The 3 Questions Brands Need to Ask Before Setting Up an Office Outside of Europe
My grandfather was an architect and, while he designed buildings around the world, he never left the neighborhood he grew up in. He lived to be 93, played golf several times a week, had a big family and enough money to do what he wanted, but his whole life was spent in a suburb of Johannesburg, where he grew up.
Some businesses are like that too: wonderful local secrets whose owners are content to stay put. While building MOO, a print and design company most known for our business cards, it's always been important to me not to lose the balance that comes from having strong roots in a familiar neighborhood. But, with customer demand and our expanding audience, we soon grew a presence beyond our neighborhood. Like most entrepreneurs, I've always been keen to drive my business forward, which meant expanding outside of Europe.
The challenges of running a business are constant, but it's especially profound when it comes to expanding into new countries. Here are a few things companies need to consider during this process.
1. Do we expand at all?
Every company will answer this question differently and, to an extent, it will depend on your products. A business that sells software, for example, might feel that it doesn't need an international presence. You can still be that "local" business and sell worldwide.
When I founded MOO in 2006, I wanted to build a big, successful, admired company. As we grew, we found that the U.S. was one of our biggest markets and we asked ourselves whether we needed an office there.
For MOO, it felt like a big opportunity and there were signs that our business was sub-optimal without a presence there. For an on-demand manufacturing business, being close to the customer is really important for speed, quality and for a deeper understanding of customers' needs and localized differences. Knowing your customer is crucial to a successful company and it's harder to do that from afar. So, we decided we needed a U.S. presence.
2. Which location is right for us?
With that decision made, there were two major things to think about, beyond the practical complexities of setting up international operations. Those were location and people. And they are inextricably linked.
When you are considering moving to another country, you have certain assumptions about particular places. Our first instinct was that New York was the place to be, for example. It's a city that I love to visit and I felt like I knew it well. But, when we spoke to people there, we found that none of them were from New York. In Boston, we found people who had grown up in Boston and lived and worked there. If the people you hire have roots to the area, it will help your company establish roots as well.
Having clear values that are shared across all offices helps maintain a strong and consistent company culture. But, it's also important for each office to have its own identity. Supporting local charities and partnering with local organizations lets each office embrace their unique location. That balance is essential to a truly international business.
3. Will our company be lost in translation?
Once you have a location, you face the localization test. They say that America and the U.K. are two countries separated by a common language and you do quickly become aware of those subtleties once you start operating there. Those can be practical things, such as the fact that America has a different standard size for business cards, or linguistic changes, like the tendency to prefer "Happy Holidays" to "Merry Christmas" if you're American.
There are differences in tone, such as the tendency for Americans to be more direct in marketing approaches, while the British might soften their message with humor. And even the calendar has a different rhythm -- from Super Bowl Sunday to the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, Americans get together for different events and celebrate them in different ways.
Some of these differences are so subtle that you won't pick them up unless you operate in that marketplace. You need the right people in place, with the appropriate local knowledge, so that they can guide you.
A new office contains the DNA of the brand but also has a unique personality of its own. As a company, there is an inherent knowledge exchange of ideas and skills that support growth. With the support of all departments and all offices, that knowledge base continues to grow and evolve over time, leading the company to sustained success.
There's something nice about that cozy, familiar, balanced lifestyle that my grandfather enjoyed, but I've always wanted a little variety too. The excitement of translating a business to another country is hard to beat. And MOO still feels like a familiar neighborhood to me -- it's just a bigger neighborhood than before.