The benefits of going global

Setting up an overseas office can be a complex and stressful business, and not for everyone, but Sharon Wheeler says it’s worth it

As new entrants to the market make the UK design sector increasingly competitive, and pressure on client budgets make the rewards less worthwhile, more and more design consultancies are looking beyond international barriers at the opportunities afforded by seeking work beyond our shores. After all, clients are also becoming global entities.

However, breaking out of our island mentality and tapping into overseas business is not that easy, and by no means a sure-fire success. Other markets can be just as competitive as the UK, if not more so, and there are plenty of hurdles to trip you up. This I know, as we’ve just set up Turquoise Dubai as a result of winning several new accounts there.

So, before you get too excited about the prospect of all that new international business waiting for you, you need to think seriously about whether this would fit with the way you work, your company culture and, crucially, whether you can afford it. Our international launch took two years to plan. So what considerations do you need to make before taking such a big step?

First, you need an international mindset. If all of your business and staff come from the M4 corridor, then setting up abroad may come as too much of a shock to the system. We have staff from across Europe, the Antipodes, Asia and the Middle East. As a result, we view the world as a global village, and have a variety of perspectives on any project we’re working on. This has helped us to secure work in Malaysia, Brazil, Belgium, Eire and the Middle East, as well as in Britain.

Carry out due diligence to assess the opportunity of international expansion. You need to be confident that you fully understand the market you’re thinking of moving into, what differentiates you, and how competitive that market is. Unless you have total financial visibility in terms of where your revenue is going to come from, don’t even think about it.

You also need to do a great deal of research into legalities. Tax laws can be very complex, and the legal process of actually setting up a business abroad can be very frustrating – you need legal people on the ground advising you.

Back-end processes and administration are also paramount, to ensure that, at any point in time, you know how you’re doing financially. Have rigorous payment systems and go through outstanding invoices every day to see how you are doing and what needs attention before it turns into a problem.

Consider how you’re going to gain credibility and acceptance in a market where you’re an unknown entity. What has helped us with the new office is the fact that we’re fully committed to developing and training local staff – so we are acknowledged as helping to grow the industry, rather than plundering the existing workforce. It is also key to employ good mother-tongue speakers on the team to ensure that all work takes into account cultural nuances. To be viewed seriously as an international contender your new ‘branch’ needs to be real and robust, and fully integrated with your UK office (not just a local consultancy acquisition).

If you don’t like travel and haven’t got a stomach for stress, launching internationally is not for you. It is uncertain, risky and very hard work. For us, however, the positives outweigh the negatives. Not only are we growing our business significantly as a result, but it is also giving us fantastic opportunities.

We are looking at job exchanges between staff in Dubai and London to broaden their horizons. In addition, Dubai has some of the best production facilities in the world and we are taking advantage of these for our European clients by producing campaigns at a significantly lower cost over there and shipping it to Europe. As the Dubai working week runs from Sunday to Thursday, this also means that we run a six-day week across the UK and the Middle East, giving our clients greater flexibility.

But finally, and most importantly, we can better service our clients out there with a richer offering as we have high-calibre implementers who can make things happen at a local level – and we can attend weekly client meetings without buying shares in the Emirates airline.

Sharon Wheeler is chief executive of Turquoise

Planning it:

  • Take time to plan your move, it could take years rather than months to carry out properly
  • Ensure you have enough people fluent in the object language already employed in your organisation
  • Check trade arrangements: are there foreign exchange controls, quotas or trade barriers?
  • Research the legalities, particularly the tax laws
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