“The word ‘Crisis,’ etymologically speaking, comes from Greek, and means a change of direction, or a new opportunity. That’s the semantic meaning. A change of direction, new opportunities. For me, that’s what crisis means.”
For Xavier Rodriguez, the Crisis wasn’t a stopping point - it was the beginning.
At the first sight of economic trouble, the Catalonian architect decided to pursue a long-time dream and expand abroad. Markets in Europe and the United States were (and remain) decidedly sluggish; by now, almost all architecture firms in Spain have cut down their staff, and about half have closed their doors. Meanwhile, the developing world has seen a surge of growth - and an increasing need for experienced, knowledgeable workers.
Rodriguez, like many architects today, has taken advantage of that need - to considerable success. However, the road hasn’t been easy. While many entertain the idea of pursuing opportunities abroad, there are a few things Rodriguez told us that every architect should know before taking the leap.
Find out what you need to know to be successful abroad, after the break...
Step 1. Know Thyself
In 2006, before the Spanish economy took a severe turn for the worse, Xavier Rodriguez and his colleagues at BR29 Architectes began to think about expanding their business abroad. They were a young company - only four years old at that point - and they knew that, before considering any place, they would need to know what they were financially and professionally capable of, and what they wanted to achieve.
Rodriguez warns: “Do a very honest analysis of your strengths and weaknesses - and always have it clearly in mind. Know what you can sell, what you’re strong in. And if you’re not strong, don’t even think about going abroad, because they’ll eat you alive.”
Step 2. Do Your Homework
After the self-analysis, the team began compiling research on countries around the world. They weren’t just looking for which country had the most growth or the most projects - they were looking for which country would “fit” them best.
“We began an investigation into Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe... starting out small by contacting some offices over there, that kind of thing. We did lots of studies. And, in the end, we decided South America. It was a question of strategy: we saw there were many countries experiencing very strong growth, not just economically, but in construction as well. So we tried to focus ourselves on which country would work best for us.”
Rodriguez traveled to various countries in South America to see them first-hand. Considering his firm’s size and ambitions for future growth, Rodriguez soon targeted Chile as the best option for his team.
There were a number of reasons for the choice: not only does he speak the language, but, upon arriving, he realized that Chile is considerably more organized and stable than its neighbors (and far less competitive a market than, say, China’s). Plus, its free trade made it very appealing. As Rodriguez told me: “it was a strategic decision; since we have plans to one day enter other markets, Chile’s positioning is fundamental.”
Moreover, the taint of the Crisis hadn’t reached Chile’s shores. As Rodriguez explained to me, Spain’s bad reputation has made doing business in Europe difficult. As much as he would have loved to open an office in Finland (an idea that, Rodriguez admits, still appeals to him), he knew it wasn’t a savvy business idea: “sure, if you just do freelance there, you can definitely do very well; the economy is strong, there’s work, all of that. But to open a business there...when the Crisis started in Spain, I lost a lot of competitiveness [...] If I went to Finland with my business and tried to sell my services, they’d tell me ‘I’m not interested.’ That’s it.”
Step 3. Find Your Niche
Rodriguez was right to be objective. In the words of Thomas Vonier, the International Director of the AIA, who has written extensively about the challenges architects face abroad, “Reputation is everything.”
In his article “Exporting Architectural Services,” Vonier explains that when it comes to analyzing your options abroad, it’s not just a question of knowing your strengths, but of knowing (a) how your firm’s strengths are perceived and (b) if those strengths are marketable: “It is vital to ensure that firms seeking to export services have something to offer that is both unique and sought-after.”
Rodriguez couldn’t agree more. He told me that, from the beginning, he’s done what differentiates him from local architects. “We’ve managed, I think, because we have an expertise, a know-how, that’s far superior in certain aspects, in certain niches of the market, than architects here. For example, I’ve been working a lot in restoration; I have much more experience in that than a lot of the big firms here. That’s why I’ve been successful.”
