want people to have a really good experience no matter where they are in the world. And so, time zone is a very important aspect of just ensuring that we have the delivery of our value proposition consistently across the world. And then our fourth one is, what is a path to profitability? What this means is, obviously, we have paid programs. And so, essentially different people around the world will have different purchasing powers and that just presents its own sets of challenges in terms of monetization. And so, it's not that we won't launch those markets, obviously, the idea is to have a path to profitability. In some places, it is more straightforward, and others...
For example, markets that are somewhat comparable to the US, in those cases, we would have same path to profitability as in US. In places where, for example in some Asian countries where there is lower purchasing power but there's still the ability to pay or afford these programs, then we would have other solutions like financing, payment plans, et cetera. So that's something we consider. And then in other places where the ability for people to afford this program is much lower, then we would have things like partnerships and scholarship programs in place so that we can actually serve those markets in a sustainable way.
Our first international market was Europe, and for that, we already had three programs, but we decided to focus only on marketing On Deck founders for the first three months and launching that, starting with our flagship product and making sure that we were not confusing the market on what we were. Obviously, those other programs that we had at the time were On Deck Angels and On Deck Riders. And those programs had been having a lot of momentum in the US, but we thought that it would be better to introduce our brand as a founder brand.
And it was very simple as well. In terms of growth is a simple call to action. Just refer a founder or a rider or an angel investor. So it was very easy for us to get that word of mouth going with a single product. And then that would allow us, of course, to use those learnings to grow other programs in other markets.
What I did for the first three months is very hands-on and very scrappy. We went from 30 to 250 European fellows in roughly 90 days in a quarter. I mean, I sourced a lot of people manually from my own network, and then it caught on, and that's how you realize that you actually have brand and market fit when it goes beyond your first efforts, and they start paying off. I also moderated weekly socials and talks with fellows, hosted weekly Q&A with European candidates. Basically, I spoke to anybody who would talk to me at the time. I spoke to hundreds of founders and investors establishing the On Deck in the European landscape. But it was really a lot of phone calls, a lot of hours, a lot of just manual effort. And that is one of the learnings that I'll share later more about it.
But also behind the scenes, true to the community spirit that I feel that I have had in my whole career, I became really close friends with many European fellows, and a lot of people just offered to help and support. I was really, really impressed and surprised, frankly, by the amount of people who just really wanted to help us grow the market. I'm not a huge angel investor, so this number two is actually pretty big for me, but I invested in two ODF companies and actually became an advisor in another alumni company. It was really very hands-on and very involved. I had regular check-ins with community members asking them for feedback, "How can we make this better for you? What would you love to see us do? Who would you like to bring as a speaker? What kind of experiences should we create, et cetera." So really having the local community, the first early members of the local community highly involved in the process.
You might be wondering, because I did mention earlier that we are mostly virtual, mostly online community, so what does it mean to scale that internationally? It is very interesting because first it means making On Deck a truly global community. And for that, we need to reach critical mass. So it's mostly about getting people on board. And so that's why I build the international function as mostly top of funnel function and a business development function. The first thing we needed was to reach critical mass, and that critical mass needed to be of the best quality of just high caliber people that we could find locally, very talented, because that's what sets the brand ultimately if you're building a community business, right? The first people in just set the tone for the community, and then they will also, of course, invite the network.
Today, up to 60% in some communities of our fellows are based outside of the US. The average number is closer to 25, 30%. But still, our community's spread across 800 cities and 93 countries, is very, very international. Our goal is to really increase the density of members within those hubs.
The second thing is making On Deck a truly global experience. An example I always use is McDonald's. When you go to McDonald's, they can introduce a McBaguette or a McBeignet somewhere in there, but the experience is mostly consistent across the world and across different regions. So for us, having an experience that was consistent, there was no On Deck India, there was no On Deck London. Obviously, we have a local community, a local chapter, but other than that, no matter where you are, whether you're joining from Buenos Aires or Singapore, you're joining the same community as everybody else.
One of the things, obviously, we track is NPS. And that NPS is very critical in younger markets where our reputation is really just nascent. We are still establishing our brand, so you need to be associated with something that's really high quality. The idea is also delivering experience, leveraging the best of both world. It's global, but it's also local. As we all have learned coming out of this pandemic is we cannot replace in-person events, in-person contact, and that's why our local hubs all over the world are really important and key to the On Deck experience.
So, the answer to all this, how do you deliver this, is really in-person events, local hubs, partnerships that add value specific to region, and also market specific resources. One example of that is when we launched India, we built a hub that would help founders figure out incorporation. And so, as you're raising money from US investors and you need to incorporate it as a Delaware company maybe in order to do that, then there are specific implications whether you're an Indian company or Europe and you need to do a flip of incorporation and whatnot. There are very specific legal challenges that we can support our community members with as they navigate, and that are very specific to the region.
