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The International Entrepreneur – Tips for Successful New International Operations

Now that the contracts are signed and your company has gone international, the real work begins. Here are some tips to help make newly established international business work as effectively as possible during those first few months of operation.

Keep International Business Relationships Healthy and Strong

A new international partnerships, sales offices, production facilities, and/or client relationships need to be cultivated both before and after the deal is made. The worst mistake that a newly international company can make is to neglect a new relationship. Neglect leads to mistrust and misunderstandings. Schedule both regular calls (preferably video calls) AND visits to your new business contacts. If possible, have one or more of your own employees working for several weeks or months in the overseas office. All of this will help to cement the relationship right from the start and clear up misunderstandings before they become a larger issue. Like any new relationship, both parties have to learn how to work with the other side and how their counterpart handles conflict and where the boundaries of the relationship lie. Too often, particularly Americans and Swiss businesspeople assume that the written agreement precisely describes the responsibilities of the relationship.  The majority of the world views business relationships as much more fluid and flexible than what can be written into a contract.

Hope for the Best, but Plan for the Worst

It is extremely useful to develop three business scenarios for your new international operation: Best, Worst and Expected. In the best-case scenario, try to determine what demand for your products or services would be in this market if your sales reached its potential. Would you have enough production capacity or staff for service? Would internal processes be sufficient to support this new market growth? And if the best-case scenario looked to be coming to fruition, would your company have enough lead time to be ready for the increased capacity? These are all considerations for this first scenario.

In the worst-case scenario, the objective is to minimize the financial losses should sales be much lower than expected. Could newly hired staff be diverted to different tasks instead of sales and serving clients? Would there be cost savings in shutting down part of a production facility? Is there a “Plan B” where excess inventory or capacity could be rerouted to another geographic market? Planning ahead means that should sales come up short the company would already know what its plans would be to offset the disappointing results while minimizing the financial effect to the company.

Production and staffing should be based primarily on an expected-case scenario. It is best to include flexible staff that can either be added or reassigned based on whether the actual sales are higher or lower than expected.

Expect Changes

Change may be the only certainty, but expect higher levels of change abroad. There will likely be fluctuations in currency exchange rates, changing availability of critical supplies, and new government regulations both at home and in-country that affect operations. Some changes may actual help further your company’s success such as a better exchange rate, deregulation and enforcement of intellectual property rights. Regardless of any economic or political shifts, stay flexible and prepared to problem solve as the need arises.

To read more about managing new international operations, please click here.

The International Entrepreneur – Flying Below the Radar: Taking Advantage of Second-Tier Industry Clusters

Work smarter, not harder.  All international entrepreneurs strive to stretch their expenditures in hopes of gaining as much as possible for money spent. This week’s article is about focusing on your industry’s geographic clusters and how to optimize your energies spent building your company in those regions.

What is an Industry Cluster?

An industry cluster is a geographic area where several companies from the same industry have set up operations for strategic reasons. There may be a university research center focused on the industry, as is the case in Upstate New York with the ceramics industry. It may be close to reserves of a specific natural resource, such as high-wind regions for wind energy companies. There may be a large corporation that has spawned spin-off companies, such as Philips in southeast Netherlands.

There are many advantages to setting up operations in an industry cluster area. Industry-specific suppliers have established a local presence. There is likely a local specialized labor pool build around the industry. There are potential collaboration partners. And often the local, regional and national governments take a keen interest in supporting industry clusters with tax incentives and grants. Clustered companies tend to become more successful, creating jobs and tax revenue. Countries that have done a great job cultivating industry cultures include Canada, China and Israel.

Why Second Tier and Not FirstTier Cluster?

There are advantages to growing a presence in a first-tier industry cluster, such as Silicon Valley in the IT industry. In the late 1990’s during the dot.com boom, I worked in the IT industry in the San Francisco Bay Area and was able to see Silicon Valley’s growth first-hand. Investors frequently flock to an industry’s first-tier clusters looking for the next big innovation. But there are challenges in first-tier cluster markets too. Competition is usually fierce, which means that the right connections and plenty of financial capital are required. First-tier clusters definitely play favorites so as a new company you will be paddling upstream to make inroads. The other issue with first-tier clusters is that they normally are blind to developments coming from outside their cluster. This is a competitive disadvantage to anyone who believes that all good ideas and innovation comes from the top market. Time and time again entrepreneurs have learned that this is rarely true.

