14 lessons from a small business selling overseas � from the start

Northern Lights is a PR, marketing and social media agency based in Harrogate that has been exporting services for three years. Here, Chief Executive, Victoria Tomlinson, shares her experiences and tips for small businesses to break into international trade.

Three years ago, in the depths of the recession, I got on a plane to Dubai. We got a year’s contract from the first meeting – entirely through LinkedIn. We had money in the bank within three months of that meeting and are now working with some of the most prestigious names in the UAE.

Has it all been plain sailing? No! Here I share thoughts on what I have learned and hope it will encourage others – from very small to very large – businesses to look at selling overseas (you can read more about our first steps in Dubai in this blog). While many of these are specific to the UAE, I hope many will help for any overseas market.

1. Use LinkedIn to research your market

When we were thinking about selling overseas, I posted on LinkedIn ‘Can anyone talk me through the economy in Dubai/Oman?’. A director of Yorkshire Water responded in 24 hours with an introduction to someone who gave me three hours of time – for free – to talk me through their experiences. This gave us confidence.

All our team did an Advanced Search on LinkedIn to see who had contacts in Dubai. Our first contract came from a colleagues’ ex-husband’s best man who now lives in Italy and she hadn’t seen for 20 years. He introduced me to a former colleague in Dubai, neither of whom had seen each other for 25 years!

LinkedIn is all about the power of who knows whom, and social media cuts through bureaucracy, time and gives permission for immediate relationships.

2. Find a niche

Initially I expected to sell PR services combined with strategic social media – LinkedIn, blogging etc. I quickly realised there are loads of PR companies in the UAE, who could offer local services cheaper than we could. When I became a BBC expert woman, this caught the imagination in the UAE and we have now developed our service into an executive presence service encompassing personal branding, impact from presentations and thought leadership – using strategic social media. We are particularly helping female Emirati leaders – I wrote up the whole story in this report on female leaders.

Our first client was so bowled over with our integrity, that they became our Ambassador. It was hugely flattering to be introduced to fellow CEOs with such a warm write-up. But when I met someone who headed a large food manufacturing business who wanted us to brand a type of ketchup and mayonnaise and promote it in Senegal, I had to stop and think - which bit of this business are we meant to be expert in? We have never worked in consumer or food – we are B2B; we were still learning about the UAE; and I haven’t worked in Senegal for 25 years.

We turned this down, even though the MD really wanted us. Tempting though it is to grab every opportunity, I believe you should only take work you know you can deliver well.

3. Exporting has been expensive

I went to the UAE initially because the UK market was so flat and difficult to predict. We have covered our costs as we went, but I can’t say it’s been a money-spinner yet. The rules to operate as a business have become more expensive and even the cheapest options – if you are doing things properly as we always try to do – are thousands of pounds.

However, it has given our UK business profile, new services and energised us at a really flat time. We don’t regret it at all. And as we have developed our leadership services in the UAE, this has been of interest to UK leaders and we have created a whole new strand to our business.

4. Seek support

UKTI is the government’s body to help businesses get exporting. We spoke to them and we’ve also heard of lots of other businesses who have had tremendous support. It is worth calling UKTI.

Embassies are keen to support British businesses. In Abu Dhabi, Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Philip Parham, and his team, asked us to work with them on an event for senior people and I was a guest speaker. I contacted him on Twitter and he responded!

5. Don’t forget the home team

One issue we got right – another was more difficult.

I involved all our team and my husband in my decision to go to Dubai. I knew it could be hard for those left behind and I wanted everyone to own this decision.

And the bit I didn’t manage as well? Most leaders create a lot of the energy and drive in a business. Leaving the UK for weeks at a time did make it hard for the home team. I tried to travel over weekends (Sunday is a working day and personal clients want to work on Saturdays) and get back to have a couple of days in the office in a week so it didn’t feel too empty. I now try and travel for shorter periods more often.

6. Take time to know people and build trust

You often hear talk of the Western ‘fly in-fly out’ culture – meaning people come in to their country to make money without any commitment to their country. I read somewhere that you need to meet someone seven times before they will do business with you and this is a good rule to work on. So make time for coffees. Even if you contact people and they can’t meet that time, your presence and continued interest will be noted.

The UAE has endless networking opportunities with regular events – often more than one a month: British Business Group, International Business Women’s Group, Dubai Business Women Council, Capital Club and many more. These are useful and most welcome guests at their events for a small additional fee. Get to know the organisers – many have been great friends to us.

7. Get to know the terminology

When I started working in the UAE, I was travelling between the two countries but still tended to think of myself as based in the UK. I used phrases like ‘returning home’ or ‘I will be visiting the UAE next week’. This suggests you really operate in the UK but pop into the UAE. The reality is that everyone in the UAE ‘travels’ – most are between at least six Gulf countries every week or two, most are travelling to the wider Middle East and those in oil and gas are off to Brazil, Aberdeen, Singapore and more on a regular basis.

You need to change your headset into the language of running an international business – even if this feels slightly pretentious when you are small!

8. Multicultural and itinerant

I have worked all across the world but the multicultural nature of the UAE is breathtaking – and exciting. It is normal to have 40 – 50 different cultures in even quite small businesses.

In the few years I have been doing business in the UAE, a large number of my original Expat contacts have moved jobs. There is little company loyalty and it is very normal to change jobs every six or 12 months. So if you are selling to a business, try and get embedded into the wider company, not rely on an individual for the relationship.

9. Keeping costs down

Dubai is seen as expensive – but you can also live very cheaply, depending on when you go. I think all my trips have been less than £1,500 – sometimes as little as £800 if I can stay with friends or good old Premier Inn or apartment deals. Taxis are very cheap – a 90 minute journey is around £40. Corner supermarkets have very cheap, fresh food – and you can get great street food for £3 that lasts two meals!

10. Respect the local culture

I personally believe that for a service business you should respect the people who pay you. I lived in Saudi Arabia as a teenager and have always loved the Arab culture – there is a lot for the West to learn from it. This respect has stood us in great stead and I would recommend anyone doing business in the Middle East to find what you appreciate and value about the country you operate in and try and understand their views from their perspective. More cultural tips in this blog on doing business in Abu Dhabi.

11. Working with a local partner

We formed a partnership with someone who had been a client; she was well-connected and had great integrity. In the end we could not make our business model work financially for two partners but have ended with an agreement which feels fair to both parties. We didn’t get lawyers involved at any stage but relied entirely on trust. For us it worked, for others it might not.

12. You can’t plan for anything

Someone said this to me just this week in Abu Dhabi – and he’s lived in the country for 20 years. I’m not sure we’ve been able to plan much in the UK for the last few years, either, but, particularly when doing business overseas, you have to be comfortable with uncertainty and risk.

13. Time differences

Anyone doing business around the world will be used to this. The UAE has its weekend on Friday/Saturday and they are four hours ahead, three in the summer. People tend to shut down for the weekend from lunchtime on Thursday – 8am or 9am in the UK. So if you are chasing decisions you need to be working to their times and in touch early Thursday morning. I can find I lose weekends and work long hours – but luckily have lots of energy and it is fun!

14. The costs not to skimp on

You will gather I have managed costs tightly! But the costs not to skimp on are:

  • get a local mobile and use that for calls to the country
  • get business cards translated and printed in both Arabic and English – put local numbers on the card
  • make sure your website has UAE contact details and include mentions of what you are doing overseas
  • update all your profiles to include the UK and the UAE – ie. on LinkedIn and Twitter.

If you would like support to explore new markets and seek out exciting business opportunities overseas, click here to browse support from the LEP and our partners.