In a globally competitive world, startups now have to balance working in multiple countries simultaneously to stay ahead of the competition. Doing business in different locations with different cultures can be a challenge, but smart entrepreneurs can stay afloat with the right approach.
As a Chinese-born American and CEO of two companies — one in each country — I have learned a few strategies that can help other entrepreneurs achieve international success.
Challenges of Global Business
Doing business in multiple countries presents three primary challenges: culture, time and distance.
The cultural differences between China and the U.S. are vast. In China, people are more likely to discuss business during leisure time while sharing a meal or out on the town. But in America, people prefer to make decisions in conference rooms. These challenges extend to language as well. Even with a translator, one side will often fail to grasp the subtleties of what the other is trying to communicate.
Time management gets trickier when international travel becomes a regular occurrence. I once flew between Beijing and Los Angeles to attend multiple conferences on the same day, which could have been a scheduling nightmare if I hadn’t been keenly aware of the flight and conference schedules beforehand. If you travel internationally with any frequency, learning the specifics of travel options ahead of time can pay massive dividends when you have to make quick decisions.
Finally, while people you work with mean well, you cannot overly rely on their support when separated by a significant distance. When we are ready to start the day in the U.S., our Chinese counterparts are just falling asleep. Geographical distance can make you feel less in control of your company, and video conferences can only do so much to alleviate this when small details slip through the cracks. Meetings feel less private because there is always a third party involved in facilitating communication across an ocean.
How to Stay Afloat in Multiple Countries
Despite the significant challenges, the rewards of doing business in multiple countries are immense. These four strategies have helped me maintain balance in two places while helping both companies grow:
1. Use Strong Videoconferencing Software
Find a good third-party software that brings instant visualization to the team. We initially used Skype, which required logging in and often an actual PC, but it was slow and unintuitive for our purposes — largely thanks to its heavy digital regulation in China. For our purposes, WeChat has been much more effective.
2. Stick With a Time
If you schedule a conference meeting for both sides, make sure people in both countries can participate on equal ground, and stick with that time once you establish it. We hold our meetings at 7 p.m. PST, which means the team members in China are ready to go at 10 a.m.
3. Solve Local Problems Locally
Don’t replace one country’s experience with the other. Western logic will struggle to solve Eastern problems and vice versa. When I first met a government official in China who was guiding me through a certain process, I went alone and found myself speaking with 10 other people. At the time, I didn’t realize I was expected to bring different specialists from my team. Why? Because I was approaching the meeting as if it were in the U.S.
4. Clarify Quantitative Descriptions
A little in one country might be a lot in another. When I went to China to meet some business partners, they told me they would only be drinking a little. Their definition of “a little” turned out to be vastly different from my own. The same is true in more formal business settings. A short time or a low stock in one place might be interpreted differently in another.
Don’t hesitate to expand internationally just because there are obstacles in your path. Embrace the culture, create consistent communication, and treat both sides equally. You will soon enjoy the immense benefits that multinational markets provide.