FA guide to doing business internationally

Learn Various Facets of Doing Business in 39 Countries

By Garrett Sutton, Esq.

As business becomes more global, it becomes even more important to appreciate how local it remains. This is to say that there is not one global standard for doing business: How you conduct a meeting, How you present your business plan, How you negotiate a deal will be subject to the culture and business traditions in your host country.

Just because they do it one way in St. Paul, Minnesota, doesn’t mean that’s how it’s done in Sao Paulo, Brazil. You can either understand, appreciate and embrace the differences or you can be culturally tone deaf, offend your hosts and go home without a deal.

As developing economies continue to advance, as funding sources arise around the world and as business plan competitions become open to all in every nation, it may make sense for you to be open to global opportunities. Which, ironically, means you’ll have to become attuned to local business customs. For those of you who are certain that you won’t do business beyond your own city, much less your own country, you may be tempted to skip this article. But before you go, consider one point. The information in this guide may help you be a better business person where you are. There is a lot of wisdom in the business traditions that have developed over thousands of years in other cultures. Maybe you will glean one nugget of information that suits your own personal style. Maybe that nugget leads to the funding of your business plan.

Personal Style vs. Culture

We must distinguish between one’s personal style and their local business culture. Both are important. When you walk into that meeting you want to analyze and understand the person you are dealing with as an individual. What is their personal style? How do they conduct their business? You also want to understand the framework of the culture you are dealing with. How are meetings handled? Who is the decision maker? What can I do not to offend anyone?

Measure the person first. Apply the local standards second. And in doing so hopefully you will gain a new foreign partner and new foreign funding.

Take These as Guideposts

What follows are very broad based and general statements about various facets of doing business in select countries. In an era of heightened sensitivities to anything that can be considered a stereotype or a value judgment what follows just might bother some readers.

Please know that it is not our intent to offend. It is our intent, however, to fully fund. You. In your business. If you can appreciate cultural differences, if you can develop strong personal relationships with business people around the world it seems to me that everyone is better off. There is better communication and understanding across the borders, unintentional offenses are avoided, deals get funded, people are employed, and wealth is created. It is all good.

Obviously, there is not space to include every country and every situation. If we did not include a country of interest that means you are going to have to obtain your own information. And even if we did briefly mention a country of interest you are still going to have to do your research. There is much to know and we want you to succeed. Understand and appreciate all the local customs by reading and consulting with your professionals in the host country. Your lawyers, accountants and other advisors can be of great assistance. As well, there are companies that offer courses in cross cultural awareness. If paying for a course allows you to build trust and better relationships with foreign partners it may be money well spent.

Again, what follows are generalizations. They will not necessarily apply to the individual you are dealing with or the situation you are in. Over time, as more and more people come into contact, some of these conditions may change. Please take them for what they are: general guideposts and not specific trail indicators.

We will first discuss meeting strategies, then a few unique business plan cases, then negotiations and finish with business cards. (When doing a business plan you can’t forget to budget for good quality business cards.)

Meetings

The style and tenor of meetings can and will vary from country to country. Here are some examples of what to expect:

Australia

Meetings are relaxed but serious. Aussies prefer those who are modest and downplay their own successes. A good sense of humor, including self deprecating humor, is appreciated. Do not engage in high pressure sales tactics. Do expect to hear some colorful language.

Croatia

Meetings will be concluded when the meeting is done, and not when a certain time is reached. If you are traveling to Croatia keep your schedule flexible. Meetings can take on a life of their own.

Estonia

One of my clients is the type of person who fills a room, both literally and figuratively. He is a big man, with a booming voice, wild hand gestures and a knack for interrupting another with his latest, greatest thought. This is not how to do a business meeting in Estonia.

Soft voices, minimal gesturing and a lack of conversation overlap are the norm. My client fortunately met with a savvy lawyer in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, before the meeting. With coaching the big bear became polite and contrite. He was always a man of his word. By taking it down a notch, and remaining reliable, he was able to fund his Estonian deal.

France

It is imperative to schedule an appointment for a meeting, which should be made at least two weeks in advance. July and August are tough times to get in to see someone as many are on vacation. If you don’t speak French make an apology for not knowing the language. As well, knowing a few key French phrases will aid in developing a positive relationship. Avoid making excessive claims about your business plan. Exaggerations are not appreciated.

