Moving overseas is often about freedom. Many expats are looking to get away from long, grinding hours chained to a desk. Instead, they want to enjoy a laidback lifestyle where family comes first. Even after the move, though, it’s possible that you’ll still be slaving from nine-to-five, enduring similar drudgery in a different time zone.
It’s entirely possible that the same skills that made your new employer snap you up could give you the means to escape their clutches.Working for yourself is the ultimate freedom. You can be your own boss and steer the business in the direction you want to take it.
That same freedom comes with the extra responsibility of being the boss. The buck stops with you. If clients have a problem, they’ll be calling you and it’ll be you that has to put in the extra hours to find a solution. You’ll be responsible for everything from the coffee pot to the tax returns, with nowhere to hide if things go awry.
For some, this extra responsibility is exciting and exactly what their working lives have been lacking so far. From bakers to bankers, photographers to fitness instructors and musicians to make-up artists, people are striking out on their own.
Being an expat can complicate the transformation from wage-slave to managing director. There may be restrictions on your visa, extra taxes or licences that are needed. But for motivated individuals, this shouldn’t hold them back.
One of the biggest problems faced by the self-employed is drawing a line between work and life. It’s tempting when you are the boss to take work home with you, to put in extra hours and to avoid taking time off. As rewarding as the successes such hard work can bring are, it can lead to exhaustion and start to harm the business.
We’ve come up with a list of self-employed expat commandments, rules to remember to avoid burning out before you’ve made your fortune.
10. Put money aside
The unexpected will happen. You may be hit by an unexpected bill, equipment may break down and you may fall ill. In extreme cases, you may face a surprise tax bill as the government back home takes a cut of your overseas income.
Make sure you can enjoy peace of mind by knowing that your business has a pot of emergency funds. This cash can be brought out to deal with unexpected surprises without you having to put your hand in your own pocket.
Get to know the business law in the country in which you operate, it may be that certain business have limited liability, and if the business goes bust your personal finances are safe from the bailiffs.
9. Work wherever suits you best
You’ve already moved around the world to seek the life you’re after, so set up the business in a way that suits you. You may need nothing more than a laptop and a phone, so working from home can give you the flexibility to spend time with family.
You may find it financially beneficial to travel more, meet clients regularly and work from borrowed desks or coffee shops. This saves on office rent but also gives you the flexibility to be where your business needs you the most.
Of course, your job may be a little more ‘hands-on’, requiring a workshop, kitchen or studio from which to work. Think carefully about where you put your premises. It may be cheaper outside of town, but can you face the commute?
8. Learn new skills
One of the most exciting things about living overseas is that every day is a school day. You learn about language, culture, history and people every time you step out of the front door.
Make this work for your business and make your business work for you in this regard. Seek out courses in your area of expertise and learn the local way of doing things as well as brushing up on business skills.
If you employ local talent, find out about their approach to the trade and find out if there are things you can learn from them. Never stop seeking out knowledge.
They say ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’, which couldn’t be more true than when you are a new arrival in town. Being an expat business owner you face competition from locals who understand their trade, the market and the business culture.
You need to build up a reputation fast, not only as being competent in your trade but as a trustworthy, pleasant person to work with. Creating this rapport with potential customers is not easy unless you get to meet them.
Meeting face-to-face, swapping business cards and sharing a joke is a great way to get yourself remembered and establish yourself on the scene, but it will also keep you sane. All too often working for yourself equates to working by yourself, a lonely state of affairs that can make the workplace lonely and increase stress levels.
Seek out business networking events, support groups for small businesses and the local chamber of commerce. Become a part of the business community and do everything you can to avoid being closeted away in a stuffy old office.
6. Learn to say ‘no’
This may be one of the toughest lessons for anyone to learn as they strike out on their own. Sometimes you just need to turn down work.
It may be that the client is asking you for too much and offering to pay too little, or the deadline is too tight or the order just too large. You run the risk of harming your reputation by promising something you cannot deliver.
As great as it is for a business to be busy, you could find yourself making a loss by taking on labour intensive orders where two smaller orders would yield more return for less effort.
There may be cultural considerations to take into account when you get into these situations, so be tactful. Offer to deliver part of the order, arrange alternate dates or raise your fees, whatever you need to do. Just make sure you aren’t taking on a task that could cripple your business.
