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Starting a Business Abroad: Fact-Finding Mission

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Globe, by Nick WheelerNow you can finally book a flight to the country where you hope to set up your new enterprise! You’ll be staying for at least a week, ideally a fortnight. Forget the straw hat and flip-flops, however; you are not on holiday.

The first thing you will want to do when your flight touches down is to pick up copies of the local newspapers, and any specialist business publications that are available, if you understand the language. Read them; while the international press only tends to report on foreign business  involving one of “their” firms or when there is cause for alarm or celebration, the local press will know all about the stalled deals that have been in limbo for years, the fastest-growing local startups or new regulations that are being planned. If you want to stay in the loop when you return home, consider adding the publications that have proved the most informative to your RSS feed reader or taking out a print subscription.

If the language barrier will be a problem, consider hiring an interpreter or translator to help you while you are in the country. It needn’t be hideously expensive; one economical way of getting a local fixer is to place internet ads before you travel looking for business or management graduates with language skills who are looking for a (very) temporary job. Sometimes they might even offer to double up as your driver! Make sure that their daily rate and petrol allowance is agreed in advance, though. Alternatively, your local consulate will be able to provide you with a list of approved interpreters and translators, though they will be significantly more expensive.

The next thing you should do, once you are settled in your lodgings, is to make an appointment to visit the local Chambers of Commerce. Once again, feel intimidated; if you are going to be bringing money into the area by setting up a new business, that is to their benefit too. It’s at the Chambers of Commerce that you will be able to ask questions about zoning laws, any regulations that are industry-specific to the new business you hope to set up and all the other things that you will have been unable to cover in your basic internet research at home. You may also get some useful information about tax rates, wage expectations, property prices and the general business attitude that prevails.

If you have already have a vague idea about which areas might be suitable for your new business, be sure to visit them all. You need to visit at different times of the day too, to get a feel for whether the character of the area changes with the hours. Be sure to note how busy the area is, the level of foot traffic in comparison to vehicles, and whether or not the area is a business district or mixed use. See how many other similar businesses are in the same area, whether they are all grouped together or more hapharzardly spaced out.  Until Google Streetview has mapped every inch of the planet, this is the kind of research that you can’t do at home. At all times, think about what each area would mean for your new business and how any factors that stand out to you may affect your business plan.

Now, thinking specifically about your business, check out the existing market. Is there the demand for it? Who are the buyers? Do they make several small purchases or a few big-ticket buys? Do not confuse supply with demand, as it is infinitely easier to open a trinket stall than a full-service media agency; there will always be more of one than the other. Similarly, which existing firms are likely to be your closest competitors? How popular are they? Are they a national brand, or just one or two outlets with a loyal customer base? Are there enough suppliers in the market to support all of you, especially if the economy enters a downturn? Remember, you are starting a business in a foreign country, and the terms of your visa or work permit may not permit you to simply shut down and swap to something else if things don’t work out.

This trip is also your first chance to start assembling your local team. At the very least, you will need an accountant and a lawyer, just to ensure that you have all your paperwork and funds in order when you decide to take the plunge and set up. The expat boards you’ve been using for your basic research may be able to put in you in touch with professionals who also speak your language, while the Chambers of Commerce will be able to provide you with the details of those who specialise in commercial affairs. Arrange meetings with all those that seem most suitable, and hire those who have the best credentials. Don’t go for the friend-of-a-friend or the pushy shark who urges you to get started right away. The first meeting is their audition; you can break the happy news to them at the follow-up.

Take some time to collate all the information you have gathered, and start tweaking your business plan. If you seem any weaknesses in your strategy, you need to think about how to fix them now, before you start spending any serious money. But enjoy yourself too! You local consulate may have meet-and-greet nights for locals and visiting citizens, so sign up for those and see if you can start making some useful contacts. Also, if there are any relevant conferences or conventions whose dates fall during your stay, those might be worth a visit too. Keep thinking about how useful all these new people might be to you in the very near future.

By the time you head back to the airport for your return flight, you should have a local lawyer, an accountant and some business cards from people you have met. You should also have a clearer idea of where your business will fit in the local economy, the area it would be located, and which firms are your likeliest competition. If you feel that you haven’t quite got a handle on how business runs and what your prospects are in your new country, go home, rethink everything from the beginning and if necessary book another trip. If, on the other hand, you are feeling fairly confident, you can now start plugging your newfound insights into your business plan to make it more realistic.

Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about recruiting local agents, especially the difficulties faced when you may not be able to meet them face-to-face more than once.

[Image by Nick Wheeler]


1 Comment

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