India

If you are traveling to India to present your business plan it is best to arrange for an appointment one to two months in advance. Be sure to reconfirm your appointment the week before and the day before the meeting. Meetings can be cancelled and rescheduled so keep your schedule open. Always arrive on time. Punctuality is important. Meetings initially involve small talk and getting acquainted chatter. Be prepared for the fact that little business may get done in the first meeting. Focus on getting to know your Indian hosts.

Ireland

Business meetings may occur in a restaurant or a pub, allowing everyone to be on an equal footing. Even in a pub setting, however, be careful not to be too loud or too full of yourself. The Irish are generally excellent conversationalists and enjoy verbal banter. They like to look at a business plan from all angles. Bring your A game and make a deal.

Italy

Appointments are a must and should be made in writing 2 to 3 weeks in advance. Reconfirm the meeting by telephone or fax. Don’t even think about scheduling a meeting in August. Your business contemporaries are on vacation. Dressing well is imperative in Italy. Conservative suits for men and conservative dresses for women are favored for business meetings. Expensive accessories are acceptable for both women and men.

Malaysia

When asked a question you do not have to immediately respond. In fact, the Western style of quickly responding so as to show that you have not only mastered every detail but that you have them on the tip of your tongue may be considered rude by some in Malaysia. Pausing and giving thought to the question and then calmly responding is the preferred method in such gatherings. Of course, thinking before you speak is generally a good idea everywhere.

New Zealand

With people they don’t know, New Zealanders can be pretty reserved. At the start, it is best if you are not too forward either. But once a relationship develops Kiwis can be surprisingly friendly and outgoing. They certainly appreciate a good sense of humor. In meetings it is important to be clear and direct. Your business plan and your presentation should state your proposals in a crisp and understandable fashion. Don’t jump from pillar to post when speaking. By sticking to your points in a logical progression of thought you will be well received.

Poland

Be ready to engage in small talk. It is part of the relationship building process. Use any lunch or dinner meetings to forge a personal connection with your Polish colleagues. Once you have established that personal report, meetings may become somewhat relaxed. However, the Polish participant with the most seniority will generally always open the meeting and set the agenda.

Portugal

The use of titles is important in Portugal. If one has a university degree they may be referred to as ‘doutour’ or ‘doutoura’ (“doctor”) with or without their surname. Wait until you are permitted to operate on a first name basis. Similarly, continue using the formal case for the spoken word until your Portuguese colleague signals that informal speech is acceptable.

Sweden

Be on time for your meeting. Being late reflects very poorly on you. Thus, you may want to arrive a bit early to ensure you are punctual. Small talk is small at the start of a meeting. Although there can be exceptions, you will generally get right down to business. Be prepared to discuss the details of your business plan. Have any back up information and data handy as you may be called upon to discuss it.

Turkey

Turks prefer to do business with those they trust and personally like. They will want to engage with persons who are interested in a long relationship. So building a positive relationship is very important. Many first meetings are exclusively about getting to know each other. Only after a relationship is established will you be getting down to business.

U.S.A.

Do not expect a lot of small talk at the start of a meeting. Scheduling several busy people into one meeting may take some effort. Getting down to business is important as time is valuable. While the participants in a meeting may seem relaxed, the time and effort of a meeting is taken quite seriously. If you make a presentation, be direct. Visual aids are frequently used. Be sure to back up any claims as Americans like data and research.

At the end of the meeting there will be a summary of what was decided, what the next steps are and who will implement them.

Business Plan Particulars

In our research, we have come across three countries where business plans are required or have unique requirements.

Germany

A business plan can be considered mandatory in Germany. When starting a business in Germany there are a number of bureaucratic hurdles to overcome. You will need to register the business at the local court. You will then need to complete two tax registrations, one for the commercial tax and one at the local tax office. After these filings are complete, you can obtain a certificate of registration to commence business. Along the way, you will be talking to banks and applying for benefits with German authorities. In these discussions it is mandatory to have a business plan. Start writing. As well, in order to obtain permission to live and start a business in Germany several things are required including an application for a residence permit and a business plan. You really don’t want to have to go through it all more than once.

Peru

A business plan can be considered almost mandatory in Peru. Starting a business in Peru means registering with the local government body. It is strongly suggested that you show adequate capital in a Peruvian bank account and a sound business plan as you proceed through this process.

