Returning to work as an expatriate is both exciting and challenging. In her second post, Claire d'Aboville explores how expatriates can work independently, adapt to different markets, make the most of their differences and turn them into competitive advantages.
You have put your career on hold, possibly in order to raise children. During that time, the family has moved to another country, where it currently resides. You feel now is the right time to get back to a professional activity. Amongst the various routes, creating your own business is an attractive option, offering flexibility and independence. What do you need to consider? Let’s focus on specifics related to your expatriate situation.
Retain same field of work, or not?
First you need to think about the field of work you want to get into. A few questions are worth investigating.
- Are your skills recognised locally and what does it take to get local recognition? I once worked with a dentist from the Middle East who decided to go into headhunting because she did not feel like going through retraining as a dentist in the UK. You need to do a bit of research to find out whether your diploma and experience are accepted in the country you are in.
- Do you speak the local language to a level that allows you to do a good job? My initial field of work was human resources. As a French person working in England and Germany, I felt it was easier to focus on the remuneration side of my profession than on the leadership development side. It felt less challenging to talk numbers than to talk emotions in a foreign language.
- Are your skills up to date? Chances are that the world has moved on since you last worked. Also you may need to boost your confidence with some refresher course. Or you may want to learn something new. In any case, it might be wise to take a local course, as opposed to relying on e-learning, because a local course will also help you with your local network. I retrained as a coach in the UK.
- Lastly, how portable do you want your activity to be? And how portable will your client base need to be? This is a wide topic. The two main aspects to consider are your personal plans and practicalities. Are you settled in this new country for many years or not? How quickly can you build a new client base if you move again? My current clients are UK based, but I could stay in touch remotely with many of them if I moved again.
What does it take?
In addition to thinking about the field of work you want to engage in, you need to be aware of the specifics of “going it alone” and how they impact you as an expatriate.
- Every independent professional has to work on his/her marketing and to make sure he/she has enough clients to work with. It takes time to build a client base. Being from a different country, you may not have any initial network to press the “word-of-mouth” key. And you may not have ready-to-buy clients who know you from a previous role. Therefore your efforts and patience might be needed.
- Depending on when you have moved to the new country, you might still be busy adjusting to the new environment. You are less in your comfort zone than if you were at home. You have more uncertainty to deal with. These adjustments take your attention and energy away from starting your business.
- It is quite useful to think about how your business (and you in it!) can cope with moving country again. I know a French financial auditor who retrained as an artist in the UK and established a good client base there. After her husband took a new role in Dubai, she had to start her marketing all over again, but she was able to apply lessons learned in the UK.
- Lastly, you need to learn about the local legal, fiscal and business practices. This requires research and probably expert advice, depending on the country. Not all countries are equally welcoming to very small independent businesses. My friend in France found it much more challenging to register her business there than I did to register mine in the UK.
What market to serve, what ideal client?
Last but not least, who is your ideal client and whom do you want to serve?
- As an expatriate, the community you are likely to know best is the expatriate community. According to my observations, the bigger the culture gap and the more remote the host country, the stronger and more supportive the expatriate community is. That can create an ideal market for you.
- Modern technology broadens your world and your potential client base. As a teacher or a coach, you can work via skype and phone. As a journalist or writer you can deliver your work over Internet. In those cases, it does not matter so much where your clients are, provided you are able to keep in contact with them and keep marketing yourself, i.e. be visible and in a position to get work.
- Lastly, you may consider bringing to local clients precisely what local people do not have / have less of: i.e. language, technical skills or products specific to your culture. I know a French person who offers her perspective and interior design skills to the expatriate community in Hong-Kong.
Working independently offers incomparable advantages with regards to flexibility and control of your time. As an expatriate, you face specific challenges but you also can build on your differences and turn them into competitive advantages.
For more information on issues facing expatriates, read Claire's first post on returning to work after international relocation.