Dateline: Manila, Philippines
I try to keep a positive attitude at all times, but I have to admit I’ve been a little frustrated today. I just got into Manila from Davao and am enduring a long layover before heading to Taiwan for the New Year.
Fortunately, my frustration has a silver lining…
While I like the Philippines, it’s not the most efficient place on earth. Over time, you adapt to your environment – “when in Rome”, as they say – but when traveling, it can be a bit hectic.
For example, my taxi driver on the way into town last week didn’t have any phone “load” to call my well-hidden hotel and ask for directions. Nor did he have any change.
This morning, the cafe where I had breakfast literally ran out of napkins. They couldn’t find a single napkin anywhere in the place.
At the airport, it took three people almost fifteen minutes to swipe my credit card to pay for $25 in excess baggage charges – and a fourth to realize I signed as Mickey Mouse and should probably be asked to sign again.
None of these issues are a big deal or a matter of life and death. There’s no place on earth that doesn’t have these types of minor annoyances. The issue at hand is the each place has its own localized version of such minor annoyances. And that can lead to being dogmatic about a culture in a way that’s counterproductive to success.
If you want to be in business overseas, you’ll need to learn to adapt to these challenges. Expat entrepreneurs throughout Asia tell me how they’re used to dealing with one set of challenges at home, which they successfully breeze through in a new country. However, something they weren’t expecting will come out of nowhere and hit them over the head.
To me, all of these things boil down to one all important question: “How much do you want to be successful?”
Because when it comes to being successful in business overseas, the easiest step you can take is adjusting your attitude.
One of my favorite quotes is that “successful people do what unsuccessful people won’t”. Part of my pessimism about The Land of the Free and other western countries is that this attitude has been beaten out of the population. Not being successful has become someone else’s fault.
In emerging economies like the Philippines, you make your own luck. You are responsible for your success. It’s as simple as that. There’s little to no safety net to keep you afloat if you don’t go out and produce.
And in countries with near double-digit GDP growth, there’s plenty of opportunity, especially if you have the running head start of western business experience and cash in the bank.
Moving to the Philippines isn’t something most westerners want to do. Whether it’s because they don’t want to leave their family and friends, don’t want to deal with a foreign culture, don’t want to live in a “third world country”, or any number of other reasons, most people are perfectly willing to pass up potential riches in a thriving economy in order to live in a stagnant economy.
When you consider that countries like Cambodia and Laos are even more ripe with opportunity – and present even more minor annoyances – you can see that the field to doing business in these places is relatively wide open.
You could probably count the number of Americans eager to live in Laos on one hand. However, someone who has a great business strategy and executes on it can literally own a part of a fast-growing market. If you’re willing to stick it out in a place like that, you have the potential to become very wealthy in the future.
As with anything worth having, success here isn’t easy. Personally, I believe more people can succeed at being an entrepreneur in emerging economies. The very things that cause people frustration, and the very inefficiencies that slow things down, are all ripe opportunities to build a business that works better and takes share.
But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. It doesn’t mean there won’t be times where you think “they’re doing things backwards here”. Doing business is another country, no matter how much raw potential there is, is still doing business in another country.
I do believe the Philippines strikes a decent balance of being a friendly place to live as well as somewhere you can start a business. Many expat entrepreneurs in the Philippines prefer the outsourcing industry as a way to take advantage of lower costs while selling abroad. But I see pockets of opportunity to do business domestically as well.
The point is, there will always be a trade-off. Having a taxi whiz by you as he practically jumps the curb is the price of having a police force that could care less about handing out $600 traffic tickets.
Living in a culture where the term “product liability” might as well be written in Hieroglyphics means you can’t get your money back if you don’t like the way your coffee tastes as the cafe.
And so on.
I recently talked to a young entrepreneur who wasn’t sure about moving to Southeast Asia. I told him to find an apartment, sign a lease, and come here for a year. Not only does this trial method push you out of your comfort zone, it gives you a practical and psychological way out in the unlikely event that of a worst case scenario.
But living abroad for one year as an expat entrepreneur also gives you a chance to understand the local culture and find the weak spots for a potential business. In a place like the Philippines, you could have done your reconnaissance and have actually started a growing business in that year.
It just comes down to doing it.
I always repeat the manta “don’t be dogmatic” when it comes to doing business overseas. The fact that life in the Philippines moves more slowly does not make the Philippines a lesser country. It means priorities are different here, and your strategy must adjust accordingly.
The good news is that if you prefer a faster-paced existence, there are plenty of places for you, too. You just have to do what unsuccessful people won’t: adapt.