Second-tier clusters have several distinct advantages that should appeal to entrepreneurs. First, costs of operation are often lower. Premium pricing for supplies and services are often attached to the first-tier market. Local industry and government are often more welcoming to new companies than in the first-tier market, reducing the time needed to make connections and creating a core group of government officials, suppliers, partners and clients invested in your success. Competition is often less intense, making it easier to make sales and start to generate revenue in the new market. And second-tier clusters tend to be alert to industry changes and innovations coming from a variety of locations without fixating on only the first-tier cluster. The only exception I have seen is when a second-tier cluster ties itself to a first-tier cluster as a “satellite”. There are several second-tier IT clusters that fixate on Silicon Valley’s every update without a broader perspective. This is particularly dangerous because it gives that particular cluster few of the second-tier advantages and none of the first-tier advantages. Second-tier clusters in the IT industry include but are not limited to: Bangalore, India; Tel-Aviv, Israel; Eindhoven, Netherlands; Boston, USA; Sydney, Australia; and Vancouver, Canada.

I hope this gives perspective to where to set up new sales and production operations for your company. Entrepreneurs always need to seek out competitive advantages as their companies expand. For more articles about optimizing your company’s international marketing and sales, please click here.

The International Entrepreneur – How to Handle Cross-Cultural Conflict

When doing business internationally, at some point you will encounter an issue with your supplier, partner, or client that needs resolution. This is challenging because every culture operates under a different set of Values, Assumptions, Beliefs and Expectations[1], leading to plenty of misunderstandings. On top of that, every culture handles conflict in a different way. Does this mean that you should avoid international markets altogether in order to stay clear of cross-cultural conflict? Actually, it’s the opposite. Here’s what I mean:

Conflict Can Be Healthy and Beneficial to Both Sides

Conflict is normally a reflection of real issues in the relationship. If your software development team in India is having trouble understanding the product definition, then this issue will manifest itself as coding issues, testing issues, and basic communication issues between the Indian and product marketing teams. Ignoring real issues just prolongs them. Issues often worsen over time. Especially when teams are virtually located across thousands of kilometers (miles), a basic misunderstanding can lead to trust issues. The Swedish product marketing staff may stop trusting the Indian development team to write software code because they mistakenly think that the team is incompetent. The Indian team may feel that the home office is remote and does not care about their efforts because in the same situation an Indian executive would likely and very openly scold the team’s manager for a poor effort. The best scenario is to work through the issues. As long as conflict leads to a deeper understanding of the issue on both sides with a plan to move forward to solve the issues, then the conflict has served a very useful purpose.

What’s It REALLY About?

The first objective is to figure out the real issues. These may be a mix of cultural issues, business issues and individual motivations. I think it’s best to start with questions to better understand the situation. If possible, meet with the person or team face to face. The next best way is to conference call with Skype or another tool. When something does not make sense, ask even seemingly simple questions. For instance, in Sweden teams are very egalitarian and everyone generally has a right to speak. In India, this is less likely to be the case. An Indian subordinate would not question the decision of a manager above them in rank sometimes even if that manager was making a big mistake.

Individual motivations can play a crucial role. A common motivational challenge is when someone is concerned about losing their job. This can cause a person to be motivated by fear and not out of the best interest necessarily of the company stakeholders. Making choices that improve success for the whole team are optimal choices.

After clearly understanding the issues, you can then work to jointly solve the problems. If the cultural component is hard to understand or the issues complicated and difficult to unravel, you can also use the services of a cross-cultural specialist. Please contact me for a referral.

Please comment on this article. I would love to hear reader perspectives on your experiences!

Onwards and Upwards,

Becky Park


[1] James Clawson, Level Three Leadership.

The International Entrepreneur – Overseas Distributors: Strategic Partners or Big Mistake?

Many young internationalizing companies ask: should we use local distributors in overseas markets or enter markets directly? As with most questions in international business, the answer is- it depends. Here are some guidelines to making this key strategic decision.

Knowing the Local Market

Should this Distributor be Representing Your Products?