Third is making On Deck a global business. I mentioned earlier just having a path to profitability in each market. And yeah, it's a reality that our business model won't work in the same way in every market. Different markets will just require different things. For example, if we are launching Southeast Asia, then that's a completely different time zone that is a bit further away and bit further out and it's a little bit trickier to have the same people from San Francisco attend the same events as someone in Singapore. And so, we have worked towards different models of event or replays or just having more mastermind groups that are adapted to your local time zone, et cetera. That was more the experience piece, but the main thing is really just building out a business model that is market specific and that will allow us to build a sustainable business in all those markets.
The fourth thing is making On Deck a global brand. It's no secret that when people join a community, they like to brag about it, they like to talk about the communities that they're a member of, hopefully. And so, if your brand is inexistent locally, people won't be able to talk about it because nobody would understand, unless, of course, and that is part of the international expansion strategy, you turn these people into your first ambassadors who know your product and who can speak about it and then can help you build that brand. Because there's also this effect of, "I'm one of the first ones. I'm one of the early members." That can be leveraged.
But once we have that product market fit with the local community, we can double down on spreading the word and highlighting our local fellows and success stories through case studies and interviews. Our biggest focus, in early days especially, is educating the market on what our value proposition is.
So that's who I created the country manager role. The idea is, as I mentioned, set it up as a top of funnel function. Their goal is to bring top talented partners to programs in different revenue streams. So they get people to apply to our communities and then hand them off to the admissions team. They get partners excited to sponsor, and then they hand off to other teams that are doing partnerships or our Access Fund, which is our scholarship program. They get the people teams excited to send their talent and then hand off to a B2B or L&D team. They get speaker excited to contribute locally and then hand off to program teams. Investors excited to join the network, and then hand off to fundraising team, and so on and so forth.
As you can see, our international team was really set up as a top of funnel function, that it was just capturing demand, capturing interest, and capturing revenue, and then redispatching to the specific function. So in that sense, international for us was really a meta function in the company. So we had growth, marketing, experience, and our admissions team, which is like our equivalent to sales, but it's not really sales, is more vetting than selling. But still international works with all those functions as a meta function assignment.
Here's maybe the most interesting part of the presentation where we go over lessons learned from all the things that I said before. One of the most interesting things about growing international markets is that you should do things that don't scale again. And what I mean by that is that a lot of the times, we all know this from programs, articles, and it's common startup knowledge, in the beginning you do things that don't scale, but what most people don't expect is that when you're launching a new market, you... And that goes for geographic market but also just in general, depending on how you segment markets, maybe you're serving a new industry or a new kind of customer, you need to probably do things that don't scale again. For me, it was really interesting joining On Deck as a company, because that had a lot of momentum and really strong part of market fit in the US. Where I started launching our new international markets, I felt like I was working at a different company than my colleagues, honestly. Because for them, they were just meeting facing all of this demand and they were optimizing around how to best serve all of those customers. And for me, it was like, "Come on, talk to me. I'm talking to anybody who would talk to me." It was completely different funnels.
And so, interestingly that actually allowed me to fix some of our leaky funnel challenges, because in the home market, we had so much demand that we didn't really need to worry about having a leaky funnel. But when I start growing international markets and I'm seeing that there's not less demand necessarily, just that the demand isn't there because we are ramping up, then I have to worry about a leaky funnel and making sure that we are moving people through the funnel and converting them all the way through the end. So that's a really interesting experience. I feel like PMF, product market fit, is more of an equilibrium and it's not something that once you get there, you're good. It's like you go through periods of optimization and then periods of like, "Okay, we need to scrap this and figure out a more sustainable way." The famous like, "What got you here, won't get you there."
When you launch a new market, 80% of the work is "invisible". So people think about launching a new market, and they think about a splashy announcement, PR, doing an event, all the media and stuff. But actually it's really less about PR and more about how do we build influence with the key stakeholders locally for this market? It's really about educating the market on your value proposition. And so, getting the right people to know who you are and becoming an ambassador for you is one of the key things to do because then you equip them to be able to talk about you, to be able to grow your brand. And then, by the time, again, once you do get to that, talking to the press, doing a splashy announcement, and doing all those things, you can actually leverage it and have the local reputation to back it up.
It doesn't fall into a void, you need to think about that. This is similar to how people do a launch in Product Hunt or any type of media strategy. Obviously, you have to build a foundation first before you do the public part of it. The other thing is, and this is also specific to On Deck because we're a community business, but if you're watching this talk, you're probably somewhat adjacent or in the same industry, but in the On Deck community, people are willing to do what I call irrational things for each other, just things that they wouldn't normally do for anybody they just met. And they're willing to do it for you if they feel strong ties to the community, both in terms of this community has driven a lot of value for me, so I want to pay it forward, but also in terms of values, spirit of service. So paying it forward is something that we filter for in our admissions process. And also just making them feel that they have ownership over the community.
I think I talk about this in the latter side, but your job is to really build high trust among those members. So when anybody from the On Deck community gets a note from someone else and they say, "Hey, can I have this intro?" because we have built that trust with that person and among other members, they feel more comfortable in doing so.
