Paul Stewart, On-Brand Partners

OBP On Brand PartnersAs ON-Brand Partners starts to become established and gain more success internationally, I’ve been asked by a number of people to share my thoughts about what it takes for a New Zealand company to ‘get started’ on the international stage. While I certainly don’t have all the answers, we’ve certainly learnt some valuable lessons.

Paul Stewart of On Brand PartnersNearly twelve months ago I sat in a meeting room with a group senior executive of one of the world’s largest banks.  He started by saying...“The work you’ve done with us in Malaysia is impressive, but obviously as a small company based on the other side of the world, you can’t help us globally. But let’s talk anyway”. 

Two hours later he concluded the meeting with a single comment “Come back to me with how you think you could support us globally”.

A year on, we have delivered an organisation-wide solution to an GBP18bn turnover business (with fantastic results), started with another (the largest in it’s sector) to co-create a market-leading customer experience strategy and have established relationships with key executives in a list of companies that even our local competitors shake their heads at in astonishment.

It’s been a tough year, and we are not there yet. There’s constant pressure on resources and cashflow, plus ongoing (and surprising) business administrative challenges.  But, we know we are onto something.  As a business, we have the ‘belief’ that, if we can sustain our momentum, we can truly crack it on an international stage.

Our key insight is that success requires focus, energy, and local partners to make it happen.

Around four years ago our Independent Director laid down the opportunity and challenge.  Drawing on his experience of creating a major business-consulting stream for Arthur Anderson across Europe, he put it bluntly…

“What we have is extremely valuable, it’s leading edge and, we have the chance to make it internationally.  But we must decide if that’s what we want because it won’t happen by chance”.

It has often been said that the failure of New Zealand Inc. is not that we don’t have great products, services or ideas that are valuable in the world markets, but that we are much better at designing and producing them compared to developing the markets who will buy them.  The adage “Build it and they will come” has not worked for us as a nation or enterprises.

For some weeks we (as a management team and shareholders) considered that decision.  In the previous years we had established ourselves firmly in New Zealand, had some presence in Australia, had delivered two fantastic initiatives in Malaysia and, had a sporadic flow of work from other markets.  All of that had been serviced out of our ‘New Zealand’ centre and flying people into the offshore markets as required.  That approach was not scalable, nor sustainable.

We made the (entrepreneurial) decision to give it a go!  Sure, we could carve out a comfortable living in New Zealand (with the occasional add-on), but we didn’t want to die wondering.  Interestingly, the primary motivation was not about ‘making money’, although we thought that monetary rewards would come, in time, if we could pull it off.  What inspired us was seeing if we could make a difference on a larger scale – leveraging our ‘Kiwi’ creativity and taking it to the world.

We developed a high-level strategy (with a sufficiently emergent or flexible dimension to it), and, as CEO, I committed to spending up to 65% of my time away from New Zealand.  We set the goal of establishing three core hubs – one each in Asia, Europe and North America within 5 years, around which we would build a network of complementary partners.

Almost immediately, the Global Financial Crisis and world recession pulled the rug from under our feet, particularly as our core sector focus had (deliberately) been banking and financial services.  It probably set us back 18 months.

Somehow we managed to navigate our way through that period, and in addition, we maximised the opportunity to re-invent our offering. That meant making a major on-line investment, so we could leverage our ‘intellectual property’ in a manner that minimised the need for people.  In effect, we aimed to step away from the ‘time and cost’ consulting model that our major competitors continue to employ.

To be fair we wavered and the entire business could have easily faltered.  But we kept some irons in the international fire by leveraging our own networks in the UK and Europe, and finally got the sniff of a major opportunity.   It took nine months (and a lot of time away from New Zealand), to get it over the line. But then we had a platform – a project that would drive good cashflow, a need to pull together a UK-based team, and a high profile UK brand as a client.  All three have been important to really getting the business established.

So what have we learnt so far about taking a small New Zealand company into a big market like the UK?

I often say “New Zealand is not the end of the world, but if you climb a tree you can see it from there!” A bit of humour can go a long way but more than that, it is important to anticipate the (psychological) barriers others will perceive about doing business with you.

