First Things First

Many people ask me, “What is the first thing I need to do to prepare to start a business in a new country?”

They expect to hear, “Come up with a great business idea, research the local economy, or take a 2-week vision trip.”

Instead, I tell them, “Go home, pack up your things, and move there. Don’t wait! Do whatever it takes to get your feet on the ground ASAP!”

Maybe that is a little extreme, but in a sense, I’m being serious. The best thing you can do to help you learn how to start a business in another culture or country is to live there. Yes, it is important to do some research and talk to people who have been there, but once you decide, you need to go.  Your most effective research will come as you dive into the culture, learn the nuances of the entrepreneurial scene, and get to know both nationals and other expats.

How do I get there?

There are many ways you can accomplish getting your feet on the ground. The easiest way is to use money you have saved and move there. Many places will let you stay on a tourist visa for 1 to 3 months and let you extend it or only require you to hop over to a neighboring country and back to get another visa.  Please note that I am not suggesting that you start your business while on a tourist visa. At this point in the game, you are a tourist who is asking very intentional questions.

But, I realize not everyone has thousands of dollars sitting around and it can be difficult to stay more than a few months on a tourist visa.  You can also look for an internship, volunteer opportunity, or job with a local or international company or nonprofit organization.  

How long should I stay?

The absolute minimum should be three months. If possible, I would aim to stay there for at least a year. This allows you to find your groove of what life is really like. You will have developed some relationships, learned where to shop, and what to do for fun.

It is also likely that you will have worked through two waves of culture shock. For most people, there is some initial culture shock, as well as a second wave after 6 to 8 months of living in a new country. Most people expect the initial culture shock, but the second wave is often unexpected and much worse than the first.  Once the honeymoon phase wears off and the reality of your new life sets in, you typically go into a funk and start to miss some of the things you left behind. If you can pull yourself out of the funk and embrace your new life, you’re moving in the right direction. Some people may realize that this is not the life for them during this time. Others come through it stronger, better adjusted and more committed than before.  You want to make sure you can make it over this hump before you go all in on a business.

During this time, you can lay the groundwork that will be needed before you start your business.  This is a great time to assess the needs that exist in the marketplace, start developing the idea of your product or service, and start researching the steps needed to get up and running. Just make sure you have been there for a sufficient length of time before you spend your life savings in a place you hardly know.

I spent three months volunteering in Kenya before I came back and convinced my fiancé to move there with me, which we did exactly three months after our wedding! We took jobs and worked there for almost two years before we took the leap of starting a business. By then, we knew we could make a life for ourselves there and had the knowledge to start a successful business.

As you consider starting a business outside of your home culture, there are many cultural, legal, and entrepreneurial angles that you must consider. Of course, you also need to consider the effects that cross-cultural living will have on you as an individual and on your family, including those who will travel with you and those who will stay behind.  Don’t let any of those questions stop you from taking the first step!  These questions will all be answered in time, but you have to get there first.  Don’t wait!  Start planning today!