How to feel like a multinational when you’re a one-person business

By Susan February 6, 2012 20:00

How to feel like a multinational when you’re a one-person business

I started my company in September 2010. In September 2011, over half of the turnover of my company was exports-led.

How did I manage to do that in such a short time?!

I first went to Malta in January 2011 for a week, then again in May 2011 for a whole month, and most recently in November for a fortnight.

In a year, I went from start-up to multinational.

Do you want to know how it feels, from the inside, to be an exporter? That’s what I would like to share with you.

My hope is that you will realise exporting is totally doable and it’s a great way to grow the revenue of your company. If you’re contemplating exporting but are afraid to take the leap, I want to say to you: the only thing that is holding you back is fear of the unknown. There are few other barriers.


It all started with a dream and a vision


I have always wanted to be a business woman, to be an international business. It has been my dream ever since I was a little girl.

You read about multinationals, how their earnings are up, you hear various entrepreneurs listing off countries as their markets, you hear about how the iPhone is in a million shops around the world… That’s inspiring. You see other people doing it and it makes you think – Why not me?

And then you have this vision of glamour in your head, the high-flying executive in a power suit striding through the concourse in an airport, talking on their cell phone, without a thought for the roaming charges…

(As a matter of fact, roaming charges cost a solid flipping fortune!)

And of course there are many down-to-earth business reasons for wanting to go international. Asking yourself “Why would I export?” is like asking “Why would I take on an additional client?” Very simply, it’s an excellent way of growing revenue. If you have an international element to your business, you can charge more: your perceived value increases, both at home and abroad.

I have always wanted my home to be here in Ireland. I don’t want the economy to drive me out. So exporting makes a lot of sense because it insulates me against the economy worsening in Ireland. It’s a way to build sustainability into my business.

I also wanted to bring more money into the country, to be able to look at a positive Irish balance of payments and say to myself – “You know what? I participated in that!”

When I spent one month in Malta for the first time, though, I only made a couple thousand euros. I spent more out there than I brought home. What I hadn’t quite foreseen was the real impact of going to Malta.

It brought down the psychological barriers.

Since then, I have gone on to do business in Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, the US and I’m due to go to Finland and Australia this month.  But in order to have the confidence and the drive to do that, I had to do my stint in Malta first.


And just how do you “go international”?!


To tell you the truth, there was never a plan. Just that longing for “being international”. And the nagging question: “How the hell am I going to do that?!”

All I knew was to try whatever small step I could take to make it a reality. If you take the first small step, you will be amazed at how many things are set in motion. So I signed up to meet people at the Malta trade mission in Dublin in November 2010. At least I knew it wasn’t a step backwards!

But I could have not followed up. I could have left it at that – giving out business cards and adding people on LinkedIn. Only that meeting set my mind racing. What if I did go to Malta… Are there any Irish companies out there… Who do I know that has a connection with Malta…

And that is when you start thinking about it as if it could be a reality. If something becomes possible, you can’t help but start imagining in great detail what it would be like and you think of all the practical details. And that’s it. Before you know it, you’re in problem-solving mode.


Suddenly I was on a plane to Valletta


Then came the point of no return. As you know, I called Marion Jammet, who put me in touch with Lizianne Gauci – and suddenly I had an action-packed itinerary with twenty-five meetings over one week.

In January I was on a plane to Valletta.

That was it. There was no going back. I had to go big or go home. More precisely, I wanted to go big and then go home. I was so curious to see what would happen in the following week.

The realisation hit me when the wheels of the plane hit the ground.

“What am I doing here?! What now?!”

That’s when the fear and the doubt came crashing in. When you step off that plane, you literally know nobody, there is nobody there to meet you. You’re going to your hotel room but you can’t relax, it’s not as if you’re on holidays. It can be terribly, terribly nerve-wracking. Even after all I had done to get out there, I had all of those doubts.

The next day, in the taxi that was taking me to my first meeting, I kept thinking “Seriously – what am I doing?!” I wasn’t even so sure of my product at the time, I didn’t know what to charge internationally. I made a few mistakes, I under-charged to a degree because I didn’t value my international element enough.

And the reality hits you with full force. You don’t have a lot of money. You don’t have a lot of free time. You’re alone in your hotel room, nobody is waiting for you. There’s nobody to have coffee or dinner with. Socialising is forced as well, because it’s part of doing business. There’s just work, work, work.

So you log on to Facebook and you announce “Just touched down in Malta!”. You see the “likes” coming in and that cheers you up a bit. You realize you will have to recreate a sense of home, but in a vacuum…

You do begin to question – is it not just easier to stay at home? You do think that! Of course it’s easier… And then you think “But sure if I did everything that was easier I wouldn’t be where I am today…”

It feels literally like being back at the very start of your business again, when every inch of progress you have to fight for, and you don’t have any momentum yet. You have to push your product and to hustle, you have to be very careful with your money, you have to attend a lot of preliminary meetings, many of which go nowhere and don’t result in a sale.

