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With reports about the UK economy consistently gloomy, every business has to find new growth markets. In January 2012, Victoria Tomlinson, Chief Executive of Northern Lights PR* decided to look at expansion opportunities in Dubai. Her company used LinkedIn for research and to win new clients. Here she explains how the use of social media landed the company an overseas contract in the very first meeting.
This may seem fairy tale stuff, but if we can do it then anyone can. We are a relatively small company with just five employees plus a network of freelancers and partners — so we needed to be clever.
It started in January with a LinkedIn update request where we posted: “Anyone knowledgeable about the economy in Dubai? Any advice?” Within 24 hours a senior contact at Yorkshire Water recommended someone who has been going out to Dubai for the last few years. We contacted him, he offered to meet us and gave us three hours of his time. What he said gave us the confidence to book a flight.
We also leveraged our UK networks with connections in Dubai. For example, I am on the advisory board of Bradford University School of Management, which has run the largest MBA programme in Dubai for ten years.
I offered to deliver a guest lecture on the topic of ‘social media for business’ for their alumni in Dubai. The university’s regional office snapped my hand off and within two weeks organised a hugely successful event with more than 70 business people attending. We paid for the room and refreshments, so as not to abuse our position. This event proved a great focus to invite people and so acquire more contacts.
All our team trawled our LinkedIn accounts to find contacts in the UAE. My colleague came up with the real trump card — a contact from years ago who got in touch with the names of three top quality people based in Dubai.
One was the CEO of Byrne, the largest equipment rental company in Dubai and we were introduced just as they were reviewing their marketing. The timing was perfect and they are now a client.
Through all the introductions, we had appointments with 20 people on the first trip and similar for each subsequent visit. Because you are introduced through credible people and arrive ‘rated’, the quality of these introductions is superb.
Whenever we have told our story there are normally two questions. Why Dubai? And what about government support for exporters?
When we were thinking about new markets, we looked for initial connections. I had lived in Saudi Arabia when much younger and speak rusty Arabic and later did business in Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen. There is no doubt that doing business overseas is different and if you can find common ground and ways to shortcut the learning curve, it helps.
And yes, we did call UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), which has a range of services to help. One service offers to research and introduce new exporters to six contacts in a country. There is a cost of about £1,000 for this and, while this could be useful for a business light on connections, if you have just a few employees with active LinkedIn accounts, you should be able to generate these and more from your LinkedIn network.
Most recently we have been invited to join a UKTI trade mission to Dubai along with 38 other UK businesses. In terms of leveraging UKTI, this seems the more valuable service for our particular needs and we have high hopes for it.
Are there any hurdles? In Dubai, you will need a trading licence and residency visas. This is not straightforward and everyone has a different story to tell on the best way to go about it. In terms of choosing where to establish yourself, there are a number of free zones and, as a creative agency, we could have set up in one of these. But according to our research, while this may be a cheaper option, legally you should only trade within that free zone. Ignoring that is a risk, although generally seen as a low one. As our plan is to aim high and for prestigious clients we decided not to take shortcuts on our approach, which we see as long-term in the region.
So far our decisions seem to have paid off — we got our licence within a month or so, which appears to be in record-fast time. The cost has been around £10,000 for the licence and visas.
Finally, Dubai is not a ‘flash’ market. The chief executives we’ve met are operating efficient businesses and want to see a return for every penny spent. However, they have money to invest and decisions can be made quickly — and that is refreshing after the slow turn of the UK market.
Victoria Tomlinson is Chief Executive of Northern Lights PR
*Northern Lights PR is a client of Mazars
It’s not always possible to time overseas visits that secure contracts immediately. Using social media when expanding overseas is about making new contacts that you can nurture and who will think of you when future work crops up. But now and again the timing can fall in your favour.
In Northern Lights PR’s case, using their LinkedIn connections, they were introduced to the CEO of Byrne just as they were reviewing their marketing. Byrne is the largest general rental company in the Middle East with 450 employees and 12 offices in six countries. Best known for its event management activities — they supply generators to buildings and lighting for events such as the Abu Dhabi Formula 1 race, Madonna and Snow Patrol concerts — Northern Lights PR's role is to help them understand their client needs better and sell more to existing customers. A key focus is to position their expertise in the oil and gas market and for setting up temporary accommodation camps for employees on construction and other sites.
The timing was perfect and Byrne is now a Northern Lights PR client.