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As a company, we have found the best aspects of starting a business and working overseas is the opportunity for discovering new and exciting places, and learning new ways of working. Having to design unique and diverse solutions for clients: this often means a balancing act of working within local and cultural parameters, yet keeping up a world class appearance.

We started in the UK in August, 2004, in a small office above a sandwich shop in Brighton. Three directors, Michael, a film and advertising editor, Ian Woodhouse, and Doc Thody, both past directors of a successful London design agency.

Having all been successful directors of creative agencies in London, we decided Brighton was the best place to start a new creatively focused agency, with a better lifestyle and more creative inspiration. However, a year on, and Above was starting to outgrow the offices in Brighton. A newly formed joint venture in London with a global licensing company, Global Brands, meant relocating to the capital was key. We then established growth in other countries and markets, taking our services abroad, starting with Singapore.

We established a business partnership with a company called CDI, Communications Design International, who are based in Singapore. The pitfalls we encountered in Singapore were the currency and underestimating the expense of things. Also, the distance and time difference meant we had to fly two days before a meeting in order to adjust to the time zone.
The next destination in our expansion was the UAE. In Dubai, the pitfalls or things you need to bear in mind is the culture. You need to be wary of the barter mentality. It means often having to factor this into the initial budget so the price agreed upon is one which everybody is happy with.

Another flaw was having to negotiate lead times. In the Middle East, especially Dubai, everyone wants things done by yesterday. You have to find a middle ground so not to compromise on quality.

In Moscow, again it's the culture and the need for translators. We found that not many Russians speak English, so you have to factor that as a cost into all communication. In general, we have found that, being a fairly small agency that has worked on big projects, we are competing with international design agencies who have a much stronger presence. Therefore you must appear to have a strong regional presence; even if you haven't. This often results in spreading yourselves a little thinly, travelling a lot, and trying to be in several places at once.

In China, we found the pitfalls are not being paid! We had to learn the hard way, and would now insist on 80% up front and be happy to lose the 20%.

As a company, we have found the best aspects of starting a business and working overseas is the opportunity for discovering new and exciting places, and learning new ways of working. Having to design unique and diverse solutions for clients: this often means a balancing act of working within local and cultural parameters, yet keeping up a world class appearance.
Paradoxically, the two things which make working overseas appealing also make it unappealing; and ultimately, that is travel and new environments.

My top ten tips:

  1. Understand banking practices. In Dubai, for example, all cheques have to be post dated, as credit is illegal.
  2. Understanding of the local law
  3. Know the cost of hiring local labour
  4. Understand and be aware of the hidden costs of using expats
  5. Understanding your market so you can take advantage of the gaps
  6. Avoid the bandwagon.
  7. Try to offer something new.
  8. Know what services your clients want and need
  9. Making sure the economy is being positively impacted by your presence
  10. Have a good translator on board and make sure this cost is accounted for

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