A longtime venture capitalist in what he calls "strange places," John B. Owens has learned how to navigate business landscapes from Turkmenistan to Panama. He knows whom to call to find out what the government's up to, and how to find reputable partner companies in unfamiliar countries. "In my experience in international venues, networking is extremely important," he says. "But networking overseas is not like it is in the United States. You don't call up a company and say, 'Hey, I'm in the neighborhood, can I stop by and ask you everything you know?' You need to spend some time to get to know the people--a minimum of six months." Owens, who now runs a global consultancy at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business in Hanover, New Hampshire, shared his six fundamentals of international networking with senior writer Stephanie Clifford.
The U.S. Commercial Service "Your first stop in a new country should be the local branch of this hugely valuable program run by the U.S. Commerce Department. The Commercial Service maintains offices in our embassies and consulates. They are staffed by extraordinary people who speak English and the local language, understand the levers of power, and know the local players, from bankers to the head of the tax police." For a list of offices, go to export.gov/eac/index.asp.
American Chambers of Commerce "In many countries, everybody who's anybody (and not just the expats) belongs to the local AmCham. The one in Moscow, for example, has 800 members and a staff of 20. They are adept at finding out which way the government is headed on key issues. Often their understanding of the situation is better than the State Department's take." For a list of AmChams, go to www.uschamber.com/international/directory.
Law firms "A local law firm can help you get a certificate of occupancy for an office fast. For contracts, however, stick with a big international firm. For years, I used Baker & McKenzie. Steptoe & Johnson and White & Case are also top-notch. These firms are expensive (I paid $200 to $500 an hour a few years ago) and I don't care for their business advice, but they know how to protect your interests in legal documents. This is key because your local partners will often know about an obscure local statute that they can use to your disadvantage if a dispute arises." To reach the firms mentioned here, go to www.bakernet.com, www.steptoe.com, and www.whitecase.com.
Large institutional investment funds "Funds such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the World Bank's International Finance Corporation, and the Asian Development Bank can be a big help to an entrepreneur going overseas. Typically, they've been on the ground in a country for years, so their local knowledge is rich. They also have offices in their home countries. Make it a point to meet both the local country manager and the regional manager. One time, I was thinking of making an investment in Air Kazakhstan. An official at the EBRD office in Almaty told me not to touch the deal because he knew that the government was considering nationalizing the airline, which it wound up doing. The banks have the ear of the government and the local business community." The three funds mentioned can be found at www.ebrd.com, www.ifc.org, and www.adb.org.
Big accounting firms "In foreign markets, firms like PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte are more amenable to working with entrepreneurial companies, especially when it comes to tax work. That's key because tax work in developing nations is an art. Perhaps more important, accounting firms are in a unique position to know a lot about local companies, including something that's extremely important but that's often opaque--that is, who really owns this business that I'm partnering with?" To reach the firms mentioned here, go to www.pwc.com, and www.deloitte.com.
Oil and mining companies "In countries where there are large deposits of oil or other natural resources, the folks at these multinational giants are amazing sources of information. Since by now you've joined the AmCham and paid a courtesy call to the embassy and bought a beer for the director of the local Commercial Service, all you have to do is tell your new contacts that you'd like to meet the local head of Chevron. The person you ask will probably invite you to drinks with your target--the whole point here is networking at the highest level."