Using micro markets to acquire and map customer behaviour : The GlobalFair playbook

Shaily Garg
May 1, 2024
5 minutes


GlobalFair, a cross-border B2B building material supplier, didn’t follow the typical Silicon Valley model. It started by immersing itself in the US market, living with customers and understanding their needs. This customer focus, combined with cultural agility and strategic use of technology, has been key to its success. It has expanded its supply chain to Vietnam and built a follow-the-sun customer service team to serve their global clientele. As the world becomes more interconnected, GlobalFair's story offers valuable lessons for B2B founders everywhere.

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The B2B SaaS world has many playbooks, but how does one go about building a B2B e-commerce, cross-border business? Think of all the complexities of a B2C ecommerce business except that the customers are enterprises of varying sizes. All this coupled with international demand and supply chains, cultural nuances in different markets, and logistical scenarios that have few parallels. 

This is the rare trail GlobalFair has blazed. 

The B2B building material supplier isn’t the typical Silicon Valley startup. Tech followed customer focus, not the other way around, for one thing. Another thing the founders were clear about from the beginning was that GlobalFair would be a cross-border company. 

Co-founder and CEO Shaily Garg built GlobalFair from the ground up. For a category-defining business, there are no playbooks. Add to that the colourful challenge of the building and construction materials market: It had been largely offline and driven by relationships. The GlobalFair team knew they had to hit the ground running. 

That involved getting a lay of the land, living out of budget motels across the US, and relentlessly working to understand the core customer base. During a period of six months, meeting prospective B2B customers across the US, over breakfasts and late-night chats, GlobalFair prepared the foundation for their product and sales strategy. 

Shaily’s learning from that initial grind? “Begin with a demand-driven approach and let technology seamlessly follow suit.”

Micro markets in focus

Through its initial tour of the US market, Shaily and the GlobalFair team discovered that their target market wasn’t a monolith. While technology adoption and appreciation in the US is generally higher than in other markets, the construction material industry has largely been relationship-driven.  

After spending time understanding the customer, the founding team realised that launching operations across the US wouldn’t be the right move. Over time, GlobalFair built a cultural agility that is one of its distinguishing features. 

“We figured that we should start with two or three micro markets and build from there. Because different states (in the US) come with a very different ideology, sales cycle, different moats and values,” remembers Shaily. 

To illustrate what that means, sample this:

  • In Texas, relationships get built over a barbecue and a football game.
  • In California, decision-making can happen at a tech conference.  

Accordingly, you decide your pitch, says Shaily. In Texas, you would pitch the ease of doing business with your company. Cost is a factor too. In California, it would be technology. 

Over time, GlobalFair identified three key regions in the US: West Coast, East Coast, and Midwest. Each has distinct demographics, and for GlobalFair, the East Coast held the majority of its initial customer base. As a result, they made their first hires there

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The cross border equations

GlobalFair began with India as its supply market in 2020, and expanded to Vietnam in 2022 for a different product category. Leveraging the Indian playbook helped, but Vietnam presented new challenges: language barriers, establishing relationships with new suppliers, and payment terms. However, it also offered significant advantages. 

“We approached Vietnam as a US-based buyer. A big part of the vendors’ affinity towards GlobalFair was built on that. Our already big book of business that we had developed in India helped too,” says Shaily. 

GlobalFair also ensured they hire locally in Vietnam to bridge the language and cultural diversity. And even though the cost of labour is higher in Vietnam than in India, its high degree of automation meant higher output. As a result, this supply market expansion doubled GlobalFair’s delivery capacity. 

The great unifier: technology

With teams firmly established across three countries, how did GlobalFair get people to work together to bridge the cultural divide? Technology. 

“One thing we tell our teams is that while our material is coming from miles away, to you it should feel like it’s coming from a next door store. That is where the tech leverage comes in. It creates familiarity and reliability,” says Shaily.  “For our US-based customers, reliability trumps cost,” she adds. 

As a B2B e-commerce company, navigating cross-border logistics and customs initially felt like a complex black box, remembers Shaily. But over time, GlobalFair built a robust playbook for smooth deliveries across all regions, ensuring exceptional Truck Turnaround Time (TAT).

The tech platform guarantees on-time deliveries, transforming the initial black box into a transparent and reliable system. 

As the company grows, the tech intervention and automation becomes more and more prominent. Take customer service, for example. 

GlobalFair’s B2B e-commerce model relies on vertical teams due to high customer lifetime value. In the beginning, the work was human-heavy (80:20) but as the company scaled, the shift to tech-driven workflows made the human to tech ratio 50:50. To optimise for global clients, the company has a follow-the-sun customer excellence team operating across Asia, UK, and US time zones.

However, Shaily says complete automation is unlikely in B2B due to the need for relationship building. 

Building a new playbook

Since its inception, GlobalFair has learnt from and perfected its cross border playbook. Shaily shares some learnings: 

  • Measuring customer success: The holy grail of B2B e-commerce is repeat orders and increasing wallet share of customers. 
  • Customer focus: Be present and build expertise in your target market.
  • Segmentation: Build your market approach based on customer size. A $1 billion company will have a different sales cycle from a $500 million company.
  • Long game, big payoff: B2B sales cycles are longer, often taking five to six months. But customer relationships are long lasting, and the payoff of the sales cycle comes within two to three orders.
  • Referral networks: Referral networks begin to kick in around the three year mark, as customer satisfaction and trust rise. 
  • Be taxation wise: US tax laws vary significantly by state. Hiring tax filing specialists is crucial to ensure compliance. Consider using Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs) to streamline payroll and tax administration.
  • Local HR for US operations: While managing HR from Asia might seem efficient, having US-based HR staff can be invaluable. US labour laws and at-will employment make on-the-ground support essential for employee relations and retention.

Going back to her initial advice, Shaily reiterates the need to focus on understanding customer needs first, and then developing user-friendly tech solutions to address them. “Our first tech was usable, adoptable, and intuitive for a B2B customer,” she says. 

As the world grows and global marketplaces become the norm, GlobalFair’s approach to transforming a traditional and largely offline industry serves as a roadmap for founders everywhere.

#B2B #ecommerce #marketplace #crossborder #trade #construction