If you thought starting your own business was hard, wait until you begin trading in another country.

When things are going well, most business owners find themselves faced with the question of whether or not they should expand into international markets. In today's globalised world, many businesses - even SMBs - do. In fact, up to 900, 000 British small businesses plan to expand overseas by 2025. That's in addition to the 40 percent of small firms that are already exporting overseas.

Why you should consider opening an overseas office

According to the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), there are several reasons why small and medium-sized businesses should consider expanding into international markets:

  • It boosts your bottom line. Survey results showed that over half of businesses (55 percent) had seen a positive impact on their bottom line within just twelve months of expanding into international markets.
  • You're more likely to increase sales. The BCC says businesses who are 'proactive in exporting are, in most cases, better positioned to successfully increase sales than businesses that simply react.'

But before you can call yourself a truly international business, there are a few things you need to consider. You need to recognise (and deal with) challenges such as cultural differences, data protection obligations, and the difficulty of working in different time zones.

Cultural differences

The world is home to many different cultures, values and attitudes. It’s what makes this place so interesting, and yet complicated.

Here are a few common cultural difficulties (and their solutions) that you may face when opening an overseas office:

  • Values and attitudes. If you want to do business overseas, you need to adapt the way you work to fit with values and attitudes that may differ from yours. For example, in some countries it may be appropriate to ask a coworker about their mother's health. Other cultures may observe a more strict separation between professional and personal life. Hire a consultant to navigate the difficult waters of cultural difference and avoid offending potential customers, partners and employees.
  • Communication preferences. Words and body language are not universal. In Nigeria, for example, not looking people in the eye when talking is a sign of respect. In the UK, however, that kind of behaviour can make you seem 'shifty' and untrustworthy. The bottom line: don't take communication styles for granted. Learn how different cultures communicate and practise.
  • Professionalism and attire. Different cultures have different ideas about what is professional and appropriate when it comes to work attire. Take note of how your clients and partners dress, and replicate that. This is also an area where having a culture consultant would be useful.
  • Timing and appointments. The Germans, Flemish and Swiss are punctual people. The Chinese, meanwhile, are famous for arriving early to meetings. Learn what's considered appropriate in your country, and that way you'll avoid being too early - or too late.

Data protection laws

Even the most culturally compatible territories can have differing laws. We could write a book on this topic, so we’ll only talk about an area that’s getting a lot of attention lately: data protection law.

Keeping your data safe, whether you have an overseas office or not, is an enormous challenge - and it’s even more difficult when data protection laws come into play. One of the biggest changes in data protection laws is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which comes into force on the 25th May 2018.

The GDPR applies to all businesses that provide good and services to people in the European Union. If your business processes or holds the personal data of any person residing in the EU, you’re bound by GDPR - regardless of your location.

So no matter where you open your new office, you need to comply with the GDPR if you've got European customers or suppliers. Here’s a few things you can do to prepare any office for the GDPR:

  • Assemble a compliance team. You need a dedicated team who can drive, document and be accountable for GPDR compliance. This is an important step because the GDPR focuses heavily on accountability and proof of compliance.
  • Review your current IT security policy and data handling procedures. Just because you're compliant with previous laws doesn’t mean you will be compliant with the GDPR. Discover how your business collects, uses and stores personal data so that you can easily share and/or erase it if requested.
  • Update your privacy policy. At it’s heart, the GDPR is about embedding privacy protection into every aspect of your business. You need a privacy policy that is clear, articulate and in line with GDPR requirements. Seek legal counsel to find out exactly what you need.
  • Develop a data breach notification plan. Under the GDPR, you have 72 hours to inform customers about any data breach which compromises their personal information. This isn’t a lot of time, so you need a plan that: states who is responsible for reporting and documenting the breach and outlines the process for notifying customers of a data breach.

Not sure if you're ready for the GDPR? Complete this questionnaire and we’ll send you a personalised set of recommendations to help you get compliant before 25th May 2018.

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Working in different time zones

Working together should be a simple task, but when colleagues are in different time zones it becomes more complex. The simple fact is that it’s hard to maintain effective communication when your colleague is going to bed as you start your day. Here are a few tools and techniques to help you operate across time zones.

Tips for working across time-zones and locations

  • Slow down. A colleague from another country may have difficulty understanding you if you're speaking quickly with a foreign accent. Remember to slow down, especially on the phone, to get your message across. A good technique to ensure understanding between you is to paraphrase what was just said. This helps confirm that everyone is on the same page.
  • Meet up as much as possible. The best possible way to build a solid relationship is to meet up in person as much as possible. Whether you do this weekly, monthly or even just once a year, face-to-face interaction goes a long way in improving international relationships.

Tools to help you manage timezones

  • World Clock Meeting Planner. Schedule your meetings with confidence using this planner. Type in a date and the locations of every attendee and the tool will generate different times that may be suitable. It then colour-codes them into working hours, non-working hours and sleep hours.
  • Boomerang. Working in different time zones inevitably means more time spent outside of work writing, checking and responding to emails. Use Boomerang to schedule emails to go out at specific times, so your colleagues aren’t bothered by non-urgent emails out of hours.

Don’t just jump, dive deep

Opening an overseas office is a major task for any business. You can’t do it half-heartedly; you need to dive deep into the culture and laws of your chosen location while finding ways to ensure your business runs smoothly as an internationally.

Want to know more about how to set up your first overseas office? Check out our guide and learn how to avoid all the common IT pitfalls that jeopardise many office expansions. Good luck!

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