Social media are enabling a new kind of social enterprise: micro-multinational companies. They’re small, Web-wired startups that are using social media to find, then recruit, the best new talent from around the globe and leverage it for immediate innovation, impact and sustainability. Unlike traditionally large, multinational companies, micro-multinationals are new digital startups that are global by virtue of the development teams they’ve hired from around the world.  In many ways, they have the same reach as their industrial-age counterparts; their rapid growth is being fueled by the ability of founders to use the Internet, inexpensive voice-over-the-Internet technology and lower traveling costs to create unique business opportunities.

“Immigration today, thanks for the Web, means something very different than it used to mean,” says Hal Varian, the chief economist at Google and a professor of information economics at the University of California-Berkeley. “There’s no longer a brain drain but brain circulation. People now doing startups understand what opportunities are available to them to recruit talent from around the world, and to harness it from a distance using the Web—rather than having to move people from one place to another.”

Consider the tiny, six-person San Francisco micro-multinational, SlideShare—the “YouTube” of slide presentations for nonprofits and for-profit businesses. Its entire staff, Varian says, consists of a couple of employees in the States, a few in Eastern Europe and one in Asia. Or take Vast.com, another San Francisco startup that employs 25 people who work across five time zones, four nations, and two continents.

Yet another micro-multinational is Viewdle, a Kiev-based startup that uses facial-recognition technology to search for tagged individuals in video files. President and CEO Laurent Gil, a French citizen, told this year’s Milken Global Forum that he has four people in California, three in Kiev and a two in Uruguay. He says his tiny company created the start-up’s video tagging technology in the Ukraine, found capital to fund the company in Los Angeles “and Uruguay was a great place to find engineers in the particular technology we use.” Added Gil: “The fact that we are a micro-multinational was by design. In a small company like ours, it’s the only way to survive. We survive and we grow because we have the ability to identify, and then employ from the best pockets of knowledge around the world”—and at a fraction of the price of the traditional, larger multinational.

Expect to see more such social media-powered global firms, says Varian. He says younger workers fueling most new startup activity tend to have a greater ability to use social media and digital Web technologies to supervise, communicate and manage employees at a distance, though Gil acknowledges that even for him, “it’s still very difficult. ...There are cultural differences and many time zones to contend with.”

But difficult doesn’t mean impossible—far from it, says Varian. Sure, it’s still tough to build teams out of small, far-flung groups. But the cost-savings outweigh the challenges, he says. “Micro-multinational leaders are entrepreneurs who are hungry to get their businesses to success and they have extensive social networks, thanks to the Web. Finding people to work for their companies—top global talent—has become a skill-set now in its own right. Social capital is increasingly a reflection of one’s ability to work the Web for maximum scale.” Additionally, Varian says, crowd-sourcing for the best global talent to fit specific needs “is a lot easier [and cheaper] than hiring an international recruiting firm.”

For more on the trend, see this interview that Varian had on the topic in Portugal last year.

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