When a business opportunity presents itself in a foreign country, the tendency of many small businesses in my experience is to either ignore the opportunity as it is unfamiliar and uncomfortable, or to approach it without doing sufficient research, assuming it to be similar to doing business as they are largely accustomed to, with some modifications for the fact that the logistic chain is longer and they are doing business in a foreign currency. However, research beyond simply speaking to your foreign counterparts and doing research on the internet will be important if you are to avoid certain cultural and legal pitfalls. Endeavoring to become a student of the country you are moving into is advisable. Some sources of information that can be important are as follows:
1.) Foreign consulate/trade missions.
Contacting the consulate and/or trade mission of the country that you are going to do business in can be a good source of advice and guidance. It is their job to promote trade with their country, and providing you with resources to help further your goals is in their best interest. It’s possible that you could even obtain some helpful contacts in the other country. Engaging these folks should be an integral part of your preparation and research.
2.) Learn the history of the country.
One part of doing business overseas that often gets missed by those unaccustomed to operating in that sphere is that you are essentially a diplomat. More than a businessman, you are a representative of your home country. While you may think that geopolitics is outside the scope of what you do, there is a small geopolitical component to every trade interaction. To this end, learning the history of the country you are operating in, even if it is just a long, comprehensive Wikipedia article, can bring benefits. Firstly, as an American, people will be impressed that you know something at all about their country. Secondly, that you took the time to learn their history shows a level of cultural respect that can only help you with interactions. And thirdly, understanding the history can often give you insight into the culture and current political situation, thereby allowing you to avoid certain cultural pitfalls.
3.) People from that country.
In addition, you should enhance your understanding by engaging folks who are actually from the country that you intend to operate in. While talking to anyone from that country can give you some insight, you should note that a person who has lived outside of their home country for 7 to 10 years is going to necessarily be out of touch with how that country currently operates. This is true even if the individual visits their home country regularly. There is something about living in a country on day-to-day basis that keeps one in touch with what is going on that is impossible to maintain from outside the country. It is advisable to keep this in mind.
4.) News articles.
I included this even though it will be an obvious component to any research program. It should be noted that while essential, news articles should be taken with some level of skepticism. The purpose of news publications is not to inform, but to entertain and promote a certain viewpoint (and sell subscriptions to like-minded folks). This is not to say that everything they say is a lie, but rather it is likely to be incomplete. It is natural to be frustrated by not knowing who to believe. But it should be remembered that effective promotion of a viewpoint contains a considerable amount of accurate information. However, the desired picture (from the promoter’s perspective) is often not built by telling lies, but rather leaving out information, that if included would alter the picture away from the one that the author is looking to promote. In reading articles, bear in mind that there is likely something that you aren’t being told. Take the article for what it is, but resist viewing it as gospel.
If you are going to do business overseas for the first time, you are going to be operating in an environment with a higher degree of ambiguity than to what you are accustomed. Becoming comfortable with that ambiguity will be an essential skill if you are to be successful. Researching the country will help to reduce this ambiguity, but the research itself creates its own ambiguity. Bearing this in mind going forward will be important as you work to develop and accurate and comprehensive picture on which to base your decisions.