The Brutal Truth About Running An International Business — And 3 Things I’ve Done About It
Forget the back-pats for business owners who are ahead of the curve. Give me the sleepless nights, the relationship breakdowns, the stress eating, and all the second thoughts. That’s what entrepreneurship really looks like.
In this short (but not-so-sweet) article I share a little insight on my erratic work schedule: trying to manage an established team in Melbourne, Australia, plus one worker in The Philippines, while growing Avion’s first international office in Austin — and working remote from London at the same time.
Navigating time zones SUCKS
Sometimes I wonder what the hell I was thinking. Sure, jetting off to build a business in the US is certainly an exciting adventure… But it doesn’t come without hard work!
Earlier today, I was on a panel for Austin Startup Week and asked:
“What has it been like for you to navigate emotional risk as you lead a team across multiple time zones?”
My response? It’s really hard!
The worst part is waking up really early (or staying up really late) to take part in meetings that suit everyone’s schedule. There are times I’m exhausted to tears — but I have found 3 key strategies that help:
My first strategy is figuring out a timetable and sticking to it. To make things clear, I do NOT expect my employees to work outside normal business hours to suit me. That just doesn’t sit right with me when relocating to America was my choice.
For a few months, I tried staying up late for midnight Zoom calls, but that just didn’t work for me. I’m a morning person. Not getting enough sleep started to affect my relationships — I lacked any drive to maintain connection with friends.
I’ve now figured out that it’s best if I work double shifts. I wake up super early and start Australian meetings before sunrise. Then I exercise, do chores, chat to friends, and eat my lunch before getting back to work in the late afternoon for meetings with the US. This gives me a sense of accomplishment and routine.
2. Showing up
My second strategy involves putting on a freshly washed face and a collared shirt, and understanding how my energy influences others.
There’s already a sense of distance that jeopardizes your authority when you’re on the other side of the world, and that’s why it’s even more important to be 100% switched on when in video calls.
This year I’ve been so stressed dealing with many travel complications — I even had to cancel my wedding. I took time off unexpectedly and intermittently (I’m the boss, right?!), but that was unfair on my colleagues. I started to notice my community withdrawing from me. One of my peers even said: “I was too embarrassed to give you that new project because I didn’t want to trouble you.”
While everyone had good intentions of giving me space during a difficult time, missing opportunities is the last thing you want when you’re in business. And you don’t want your team feeling like they have to steer your ship for too long, either.
My third strategy is acknowledging how hard it is to keep up professional appearances at awkward hours.
While I have a good relationship with my employees and often see them as friends, I have to remember I’m also a role model and the person who pays their wages. So, I have to make space for myself.
I fit 5 days of work into 4, so that I always feel like I’m having a long weekend. I also set up buddy systems that enable my team to support each other in my absence. Lastly, I give each of my employees a budget for counselling, so they can feel empowered working through challenges on their own.
And before anyone asks: “Why don’t I just hire a manager for the Melbourne office?” the answer is: I already have one and it’s not that easy! Unless they’re a co-founder, you must be willing to support them too. If not, they’ll also burn out. If they walk away, you’re left with a gaping hole in the organization you worked so hard to build.
It’s normal to have good days and bad days
2020 hasn’t been a great year for anyone. For me, the pressures of building a business in another country have been magnified by factors outside my control. There have been travel restrictions due to COVID, mental health issues due to extended lockdowns, two stints of quarantine, and some unfortunate cancer diagnoses in the family that have rocked my vision of what my life would look like.
So, I tell myself: it’s ok to not be ok. What’s important is that despite all the challenges, I actually love being a business owner.
I love creating great work. I love talking to clients and solving their problems. I love mentoring teams and watching them grow. I love having the freedom and flexibility to create my own calendar and office location — with some caveats, of course! What matters is remembering why I enjoy pushing my limits in the first place.
About the author: Natalie Khoo built her business in Australia off the back of the 2008 recession. Having made all the mistakes since day one, she’s passionate about sharing her learnings with other business owners on a similar journey. Natalie’s career highlights include taking a 3-month scuba diving vacation in 2019 and not checking her emails once. She travels between Melbourne, Australia, and Austin, Texas, with her partner James.