Step 4. Invest
However, just because you’ve chosen the right location for your international business, it doesn’t mean you’ll be welcomed with open arms. The fact of the matter is that it requires a lot of investment (and substantial savings - don’t assume you’ll be able to acquire a loan; banks are often wary of lending to foreign businesses) just to get off the ground. As Rodriguez puts it, “you can’t expect to have any type of economic return for the first two years. Not a dollar. [...] it’s like starting all over again.”
Which means you have to be financially ready, not just to offset the everyday costs of building a business, but to invest. Initial investments are vital to building your reputation in this new market and establishing trust with your clientele.
To quote Rodriguez again: “Who’s going to listen to someone in a country that’s not his own, in a market that’s not his own, if he doesn’t invest first? Chile has accepted me because I arrived and I settled myself, made a new team, offered work, sold “quality,” all of it. But you can’t just arrive and expect anyone to give you anything. The world doesn’t work that way, not anywhere.”
Step 5. Sell Yourself
And as much as money talks, you’ll have to be pretty vocal yourself. As Vonier puts it, “a firm must explain why a foreign client — orany client, for that matter — should work with it, rather than with a local firm or a foreign competitor.”
To truly be successful abroad, you must become comfortable with the fact that you’re not just an architect, but an emissary, a spokesman, for the kind of work you do. This point is the culmination of all the previous ones: to sell yourself you must know your strengths and reputation, your own unique place in the market, and what you want to accomplish.
Rodriguez identifies this business-savvy as key to his success. “In Spain, architects aren’t businessmen. [...] they don’t understand that their firm is a business that sells a product. In our case, the products are projects, consulting services - but they’re still products. And there’s a process of production, of selling, of marketing too. You have to know how to do it. [...]
When you sell in your market, where people trust you, you have a very specific weight...in Catalonia, where people know me, I don’t really have to explain or sell, since they can see my buildings, they can touch them. But here in Chile, no. I have to know exactly how to explain myself very well, to sell myself very well, and above all to build trust, to transmit it in terms of project development, work, my CV. If you don’t do that, you’re dead. If you do, it will make you stronger, in everything; even if things don't go well, it makes you stronger.”
Step 6. Build A Smart Team
Another important step once you’re on the ground is to hire locals that will complement your existing team. For example, Rodriguez, instead of looking for architects, which he has in Spain, sought out local engineers as associates.
Moreover, if you don’t have command of the local language, nor knowledge of the legal and bureaucratic policies of your host country (many countries, particularly in the developing world, have nigh-impenetrable red tape), a core of local experts is indispensable.
Step 7. Be In It For The Long Haul
Rodriguez went to Chile with no illusions, well-aware that this would be a long-term gamble: “We didn’t come here for a little while, until things get better over there. Our intention here in Chile is for the business to still be here when I retire.” To be successful, you must be prepared to put as much - if not more - into your foreign firm as you put into your original one. And you must be prepared to stick it out to the end.
From the massive infrastructure projects in Brazil, to the seeming never-ending demand for buildings in China, the lure of the developing world can certainly be tantalizing - particularly when prospects at home remain bleak. However, expanding your firm is no quick fix. On the contrary, it’s a significant investment with no guarantee of return.
The Key To Success?
Despite the many difficulties, establishing an international firm not only allows you to expand your business and clientele, compensating for economic downturns in other parts of the world, but it, potentially, could be the smartest long-term investment you make for your firm.
With former centers of economic power giving way to up-and-coming megacities across South America, Africa, and Asia, it’s not terribly radical to suggest that a new world order is emerging - one that we must embrace.
For Rodriguez, it’s that reality which informs all of his business decisions - so far, to his benefit: “We need to see the world upside down. When you realize that you’re not at the center, then you can see distances as they really are. Europe is a periphery. The key to success for me, and what I try to think about in my business, is learning to live with this reality. Which is not to say that we’re worse or better off, but that we know our place in this new global economy.”
In the end, perhaps this is the true key to success, at home or abroad: seeing the world, not how we wish it were, but how it soon will be.
Still have questions about doing business abroad? Check out these fantastic resources...
Advice for Architects, from the AIA: Exporting Architectural Services; Adjusting to Foreign Business Customs and Practices; Planning An International Practice; Getting Started in the International Market
General Advice: Doing Business Abroad