Starting a business abroad: 8 lessons I learned

Starting a business abroad: 8 lessons I learned

I often think of summer as a time for reflection. While walking on a beach in Poland recently I was reflecting on the years that have passed since I gave up corporate life and started my coaching business. I started my business in Brazil and then moved it to the Netherlands. 

Since I regularly receive many questions on how to start up successfully, I have decided to share my experiences with those of you who are starting or thinking of starting your own business.

The lessons I learned from starting my business abroad

While my experience of starting a business was of course in many ways unique to my adopted country, I did find that many of the lessons I learned are actually universal, and applicable to pretty much anywhere. 

1. Know your client really well

When I first started out, I had it in my head that I wanted to work with all women of all different nationalities. I even had two websites, in English and in Dutch. However, after a couple of months I noticed I did not have even one Dutch client, but many international and expat women.

So I decided to focus only on them and took my Dutch site offline. It was liberating to choose my niche more specifically. It was also liberating not having to maintain communication in two languages. No more articles in Dutch. Woohoo!

The most important thing I discovered is that, since I am also an expat, I have an immediate click and feeling with my international clients, a feeling that we understand each other. This is key in coaching.

The best tip I can share here is to describe your "ideal" clients in as much detail as possible. I even went as far as describing what type of magazines my clients read, and what books and movies they would like.

2. Develop, test and develop again

When I first started my business (unofficially) in Brazil, I developed a set of basic workshops and immediately started to run them, just to find out how potential clients would react.

Thanks to that I found out which workshops got more attention and which content was more appealing. I also found out how to actually run a workshop. It was great fun and an amazing learning curve.

Starters often spend a lot of time inventing products or services that turn out not to be bought by clients. So my tip here is: develop your basic product or service quickly, and then go out and test it with your clients. Take their feedback and use it to further develop your offerings.

3. Sometimes you need to get a specialist involved

It can be tempting at first to try to do everything yourself - your business is your baby, I get it. I did this. I even created my own website, and I was really proud of it. But it took me a lot of time and effort, which I could have spent on other things.

I have now remade my website and I hired a specialist to do that. I am not saying you should do the same, but I discovered that certain things are best left to specialists. Especially matters like tax and accounting are best outsourced.

4. Your network is your greatest asset

Cliche it mind sound, but one of the biggest and most important business lesson I have learned is to grow and value my network. In the beginning I did not see how networking could help me. I was going to different events but rarely met someone who said, “Yes, I want to be your client today!”

First I thought there must be something wrong with me. But then I learnt that networking works in its own way, differently to what I expected. I have learnt that networking is not about doing your sales pitch, quickly handing over your business card and moving on to the next "victim."

Networking is about building deeper, long lasting relationships with others. The time and effort that you invest in it always pays off, sooner or later. My biggest corporate contracts to date are the result of networking. And yes, sometimes it took several months after the first contact.

5. Spend time crafting your status as an expert

As a new business owner, you might want to put all your time into things that will tangibly “make you money” - your product or service. However, it can also be worthwhile to slowly weave a wider web. When I talk to my potential clients they often tell me that they feel like they already know me thanks to reading my articles or following me on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

It takes quite some time to share my knowledge by giving speeches, writing articles, and updating my social media accounts, but thanks to such activities people know what I stand for. If they like it, it’s easy for them to choose me. Remember, people need to know you, like you and trust you to go further with you in business!

6. Take lessons from others

You don’t always need to go it alone. There are others who have already walked this road, and can advise you. When I was starting my business a few years ago, Marianne, a great lady who was also a coach, shared a lot of what she learnt with me from when she was starting her coaching business - I am very grateful to her for doing that.

You need others who are already in business to mentor you, so you don't have to re-invent the wheel all over again.

7. Investing in yourself and your business reaps rewards

Especially in the early days of your business, it can be tempting to pinch the pennies, but you’ll soon learn that a bit of wise investing pays for itself several times over. Find out what your business needs most and invest in it. It can save time and funnily enough, money... in the end. This year I invested in myself and worked with a speech coach to take my public speaking to the next level.

If you want to reach the top you need to be at your best, and believe me, you are worth investing in.

8. Never, ever give up

In my view, the most important quality of a business owner is perseverance. For me, having my own business means lots of fun and lots of hard work as well. 

There were many times when I asked myself: Is it ever going to work out? If I did not have the support of people close to me and did not persevere, it would have been much tougher. So remember: never, ever give up!

Got any more tips on starting a business abroad? Let us know in the comments below!

This article originally appeared on IamExpat in the Netherlands.

Dorota Klop-Sowinska


Dorota Klop-Sowinska

Official Member of Forbes Coaches Council. I specialize in international career and expat coaching. I am the author of the book Career Jump! How to Successfully Change Your Professional Path...

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