A lot of us dream of taking our company multinational, but just because something works in Daventry doesn’t mean it will in Dubai.
Levon Antonian expanded his St Albans based IT services company Halian first into Europe, then ten years ago into the Middle East. Now, roughly 90% of its £30m revenues come from abroad. Here’s what he learnt along the way.
"The first point is do your homework. It’s never what you perceive from your desk in the UK. You have to put your feet on the ground and talk to potential customers. For us, that meant doing some reconnaissance. We went to Dubai three times, never for more than a week, to get a feel for the place.
We did some networking through friends’ business contacts, but we also made a few fresh introductions to people who weren’t prospects, but who were willing to give half an hour of their time talking to a newbie in a similar field.
The second point is that you need to understand the business culture as well as the social culture. There needs to be at least some sense of the legal and compliance frameworks, the tradition of doing business in your sector and the sales cycle, which can be very different in the Middle East compared to Europe. The lines between social relationships and business are more blurred here.
We made the mistake of assuming everywhere was like Dubai, which is a relatively benign environment for SMEs. It’s not like that in Qatar or Saudi by any stretch of the imagination. It’s easier in Europe – our Luxembourg team work across Belgium and the Netherlands.
Number three, you need to incorporate in a country and put down some medium to long term roots, to be accepted as a local business. In Europe especially, one of the reasons we’ve been so successful internationalising has been that we didn’t just relocate staff from the UK, but hired locally.
It brought some of the local culture into the business, which is a challenge as we have to deal with different attitudes, but it’s also one of the real joys. Bringing together different ways of looking at things is where value is created."
Spend some time there. Desk research only takes you so far.
Challenge your assumptions. There can be big cultural differences in business that you take for granted, both between the UK and other countries and within regions.
Put down roots. You can’t make full use of the opportunities without investing for the long-term.
For more information
This guest piece from the Harvard Business Review outlines five major strategies for managing international expansion. There are also useful guides by EY and UK Tech for tech scale-ups and businesses more generally.
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