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Shooting for the Stars and Stripes

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Starting a foreign business allowed me to gain a wealth of invaluable experience that I may never have obtained had I stayed working for someone else. Read about Derek taking the most of the opportunity as he risks time and money going to the USA to follow his dream.

By Derek Livingstone

In the early 1980's I was working for an engineering firm in Birmingham. I liked my job. The pay was good and I was treated well. But there was always a distinction between the owners and me. The boss and the employee. I would never own the business, and I wanted more.

My opportunity finally came in 1983. The business had received a couple of inquiries from the USA, but the expense of transatlantic air travel made it unviable for us to sell our services there. The obvious answer was a branch office, but the owners couldn't afford the expense of a conventional foreign branch.

So, naturally I offered them a remedy. My remedy. I would go to the USA at my own risk, and would provide the time and effort, and even work for nothing. The owners would provide some extra equipment and a little seed capital to cover those initial expenses (which turned out to be about £7,000). If I succeeded, a big share of the profits would be mine. If I failed... well, need I say it?

Because my incentives were better than those of the average salaried expatriate, I found ways to do things for much less expensively. Big businesses hire lawyers for immigration paperwork, for example, but I spent many an hour researching, trawling through books and old documents and with a little trial and error, a douse of good luck I incorporated the company in America with very little bureaucratic obstacles.

Once there, I headed for a small town and rented a modest house, which would double as accommodation and office for the following year or so. I knew I'd have no money until I found customers, so I wasted no time in getting to work. I had a few contacts from the inquiries my UK employer had received from American firms, however I had no contracts. During that first formative year, I put more than 30,000 miles on my car. As I learned the ways of the country, I got more adept at uncovering the clients who required my services.

The new business wasn't as successful as I'd liked, but it prospered. Within that first year, I had repaid the owners' original investment and was finally making some money. Within two years, I had set up a separate American company, with ownership split between me and the owners of the original UK company. In the new company's first year, we amassed a before-tax profit of about £40,000 on turnover of just under £200,000.

As you can imagine, I was very pleased with that, but I don't think the benefits were all financial. I had really fallen in love with America. My family and I got to know a fascinating country that most Brits never even visit. And of course, there was the achievement of starting a company and watching it become a welcomed and respected component of the American construction industry.

Presently, I'm about to set up a new firm in the UK, importing construction-testing instruments from America and naturally I aim to employ all the entrepreneurial skills I acquired overseas. Starting a foreign business allowed me to gain a wealth of invaluable experience that I may never have obtained had I stayed working for someone else. Of course, as with all business, there was a lot of luck involved. I was lucky to work for a company whose services were very much needed abroad, and whose directors were dexterous enough to put faith in, what was then, a highly unorthodox business deal. Lucky, too, was I to set up in a nation with a good entrepreneurial environment, familiar linguistics and culture.

So, if you're struggling with capital but yearn to establish a company of your own, considering an overseas market may just be the best option. Try your luck; it may just be the best move you ever make. It certainly was for me.

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