Global business opportunity: Can you read the signs?

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I broke into the Japanese market by way of Mexico with an assist from a U.S. freelancer working in the Northern Mariana Islands. How’s that for a twisting itinerary on a career roadmap?

This freelancer and I knew each other only through an online discussion group. But she thought of me when her editor at a Japanese airline’s in-flight magazine put out a call for a native English-speaking writer who could cover a Mexico City company’s expansion into Tokyo. The reporter chosen for the assignment had to have contacts in Mexico and experience reporting in Spanish. I’d been writing for a Mexican airline’s in-flight magazine for a couple of years, and I’ve reported for other Spanish-language media in the U.S., Mexico, and South America. I’ve been writing for the Japanese magazine ever since—and that work helped me to land ongoing work for a global corporation in Switzerland that works extensively in Asian markets.

At its most geographically diverse, my client base has stretched from Thailand to Zimbabwe—with stops in China, Canada, England, France, Switzerland, and Germany along the way. And I’ve connected with many of those clients online. In fact, that first company in Zurich (I’ve worked with four there now) and the first in Germany both came to my attention through the same discussion group on LinkedIn.

How can you make similar global connections? It helps to speak more than one language, but being monolingual isn’t an inevitable deal-killer. And virtual networking allows you to develop contacts abroad without being hit by jetlag.

You can begin to make cross-border connections at your own desk via the social media of your choice. On LinkedIn, for example, look for groups that have active exchanges of information and ideas, not just parades of self-promotional posts that fail to engage anyone. Each real discussion is an opportunity to make an impression, if not a connection. When you comment, practice adopting a global view instead of assuming (as too many do) that group members all share a U.S. perspective. And don’t limit your networking to groups for your own industry—look for groups whose members are potential clients and who would value the expertise you can share in discussions.

Most important, make sure you have a serious desire to work across borders. That’s not to say that you just have to want it enough and you’ll get it. More to the point, you have to want it enough to learn to understand and respect other cultures, business practices, and styles of communication. You have to want it enough to think it’s worth it to have a late-night call with colleagues in Asia followed too soon after by an early-morning call with colleagues in Europe or Africa.

The switches in time zones, etiquette, and business standards can be exhausting to keep track of at times. But if you’re fascinated by other cultures and energized by the opportunity to work with people all over the world, it’s worth it—and can be a profitable addition to your business.


Walking a mile in the other guy’s shoes.

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During a trip through South America in 2006, I took the overnight bus nine hours north from Lima to Trujillo in search of a glimpse of the Moche and Chimu cultures, which pre-date the Inca. My plan was to explore the ruins of Chan Chan, capital of the Chimu kingdom, and then make a day trip to Chiclayo for a visit to the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipan, which we know in English as the Museum of the Lord of Sipan.

I did not expect to get a marketing lesson in the bargain.

But on my first afternoon, as I wandered the Plaza de Armas, I found myself dodging one vendor after another. Each wanted to shine my shoes, and each made a pitch based on a sympathy play. Señora, I have seven children. Señora, my mother is ill. Señora, my wife is blind. A closet full of shoes couldn’t have produced enough income to salve the misery passing before me. And then I met a man who adopted a different business model.

“Señora,” he said, his eyes full of a sadness that offered, rather than asked for, pity. “Your shoes are very dirty.”

There was no debating that point. But as I started to explain, there was also no point in cleaning my shoes a day before they’d be put through their paces on the dusty grounds of Chan Chan. I was about to promise that I’d come back the next afternoon when I saw that this vendor, far from being discouraged, was beaming at me.

“Ah, señora! If you are going to Chan Chan tomorrow, you must let me clean your shoes today.” This was a decision, not a request. He was already setting up his stand, and he brandished a plastic bottle full of a clear pink liquid. “I have a special finish to put on them that will repel the dirt and dust. If we use this now, your shoes will be protected tomorrow.”

Well, I know when I’ve lost a debate. And it’s a good thing, too, because that clear pink liquid kept my shoes free of archaeological dust all through that trip.

It’s worth remembering that regardless of where we live and how many advantages we enjoy, our transactions with people who are less fortunate materially don’t always come down to how much they need and how much we’re willing to give. Sometimes, we’re the ones who need help, and they’re best equipped to provide it. We’re not on equal economic footing, but our interests converge more often than we may realize. And by working together, we can get to a point where all our profit margins—not unlike my shoes—look a lot sharper.