5. Don’t work for free
Especially if you do something creative, you’ll have clients asking you to do great big projects ‘for the exposure’. As much as they may insist that it’ll be good for your business, it really won’t be. Unless you are brand new to the industry and are still learning the tricks of the trade, you’ll be selling yourself short and advertising that fact to others.
When clients pay you for your services, they aren’t just paying for the product they receive. They are paying for the equipment you used to create it, all the training and practice you put in over the years and all the hours of admin you have done to keep the business functioning.
Sit down with a spreadsheet and calculate all of your business costs, from rent and bills to tax and equipment. Remember also to account for the cost of new equipment you will need in the future or existing kit that will need upgrading. Make sure these costs are all represented in the price you charge your clients.
In many countries, haggling and bartering are a normal part of business life. You may find yourself struggling to make ends meet if you can’t learn to say, ‘this is what I’m worth and I won’t work for less’.
You may find that rather than pandering to ‘the customer is always right’ and standing your ground, your clients respect you as a true professional.
4. Spread the load
Being self-employed doesn’t mean doing absolutely everything yourself.
In the beginning, you will be doing everything; sweeping the floor, pitching to clients and balancing the books. Your customers may not even realise that the person who take their order, the one who makes the delivery and the person that processes the payment is the same hard-working individual. As many hats as you may wear in the course of the working day, it’s permissible to take them off once in a while.
It’s impossible to be an expert in everything, so don’t try to be. Find the experts and see how you can work together. It may be that parts you’ve been making yourself can be manufactured elsewhere for a reasonable price, freeing up time for you to focus on other things. After all, it’s very rare that you’ll find a master baker who also mills the flour.
In many cases, you may actually save the business money by bringing in outside experts. When it comes time to file your taxes, a good local accountant will save you the cost of their fees and then some, just because they know how this complex, alien system works.
Hiring in help doesn’t always have to mean expert opinions. F few odd-jobbing interns or students working summer jobs can significantly lighten the load during busy times.
3. Don’t be afraid to take time off
You’re living in an exciting, exotic new country. What a tragedy that you’re always in the office.
There’s a real reluctance amongst those who are self-employed to take time off. It means they are away from their projects and could potentially miss out on lucrative clients. But it’s important to take a break once in a while to recharge your batteries.
In this digital age, it’s easier than ever to keep in touch with the office, using smartphones and laptops to keep an eye on emails and phone calls miles from your desk. But these same tools can all be set up to let customers know that you are away for a week and will get back to them.
A particularly useful tool for expats is getting a virtual secretary. If your grasp of the language is not complete, your calls can be answered by a native speaker who can also filter out pesky sales calls as well as take messages from important clients when you are away from your desk.
2. Make your business work for you
You’ll be working hard and putting in late nights. So it’s only right that you see some kind of reward for it.
Cash is not the only motivator, which is a good thing because you might not have much of it to spare in the early days. Use your business to do things you find rewarding.
Hopefully, you’ll be working in a field you enjoy in the first place, so make sure you continue to do so when working for your clients. If you’re baking wedding cakes, make sure you get to experiment with icing and ingredients rather than churning out the same old sponges every time. If you’re a mechanic, use the tools you have to renovate a project vehicle of your own.
Being overseas affords you the opportunity to discover another way of doing your particular trade, inspiring your creativity and challenging your skills. Make sure the job stays interesting as boredom can be even worse that stress.
1. Reward yourself
It’s difficult when you’re self-employed to say ‘well done’ to yourself, and there’s nobody else there to pat you on the back.
This can be a major detriment to morale, making it seem as though each day of hard work yields nothing but another day to be slogged through and endured. Make sure that doesn’t become the case.
As you sit down in the beginning to write your business plan, identify key targets or milestones and celebrate them accordingly. For the first client you sign, buy a trophy of some kind to mark the occasion. Then buy a bigger one for your 100th customer.
Remember, rewards don’t always have to cost the business money. It would be sad to celebrate your first profit by pushing the balance books back into the red. If a day off would make you feel good, celebrate on the beach. If you need a new suit, go shopping.
Use business milestones as a fun way to promote the business. Celebrate each year your shop has been open by holding a sale or special event to draw in visitors. Say thank you to loyal customers and they are sure to stay devoted to you and recommend you to others.
Keep the big targets in mind and look forward to celebrating them. When the big bucks start rolling in, know what gift you are going to buy yourself. Keep a picture on your desk of that posh watch, sports car or dream holiday destination. Not only will the reward be all the sweeter once you get it, but reminding yourself of what awaits will keep you working through the toughest of days.
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer