7 Tips for the International Entrepreneur
Don't be afraid to take your business global, but don't underestimate the power of jet lag.
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Business has taken me to Asia, Europe, Minnesota, Boston, Colorado, and several other U.S. cities in the last two months. Sounds pretty awesome right? While parts of being the Founder of an international startup are great, it's also a grueling endeavor that will test your mind, body, and soul. Everyone that lives in the startup world has heard the clichés about embracing failure, pivoting, relentless pressure, long work hours and the highs and lows that come with building a business.
In the international startup world take those same clichés and add to them a massive amount of travel, the need to learn a foreign language, ability to adapt to new business cultures, the added temptation to self medicate in order to fight off jet lag, focus, and get deals done and this becomes a lot less sexy than it sounds. However, if you have what it takes to avoid the temptations, travel like a pro, and adopt different cultural norms and values it is highly rewarding.
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Here are some tips from someone that's doing it:
1. Get used to weird hours.
It's 11:48 a.m. right now and I'm taking a shower. However, that doesn't mean that I slept in. I woke up at 4 a.m. to get on the phone with China. Shanghai is currently 12 hours ahead of New York City and I needed to catch our team there before the office closed. I had been on the phone with them the night before from 9 to 11 p.m. If you want to be successful as an international entrepreneur get ready to throw 9 to 5 out the window if you haven't done so already. You'll be working when needed, and have to find time to sleep and relax around your work schedule.
2. Travel like a pro.
This is a must for the international entrepreneur. While Skype, Webex, and other video-conferencing tools have made international business communication easier there is still nothing better than a face-to-face meeting. Getting a "boots on the ground" assessment of how your foreign operations are being managed is essential. With this comes a lot of travel, sleepless nights, zombie like days, and waking up in strange places not remembering what country you're in.
Everyone has their own methods to combat jet lag, here's mine. On the plane listen to your body. Eat when you're hungry, drink when dehydrated, and sleep when you're tired. On the ground I suffer through the first day but stay awake until at least 10 p.m. in order to get my body clock into the new time zone ASAP. The longer you wait to get into your new time zone the harder it is and less productive you are. If needed make sure you land on a Friday or Saturday night and have the weekend to recover before getting down to business. Travel is essential if you want to succeed in this world so find a way to deal with it.
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3. When sleep is elusive, problems happen.
Highs and lows are unavoidable in any startup but are more pronounced when dealing with jet lag and sleep deprivation. Don't try to be a hero and plow through sleepless nights.
Regular 20-hour travel days and 12-hour plus time zone shifts can lead to serious problems. There is a reason why sleep deprivation is an interrogation technique and form of torture. Find a way to sleep. Not sleeping is NOT and option and can lead to hallucinations and other health problems. "Take Care of Yourself!" This stuff is real, deal with it. Do yoga, workout, run, swim, bike…do something. If you can't find a way to sleep, see a doctor and listen to their advice.
4. On the ground be a chameleon.
You'll need to change with your surroundings. Don't just adapt to the culture, embrace it. Learn the cultural norms and values of the country you are operating in, help them understand US culture, and find ways to bridge the cultural divide. Most Americans go into foreign markets expecting the people to automatically adopt US business culture. That doesn't happen. The China market for example is littered with the remains of US multinationals that have failed or struggled there including names like Best Buy and Wal Mart. Even a culture as similar to our own as Canada proved too difficult for Target.
It's not enough to have a great product and just because your marketing & sales plan worked in the US doesn't mean it will internationally. Collaborate with your local team to localize your business & marketing plans or expect to fail.
5. Be patient, but don't be weak.
There is a fine line between patience and perceived weakness. Working on an international scale requires the patience to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers. These barriers however can become excuses for not getting things done internally. They can also turn into negotiating tactics allowing room for price manipulation. When the misunderstanding's become the norm, and mostly at your expense, the problem must be addressed. Talk with people on your team to see how best to approach the subject.
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6. Don't overestimate knowledge of your country and culture.
The hardest country and culture that I've had to work with is here in the U.S. We've been strong in China since we started. The reason being that I understood that culture after having lived there for a decade. When I got back to NYC and founded BRIC I figured that because I was an American, I would know enough about the people that I could market and manage easily. I was wrong. I went through five sales and marketing directors before finally getting it right.
Putting my U.S. team together was more difficult than any of our foreign teams. Don't overestimate your knowledge of any market, including your own. I wound up being cheated by more people here in the US than China, Brazil, and Mexico combined. There are good and bad people in every country and in every business. The key is getting away from the bad ones as quickly as possibly. If you don't know the culture find someone who does that you can trust and rely on their guidance.
7. Give back.
Give back in every market you operate in. We do this at BRIC and will be adding a charitable contributions page to our new website when it is ready to launch. This is not only being a responsible stakeholder in the countries in which you operate but is also good business. It shows your local team and the market that you are a part of the community.
Do these things and you will put yourself in a good position for international success. As a part of taking care of yourself remember to not only befriend expats but locals as well. I have a Chinese goddaughter and have made great friends in every country we operate it. This is essential to not only your wellbeing but also to getting a localized knowledge of the country, its customs, and the culture from outside your corner of the business world.