Doing Business Overseas: Is It For You?

If you like traveling, you should consider taking your business overseas. Working internationally has changed my life.

An internationalized business provides you with all sorts of benefits – some personal, some business:

  • A larger, overall market to sell your products to – which could lead to a bigger business.
  • A wider base of marketing experience – which could lead to more and better products, offers, and advertising campaigns.
  • A more diverse group of employees from which to find your superstars.

On a personal level, being part of an international business means a richer, more sophisticated working life. You become familiar with the business and social habits of other cultures, develop get-by skills in several languages, and enjoy the pleasures of eating and drinking real foreign food.

In the 1980s, my businesses were almost exclusively domestic. They gave me a very good U.S.A.-based lifestyle, but I didn’t feel very cosmopolitan. When it came time to visit Europe or Latin America on a family vacation, I took the same tours every other American was taking … and had pretty much the same reactions everyone else was having.

Now I feel more … well, comfortable in foreign places. I still enjoy my life in this country, but it’s immensely more satisfying because it is linked up with this ongoing overseas adventure.

Becoming a worldly businessman wasn’t my idea. My number one client does business all over the world – not because its products are international, but because its founder likes traveling and living abroad. For the past several years, he’s been living in Paris, where we have two subsidiary businesses operating. He may soon be moving to London, where we have several more companies in operation.

My work with this client puts me on planes at least once a month. Recent trips to satellite operations have taken me to Germany, France, England, Ireland, Spain, South Africa, and several destinations in Latin America. I’m away from home on business about eight or 10 days a month – which gives me a good balance between the comfortable routines of my life in Florida and the excitement of new places.

If you think you might enjoy a more international lifestyle – but aren’t sure – ask yourself if this kind of schedule would appeal to you:

A Typical Month in the Life of an International Businessperson

Week One: Walk or bicycle to and from your office in Florida. Exercise with friends. Eat dinners with the family.

Week Two: Much the same as Week One – except for Wednesday, when a limo picks you up from your home at 5:45 a.m. and takes you to the airport. You fly to Baltimore for a full day of meetings. You are back home and in your own bed at 11:30 p.m.

Week Three: Fly to New York on Saturday morning and book into a nice hotel. Have dinner with a friend/business associate in a great restaurant. Spend Sunday morning with your son, who lives in NYC. Fly out that night to London. Pass a day by yourself, walking around the parks and visiting the shops. Spend the next week working in London, talking to your British employees, going to lunch with all sorts of interesting businesspeople, and having dinner with newfound international friends.

Week Four: Back to Florida for a week – except for Wednesday, when you spend the day in Baltimore again.

The decision to go international should not be made lightly. It takes a great deal of work and a considerable investment of time and money. The net result, after all is said and done, may be a business that is neither bigger nor more stable than you’d have if you kept to the U.S. market. That’s what my number one client and I decided in talking about it today at lunch.

“Ultimately,” he said. “It’s a question of how you want to spend your time.” He is happier living the bulk of his life abroad, just as I’m happy spending about 25% of my working time traveling. The U.S. is a huge market for just about every product and service. To grow your business, you don’t need to become international. Staying in the States allows you to focus your energies and talents. There is a big advantage to that.

And the Internet has changed things too. Nowadays, you don’t need to open up offices in Madrid to reach the Spanish market. A quick review of my major Internet clients reveals that the international component of their customer bases has grown from less than 5% 10 years ago to almost 20% today. That’s a pretty sizeable jump.

For most people, the only good reason to “go global” is because you cherish the experience of working abroad. Recognize that if you do want to lead the life of an international businessperson, there will be significant challenges. But if you like the idea of ordering your espresso in Italian and reading profit statements in pounds, you can certainly accomplish it.

Here are three things I’ve learned from watching my client become a global conglomerate:

1. Each office needs a local superstar. You can’t overcome all the legal, technical, and transactional problems that come from working in a foreign environment without a very strong employer/partner to work you through them.

2. Take one step at a time. Follow ETR’s golden rule on this. Taking a giant leap away from what you already know is a formula for failure. Start with your core business and test your proven practices in the international market. Don’t listen to advice that tells you that you must do everything differently. You will have to make some changes, but make them gradually and begrudgingly.

3. Lead with your strongest promotion. Cultures vary, but people are fundamentally the same. To break into a new foreign market, begin with your strongest promotion for a product that you think will work. A strong promotion changed slightly to be compatible with the local market will outperform a mediocre promotion that seems “perfectly suited” to your new prospects.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]