You may have heard of Zappos.com, the US on-line shoe-store that has become a phenomenal business success through true ‘customer-centricity’.  We’ve known the Zappos.com executive team for many years.  They ‘put themselves in their customers shoes’ in every possible way.  One thing that really struck me in their early years was that they were up-front about the barriers customers could perceive.  The home page of their website said “Here’s the reasons you may be reluctant to buy shoes on-line:  and here’s what we’ve done about it!”

Unlike Zappos, you don’t necessarily need to have the barriers and solutions listed on your website.  But it is important to anticipate the reservations and concerns that your potential customers may have about doing business with a company that herald’s from a place ‘so far away’, and is not yet ‘established’ in their local market.

For us, there have been two client reservations.  Firstly, “What’s your local capacity you have to deliver?”  Secondly, “Who else have you worked with from our industry in the UK?”.

The honest answer (and honesty is key), to the second question was “No one!”

“But hey, even if you use the best that your competitors have used, what will you get?  Answer - the same as your competitors.  We can bring something different”. 

And as Gary Hamel (acknowledged management guru) has said “Most of what companies will need to know to be successful in the future lies outside of their current industry”.  

So the flipside is that being on the ‘edge of world’ is also a true advantage.  Frankly, it means we see the world in a different way. As New Zealanders, we have travelled different journeys to other nations, experienced different things and solved problems in different ways.  That doesn’t mean we are ‘better’ (or ‘worse’), but it does mean we have a unique perspective that we bring to the table.

Don’t underplay it - you need to leverage that.  Furthermore, you are on offshore company, and that (by definition) means you bring ‘international’ experience!

Certainly our experience has been that business leaders here in the UK quickly sense that we offer something different, fresh and complementary to what’s been available to them locally.  And if they are forward thinking and looking for the next ‘edge’, they’ll be open to talking and exploring it with you.  If not, then they are not worth wasting your time with.

One of those New Zealand ‘differences’ is that our offerings and solutions tend to be more ‘integrated’.  It is widely recognised that ‘Kiwis’ (often on their OE) who have previous work experience tend to have much greater ‘generalist’ capabilities.  Unlike their local counter-parts who have often been pigeon-holed into very narrow specialised areas, Kiwis, by necessity, tend to have developed a broader set of skills and experiences across professional disciplines and industries.  That, in itself is a specialist capability!

Our core values and attitudes as a nation are somewhat different too.  When we first started delivering services internationally in Asia and the US, we realised that New Zealanders (in general) have a greater sense of egalitarianism – we’re less hung up on class, hierarchy and rank.  Consequently, apart from the few who are highly protective of their own status, we’ve found that business people in the UK find us easy to work with – and they enjoy it!  In essence, I think we are very strong around genuine relationship and partnership.

Our pioneering ‘can do’ spirit adds further meaning to that.  Right down to Executives’ PA’s, the consistent message we get is “wow, since you’ve been here things really are happening”.

That said, be prepared for things to move more slowly than you hope or are used to.  As a New Zealand colleague said to me a few weeks ago “when someone says ‘we’ll be in touch straight away’, that probably means within the next few weeks rather than the next day”.

Overall, to quote James Moore (Gartner Group) “The only value your business has are its relationships – your business is your relationships”.   

The core challenge is developing those relationships that you need to be successful in a new market. After all, chances are no-one really knows you!  But that too can be an advantage.

A key angle we’ve taken in establishing initial contact and then appointments has been “we are new to the market, so we are interested in meeting to learn about the local market and exchanging ideas”.  The principle is that it’s all about sharing – not selling.  And because you are ‘different’ - Kiwis from the edge of the world - it’s been surprising just how many people are prepared to give up their time for you.

Of course, first impressions are key, so good preparation for initial meetings is critical.  Don’t just ‘rock up’ and see what happens!  Be prepared and aim to deliver some value to them from the first moment.  It’s highly unlikely they will say, “When can you start?” or“Right, how do we place an order!”, but you are laying the ground work for the future. By providing value from the outset, we’ve found that it pays back in many unexpected ways.

