20 Tips on Going International - a Soap Opera and a Saga of the most difficult success

This is the way it is done... I will keep it to bullet points just for the fun of it and those bullet points will be in no particular order, just like the life itself...

1. No one gives a damn about you. Like, literally. No one. You are on your own. You are your best friend, your worst enemy, your loudest cheer and most thorough gut checker. So, do you work, do you math ... thrice. Nobody will correct you if you are wrong. NOBODY.

2. Do not assume that if you (like me) grew up in a foreign country but now live in the US of A, doing business with your country of birth will be easy. WRONG. The language and the country have moved on, while you are still stuck in circa 1999. And so did your language, and your mentality, and your sense of what is going on in the country. Do not fool yourself - you are a foreigner in both countries. There is a reason I am saying this; and I will get to the juicy details a little later.

3. Do not rush hiring an international attorney to draft a contract with a foreign entity - you might be surprised how many things will change in the course of a 2-year long attempt to establish a business or sales in a foreign country. Might as well wait and see what you are actually doing and then write a contract around it. And wait a little bit longer just in case to make sure your product actually arrives and you are READY to sell. And when you do write a contract, do yourself a favor and do not do it yourself, use someone with expertise in INTERNATIONAL CONTRACTS! Otherwise, you will spend next half a century doing it and will come out angry, frustrated and with nothing of value to show. Templates online will only confuse you. Every business situation is different. Treat it as such.

4. 'Lost in translation' WILL become a daily game. There is no shortage of ways to misinterpret EVERYTHING you say and do to the point of absurd. Whether your communication is written, verbal (over the phone or in person), 5 people in the meeting will come out with a different idea of what needs to be done. Because no one except for you has your mentality and thought process, you can count on point #4 at all times. Even if you put your drawings of a new product on sketch paper with scale, precise instructions, measurements, specs, etc., it will be interpreted not the same way. Allow 15-45% margin or error in interpretation. Another possibility is that some of your instructions will never make it to the intended party. So micromanagement and repeating yourself in written, video, sketch and other media forms is a must. 

5. Plan on everything to take 3-4 times longer at a minimum. It is not a recommendation. It is a 100% statistical probability. You will not regret planning accordingly.

6. Addresses and phone numbers in various countries are so different and postal services SUCK. You might as well count on getting 2 out of 4 packages with samples. And 1 out of 3 small shipments you send regular mail will be send back to you for no reason whatsoever. 

7. No good and reasonably priced logistics company will want to work with your on small shipments going in and out of the country. You are too small. The amount of time it will take you to find a good logistics partner and have everything set is staggering. And as soon as you get it figured out, your favorite logistics coordinator will move, quit or the company will close a local office. How to hedge it? 

  • Having a couple of carriers at the same time
  • Having backup with international giants like FedEx, DHL, UPS - so that you HAVE an option at all
  • Organize the heck out of your records, old invoices, tariff codes, etc - so that every time you need to send inquiry to another logistics company, you can just send a packet of info they can work with right away. Assembling it every time from scratch is PAINFUL...

8. You will swear much more often - in multiple languages. That's an easy one. Every morning you will get something to look forward too and to swear about because while you are asleep, across the pond the wheels are turning and you will see the tracks in the beautiful AM.

9. You cannot pretend that you are poor, because you ARE building an international business, so everyone will assume that you are shoveling money with a super large shovel. What does this mean? When you are talking to your vendors and suppliers about COGS, about margins and your costs, all they see is Maui Jim's glasses on your face. Your challenges simply do not register. Everyone is very quick at counting someone else's money. It is very hard for someone from a different country to comprehend the level of expenses and differences in the life style we have here in the beautiful US of A.

It is especially funny in the age of Facebook and Internet, when every artisan you work with who you pay WAY over their local market price for their product, can check on your site and see your prices and decide randomly to hold you hostage and gauge their pricing because they only understand they you are making A TON of money. What COGS?

What are the solutions? I choose transparency and education in dealing with all artisans I work with. Sometimes it works and sometimes you just have to find another person to work with because bi-lateral trust and understanding is critical for long-time success. I know what I do, but if the other side chooses not to trust me, there is NOTHING I can do to change it. We have to find partners that understand that business is a game where everyone has to win. One side cannot lose all the time, or it goes out of business and then there is no more Kate running over to the villages buying products - she is out of money... So, find best partners. It will take a while...