One of the benefits of using a local distributor to sell your products is that they know the local market. They know the language, government regulations, local contacts, business etiquette, and logistics. But this knowledge comes at a cost. Distributors tend to take a large percentage of the profit, which normally covers their sales and marketing costs as well as the value-added local market knowledge. One way to get the local market knowledge and connections without paying to go through distributors is to consider hiring a qualified immigrant from a key market such as Brazil or India who can work at your headquarters office and still make the necessary connections for your company.

Protecting Company Intellectual Property

This is a major concern for my main client base: software companies. And rightly so. If you have key IP to protect, then choose your distributors very wisely. Many a tech company has lost key IP to an unscrupulous distributor-turned-competitor. There are various ways to handle this as a young, growing company. First, hold back a key piece of IP that is provided solely by your company and then given directly to clients. And second, assume your IP is going to be stolen anyway by someone and prepare by always spurring your developers on to be one step ahead of the copy cats.

How Important is Your Partnership?

I talk with many companies who tell me how disappointed they are in their overseas distributors. Sales seem to barely trickle in, so the market demand must be low. This may be true, but just as likely the company is working with the wrong distributor. A common mistake for smaller companies is using a distributor that is very large. How much attention will your products get if a distributor can earn more money selling a more-established brand? Also important, does the distributor represent any of your competitors? Instead, look for a distributor with not only expertise in your industry, but the motivation to want to put your products forward aggressively into the market. In addition to a good fit, be sure to motivate your distributor through financial incentives, non-financial incentives, and a good solid relationship with your company?s leaders.

Please feel free to comment with questions or stories of your own experiences.

Onward and Upward,

Becky Park

The International Entrepreneur – Exit Strategies for International Ventures

business exit strategies, international trade, international entrepreneur

As your fiscal quarter or year is coming to a close, it’s a particularly good time to evaluate the effectiveness of your company’s various international business ventures. Many companies from countries with short-term business decision cycles (US, Australia, etc.) may be tempted to exit markets that are yielding lower than expected returns on investment. Here are several options to consider:

Exit as Quickly as Possible

If your company is about to fold or is significantly cash-strapped with few financial options, then by all means consider closing down some or all underperforming overseas operations. Keep in mind that there may be additional taxes or penalties owed for any workers’ wages, unemployment insurance, previous tax incentives owed to the local, regional or national government.

Another issue to consider is any future need to do business in that country. Business reputation takes a long time to build and a short time to destroy. The reputation is not only that of the company, but any individuals from the company who did business in that country. If Mr. Smith closes down operations in Indonesia and leaves partners, suppliers and customers in a bad position, then Mr. Smith not only earns a bad reputation for the company, but also for himself should he need to go back into Indonesia for a different company. A negative reputation is very hard to shake in most places.

Ease Out of a Country’s Operations

If a country’s operations is performing poorly and there is no reason to think that it will improve long-term, then another option is to slowly disengage from partnerships and suppliers in-country. This can occur when contracts come up for renewal or by renegotiating a smaller amount of goods. The idea is to preserve relationships and to also avoid costly fines from the local government. This is likely a better option than the quick exit when you want to preserve goodwill in country. Plenty of companies failed in their first attempt to establish a specific market. But oftentimes the same company will return years later and remember lessons learned (like Starbucks’ second attempt in China).

Stay and Make it Work

All new international ventures are challenging. One of the best options if you can afford it is to stay in-country and find new ways to improve your in-country operations. Also, there may be strategic reasons to engage in a low-performing market.

An example is the beer industry in China. There are hardly any profitable foreign beer producers operating in China. So why stay? The Chinese beer market increases by 30% each year. The average income of Chinese workers continues to increase and foreign beer is a status symbol of sorts, especially in the “night market.” Premium beer may not be profitable today, but in 5-10 years beer producers’ investments will likely pay off.

Consider renegotiating relationships with partners, vendors and customers to improve your profitability. It will benefit your partners to renegotiate often instead of losing your business altogether. Look for new ways to increase demand. This includes new ways to use your product or service or different packaging size. Personal items like razors can be sold individually. Consider renting instead of selling a product. Services can be repackaged as seminars of information instead of delivering it individually.


The International Entrepreneur: Ready for your First International Negotiations?

You have engaged with your first potential overseas partner or large client. Both of you want to do business and you will be starting negotiations soon. But aren’t negotiations the same around the world? Definitely not. Particularly those used to the American negotiation style will do very poorly trying to make that style work negotiating with other cultures.

