In this article the CEO of Al Maarij group Akmal Saleem shares his experience and outline 8 key strategies on how to grow your business internationally.
Most entrepreneurs have a global vision, our minds are programmed in a manner that makes us want to expand, explore, and roam the world, whilst doing business and enterprise.
However, dreaming of having a global business and actually having one are two very different things, in this short article I aim to help aspiring entrepreneurs understand how I went global and from my experience give some tips and tricks on things to consider when doing so.
Over the past 7 years, I have been fortunate to grow a global business, currently Maarij Group operates across the world, with a presence in the UK, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Pakistan. In we have plans to expand our operations deeper within the US and South Africa.
If you want to truly have a global business then you have to be interested in what the world has to offer, you have to have the passion to uncover the mysteries of hidden cultures along with the brilliance of human behaviour and character.
If you like your comfortable home, glass offices and can’t live without your morning cup of coffee, then you are going to struggle to build a global business empire. I say having gone through the challenges that new markets threw at me time and time again, some markets we entered and other we didn’t.
I am someone who likes certain types of food, anything beyond that spectrum I struggle, so when I travel to our Jakarta office in Indonesia the 10 days I am there, I live on pizza and hardly eat or sleep.
No matter how much my local staff tries to persuade me, I just can’t eat the local food, but that did not stop me from making Indonesia our key impact investment focus for 2017, because the market is more important than my comfortability and the country is one of the most beautiful countries I have been to.
However, let’s take a step back, so how did I go global and build a presence in emerging and developing markets?
My first company was set up in the UK, Reading and my second office was set up in Pakistan. I am not shy in saying that this was purely a cost decision and for most start-ups, the first country you expand into usually is due to cheap labour and is a cost center.
With our branding and creative agency (Brand786 Global) I hired a number of developers in Pakistan and started delivering web projects. Pakistan after a while was clearly not going to be a long-term investment, so I divested the team and kept an IT support team there as our business strategy had changed.
Working remotely was a very interesting experience and it taught me to trust my staff and to send lots of emails to articulate what I wanted, this was and has been an invaluable skill because it helped me write better proposals and improved my general communication skills in the early days.
However Pakistan was not really a business expansion it was a functional expansion, our first new market expansion was in Saudi Arabia. I expanded into Saudi Arabia due to my social nature and ability to connect with different people, at university I would meet everyone and get involved in everything, I loved making friends, learning about peoples stories, and expanding my network. Whilst at university I made a Saudi friend, who at the time was outside my social circle and a couple of years younger.
After graduating I was invited back to give a keynote address at an awards ceremony where hey presto, my old Saudi friend was getting an award, after re-connecting he told me he wanted to take the brand to Saudi Arabia and after selling him a franchise which was ridiculously cheap we kicked off our adventure in Saudi Arabia.
Note I practically gave the rights to my brand in Saudi Arabia free, I got to live in Madinah, Saudi Arabia. If you want to go global be ready to look beyond money in the first few markets. Indonesia came about while being invited to speak at an international conference, I fell in love with the country and people and I could see incredible opportunities, so within 6 months I setup a company and started trading.
I am very selective on which countries I work in and who I work with and so being able to judge character is a very important thing, but beyond character there are a number of thing you should know. Below are key observations and insights from my experience:
Most people do not go past this point and they journey ends before it starts. You have You have to have the ability to judge character if you want to expand into unknown markets, otherwise you will get burnt very easily. Malaysia for me was a big lesson, a guy showed me fake accounts, talked the talk and then behind my back registered all our local domains and tried to extortion me! I laugh about it becuase in business all dis-honest people fail and that is a fact. What is a little creepy is he has the cheek to follow me in social media!
The local mentalities you have to deal with can be very painful, so you need thick skin. If you have a short temper then there is a good chance most of the time you are trying to do business, you will be angry and if that is the case you will make bad decisions. You need to exercise patience and wisdom.
Always hire local staff when operating in new countries, it significantly speeds things up and you will get to know the market quicker, the language is the obvious factor but with marketing channels such as social media, if your brands speaks in the wrong way you will be moving backwards.
Simple things like understanding local culture can have a huge impact on local success, showing that you care is an essential part of setting up in different regions. Show interest and respect to your hosts and ensure that you take the time to learn about the country, its history and vision.
Often people think that you need huge amounts of capital to go global, this is not the case, just like when you most likely started your first business with not much, you can enter a new country with a small amount of capital and limit risk. This approach however takes a little longer and you have to be someone who can read people and characters easily.
Many people like a country and therefore want to do business there, although this is not a negative point, it can be something that hinders your decision making ability and create bias, expand into the market that has the opportunity and use data and research to back up your decision.
It is hard enough establishing in a market where you do not speak the language and understand the local culture, do not make it harder by going in blind. The Internet has made it very easy to understand the situations of local markets and so there is no real excuse to jump in blind. The trends and patterns are clear and if there is no research available, it can either mean that there is significant opportunity available or that it is a frontier market which needs a few more years to mature.
The mechanics of entering into a new market is something that can be replicated with minor tweaks, so always understand and take note of key lessons and learning when developing opportunities in new countries, even if you do not eventually follow through. Once you have done it a couple times you will have clear blueprint of how your brand can penetrate and the approach you want to take. After you entered into more than 5 countries then you will have it buttoned down to the pixel.
– Without this critical component you will be lost. Ensure that you have the confidence to follow-through with your decision, every time I am about to enter a new market just before I make the final call, I have to take a step back and re-asses everything in a holistic manner and then I consult my gut and if I have a good gut feeling about the research, approach and strategy I go for it, but when I go for it then I never look back.
I hope that this article has given some valuable insights into going global, Maarij Group has achieved this feat and we are helping companies also achieve their global ambitions and grow into emerging and developing markets with trust .
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Akmal Saleem is the CEO at Rizq, a UK-based alternative Islamic Digital Banking app. Prior to this, he founded Maarij Wealth which aims to revive the tradition of value based propositions that help personal and professional wealth creation and growth.
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