More practically, technology has become a real enabler for building, strengthening and maintaining relationships.  As a matter of course, we almost always have a (video) Skype call with a ‘connector’ or a ‘prospect’ before meeting face-to-face.  It’s valuable from both sides - build rapport, exchange initial thoughts, and gather pertinent information.  We also connect and keep in touch through mechanisms such as Linkedin.  And it goes without saying you need a strategic marketing plan, with activity set, measured, and reset on a regular basis.

One final point: establishing a business in a new market is complex and unpredictable in nature.  I guess we at ON-Brand Partners are fortunate in a sense, because the core of our work is helping organisations address complex strategic challenges based around human behaviour (culture).  So we have experience and expertise in managing complexity.

There’s a key premise we always come back to.

‘Don’t just focus on the problems (and how to fix them)’, but also put a lot of focus on ‘What is working for us (and how do we leverage that)’.

Seven seeds for success

1. Keep some feet on the ground.  Don’t rely on being able to fly in and out.  It’s important to have a continuous permanent presence in your target market.  Potential clients and partners want to be confident you are going to stick around before taking the plunge with you. Simply having a local physical address and local phone number right from the outset is an important symbolic indicator that ‘you are serious’ about the market.

2. Build your success story.  You are from the other side of the world, so you are already different! You need to be able to articulate and substantiate that difference – who you are, what you offer, and the unique value you deliver?  Case studies, testimonials, referees and ‘thought-leadership’ pieces are all useful.

3. Nurture the networks.  Seek out people who are well connected.  We have ‘lucked in’ by latching onto a specialist in ‘executive relationship’ outsourced services.  Alan Mackelworth has become a key partner and has been critical in finding ways into the companies we want to get to.  In addition, tap into the established organisations such asTrade and EnterpriseKEA (Kiwi Expats Association), plus informal networks (remember a quarter of New Zealanders live in other countries and most of them like to see Kiwi companies do well). If you’re attending conferences, don’t just turn up and see what happens!  You need a plan – who you are targeting and how?

4. Find the right specialist support.  The nuts and bolts of establishing a business, such as company registration, VAT numbers and opening bank accounts can be cumbersome (and enormously frustrating!). In particular, find an accountant that has specialist expertise in helping foreign companies come into the UK.  We have used ‘Kevin Beare and Co’ who not only specialise in this foreign company space, but also go beyond core accounting and tax and offer services in start-up advice, HR and payroll services.  They’ve been helpful with tips and recommendations about meeting spaces and other business enablers and provided a friendly, local ‘shoulder’.

5. Develop your local supplier network.  It can be a big mistake to assume that you can leverage your New Zealand based suppliers.  Sure that is likely to be important at the start, but it is essential you start to develop local ‘infrastructure’ to support your longer-term business.  And remember if you really engage suppliers, they can also be great additional avenues for business leads.

6. Be honest and authentic.  You are what you are, so stay true to yourselves.  You’ll find that (most) business people connect well with the ‘Kiwi’ values and attitudes.  In fact, many will admire the fact that you are ‘having a crack’ on a bigger stage.  Be clear about what you are capable of (and what you’re not).  Successful business is about ‘enduring business relationships’ underpinned by ‘trust’.  Of course, trust is built over time, and the key driver of that is “we promise – we deliver”.  Or as we would say “stay on-brand!”.

7. Reinvent your business structure at home.  Going international has significant implications for your existing (domestic) business. In particular, you’ll need many of your key talents focused on developing offshore markets.   Reinventing your management structure and making sure the team culture adjusts to this change needs an explicit and decisive focus.

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Paul Stewart is the CEO of ON-Brand Partners, a company that specialises in assisting organisations in aligning and engaging their people with the business strategy.  ON-Brand Partners have worked internationally for the past five years, and in the last twelve months taken the critical next step by establishing a full presence in the UK market.

Paul is a former Chief Economist of the ANZ Bank and has held roles of GM Strategy and Director Organisational Effectiveness.  He is also the co-author of the international best seller ‘Branded Customer Service –the New Competitive Edge’ (Berrett-Koehler, 2004).

Republished with the kind permission of On-Brand Partners. Original article available here.