Yes, so this is the next part, is creating ownership. Referrals have been historically the biggest driver of growth at On Deck. Not only do they drive a lot of our new members, but they also convert at a 50% higher rate than someone who just comes organically. So, for us, referrals have been a huge lever for growth. Another example is just really influential... Early Clubhouse members, they're still active today despite the app having ups and downs or whatever has happened since. A lot of them are really still active because they felt that sense of ownership, because the Clubhouse scene from early on, they had weekly town halls because some of them were the face of the app. Hello. For example, in my case, a lot of the things that I was doing in the early days as a very active member of the community such as onboarding people, helping show them the app, I even wrote an onboarding guide before there was an actual onboarding process in the Clubhouse app, and so doing all those things really creates a sense of ownership, and that's something that I brought.
To me, as I mentioned earlier, when growing On Deck in Europe, I tried as much as possible as to co-build it. And it's not my thing, it's not like, "I'm the head of Europe, and this is my project." It's really, how do I make this something that the community is excited about? And those are things like I ask people... Obviously, they were offering to help, so it wasn't I was asking people to do free work for me because then that's problematic. But people were just willing to help, and so I said, "Can you just give me feedback? Tell me what you would love to see us do. What do you think On Deck should do differently for Europe than we are doing in the US? How do you think the value proposition differs? What's the kind of people you would love to see? What's missing?" And I was asking for feedback constantly, and that made people really feel like they were co-building and part of the process.
Another example I like to use is in my accelerator experience, worked with the clothing brand that's so 80% conversion from wait-list to paid, which is insane, when they switched to co-creating their collections with customers. Instead of saying just like, "Hey, our new collection is out," they would just ask a bunch of questions to the community and really co-create it with them. And then the conversion rate from the wait-list was really off the hook.
The other thing is different markets will demand different things from your company. So as I was mentioning, in our cases, also for example, the time zones. Again, launching Europe, very comparable market to the US in terms of purchasing power. Launching India, we had to start thinking about financing options for people. And so, yeah, different markets will demand different strategies. This is kind of obvious, but sometimes when you're building a cross-functional team such as international, that's something really to keep in mind. And again, some markets will be very comparable, some will be drastically different, and the key is to adapt without changing the nature of our brand or your company values.
A big, big learning for me while building the international team was really not to get hung up on org structures. This is really important because I was trying to create a team and a setup that would be sustainable over the long term and then realize like, "No, what you're trying to solve for is just the problem you're trying to solve versus optimizing for your existing organization." A lot of the times, an international team, you try to build it as something that's comparable to the marketing function, which has a certain setup, or like the customer experience function. And you're like, "Okay, so international should have a similar structure." But actually, it is very inherently different, so you should just solve for whatever your problem you're solving for is and not just trying to make it something similar or consistent to whatever exists internally.
The second thing is what got you here, won't get you there. So solve for the next three to six or 12 months. As a startup, you will be essentially a very different company every six to 12 months, so you shouldn't try to solve past that in terms of org structure. Yeah, most setups work. Whether you decide to have a matrixed org or a centralized function or whatever, they're trade-offs, and those trade-offs are usually speed versus coordination. At On Deck, we have a saying, we say, "We are highly aligned, loosely coupled." And so, we often will optimize for speed versus coordination, which is obviously something different once you get to a certain stage, where you actually need to have coordination otherwise you can drop a lot of balls with serving your customers.
I think the most important decision, an international expansion is who you hire to lead the market. That's really what will make or break a brand. It will be a game changer for you in both ways, like if you hire the right person versus not. Before there is a brand, especially in community business, people follow people. So that is, again, the single most important decision you'll make, is who you hire. And that is true, actually. I'm saying this for international, but actually, that is true for any function, right? Especially in the early stages, the impact that the people you hire will have is outsized compared to once you get to a later stage. I'm saying something that's totally obvious.
But an important thing maybe that's not totally obvious is that the person who launches is not always the same person who scales. Because I remember when I was trying to hire the first country managers, I was thinking, "Well, will this person be able to build this into a bigger team? Will this person scale?" And then I realized, actually, that person, after building that market from zero to one, they can move on to other things. They could even, for example, be the person who travels to other markets to help those markets get from zero to one. They can take up other up functions. They can go and do other zero to one things in the company as needed when we start a launch instead of new geographies when we started launch, new business functions, or new products. I feel like a lot of people get hung up on that, like, "Will this person be around for two, three years?" And actually, they might, but they would just be doing different things. Yeah, what got us here, won't get us there, and so you shouldn't be optimizing for further or thinking that further ahead, in my opinion.
The other thing with international, and this is something I see a lot of companies do wrong, is they expect to see results right away, or they say, "Let's start investing a little bit in this international market, and then we'll see if it scales, we'll see if it works, and then we'll invest more." I think if you are growing an international market, you should overinvest rather than underinvest, and you should execute in impatiently but really be patient with results. It's really something counterintuitive because you start working on an international market and then you don't see any results for a while, but then you start to see them all coming right away. And that is something that's very, I think, special about international expansion.
This is a time for questions, but I guess we'll be doing those in sync when we have the time together. I'm really excited to get all of your questions. If you want to reach out to me, you can always find me at Erika Batista on Twitter and all the socials. And I'm really excited to answer all your questions very soon. Talk soon. Bye.