Prepare, Prepare, and then Prepare More

My fellow Americans typically come to the negotiations table with minimal preparation. This is a BIG mistake. The other side will know a great deal about your company, your product, and each member of your negotiating team in order to find advantage. They will have planned a detailed strategy. Do your homework so that your team is not coming in at a disadvantage. Your own negotiations strategy should include the boundaries of what you can afford to offer and what you can accept, plans for how to deal with common negotiation techniques from your counterpart’s culture, alternatives you can offer as part of the deal to counteroffer anything the other side wants and you are unable to give, everyone’s specific role on your negotiation team, and background information about the other side. Do all that and you will be prepared!

Location, Location, Location

Where will your negotiations be held? Your offices? The offices of your counterpart? Offsite? At a location in a neutral country? Most would say that they hold advantage if negotiations are held in their own offices. This is true for controlling the environment: schedule, food, breaks, temperature, level of overall comfort, etc. But there are advantages to visiting the other side’s location, seeing how they work and learning more about their operations. In some cases, it may be optimal to hold series of negotiation talks that rotate between the two company locations. That way both sides can learn about their counterpart. Whatever you decide, please understand that this is an important decision that can affect the outcome of the negotiations.

Time Frame

Whatever your time frame is for completing negotiations, it is probably too short by at least half. International negotiations take time. I once received an excellent piece of advice from a seasoned negotiator who had negotiated many agreements between Western and Asian companies (and governments). She said to never communicate a specific time/date of your return flight. Always leave this open because there may need to be a period of time when both sides are getting to know each other before negotiations even being. Often if a Western team is in Asia for negotiations there may be several days of local site seeing before negotiations even begin. If there is a specific return date, the other side will take advantage of this to stall up until right before the flight and then ask for large concessions in order to close the deal. Plan on spending a few weeks in-country during negotiations. Likewise, play tour guide to your visiting negotiation team if you are hosting at your offices.

The International Entrepreneur: A Sampling of International Negotiating

Recently, my friend Arlene Marom from Tel Aviv, Israel asked about what kinds of negotiating techniques to expect in non-American markets. Negotiating can vary greatly from person to person and culture to culture. Generally, there are several categories of negotiating techniques: Pressure, Emotional, Defensive, Aggressive/Adversarial, and Deceptive. My favorite class in MBA school was International Business Negotiations and the best book I know of on this subject is Negotiating International Business by Lothar Katz. I need to credit both of these sources for much of what I know. Since school, I’m amazed at how often I see some of these techniques being used. But regardless of the technique, the motivation is to get the most value out of the negotiation, even if it is only for your side of the deal. Here is a sampling:

Opening with Best Offer

This may not even seem like a negotiating technique since the presenter of the best offer may be trying to bypass negotiations altogether. Some cultures such as Germans, Swiss and Scandinavians might not like the bargaining process and so this is their way of not negotiating. But it does not build the relationship that serves as the foundation to most business partnerships and sales around the world. It also requires that you are in a position of power where “take it or leave it” is an option. Normally it leaves value for both sides off the table, which is bad. Some cultures such as Russians and Ukrainians may use this technique as an opener and a bluff.

Appeals to Personal Relationship

It doesn’t take long in international markets to run into this technique. It is very common in the Middle East and Central Europe. You might hear “If you value our relationship, you’ll give me xxxx.” It puts the other side at a disadvantage because it equates rejecting the request rejection with rejecting the entire relationship. Interestingly, it is more common in situations where relationships are not well developed and by people who do not necessarily value the relationship. You’ll rarely find it used in China, Malaysia, or Indonesia.

Changing the Subject

This can be an effect negotiating technique in order to take the other side off a systemic strategy with a set agenda. It is a way to avoid giving away something you are not comfortable giving. It is face saving when negotiations are tense and going in the wrong direction. In polychronic cultures (where time is not taken chronologically), frequent subject changes are normal and expected. This includes the Middle East, France and most of Latin America. But don’t use this in monochromic cultures such as the United States, Canada, Scandinavia or the Germanic countries.

