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How To Successfully Open An International Office

Moving into new markets can be a strong growth plan, but the foundation of international growth requires the business to maintain the same company culture across different regions.

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As a South African expat, I always wanted to expand my digital marketing business from London to Cape Town. After eight years of hard work in the UK and European markets, TopLine Comms was ready and we opened our South African office in 2015. The usual logistics, like setting up local bank accounts, finding office space and hiring staff, were time-consuming tasks but by no means unfamiliar and they were soon sorted.

A far bigger challenge awaited us, which was figuring out how to integrate our new South African colleagues and maintain the company’s culture between two teams across two continents.

Business growth is exciting but you have to put your people first and make sure everyone feels united as a team — regardless of geography.

The following principles are universal for anyone thinking of opening up a second office, wherever it may be.

Why open an office overseas?

Expanding TopLine abroad into South Africa made both personal and professional sense, but I knew that for the move to be successful, it needed a solid business case.

An undeniable benefit of opening an office abroad is that it gives you access to a whole new pool of talent. This boosts your business with a broader range of skills, experience, ideas, languages, culture and networks. It also adds an attractive employment proposition, offering employees the opportunity to gain overseas work experience.

Related: Mitigating Currency Exchange Risk For International Businesses in South Africa

Opening a new office anywhere in the world is primarily driven by the need to scale and tap into lucrative new markets. Our office in Cape Town is more than just a resource hub that supports our London team and services our UK and European client base. It also gives us the opportunity to target the local market.

How do you open an office overseas?

Stay connected

business-connection

Connection is the word and without today’s technology, TopLine would have stayed put in London. A good, fast, reliable Internet connection is essential to doing business across borders — and to keeping our teams in Cape Town and London working together seamlessly. Skype is an amazing tool but a call can quickly become awkward between colleagues or with a client, if the connection is bad and neither person can hear the other properly.

Regular check-ins, meetings and calls are important for bringing people together across offices. They help forge stronger ties between colleagues and bring the whole team closer to the business. A poor connection can therefore be incredibly frustrating and ineffective, ultimately wasting everyone’s time with limited results.

The right technology is a non-negotiable in our modern working world — offices need to have great Internet to stay connected to one another, especially if they’re using cloud-based services.

The cloud makes it easier than ever before to set up an office overseas, and South African businesses are increasingly starting to embrace it. Cloud-based services are cost effective, efficient and they make it easy for employees to access all the information they need from anywhere in the world at any time. The best way to facilitate easy working between offices is without a doubt to keep your company data in the cloud. Collaboration is simple; everyone can work together from the same page and all documents are updated in real-time so there’s no confusion around which version of what is latest.


Tools

Some well-known cloud-based services include Google Drive for sharing and storing documents, Asana for task management, Trello for communication and Xero for accounting and financial management. These are just a few of many — whatever your business need, the cloud can help you do it better.


Communicate

A lot of communication is non-verbal and relies on facial expressions, hand gestures, posture and attitude. Long distance communication doesn’t have any of these elements which makes it very easy for misunderstandings to happen. A simple misunderstanding can be swiftly fixed when you’re in the same room. If you’re miles apart though, it can fester into something enormous and cause unnecessary issues.

Related: 3 Signs Your Business Is Ready To Expand Internationally

With two or more offices in different countries, there will inevitably be cultural differences — even if everyone speaks the same language. These differences are interesting and important to the personality of your company but they can cause some communication issues that you might not be initially aware of. The South African ‘just now’ for example, is a lot looser than its literal meaning and in the UK, business communication can be quite direct and to the point. If you’ve never met the person behind the emails, you might take their words the wrong way.


Top Tip

The best way to avoid this is with regular phone calls, emails and Skype sessions. We’ve found that sending an internal email out each Friday with positive updates from the week has been good for staff morale. Communication doesn’t always have to be work related so encourage your employees across the different offices to get in touch from time to time to just ‘shoot the breeze’ and get to know each other.


Consistency

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A consistent on-boarding process is key to instilling your company culture across multiple offices. It’s so easy to forget that what is second nature to you is completely unknown to your new employees and colleagues in an overseas office. Starting a new job always involves taking in a lot of information in the first few months which is made doubly overwhelming when the new employee is latitude lines away from most of their colleagues. A comprehensive manual that outlines everything they need to know is critical. It needs to be a completely user-friendly welcome pack that covers all the essentials like where to find certain documents, usernames, passwords and file naming conventions.

At TopLine we give our new-starters an action-packed schedule for their first two weeks — or longer depending on their level of skill and experience. In that time, they get to ‘meet’ the whole team, are introduced to all the accounts we work on and specifically the business that pertains to their role. We make sure that the whole process is managed by a senior employee who checks in every few days to ensure that the new employee is coping and getting to grips with everything and everyone okay. It also gives them a chance to voice any concerns or ask questions.

As amazing as technology is, real relationships are made in person. If you’ve hired new people to staff your new office abroad, then you need to get on a plane as soon as possible to go out and meet them. It’s good to make a few trips a year but it doesn’t always have to be you. Give other senior colleagues a chance to meet the new team and experience their working day in their office environment.


