3 Tips On Building a Business Abroad From 2 Expat Entrepreneurs
Starting a business is hard. Doing it in a completely different country with a new language and customs is even more challenging. Currently, there are nearly nine million American expats living in more than 160 countries around the world. A recent study by Internations found that only a minority of expats move abroad for business reasons. This could be due to the democratization of global business, rise of remote work and the fact that moving across the world is not always a possibility for many people.
With all of this in mind, it seems like moving abroad to focus on a business takes a special kind of drive, adventure and dedication. For longtime friends John Patrick Mullin and Will Corkin, this curiosity and ambition led them to become serial entrepreneurs in Asia. Their most recent project, MANTRA DAO, raised $5.93 million and has become one of the top DeFi projects in the blockchain industry. The Hong-Kong based company is creating a community-governed, transparent and decentralized ecosystem for web 3.0.
Prior to starting MANTRA DAO, Mullin and Corkin both studied and worked in China before moving on to work together in various fintech startups. After gaining enough experience, the pair decided to launch their own venture by utilizing the years of experience they cultivated together in Asia. This article digs deeper into their journey to find what their biggest factors of success were for them that could help other expat entrepreneurs.
1. Build genuine connections through social activities
The benefit that expats have when relocating is both with other expats in similar situations and by standing out in the local community. Naturally, this depends where in the world you go. Moving from New York to London will be vastly different than moving to Asia from New York. As with any integration process, it is important not to solely build expat relationships. It is easy to get caught in this cycle and neglect local languages, customs and news.
For Mullin and Corkin, the appeal of Asia, particularly it’s rapid ascent in fintech and hyper-localization, was enough to get them on the ground. Mullin explains, “I was always attracted to exploring new and radically different cultures. After living in Europe for five years, I was looking for the next challenge, and Asia was that place for me. It took me less than a year from moving to Shanghai as a grad student to finding work at a respected investment bank. This would have never happened without the genuine connections I made with local students.”
Corkin adds, “My journey in Asia started a bit earlier than John’s, as my first brush with Asia and China was in 2010 when I did a language-intensive program in Beijing. It was during that time that I immediately was drawn to the pace at which everything was advancing in the region, and what ultimately led me to doing more language programs and eventually internships starting in 2014. This, and my moving full-time to Shanghai in 2015, led quickly to a head of sales position for all of China. My advice is to leverage university programs, local social clubs, meetups or any other activity that draws a mix of local and international people together. Making an effort to socialize is by far the best way to springboard any work endevor and absolutely pays off in the long run.”
2. Build out a referral network of locals and expats
It is estimated that 85% of jobs are filled through networking and mutual introductions. For entrepreneurs abroad, the lack of usual resources creates a situation where creativity can go a long way. In these situations, people tend to be more helpful than usual as everyone has experienced the same process of relocation and integration. This creates a powerful network effect that can open doors to new opportunities.
Corkin says, “Some people feel hesitation towards asking other people for job leads or even pitching a new business idea. While this can be intimidating in normal circles back home, it is completely welcomed when being abroad. Leverage this opportunity to meet new people and even validate different business opportunities that you may have. This was the way in which I landed my first full-time job in Shanghai by approaching and starting a dialogue with someone I overheard while in a coffee shop”
Mullin adds, “I met most of my current business partners through referrals from mutual contacts. The key is to be open about what you are building and looking for. Many times, people will offer to make introductions without you having to ask. This creates an organic and healthy way of meeting people without any ulterior motives.”
3. Document your journey and build a personal brand
Once an entrepreneur has a decent track record in a local region, they should consider focusing on their personal brand as a way to open more doors and gain business traction. This can be done on social media or being consistently active in the community. Create a routine where people know where to find you or your company, even if digitally.
Mullin and Corkin have been able to grow their direct audiences to a combined 75,000 people (across socials) by focusing on their personal brands and being active entrepreneurs in Hong Kong’s vibrant startup ecosystem. At any given day, you can find the duo posting live images at the office and sharing live transparency updates with MANTRA DAO’s community of more than 20,000 people. This has led to speaking, mentoring and other public-facing opportunities.
Mullin’s best piece of advice is to “create a genuine two-way engagement between customers, peers, and the general public.” For Corkin, the advice is similar, and this way of thinking is what led the team to build out MANTRA DAO as a decentralized organization: "As a Decentralized Autonomous Organization, community is at the core of what MANTRA DAO does. In an industry that still suffers from a lack of trust, being active on social media helped us portray our true personalities, passions and ultimately connect with people on an authentic level.”