Walking Out

Anyone who has ever spent time in a Mexican market knows the power of walking out. The price on whatever you were last examining drops dramatically. Walking out can be physically walking out of the room, but it can also be an emotional walk out with anger, shouts and gestures. It is normally preceded by threats of walking out. If you are ever going to try this, you have to be willing to walk away from negotiations altogether. It is normally last resort. Sometimes just one member of the negotiating team will walk out at a critical time. This tactic is used more frequently by Czechs, Dutch, Germans and Israelis. But if you use it on North Americans or Western Europeans, your negotiations are probably over.


This one is my favorite because it is most often used against my fellow Americans. Prolonged silence (up to 3 minutes) can make North Americans, South Americans and any other communication-intense cultures very uncomfortable. Especially East Asians know this. What normally happens is that the silence is broken by the communication-intense side. They start blabbering and giving away concessions or other information they shouldn’t. The trick is to sit quietly with no facial expression until the other side breaks the silence. If you ask a question and receive no response in 3 minutes, head for the door. If they are serious about the negotiation, the other side will stop you from leaving.

I hope these negotiation technique descriptions are helpful!

Onward and Upwards,

Becky Park

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The International Entrepreneur: Hardest Place to Negotiate? The Middle East


Courtesy of Cognizant & Flickr

Courtesy of Cognizant & Flickr

I was recently asked in which culture I thought was the most difficult to negotiate a business deal. The most difficult I could think of would be to negotiate with the Roma (gypsies) of Europe. But that really doesn’t come up much in international business. The Russians would be a strong candidate for most difficult, but a sharp wit and enough vodka can often help bridge the gap. No, my vote would go to Middle Eastern cultures as the hardest to navigate in negotiations.

Before I explain why, I think it is important to point out that in my experience, Middle Easterners are normally warm and welcoming people. Business partnerships can often be measured in decades, with Middle Easterners showing a strong sense of commitment and loyalty to those who reciprocate. Middle Easterners I have known have a wonderful sense of humor and are dedicated to their family and friends.

Now here is why the Middle Eastern cultures get my vote. Long-term business relationships depend on each side benefiting from the relationship. But when Middle Easterners (& Russians) negotiate, culturally they want to win at the other side’s expense. There also can be a lot of drama (emotional displays) in the negotiation that negotiators from other cultures are not accustomed to seeing. But the final reason is that it is easy to offend a Middle Easterner and very difficult to regain the trust. This happened to me last fall. I was building rapport with a young professional Middle Eastern person. Over a period of three months, this person repeatedly offended a group of people. Instead of understanding or admitting her role in the group, this person blamed everyone but herself. In the process of complaining to me, I indirectly inferred joint responsibility for the situation. The result – an emotional volcano erupted and ties severed.

Does that mean that the rest of the world should not do business with Middle Easterners? Absolutely not. There are ways to compensate for any challenging aspects of Middle East negotiations. First, always come prepared with what you can give to the other side and what you can’t. Most importantly, inflate your price to allow for deeper discounts and a perceived win-lose that is actually a win-win. Second, instead of dreading an emotional display in the attempt for deeper concessions, enjoy the show! It’s for your benefit. Your role is to stay calm and focus on the long-term relationship. And finally, never directly or indirectly accuse your counterparts of any wrongdoing. Instead, focus on the negotiating issues at hand. Remember, well-negotiated business relationships with Middle Easterners can be some of the strongest and most enduring to be found anywhere.

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The International Entrepreneur: Practical Advice for Cross Cultural Teams

teamwork-383939_1280A good friend of mine was recently hired into a sustainability marketing position at a U.S. company. “Sally” is an intrapreneur (someone who brings entrepreneurial innovation and passion into a larger organization). She recently invited me out to lunch to talk about the cross-cultural team questions that have come up on the job.

As with many cross-cultural teams, Sally won’t likely meet her team in person. They communicate over phone and through email. However, so far Sally feels like much of her team does not give her projects the attention and interest that Sally thinks they deserve. Her team is located in South Korea, Japan, 13 different EU countries, Canada and Mexico. Here was my advice:

1. Make sure that Sally’s initiatives are prioritized from the top. If the company views sustainability as a priority, then do the performance metrics for overseas offices reflecting that? Some countries value sustainability while others see it as a low priority. It may be time to do some internal campaigning.