Top Tip

I’ve personally spent many months at a stretch working from the Cape Town office and other UK team members have visited for a few weeks at a time. It immediately strengthens the connection between our two offices and puts a face to a name, avatar or screen image.


The benefits of successfully expanding your business into new territories can be significant. Of course, to do this well, you need to have the right people working together with as little frustration as possible. Make sure your employees are sharing, talking and interacting as much as possible — the greater the collaboration, the stronger and more successful your business will be.

A consistent on-boarding process is key to instilling your company culture across multiple offices. It’s so easy to forget that what is second nature to you is completely unknown to your new employees and colleagues in an overseas office.


Key Insights

Understand why you are scaling your business

A Cape Town office is a valuable resource hub that services a UK and European client base, with lower fixed overheads. It also provides the opportunity to target the local market.

Make use of smart tools in the cloud to collaborate across continents

Having offices across multiple geographic locations is possible because of cloud technology — not only because it facilitates communication, but because it allows for seamless collaboration. If all company documents are securely stored in the cloud, it doesn’t matter where team members are based.

On-boarding is essential to maintain company culture

A consistent on-boarding process is an essential element of creating and maintaining your company culture across multiple offices. Take the time to create a successful and consistent on-boarding system.

 

Heather Baker is the CEO and founder of Topline Comms, based in the UK and South Africa. She is a digital communications specialist, HubSpotter, blogger, and served as the president of the UK chapter of Entrepreneur’s Organisation in 2014 and 2015.

How to Guides

Enterprise Supplier Development (ESD) Provides Opportunity For Entrepreneurs

LFP Training offers ESD support services such as the implementation of sustainable supplier development programmes, profiling and analysis of your supplier database, enabling procurement opportunities for EME’s through collaboration and partnerships and promoting the upskilling of EMEs and facilities the quality of services provided.

Jacolien Botha

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LFP Training’s team spends a lot of time educating businesses on the benefits of BEE. As an entrepreneurial venture, the company understands that you have worked hard to build your brand and as such, BEE should strengthen your position the market.

AJ Jordaan, LFP Training’s National Sales Manager says that while Skills Development remains the most cost-effective, productive and mutually beneficial way to gain points whilst improving the performance of your staff, ESD is too a critical component of the scorecard.

“By partnering with a BEE compliant business, companies can claim additional points towards Enterprise and Supplier Development (ESD),” says AJ.

Both ESD and Skills Development initiatives cover large portions of the scorecard in total so it’s vital to score well overall. “Furthermore, ESD is one of the priority elements of BEE and failing to comply with the subminimum requirements will result in your company being discounted a level”.

In a country where entrepreneurship is recognised as a catalyst for growth, ESD helps small businesses to thrive by gaining access to opportunities through its attractive BEE status. “This in turn helps to ensure the sustainability and success of such businesses in South Africa”.

ESD is a combination of preferential procurement, supplier diversity and development and enterprise development programs used to service a business’s needs.

Trading has never been more attractive and ESD contributions can take on many forms. “While some people are still very cynical about BEE, ESD is not based on the value of a contract given to a black business but rather the contributions towards technical help, the transfer of knowledge and skills, operating cash flow, loans and/or investments.”

AJ does warn that while this is a great benefit of being compliant, in an instance where two companies supply the exact same service, the company with the higher BEE recognition will most likely secure the business. “Here, a customer will partner with the company with a higher rating as they earn more points towards preferential procurement under ESD.”

“Today we are seeing some companies penalising a supplier when dropping a level as it influences their scores on ESD so its once again vital to maintain your current BEE level or to improve” AJ continues.

“There are a host of benefits to making sure that businesses align their efforts to compliant businesses, these include; an improved BEE rating, gaining a competitive advantage and reducing costs, supporting a compliant business, a strong and positive association for your business with a compliant business” says AJ.

LFP Training offers ESD support services such as the implementation of sustainable supplier development programmes, profiling and analysis of your supplier database, enabling procurement opportunities for EME’s through collaboration and partnerships and promoting the upskilling of EMEs and facilities the quality of services provided.

Read next: Enterprise Development Programmes For Black Entrepreneurs

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How to Guides

Three Things You Need To Do When Starting A Business

Like a good game of chess, starting a business will challenge you to think about your long-term strategy and also make sure you’re moving the pieces one step at a time in the right direction.

Stacey Ferreira

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Starting a business is a dream job for many people who have a great idea, are willing to tolerate some risk and are looking to be their own boss. While start-ups are often glorified in the news – as some reach extremely high valuations – starting a company is a big undertaking that typically requires grit, perseverance and a little bit of luck along the way.

Over the past few years, I’ve started two companies, sold one and raised over $4 million in venture capital from some of Silicon Valley’s top firms. These companies haven’t been without their challenges, so here are the top three things I wish I knew when I was starting out:

1. Talk To Prospective Customers Before Starting Your Business

The biggest time killer in a start-up is building a product you think a customer needs, only to find out, after you launch your product, that the customer actually needs something else. Before starting my second company, Forge, I recorded over 50 conversations with prospective buyers to learn about their top three problems, how they define success and how much they’d be willing to pay to have product or solution that successfully helps them navigate their problem. These conversations helped me narrow in on building a product I knew customers needed and gave me my first few customers.

