Ten Top Tips: Avoid pitfalls in overseas markets

With the UK officially back in recession, many businesses are looking to overseas markets for growth. But for smaller companies in particular, opening an overseas office is a big step. Mhairi McEwan, co-founder and CEO of global firm Brand Learning gives advice on how to avoid some of the pitfalls.

by Mhairi McEwan
Last Updated: 08 May 2012

1. Have a clear strategy

Ensure there really is a solid business rationale for opening an overseas office as opposed to managing the business remotely. Having existing customers who want you to have a local presence is, for example, a strong reason.

2. Take your time

Yes, opening an overseas office can be a massive opportunity and one that you want to convert quickly. But you need to get it right. If you hire the wrong people, establish the wrong culture or adopt the wrong business model it can be a disaster and take an age to unpick.

3. Find out about financial support       

The British government (UKTI) has a wealth of information and support services on offer for businesses looking to grow overseas. In addition make sure you look into the financial grants available.

4. People are your most important asset

Get the right leader in place. You will need them to inspire and translate the culture you have spent years building in your home market. You want the two offices to be recognisably part of the same whole

5. Never underestimate how different a new market can be

Even, and perhaps especially, when you speak the same language. Expect tax and legals to be a real headache and navigate the maze by leveraging local experts. Don't get distracted by the technicalities of payroll when you could be closing  a multi-million dollar contract

6. Get yourself organised

Don't just define a strategy. Build a detailed operational 'go to market' plan.  There is a mass of operational complexity to get your head around and the red tape has to be handled just right and in the right order or you will be slowed down and potentially come unstuck.

7. Be very careful about national and cultural sensitivities

Make sure you understand the nuances of etiquette. What's the dress code? Is it appropriate to hug or not? Should you attempt to bow and if so, how low? There are a lot of traps for the unwary.

8. Never underestimate the power of your network

When you're opening an office overseas, it can be your strongest asset. People are surprisingly willing to help out people who know people they know. Get advice. Ask, ask and ask again until you get what you need.

9. Don't think you have to do everything perfectly

It's fine to test and learn. For example, don't feel pressurised to sign a 10 year office lease straight off. Consider a temporary solution and buy yourself some time to find the right permanent location

10. Having overseas offices can be a powerful recruitment tool and motivator for employees

Working internationally is a great development opportunity to help build broader experience in your team.

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