5 things we learned doing business abroad

Going global with your business can be a brilliant decision. Not only are you widening your audience, but you also get to learn from other cultures, adapt to different situations - and have a bit of adventure too. One business that's discovered this is Huxley, a Bristol-based video production company that we funded. They create innovative film and animation for brands all over the globe, taking them to various different countries. Here's what their experience has taught them.

Trading overseas can be hugely rewarding, particularly in our line of work - we love working with different locations and cultures and finding ways to share their unique qualities through our films . Like any new venture it’s not without its pitfalls, but most of these can be avoided with a bit of extra thought and care.  Here then are our five top tips if you’re making your first foray overseas:

Be prepared

Good organisation and planning is essential, but there are a few extra hurdles to jump when you’re negotiating cultural sensibilities, language barriers and a completely new environment!

You’ll get the best information by tapping up local knowledge. Start by hiring a native ‘fixer’ who will guide you through the process, from helping you plan your schedule to making sure you’re not overcharged for goods and services.

We have a multi-lingual team which has been a huge asset when working abroad, but if you don’t speak the language a dedicated translator is worth every penny. Clear communication is at the heart of almost every business, so make sure you give this even more care overseas than you do at home.

Depending on how you trade abroad, you may find that key members of your team will be away from the office for long periods of time. Factor in the cost of scaling up your workforce to keep things running smoothly back home if a big project comes your way.

Be open to the culture you are working in

We recently produced a branded documentary in Japan, where there’s a culture of respect that set the rules for our whole project. This included allowing extra time to follow protocol and to meet and greet with important local figures. Formal introductions to dignitaries and religious leaders were mandatory before we could even think about filming.

Conversely, when filming in the favelas of Rio in Brazil, we had to be very careful about when and where we pulled out the camera as doing so in the wrong location could be very dangerous!

Every culture has its own customs, so it pays to learn about them well in advance.

Safety first

If you’re travelling in person, trading abroad can bring a whole new set of risks. Check your insurance and make sure you're covered in the country you’re travelling to - if you’re not insured then a slip and a broken ankle could cost your business tens of thousands of pounds. A simple risk assessment will help you spot anything you may have missed in your planning.

Before you go, check what vaccinations or other medication you might need – the NHS Fit for Travel website is a great place to start – and if you’ll be in a more remote area make sure insect repellent, antihistamines and anti-inflammatories are included with your basic first aid kit.

When it comes to food, always follow local advice on when and where to grab a bite. Working abroad often means tight schedules, so a case of food poisoning can play havoc with your timetable as well as your stomach!

Get a handle on VAT

The rules can be different depending on where you are trading, and whether you're selling goods, services or both. We’ve learned to double check with our clients where they are registered for banking, and what the UK’s VAT agreement is with that country - you don’t want to get halfway through and then tell the client that you need to charge an extra 20% on what’s been quoted, especially if the circumstances make it complicated for them to claim it back. It can be a bit of a minefield, and the law around VAT does change, so our advice would be to make sure that your accountant knows their stuff, and run everything by them at the beginning of a project (and get their response in writing so you can prove how you were advised if there any mistakes!).

Learn to adapt

No matter how much planning you do, there are so many variables when working in a foreign environment that you will always run into unforeseen problems - you have to be able to think on your feet! Factor this into your planning and give yourself room for flexibility.

We recently worked on a film project in Cuba, where the pace of life is a little slower than we’re used to. We had to adjust our expectations about what we could achieve in our timescale. If we’d tried to make everyone work to our original schedule we would have appeared pushy, stressed and rude. Accepting the situation and making adjustments allowed us to stay relaxed and keep people onside so that everyone enjoyed the experience, Which is a real priority for us. To Huxley, the process is just as important as the final product, and could mean the difference between a one-off client and repeat business!

Exporting and working abroad is a great way to diversify your client base. It can really boost your profile too, giving clients back home more confidence in working with you. It can be daunting at first, but once you’re underway you’ll never look back. Just plan carefully, do your research, and don’t be afraid to bring in help if you need it!

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