10. Do not assume anything. Check the address, the name, the business name of all your vendors or exporters. Check who owns the business and who owns the business name (if it is the same person). Check if the business has a business bank account and what is the name on this business account. Check that invoices, and packing lists, and contracts have identical information when it comes to buyer's info or seller's info. Most countries are much less lenient when it comes to paperwork. Some have zero tolerance for honest mistakes, which WILL be called a financial crime, which has NO statute of limitations. You will go crazy trying to fix it. And when you have holidays, time zones and multiple languages involved, you will have a prolonged wonderful chance to spend as much time on fixing it as universe allows. I am not even mentioning the money part or the possibility of losing a lot of money. It is like shorting stock - your opportunity for loss in virtually unlimited.

11. You cannot learn it all. Having strong partners in the country where you decided to do business is a MUST. Even if you were born in that country and grew up there; but you have not done business there, do not assume that you can. Rely on current information and your business partners. 

12. Only in person. Negotiations over the phone or email do not work. International negotiations especially. People do business with people they like. I am not original here. Set a budget and spend some quality time with your partners. All of them.

13. Be ready to set aside most of everything you do domestically and work on your new international project pretty much full time. You cannot delegate international expansion. You can delegate some of the domestic business work if your business is well established and you have routines well documented. 

14. Even before you embark on your international journey organize the heck out of your business - photos, files, programs, passwords, recipes, website files, processes and procedures, specs and product descriptions, design files, etc., etc. When you have a good organized system, it is easier to translate it. If you do not have it - now you have two or three languages to translate it into and actually create it before you do. And you do not have time because you are too busy tracking that package from #6. 

And for the fun of it, your partner will tell you that your Russian language sounds like 'google translate' and all that you just spend weeks doing is garbage. Marketing materials written in 'google translate' are only good for, well.... nothing. Use a translation company who can do it and can do it well. 

15. Just do not do it. Staying in your own country and taking advantage of easy business rules, no bureaucracy is a winner over attempting to replicate your success in a foreign country. Ain't the same. If I did not have the partners I have in Russia, who are working diligently with me day and night on getting Katari going in Russia, I would have bought 20 therapy sessions to deal with hurt ego, got a day job to pay off incurred debts and called it a day.  And I was born and raised in Russia. Go figure. Nothing is easy.

16. Honesty in business - I have seen it both ways. It hurts, really hurts to see people who you trusted for many years lie to you or take advantage of you. Because there is no other way - you gotta give your chosen business partner a chance to prove himself or herself. Every human relationship deserves it. But unlike personal relationships where you can give someone a second chance, business relationships are impossible at accepting or forgiving betrayals. And betrayals will happen too.

17. You are the boss. You ARE. You cannot show weakness. You have to be flexible and you have to figure it all out. Being a boss also means you have to find a way to communicate with every single person you work with in their unique style that suits them. It is a must. Or else you will fail because you cannot fly over the pond every week to have tea and shake hands. Most of your conversations will be over WhatsApp or email when your are tired, busy, distracted or trying to find best words in English that Google Translate will handle with ease.

18. Do not trust information you are given by any official. Let me tell you why. First, go back to #1 and re-read it. Second, just imagine - you spent months if not years working on your business. You call or email a person who works for the government or at an institution who does not know and will never know your business as well you do. This person answers the questions from their limited understanding of your situation. You (like me) might be not the best at succinctly explaining your problem. It is hard to give someone an elevator pitch and assume they read your mind. Double-check. Spot-check. Ask again. Make Sure. Read all references and ask multiple sources. Make sure the question is very precise and if your gut tells you that the answer does not make sense, you are probably right. 

19. Trust your gut. 

20. Give thanks to all people who you work with. Randomly and regularly. The honey method. It works. We are too stressed too often to even realize that people who create and do things for us only get our attention when something is wrong. When everything is right, we have other issues to worry about. Give yourself a second a day and send a quick 'thank you' to a few people. Just randomly. And I will do mine.


~ Internationally yours, Kate

20 Tips on doing international business

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