Nobody knows you. There’s just you, without references, without a reputation, your business past a blank slate. I couldn’t say “I’m Susan Hayes, Irish Times financial trainer” – they would have said “Yeah that’s great, who’s that? What’s the Irish Times?

All that’s left is you. You know the business mantra that “people buy people“? And really, what else is left to buy?

It’s a very humbling experience. You have to go back to sharpening the saw.

That’s why I think anybody can become international. You don’t need to be a business genius – you just need hard work, and enough faith in yourself to take on the next small step. Anybody can do it precisely because it’s not easy – and still, it’s totally doable.


Recreate your comfort zone


In the middle of all this emotional rollercoaster, there was one place I could hide, and that was right in front of an audience. I realised that I knew how to be the Positive Economist – it was being Susan Hayes the problem!

I realised that I just had to recreate my work environment and I immediately felt more comfortable. And for me, my normal work environment is to get up and talk in front of an audience. When you’re a public speaker, you know where you stand: there’s a public to speak to, you interact with them, and suddenly I was doing what I had always done. That wasn’t the hard part.

Cultural barriers weren’t so hard to overcome, either. There were many surprising things, but really, most of them were funny rather than a big obstacle. For example Irish humour doesn’t land quite the way it does at home, people don’t laugh at the same things. Although people in Malta are good craic themselves – in the end they would laugh at me laughing at my own jokes!

Whereas in Ireland you might chitchat for a few minutes, about the horrendous traffic and the horrendous economy, in Malta you haven’t even taken a seat yet and you’re already doing business! And nobody talks about the weather in Malta – it’s always nice…

I realised I adapted very quickly. Because, at the end of the day, a sales meeting is a sales meeting, a training is a training, whether it’s in Dublin, Cork, or Valletta.

When you’re in a meeting your brain absorbs everything and you’re trying to come up with what you can offer. I was sitting there and I would just listen. I would say, “Have you offered your clients this kind of training?” And they’d say no, and I’d say “I could do it.” If they said, “So, what is going on in Ireland at the moment” – I’d say I could give a talk on the state of the Irish economy.

You don’t have to have a strategic management document and everything else. You just need to go and do it. You have a product, they have a demand, and you meet in the middle. Or you don’t. But even then, you come to realise “You know what? The same thing would happen if I was in Dublin!”


Building something to come back to


Almost three weeks into my stay in May, I had a lovely surprise. I went to the Finance Malta conference – and I was amazed at the amount of people I knew! Suddenly people would recognise me – that was really lovely. You realise you have built relationships. It’s not a life you build to walk away from but to come back to.

In October I was invited in the European Parliament to talk about my experience as an Irish business person in Malta. It was a great feeling to be able to text Lizianne to tell her I was giving that talk! There was somebody to share it with.

And thinking “Oh my God! I actually did it! Geez, I did it!! I came out here and I actually delivered!” – that was absolutely priceless… Yes, I was scared and full of doubt – no, there was none of the glamour I had imagined. But where the glamour left it, that’s where the real feeling of achievement came in…

Whereas in January I was hoping I would have enough business to come back there, in May I was building on the contacts that I already had. I felt I came home a multinational! And now I feel I would be able to take on any country.


There has to be a business lesson in there


Why, yes, there is, because that experience taught me a ton of things!

  • Just take the first step.

When you’re one step further, take the next step. And then the next. You don’t have to have it all figured out before you begin. Yes, do feasibility studies, but get out there and do things.

There was no defined path in front of me, I never actually tried to work out the roadmap between the starting line and the finish line. And I had just enough belief in myself to do the next step all the time. That was all I needed.

  • There is no real risk.

When I flew to Malta in January, I bought my ticket on Ryanair for something like €30, the hotel was a couple hundred euros for the week… That was all. There was really nothing to lose.

The only risk was that I wouldn’t make the sale. So what? The same thing might have happened in Dublin! I remember sitting in the taxi after that first meeting and being so surprised that it was like any other meeting…

  • Prepare to be utterly changed.

That experience completely changed me and my business, we both gained tremendously, in so many ways. I’m an international company now. All the psychological barriers that I had – they broke down. In their place is bigger potential. I destroyed my own preconceived ideas. Now other people want to know how I did it, and I’m able to help them. That is a great feeling.

In the beginning, exporting sounded completely “out there” to me. Now? I have a vision of one day opening the Maltese office of my company. How am I possibly going to do that?!

Just like exporting: I have no idea, but I’ll find a way!


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By Susan February 6, 2012 20:00