South Africa

Business plans are crucial in South Africa for new businesses and existing businesses looking to expand. Any banker or investor will require a business plan. A unique element found in many South African business plans is a business continuity plan. This is a discussion of the priorities and strategies in the event of a system failure or disaster. Expect to be asked to see this additional section.

Negotiations

Your business plan will involve negotiations over ownership and funding. Work with a good negotiating team on your side, and appreciate the customs on the other side.

Argentina

If patience is a virtue, prepare to be virtuous.

Brazil

As is true in most countries, if you are not fluent in Portuguese, the language of Brazil, you are best served by hiring an experienced translator. It is best to use local accountants and lawyers as Brazilians may resent the presence of non-resident professionals. Your hosts negotiate with people, not companies. Changing your negotiating team may result in having to restart negotiations from the beginning. As decisions are made by the highest ranking person be sure to understand the hierarchy in the room.

Canada

Being from a big country with plenty of room, Canadians like their own personal space. Speaking is done at arm’s length and personal information is not readily forthcoming. Meetings begin with a minimal amount of small talk before getting down to business. Meetings with French speaking Canadians will be more hierarchical and will center on the most senior attendees. Meetings with English speaking Canadians may be more open with all parties contributing. When presenting your business plan be certain to be able to back up your claims with research and supporting information. Canadians are not given to exaggerated claims, and are suspicious of that which appears to be too good to be true.

China

Your business plan should be printed in both Chinese and your home language. During negotiations it is best if only the most senior member of your team speaks. (Please remember that when presenting your business plan.) Do not expect any decisions coming directly from the meetings you attend. Know that negotiations may occur at a very slow pace.

Ecuador

Ecuadorians want to know who they are doing business with. They may ask what some would consider intrusive questions so as to gauge your trust worthiness and reliability. While you may not want to reveal such information, an Ecuadorian may find your distance to be rude. At the same time, Ecuadorians speak with great courtesy and consider blunt communication also to be rude. So good luck with that conundrum. In your negotiations avoid confrontations and do not put others in an awkward position. Trust is paramount. If you agree to do something you had best follow through which, of course, is a good policy to follow anywhere around the world.

Japan

As many are aware, saving face is very important within Japanese society. Turning down someone’s request results in embarrassment and a loss of face to the other person. Which, when negotiating a business deal, can be tricky. The whole idea is to get someone with money to accept your request for funding, or, in other words, to say “yes.” If your request is something that cannot be agreed to, look for a response akin to “it is under consideration” or “it is currently inconvenient.” The party you are dealing with is saying no in a way that allows you to save face, which is actually quite thoughtful of them. Face equates to dignity and saving it is a good thing. But it can be frustrating for an outsider who has their future on the line to hear that their business plan is under consideration.

In many cultures while that doesn’t mean “yes” it also doesn’t mean “no.” In a related negotiation strategy, using a Japanese lawyer is viewed as a matter of goodwill. Your Japanese lawyer will also be able to tell you when “maybe” really means “no,” thus saving you a great deal of wasted time and frustration.

Kenya

Kenyans are very diplomatic in newer and more formal relationships. Like the Japanese, maintaining honor and the avoidance of bringing shame upon another are important. A direct speaking style is not always the best manner. A more nuanced approach will serve you better in negotiations.

Lithuania

Business moves slowly in Lithuania and your business colleagues there will not be hurried into coming to an agreement. Each point will be discussed thoroughly before moving onto the next one. A deal will only be reached when the other side believes it is in their best interest to proceed. Be careful when dealing with time and deadlines. A client of mine hired a Lithuanian interpreter to assist in a business negotiation. When my client casually mentioned an impending deadline, the interpreter, being a good one, questioned my client first if he wanted to mention a time constraint. Not knowing the difference my client said to proceed. Once the issue of time was part of the mix the negotiations took a bad turn. In this case, the other side used time as a tactic and strung out the negotiations to their advantage. Even if time really is an issue, don’t let it become one in your negotiations.

Mexico

Meeting face to face is important in Mexico, and be prepared for several meetings to be held before any sort of agreement is reached. Just like shopping in Mexico, expect some haggling. Never start with your best offer. This may entail preparing your business plan to provide for a lesser investment opportunity initially, which can be amended upwards when you reach a final agreement.

