If you’re looking to expand internationally, you need the right motivation and the right people, writes Mark Middleton

Mark Middleton cropped

When I left the UK in late 2020 to “pandemigrate” to Sydney, we were grappling with a degustation of spiced Brexit aftermath, pandemic parfait, and a sour jus of uncertainty. You’d have thought things might have improved but like Monty Python’s Mr Creosote we are having our business cavities blown wide open by a wafer-thin mint of European war and whispers of global recession.

In the face of this, it’s natural for studios to remain cautious, but as our favourite architect of opposites Winy Maas might say, “why not put the sky on the floor and the floor on the sky”. Whilst others retreat, we could step forward, zig when others zag and go global!

Expanding your global reach is a mantra I have extolled before. To prove we practice what we preach Grimshaw has opened studios in Los Angeles and Paris since then, with Auckland launching in a few months. I know, I can hear it already, that’s easy for you to say being a bigger practice.

Whilst it’s not straightforward and might be beyond those who are just raising lintels in Shoreditch, the ability to embark on a global adventure isn’t dictated by size, you can be smaller and make that leap. Grimshaw only had 30 people when it first won work in Europe and only slightly bigger when we started in the USA. A new studio is a start-up, small by nature with the same issues to tackle whether you’re established or not.

Do not expect anyone to know you or care

This may surprise, but an established brand means next to nothing in a new place. Do not expect anyone to know you or care. No one knew about Grimshaw when we started in Sydney, New York, or Paris – we had to start from scratch, establish our reputation and propagate those connections to the new market.

Before deciding if this is right for you ask yourself two things: what’s in it for you and what’s in it for potential clients. It’s not enough just to want to, there needs to be a clear business reason for you to expand into a different country. A recent example is Invisible Studio who announced that they are looking beyond a post-Brexit UK to work predominantly in Europe – a bold and clear strategic motive.

Once you have this starting point and a clear set of aims, ask yourself why clients in your target market would want or need you over someone local. What contribution can you make to the market? This should be easier to answer – it could be the lure of working with a trusted existing client in a new location. Or it might be your expertise, or unique technical knowledge.

Whatever it is, you need to identify a gap that the locals can’t fill. But bear in mind that what you do in the UK may not be transferable or valuable.

Our experience has taught us that it’s essential to be in the place

Once you have the why, you need the who, and it’s critical to find the right person to spearhead the move – without them, forget it. You need someone who wants to be there, speaks the language, is trusted to represent the practice, and can win work. They must have the right approach and character to reach out to new clients – a generalist who is willing to take out the trash one minute and deliver a winning pitch the next.

The where is less important, because its certain to have been decided by the why and the who. You would prefer to deliberately choose a place but often it’s happenstance. AHMM have a studio in Oklahoma – not an obvious choice or part of their conscious planning. It started because a trusted individual wanted to move there and was backed to succeed.

Whatever you do don’t choose more than one new place at any one time – developing your home studio and a new one is more than enough. Our experience has taught us that it’s essential to be in the place. Fly in fly out is always short term, expensive, time consuming and doesn’t help develop long-term relationships. You won’t know a place unless someone lives it.

You’ll need to be patient – don’t expect quick returns. It can take four to five years to get a foothold in a market and establish credibility. You must hold onto the aims you set for the studio and retain authenticity. Any international endeavour will need support and guidance to prosper.

Change is the only constant for businesses – you either let it happen to you, or make it happen for you

Once you start to look don’t get over excited – not every opportunity is a good one. You’ll need a robust system of potential project assessment to sort the wheat from the chaff, looking at the country, contracts, clients, competition, and the consequences of winning. We consistently reject two-thirds of what we could pitch for.

Remain calm and even in your assessment. All architects have an optimism bias when faced with a new opportunity in far-flung places – be confident enough to pass on things and patiently wait for the right opportunity.

Whilst I cannot claim to be an architectural soothsayer (even though I am writing this to you from the future – 11 hours to be precise), expanding your market beyond British shores could insulate your business from market volatility. This is especially the case now that the UK is on its own with its currency and seeing its economic position increasingly under threat.

The “go or no” global decision is a risk and reward equation. What I have outlined here is that if you have a good reason; something to offer; the right person; patience to wait for the right opportunity; and can allow time for the fledgling business to grow, then why not.

Change is the only constant for businesses – you either let it happen to you, or make it happen for you. And I believe Grimshaw and its staff have prospered architecturally, commercially, and culturally by being resident in many cities around the world.