Viant moved into the UK in April 1999 because it was an “emerging” market.
London, in particular, has the financial services, entertainment, fashion and publishing industries all in one place, making it rich with opportunities. London is also a great central location to develop relationships in other countries. As an English-speaking country, many of the language problems associated with growing organically in a new country would, in theory, be eliminated as well.
What we learned from the opening of the London office definitely drove how we approached our second office in Munich. But we learned as we went. Much as I think that there are things which you can prepare for, each company has to find its own way of creating a place for itself in the cultural, professional and business landscape of a new location.
Having an office in a European business hub also meant that we could easily hire people who would become the DNA for future offices in different countries. It was, in fact, the cultural expertise of the Germans we hired that enabled Viant to grow organically in Germany as well.
Most companies avoid this problem by acquiring new companies, but our internal culture was essential to our work and so it was important to preserve that. Integrating with an organisation with its own culture and politics is hard. It also prevents you from having control over the quality of people hired.
In advance of arrival in the country, the biggest preparation for us was to get the legal issues resolved. We had to apply for the initial work permits that were needed so we could transfer our DNA landing team.
We hired a law firm and an accounting firm to handle all of the legal and financial/ accounting aspects of setting up the office. This was especially necessary as none of the landing team had run an office in the UK.
There was also the creation of the legal entity that would employ them. After that, we had to find temporary office space and put in the basic infrastructure. As Viant is a Web-based company, having Web, e-mail and file servers up and running as soon as possible was important too.
We “landed” in the UK, as we call it, with a representative sample of a mature office, focusing on a senior project delivery team which could sell work, and a general manager. In retrospect, we perhaps should have landed with a more operational team which had experience in managing the daily activities of an office, setting up infrastructure, sales and marketing and then brought the project team over when we had set up camp and identified some strong sales leads.
Ultimately, because we grew organically, everyone else was a local hire. This meant we had to bring people over from the US to support the training and mentoring of the new teams in situ. But within about six months we had a fully operational office.
London is a mixed bag for getting people over (in terms of its appeal as a place that Americans would like to work). There were people who wanted to work on a project for a short while, but it was hard to recruit people that were prepared to commit to moving to London for the long term. This was less of a problem for us, since we hired locally and only relied on the overseas staff to fill in the gaps in our capabilities.
In terms of red tape, the UK is no better or worse than the US. There is red tape of different sorts in every country though, if you had asked me this a year ago I might have been less generous.
But we did have to develop new approaches to business and sales in the UK. The common language is deceptive. The
sales approach in the US is bold and aggressive, but that approach didn’t fly well over here.
We did have the advantage though that clients wanted to hire American consultancies in the Internet space because, at the time, they believed that Americans had more experience with Internet technologies.
All in all, I have developed a new appreciation for sun and sea holidays since my time in the UK. But, overall, I am adaptable and London is, in comparison to New York City, a small town, so I have not had such a hard time with it. I do wish the good food was more affordable, though.
Since being here, I have tried to maintain my New York City/ neutral American accent. I have, however, started to substitute an “S” for a “Z” in many words, added the odd “U” to words like “colour” and even swapped a “ter” for “tre”, as in “theatre”. But I still staunchly hold out against misspelling or pronouncing the thirteenth element (aluminum).
Ian Worley is the American-born former creative head at US e-business consultancy Viant. He plans to remain in the UK
The lessons of setting up an overseas office
– Consider how you will overcome any language barrier, even if you move to an English-speaking country
– If you are planning to grow organically rather than by acquisition, it is best to put a landing team on the ground and then hire locally
– Hiring a workforce of mixed nationalities can lead to opportunities in neighbouring countries
– Consider who to hire to assist in the creation of the new legal entity
– Ensure that the landing team has the capacity to be fully operational as soon as possible
– Be patient with red tape – it will crop up wherever you set up shop