2. Develop rapport and understanding individually. I know, I know, who has time to figure out what makes each team member tick? This effort pays off as a multiplier effect with international teams. In most of the countries, trust must be built before any serious business can be conducted. And if you’re the only one from corporate doing this, guess whose projects will get a boost in priority?

3. Keep groups on conference calls small. Sally currently talks with 13 European managers on one weekly call. Participation is low. Why not break up the call into smaller group calls? Sure it takes longer, but the results including buy-in and understanding increases significantly.

4. Find the right level of formality to make team members comfortable. Americans normally have a casual business style. In many Asian and Latin American cultures there are more rules, for example- about how people address each other (Mr./Ms. Or by job title in some places). If you’re trying to help team members to appreciate you, adjust to their style or some middle ground. My favorite reference book for business cultural rules is Negotiating International Business by Lothar Katz.

5. Make and laminate a “greetings cheat sheet”. People will appreciate you more if you can greet them in their own language. Sally’s list of 10 sets of language greetings should include “hello”,”goodbye”, “thank you”, and “please”.

6. Watch Mexican telenovelas. Sally has trouble connecting with her Mexican counterparts. They are all businesswomen who treat her with detachment. Besides Tip #4 (use more formality), you can start watching a popular Mexican telenovela. Mexican soap operas are wildly popular throughout Latin America. Since you’ll be new to watching, you can ask basic questions like: “Can anyone help me understand why Arturo was so cruel to Pamela when it seems like he is attracted to her?” It can really break the ice!

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The International Entrepreneur: Management Commitment – Vital to International Expansion Success

international business meetingThe last in-house career job I held was sixteen years ago. I was an eager young marketing professional at a growing healthcare software company based in the San Francisco Bay area. The head of our department was a charismatic and experienced Sales and Marketing Vice President we’ll call “Joe”.

Top leadership at the company changed and Joe couldn’t go along with less-than-ethical orders. When he stood up for what he felt was right, he was “reassigned” to the role of International Sales.

Now Joe was actually excited about the prospect of building an international sales operation for the company. There was great potential for the company’s products in international markets. He quickly began building a sale pipeline with hospitals and health systems around the world. But before the sales potential could be realized, the company leadership gave Joe his termination notice. The newly formed International Sales Department quickly died away, along with that untapped potential.

The takeaway from Joe’s tale: without management commitment, you might as well skip the internationalization effort all together. International markets require dedication and a long-term strategy of revenue growth and expansion. If management cannot see that growth potential, it will be undermined at the first convenient time to fire a vice president who is out of favor or to cut costs before leadership performance is measured.

How do you know if you have management commitment?

1. International operations are integrated into the whole company

There are many tales of an enterprising young professional who asks for permission to pursue an international sales opportunity and uncovers a huge overseas market. What usually happens next is that the company’s leaders say “yes” to the sales opportunity and even to future international sales. It’s a short-term gain, so why not?

Now it’s a few years later and that enterprising young professional has grown this market segment into 20 or 30% of the company’s overall business. What a great international business success story, right?

Here’s where the problem bubbles up: As the business segment grows, the young marketer asks for additional internal resources to keep pace with the growing opportunity. But management still sees the international efforts as a side project to their core market. They don’t incorporate the internationalization into their overall strategy and operations. Eventually the talented young marketer leaves the company in frustration and takes a better job somewhere else. The international business quickly fades away, along with the long-term potential for revenue and profits.

2. Top Company Leaders Are Engaged in International Responsibilities

When new markets are being opened around the world, the President/CEO should be traveling to the new markets and meeting key partners, government officials and potential clients. This is especially true in markets where a position’s title is everything. By not going, the head of the company is telling the market that their commitment is questionable, which actually is very likely. If your company president cannot travel to India, China or Canada because of preconceived notions of what he will find, he will be unlikely to support you later when more complex business issues arise.

3. Planning for a Long-Term Return on Investment

International markets are a long-term growth accelerator. But it takes a great deal of time to make the right connections, learn about the market and the new potential customers, and control costs. Rarely are international markets profitable in their first year. Now by Year Five, these markets could very well be the driver of your business. But a company leader who consistently brings up ROI as a point of failure when the expansion has just started? This is a manager whose commitment is waning. Beware.

I hope you found this article useful. For more information about doing business internationally, please read more of The International Entrepreneur Articles.

Best of success to you in all of your business ventures,

Becky Park

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