Netherlands

Expect very disciplined negotiations. Your Dutch counterparts will go through the smallest details. Communications will be very direct and frank. At the same time, negotiations can be as egalitarian as the culture. Everyone in the room is treated with respect. While it can take time to forge a contract, once it is signed a contract will be strictly enforced.

Russia

Be prepared for aggressive negotiations. Stay calm.

Slovakia

It is important to analyze the nature of the relationships when negotiating in Slovakia. For a new and/or formal relationship, there is an emphasis on diplomacy and finesse. Information will be delivered in a sensitive and cautious manner. As the parties become more acquainted, more direct and frank conversations will ensue. Relationships are very important. A huge amount of back up information for your business plan will be less important than the bond that needs to form. Meetings will come to a natural ending when the business is complete, and not according to a set time schedule.

South Korea

In South Korea contracts may be viewed more as memorandums of understanding. They can be considered as documents indicating a consensus to move forward with room for later adjustment and flexibility. Which to a Western trained attorney like me can be maddening. (The contract says X! You need to do X!) And which makes it all the more important to focus on developing a strong personal connection with your Korean counterpart. Use any meal or social event to establish mutual trust, respect and friendship. The best written contracts are always based on strong unwritten relationships.

Spain

Character and trust is important for Spanish investors. Face to face meetings are important. Expect your Spanish colleagues to be very thorough and detail oriented. Only after an oral agreement is reached will a written contract be prepared. Each side will be expected to adhere to the final contract.

Business Cards

No matter where you travel to present your business plan, be it across the globe or across the street, you will want to present you and your business in the best light possible. Investing in a high quality business card featuring your company logo on thick card stock is imperative. Do not ever give someone a card with tiny, serrated edges that you punched out after it was printed at home. You will not come off well, no matter what country you are in.

Chile

Business cards are presented at the very start of a meeting. In Chile, a creased or nicked business card will reflect very poorly on you. Actually, you should play the Chilean card – crisp, clean and smooth – around the world.

Indonesia

After the initial handshake business cards will be exchanged. Printing one side of your card in the Bahasa Indonesian language is a sign of respect. When giving and receiving cards, use two hands. This means you should not be holding other papers and materials at the start. Set them down and get ready to exchange. When receiving a business card, review it closely before putting it on the table for the meeting. Treat all business cards with respect.

Italy

Respect for one’s business card is important in Italy. Look closely at it and read it before placing it away, ideally into a fancy business card case. Printing one side of your own card in Italian is always a good idea.

Japan

The exchanging of business cards is a ceremony in Japan. You must use only the highest quality cards and keep them in mint condition. Invest in a nice, conservative business card case to hold your cards and the flood of cards you are going to receive. If you are from outside Japan, have one side of your card printed in Japanese. Hand the Japanese side of the card to the recipient. You hand and receive business cards with two hands and a slight bow, as if you were dealing with an ounce of gold or other precious commodity. Because, in Japan, your business card is a precious commodity.

Philippines

Your business card should include your title and you should offer it first. Present and receive the card with two hands. Read the card before putting it into a business card case. Know that some senior executives will exchange their cards only to executives of similar rank.

Poland

Advanced degrees and titles are impressive on a business card in Poland. At the same time, cards are exchanged without a great deal of formality or ritual.

United Kingdom

With so much focus on the formality of business card exchanges in other countries, the usually protocol bound Brits may let you down on your exchange. Do not expect even a cursory glance before the card is shoved into their pocket. Do not be offended. It is not you.

Venezuela

At the start of a meeting during introductions business cards are exchanged with everyone at the meeting. So be sure to bring a sufficient number of cards. Have one side of the card printed in Spanish and present the recipient with the Spanish side up. On the card include all of your educational and professional qualifications as Venezuelans like knowing your status. Never write on someone’s business card in front of them as it is viewed as extremely rude. Remember who the most senior person is in the room as you will want to send a thank you note after the meeting.

As we have gone through these cultural tips hopefully some of them may help you better your business success. Thinking before speaking as in Malaysia, being punctual for meetings as a sign of respect in India and Sweden, putting forth a quality business card as a reflection of yourselves in Chile and Japan are all excellent strategies no matter where you live. As well, civility and respect will go a long way in any country. Your business plan prospects will certainly benefit from the common wisdom of many cultures.