2 Essential Relationships for Expat Startup Success – Part 2: The Guide

In the first post of this two-part series, we talked about finding the Monk of the culture, an experienced expat who can help you adapt to your new host country.  Today we will talk about the Guide, a local mentor who will be instrumental in your success.

When I think of the role of a guide, I naturally think about a tour or safari guide.  

An experienced guide shows you things that you would likely fail to notice on your own.  If you were to walk through an art museum, you may see and appreciate the beauty of the pieces you observe.  However, if you have a skilled guide, those same pieces develop a whole new level of meaning.  You will learn the historical and cultural background of the artist, the influence of their family on their work, other artists who shaped their work, techniques that they developed, and how their work helped to shape future artists.  By helping you to understand these details, your guide has added layers of depth to your understanding of the piece and given you the tools to apply to other works of art as you continue to further your understanding of art history.

Similarly, an expert safari guide does much more than point out the big game.  They are teachers in nature’s classroom. You will gain an understanding of the entire ecosystem as they teach you about the smaller organisms, botany, and bird life, all of which play a role in supporting the health of the animal populations that get all of the glory, such as lions, elephants, and cheetahs.

In both scenarios, the guide shows you what would otherwise remain unseen, or at least take a long time to discover. When learning to navigate the business landscape in another culture, you desperately need a guide.  Each place has its own unique code, both written and unwritten.  There will be laws you don’t know, cultural triggers you need to avoid, and marketing strategies that would fall flat in your home culture, but flourish in your current context.  You must have a national guide, a person who is from the country, who understands how business is done, and is bought in to your success.

My  guide was Tom, a respected businessman with deep connections in the business community.  After 30+ years in corporate Nairobi, it was impossible to go somewhere with Tom without running into half a dozen people that he knew.  It really is hard to say what he saw in a group of 20-somethings looking to bring innovative team and leadership programming to Kenya.  It’s safe to say that without him, we would have failed.  He introduced us to all of the right people, helped us navigate the challenges of registering a business, paying taxes, and the like, but more importantly, he knew what would work and what wouldn’t work.  He wasn’t afraid to try new things, but he also offered valuable counsel when we had an idea that he knew would fail.  Tom was a trusted business partner, guide, and friend.  He didn’t just tell us what to do, he would walk us through each step, pointing out things under the surface that we couldn’t see, patiently explaining how government, corporations, nonprofits, and individuals think and work.  He helped us find clients we never would have known existed.  He helped us to better understand our staff and improve our communication with them.  We would not have succeeded without a faithful guide like Tom.

Tips for Finding your Guide  

  • Experience counts.  Find someone who has been around for a long time and knows a lot of people!
  • Try to find someone in your industry.  In my case, this was a new industry to Tom.  He had the savvy to tackle something new, but ideally, you want someone who understands your industry.  
  • Consider making them a partner.  Once you’ve build a foundation of trust with your guide, you may want to consider inviting them to join you in an official capacity.  This could be as a paid advisor or part-owner in your company.  Be wise as you determine at what level you would like to work with them, but also remember that your guide will be more committed to you when you have made a commitment to them.

As you work with your Monk and your Guide, remember to have the humble attitude of a learner. Early on, I made the mistake of undervaluing both of these men and their willingness to invest in me and my family.  I’m very thankful that they both stuck with me and, in time, I came to appreciate their experiences and their wisdom.  Their guidance was instrumental in our success and in the growth of our business.