4 Steps That Launched My Expat Startup, and the 1 Thing That Almost Destroyed It

When I started my first business, I had to figure out most things on my own. I made many mistakes along they way, but there were a few wins that tremendously impacted our success. I hope these steps speed up your business growth. And since no success story is quite complete without a failure or two, I also share one key thing I should have done differently.

1. I Went

During my senior year in college, my then fiance, Lauren, and I knew that life outside of the US was calling us. We had travelled to a handful of countries and felt very comfortable that we could handle the stresses that come with living in another country and culture. However, we needed to be sure.

Less than two weeks after my college graduation, I was on a plane headed to Nairobi, Kenya. Six months earlier, Lauren and I had met an incredible lady who had moved to Kenya a few years earlier to start a children’s camp and a team and leadership training program. She needed help continuing to run and grow the program. We felt like this was the right opportunity for us, but I wanted to test the waters, so I volunteered with the program for three months.

During those three months, I learned so much. But the most important thing I learned was that we could do this. While I wouldn’t see all the challenges that awaited us, I was confident that Lauren and I could move to Kenya and figure life out.

To do this, we had to be willing to take the first step of going. It was scary and really intimidating at times, but we pushed through. This put us on the ground learning about the culture and the business environment that would set us up to eventually start two businesses over the next ten years.

2. I Found My Idea

A year and a half after arriving in Kenya, we found the program we came to work with being shut down. Our partner site decided to move in a different direction.

We had fallen in love with Kenya and the people and didn’t want to leave. I had grown a program that I loved and knew added value to businesses and people lives. Late one night, around a campfire in a Tanzanian village, a small group of us decided that we could spin our small program into a for-profit business.

We saw a need for our program through our current customers, but also the room for it to grow in other sectors of the marketplace. At the time we were primarily focused on schools, but we also saw an opportunity in the business sector for team and leadership development. There were a few companies offering services similar to ours, but none of them were delivering it in the same way. We found our unique idea and opportunity.

3. I Built My Team

I had never started a business before. While I learned many things running and growing the program, I knew starting a business was going to bring some new challenges. By God’s grace, I realized I needed to bring others onto my team who could help me grow the business.

One of the first members of this team was Tom. Tom had been an HR director for a large shoe company based in Kenya and then helped run the venue where our program was originally based. He loved what we were doing, saw the value we provided, and was eager to help out. He became our first investor and brought so much more than money. He would become my business mentor and eventually our Marketing Director. I wrote a whole post about Tom that you can check out here.

I also made some key hires that made my life easier and allowed me to focus on growing the business. I brought on David to manage the office and Eddie to handle the accounting. This allowed me to focus on what I was good at: meeting with clients, developing programs, and executing our programs.

As we continued to grow, this lesson stuck with me. When I realized I couldn’t lead every program, I raised up program leaders. When our clients were too many for me to handle, I recruited people to help with sales and focused on our high value clients. By taking these steps, I was able to get out of way and let my business grow.

4. I Learned Along the Way

I can’t begin to fit everything I learned while starting my business here. I was learning new things everyday. However, the key thing was that I was open to learning and didn’t think I had everything figured out. I was willing to ask questions when I didn’t have the answers.

Ask Clients Questions

When I first started marketing our programs to schools, I tried calling them. The numbers either didn’t work or I would leave a message and never hear back. I got frustrated and decided to drive to these schools and find the right person.

At the first school, I walked up to the secretary at the front desk and she asked if she could help me. And then I did something amazing without realizing it. I said “Yes, I could really use your help.” I told her about our program and asked who was the right person to speak to about the program. Her eyes lit up and she sent us immediately to the head teacher.

By asking her for help and for her input, we communicated to her that she had value and we recognized that value. Doing this again and again helped us get to the decision makers in schools, as well as in businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits.

Ask Everyone Questions

Today, I’m still asking questions. I ask my clients to tell me everything they can so I can understand their situation and how I can provide them value. I ask my mentors about their experiences. I ask my vendors about how their process works and try to find ways to make it easier on them. I even ask strangers about their careers and businesses, knowing it may allow me to add value to their lives and give me the opportunity to learn something new.

What I Didn’t Do That I Should Have

While I did some things right, I also had my share of failures. Maybe I’ll talk about those in my next post. As I reflect back on my first business, I do want to point out one glaring failure, one that would have decreased my mistakes and allowed my business to grow faster. I wish I had found a mentor who had started a business.

While I had others speaking into my life regarding Kenyan business culture and navigating Kenya as an expat, I didn’t have someone to guide me through the ups and downs that come with launching a business. I didn’t have someone who could share their mistakes and what they had learned from them. There wasn’t anyone to help me avoid the pitfalls that hurt our growth. I needed a sounding board for my business strategy and someone to ask the right questions to help me tweak ideas to make them more effective.

Find a Mentor

If you are in the process of starting and growing your business or just even thinking about it, find someone who has travelled this road before. If you can find one that has started a similar business, that is even better. They will understand what you are going through and ask good questions to help you make better decisions. Remember that no mentor is perfect. If you aren’t happy with the first person you find, reach out to someone else. But make sure they are willing to ask challenging questions that will push you toward your goals.

If you are in need of a mentor, I would love to help. Please reach out to me through my contact page and we can set up a free 30 minute session. During this session I’ll ask a bunch of questions to figure out if my coaching program is a good fit for you and your business. Reach out here today and we can set something up.

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