With the exception of China, if you’re a founder in Asia Pacific, you need to prepare yourself for a tough reality: At some point, you’ll have to leave the relatively safe confines of your own market and test the waters in a foreign market. Overseas expansion in the region is tough. In preparation for this task, most entrepreneurs prepare themselves and their startups financially, operationally, and strategically, but they almost always overlook one factor: culture.

We tend to underestimate just how much culture will impact our carefully thought out business and operational plans. Localization, in short, is the key to regional success. Founders who operate in Asia Pacific must be students of the world, but we most often fall short of that ideal, often maintaining a very insular view of our own culture and neglecting to explore others.

Learning more about our neighboring countries in Asia Pacific does not need to be cumbersome, tedious, or expensive. Here are a few simple ways that regional founders can gain deeper insights into the markets they may very well one day need to expand into.

Go on an immersion trip

As much as it would be great to live in other Asian countries for months at a time, for most entrepreneurs this kind of immersion is unrealistic. A much more practical way to gain first-hand knowledge of other cultures is an immersion trip. Many organizations run such trips, gathering a group of entrepreneurs and business leaders for a multi-day tour of different cities in Asia.

What’s great about these immersion trips is that everything is already planned for you. The organizer will bring you to local business events, cultural exhibits, and everything in between, in order to help you learn through osmosis as much about the local business culture as possible. All you need to bring is a gung-ho attitude and some business cards.

Host a digital nomad

There are many people in Asia, particularly technical talent like web developers, who bounce around and work different jobs as they travel the region. While many companies tend to avoid such workers as they will only be with you for a short-time, some entrepreneurs are smartly targeting these digital nomads out.

Why would you want a digital nomad on your team? Hosting someone from a completely different culture can teach you as much about their own as they do yours. Though much of this education will occur organically in the course of getting to know them, you can even formalize some of this process: You can host a brown bag session where the digital nomad shares more about where he’s from and maybe even some of the places he’s traveled. Having sessions like these will also emphasize the importance of cultural education to your entire team.

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Build a global network

A common mistake that founders make is that entrepreneurs only ask for introductions to people they want to meet when they need them. This view is a very short-sighted one, and it’ll result in you having a very insular network. Most people will be where you’re from and resemble you.

The much more prudent choice is to ask people in your network for introductions to good people to know in other countries with no specific purpose in mind. Though this advice may seem counter-intuitive, it’ll be easier to get to know them as you’re not presenting or pitching anything, and you can even find ways to give value to them first.

Go off-the-beaten path

When you’re traveling to countries in the region, you should avoid touristy places. These will give you a glossed-over view of what it’s like to live in these markets, as this destinations are usually highly polished due to all the foreign tourists. Instead seek out destinations that are off-the-beaten path — these are the kind of spots that in some cases only locals may know.

Finding destinations off-the-beaten path may give you a more realistic view of how people live in that particular country, providing you with a deeper understanding of the country when you do choose to expand there.

These tips are of course only a starting point in every entrepreneur’s journey to become more global in their perspective. What’s important is that we acknowledge we must stand in the shoes of another in order to see how we can best serve them.


This article was first published on e27, on December 19, 2018.

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