by Michael Wou
I remember when I was a child feeling the enormity of the world, and foreign lands seemed almost out of reach. One evening, while at home in Montreal, my father asked me to come to the phone in a hurry. Uncle Lee was on the line from Hong Kong, and my father’s sense of urgency came from the $12 per minute (!) price tag. He hovered nearby as I sped through the conversation in auctioneer-speed Cantonese, managing to keep it under $60—equal to about a week’s worth of groceries back then. Fast-forward to today’s hyper-connectivity, and the world has suddenly become a lot smaller. On a daily basis, and without a second thought, I’ll connect with a handful of people around the world for mere pennies.
As technological advances continue to shrink distances, doing business beyond our usual borders isn’t as daunting as it used to be. There are many reasons to expand into another country, but it all boils down to if you’re ready to make the leap. Our motives at Origami Branding were practical and aspirational. The practical reasons can be substantial: the first comes from being able to acquire international brand knowledge and experience, and offer it back to our clients at home; the second is that we no longer depend on a single economy and currency. All economies have their ebbs and flows, so if one begins to slow, having an alternate revenue stream can help you ride out the financial waves.
Global currencies are also another advantage. A friend of mine in Canada had a large contract with the United States Postal Service, and when his company received payments from south of the border, he’d hold on to them for a week or two, and study the fluctuations in the currency markets. When the deposits were properly timed, he could earn an additional several hundred to several thousand dollars just by waiting for the American dollar to rise and/or the Canadian dollar to drop. Choosing which countries to approach depends on many factors, but primarily the decision is based on which ones would require the least amount of effort in return for the best opportunities. Other considerations include everything from understanding the culture to the legal realities of that country—with culture and language being the biggest hurdles. Research into a designated culture can go a long way. Not only is it respectful, but investing in the understanding and demonstrating sensitivity can help you plan a more efficient and lasting entry.
When we were presented with an opportunity to work on a branding project in Tanzania, we knew very little about the culture, traditions, or even how to string two words together in Swahili. We took the necessary time to do our homework, and connected with some knowledgeable locals to assist us in gaining some insight. This helped us navigate the cultural landscape and benefitted us greatly in comprehending what factors were necessary for a brand to thrive in that region. Since we were working with a grassroots non-profit organization in a country with a watchful government, our local guides wisely advised us to make a point of paying a visit to government officials and the chief of police, introducing ourselves and dispelling any suspicions they may have of us. This simple gesture gained us the support of the officials and mitigated any potential conflicts that might have arisen. The partnership we developed with our guides became a relationship of trust, and they helped us get our project off the ground in a way that was sustainable after our departure.
Successful partnerships can take on many different forms. On one pitch for a project in Saudi Arabia, an assignment of great magnitude, we were short on staff. We did some research through our network of colleagues and reached out to some talented art directors and senior designers in neighbouring Dubai. We sought out people who could not only guide us culturally, but who also complemented us talent-wise based on the project’s range of anticipated needs. An added bonus is that they were located a short hop away from Saudi Arabia, easier to get some eyes on the ground if needed and for them to liaise with the client in their own language and time zone.
Sometimes it isn’t always possible to have boots on the ground, and working across different time zones can be challenging. At one point we had projects spread out across five different time zones ranging from San Francisco (three hours behind) to New Zealand (17 hours ahead). We were stretched pretty thin, not only for time, but also in keeping each line of communication on track. At any given point during our work day, it may be morning for one client, late afternoon for another, and some others will already be fast asleep. Being consistent with regularly timed conference calls and reporting will ensure that everyone on both sides of the project are on the same page. This will also help calm any concerns the clients may have because there is an established scheduled flow of dialogue. In some cases, such as with New Zealand, the time difference put them so far ahead that regular conference calls were difficult to align. Instead we opted for short daily reports outlining the status of the project and any steps we needed to address the following day. Other options included starting and ending the day later to create a longer time window for connecting with the client.
No matter how effective technology is for communication, it still doesn’t surpass the value of the occasional in-person meetings that are necessary to keep business relationships thriving. One way we mitigate travel costs is by paying most of our suppliers with our corporate credit card to accumulate frequent-flyer points towards air fare, hotels and car rentals. Everything from equipment purchases to print jobs are paid through it. Paying for one print job can equal a ticket across the continent; pay another and you’re on your way to Asia. Once you have a foothold with a client in another country, you can also use these trips to seek out new business opportunities within the same region.
In any country you do business in, you’ll need to look at protecting yourself by seeking an attorney who is familiar with international business law, and who can help you review contracts and adhere to the laws of that particular country. Insurance is also another very important item. Verify what is legally required of you in terms of coverage. Some foreign clients won’t even look your way if you don’t carry enough coverage. Consider that they are also making a leap in hiring you, so they have to be convinced of the clear benefits of taking you aboard. In some cases, they’re looking for someone outside their usual circle, who can see the same things but from a different vantage point. This position works both ways when some of these clients want to expand out of their own countries, and into yours.
Besides these practical concerns, working on international projects brings forth new opportunities that can be very stimulating and rewarding for everyone involved. With the abundance of resources out there, if you’re ready to make the leap, it may not seem as far away as it appears. •
Michael Wou is the Creative Principal of Origami Tactical Creativity + Branding in Montreal and San Francisco.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.