From the UK to South Africa to India: Inside ClearScore’s global expansion strategy

ClearScore began expanding internationally two years ago and believes it has found the recipe for success, which is based on a scalable product and consistent brand, and not being in too much of a rush.

When ClearScore began looking to expand internationally, it settled on what might seem like odd choices for a UK company – South Africa, India and Australia. None are geographically close and all three have arguably quite different cultures and attitudes to personal finance to the UK.

However, ClearScore’s head of international Stephen Smyth says these markets have similar “core structural features”, meaning they make sense as ClearScore’s first destinations for expansion outside the UK.

Firstly, they all have credit bureaus; second, consumers are interested in their credit scores, financial education and accessing financial products; and third, the right online infrastructure is in place.

Having identified the core characteristics needed for expansion, ClearScore initially found around 20 countries that were “obvious places to go”. The company then looked at which to tackle first, which came down to familiarity and practicality. ClearScore’s founder and CEO Justin Basini had previously lived in South Africa, and it is in the same timezone as the UK, while not being such a big market it would require huge investment.

ClearScore launched in South Africa in July 2017, taking a test-and-learn approach that saw it ramp up its presence slowly, using lessons from its UK launch and updating them for the market. It gave itself just three weeks to build the tech, and used its UK creative agency and creative to test demand. That initial test showed there was demand and gave ClearScore confidence there would be global demand.

However, it discovered it needed to localise its messaging. In the UK, its advertising is very much focused around offering a free credit report, while in South Africa it made more sense to talk to consumers about why they might want a credit score.

“We have a global product, it is the same product everywhere. But we try to localise it in a way that is useful to local users,” explains Smyth. “If you look at the ads, it’s the same product but the nuance is in the composition towards messaging that is relevant.”

Having a global product is key for ClearScore. Smyth admits he has previously worked for companies that spent huge money on developing products for local markets and putting people on the ground only to find they couldn’t make a business model work. But they were then too nervous to pull back because of the investment.

ClearScore, on the other hand, is soft launching to limit the investment needed. It is also prepared to move on if the timing isn’t right or the product simply doesn’t work.

“We prefer to pull out of a country if it’s not the right time and go to one where we think it’s a better fit rather than overly localise [the offering],” explains Smyth.

He adds: “There is a consistency of ambition and because of that consistency, we have a strategy where we want to minimise how different the product is, because we want the best product quality around the world. I’ve worked in other companies where the success measure is more or less ‘I want the business to succeed however much localisation is required’. We take a different view that maybe if the country is so different it isn’t the right country for us right now.”

Luckily, ClearScore hasn’t had to test that yet. Having reached 500,000 users in South Africa, it then expanded to India. It now has more than 10 million users globally, with 1.5 million of those across newer markets. It now has its sights set on launching in Australia this year.

That ambition means Smyth is now based in Australia, but ClearScore doesn’t want to move too fast on expansion so it’s “fingers crossed” for launch this year rather than a firm date. As a business, ClearScore wants to ensure it is seeing sustainable growth and attracting long-term users before it moves on to the next market.

“We’ve seen startups that push globalisation too quickly,” he says. “Once you get the model right you can accelerate. We are approaching that stage and it’s giving us confidence, but it’s a lot of learning to get to that place.”

The balance between global and local

Smyth admits finding the right balance between the global team and those on the ground locally has been a challenge. What ClearScore didn’t want was a top-down push, but equally it needed to ensure the brand showed up consistently. It now takes the view that the global team is there to help the local teams get to the best possible marketing, rather than dictating what they should be doing.

“Our big breakthrough came from [the realisation] we’re all one team trying to make this work in a local market for users,” he explains.

The role of internal communication has been equally important. ClearScore now has a “mindset of over-communication” so all stakeholders understand why the company is making the choices it does.

“If you don’t give a lot of communication and a lot of context to what you are trying to achieve and why, then people get caught in not understanding why and you get this friction,” he admits.

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