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This is the final article in a four-part series focused on growing your business internationally.
When we founded Studios Architecture 25 years ago, our plan was to provide design services to customers internationally — without maintaining offices around the world. We have achieved that goal, designing prominent projects such as the interior of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at the time the tallest buildings in the world, and the office for the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China on the Bund in Shanghai.
With the growing interest in global trade, small- and medium-size business owners often ask me what the secret is to entering foreign markets. The answer, I think, can be boiled down to five things:
As a small business, you can look at GDP statistics to see which national economies are growing. But it’s more important to understand where your existing customers are going with their businesses, because they can bring you along.
2. Work with — not against — Uncle Sam. A lot of small businesses see the government as an obstacle. For us, the U.S. Commerce Department has been a vital source of information and aid as we’ve expanded into India and China. The Commerce Department's U.S. Commercial Service has 160 people on the ground in India. They’ve helped us scope out information and resources — such as identifying local partners — that would have been difficult for us to find on our own.
3. Team up with big guys. In October 2008, we took part in a global trade mission to India sponsored by FedEx and the U.S. Commercial Service. We were able to benefit from the strength of the FedEx brand, since the company opened doors more quickly than we could have on our own. Nearly every meeting during the trade mission was worthwhile for us; I left each one bursting with ideas for next steps. By teaming up with large companies that you work with, a huge amount of the legwork can be done for you.
4. Partners need to come before customers. When you meet with potential customers in foreign markets, they expect you to have local partners already in place. In our experience, the best partners are people who have worked or lived in the U.S. and understand both cultures. In our industry, we also need local partners who are familiar with cutting-edge technology. The first question foreign customers will ask is: “How are we to work together?” If you don’t have good local partners, doors can close quickly.
5. Re-examine your brand through their eyes. In foreign markets, the general American brand is strong and “translatable” — your individual business brand must be strong and translatable, as well. We redesigned our Web site to use visual elements, such as images of our many award-winning buildings, so even non-English speakers can easily grasp our skill and accomplishments.
When we initially spoke to potential foreign customers, we told them we were experienced in many areas, from office buildings to retail locations, and could handle their entire slate of projects. This didn’t resonate. It took us years to learn what they wanted to hear — which was the one project we were most enthusiastic about. For them, specific enthusiasm was going to define our brand.
When you go into a new market, communicate your primary strengths and passions. There will be time to expand to other areas later.
Studios Architecture is an award-winning design practice with more than 250 employees throughout five offices.
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