Related: Crucial Skills You Need To Be An Entrepreneur

2. Reference Check Investors Like You Reference Check Employees

Sometimes raising money is necessary to get a capital-intensive business off the ground or as a way to spur growth. But raising capital, as with anything, comes with a cost. The cost is giving up future value of your business in the form of equity. Who you give this equity and other rights to – such as a board seat, which is often paired with financing rounds – can have a massive impact on the long-term business outcome.

It might seem daunting to ask a lot of questions of someone who is willing to write a cheque for a few hundred thousand or million dollars (or rands), but it’s extremely necessary.

  • Have they invested before?
  • Who did they invest in?
  • What value did they provide to those entrepreneurs?
  • Do they understand that most start-ups fail and that they might not get their money back?
  • Can they introduce you to a few people they’ve invested in previously – business founders who went through both good and tough times?

Since most successful businesses are around for more than 10 years, it’s important to know who you’re going to be working with.

3. Do Whatever It Takes To Make Sure Your First Three Projects Are Successful

If you decide to raise pre-seed or seed capital for your business, take the money and spend 100% of your time working with your first three clients. I often see entrepreneurs who accept capital and then worry about how they’re going to rapidly grow their company.

In reality, in the early days nothing matters more than making your first three clients extremely happy, so you can use their success stories as case studies. Their testimonials will help you sell to client numbers 4-10, which will in turn help you sell to clients 11-100. Focus on your first three customers and tweaking your product or solution experience. Your company will grow organically from there.

Related: 21 Steps To Start-Up

Bonus: Passion Doesn’t Help You Make Payroll

The first time I had to let go of someone from my team, very early on in my career, my dad said to me, “Passion Doesn’t Help You Make Payroll.” You can have an employee who is extremely passionate about the work you’re doing, but if they can’t contribute to making it a reality, it’s better to let them go and get back to building the business.

Whether it’s conducting customer research, pitching to investors or learning from your first clients, starting a business gives you unmatched flexibility and the ability to truly learn every day.

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How to Guides

Tips On How to Build Your First Ecommerce Business

Starting an ecommerce business is really important in this day and age because everything and everyone is online. With the sheer number of people populating the internet, only an online business can reach out to them.

Megan Harris

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However, having an online business isn’t just about trying to sell things on the internet. There is necessary groundwork needed to avoid any pitfalls.

Making an online business is extremely lucrative because it can tap markets that can hardly be reached by traditional mediums of marketing. In a study by CMO, it was revealed that 72% of millennial shoppers shop online before they go to a mall or store and these people, who are in the age range of 25-34, are heavy smartphone users when it comes to shopping.

With this kind of information, you can really see how effective having an online store is. So, the question here now is how do you start an online business? Here are a few tips on how to go about.

Decide through market research

Like all businesses, you have to fill in a need or a want. Having an online business is no different. You must first ask yourself what is something that people need and want. Next, you have to ask yourself if you can provide that need or want. After that, you must research if your target market can be found on the internet or not. Once you have all of that down, then you can start.

Related: Watch List: 15 SA eCommerce Entrepreneurs Who Have Built Successful Online Businesses

Develop your online presence

The website will always be the frontline of any online business because this is where all customers will end up. Think of your website as like your store but on the internet. If your store is good and accessible, then your customers will like it there.

In order to build a good website, you’ll need two essential things: a website design and a server. For the website design, you may just design one and use a back-office program like WordPress to manage it. If you want to have a nice design, you may hire a professional website designer for it. Next, you have to think about the server. You’ll want a server that performs well because your server will determine how fast your website moves.

If your service provider is not very efficient, then your website won’t load quickly and smoothly. Before deciding which web host to use, be sure to read reviews about it to get more feedback. Once you have these two things, you just need to learn the process of creating your website then you’re good to go.

Develop a content strategy

So after you’ve built yourself a nice looking website, the next step is to fill it up with information. You have to write well and make sure that your text will cater to the market segment that you are targeting. 

Get found through SEO

SEO techniques are directly related to content as SEO relies heavily on modifying text. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation and they are techniques used to give your website a good slot in Google or Yahoo. SEO would primarily make use of keywords that people would often search in search engines. If you know how to make use of these keywords, your site will earn top billing on Google if a person searches for something relevant to your site.

Related: 3 Types Of Ecommerce Business Models

Utilise email marketing to find leads

Using email marketing services along with highly targeted database, is a power tool for pushing your website since email marketing is personalised. People, in general, like to feel special so if you send them an email promoting your online business, you may get them to becoming buyers. The best way to go about with email marketing is to find leads and shoot your emails out. 

Make use of paid channels

PPC ads, or Pay Per Click ads, are quick to drive traffic to a website because advertisers pay a fee each time the ad is clicked. In a sense, the advertiser buys views so that traffic will go into the site faster. This is a quick way to get views and eventually single out the target market.

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