The UK is currently the sixth-largest economy in Europe and it is a great place to start a company.
But how does a foreign national go about starting, running and building a company in the UK?
I know only too well the burning desire that sits inside the entrepreneur who wants to expand and grow their company into another country, but I also know first hand the risks and downside of not taking the time to do it correctly, plus really digging deep into the numbers, to make sure that all of the efforts are both worth it and profitable.
It’s slightly ironic that I am writing this article twenty-five years after I made the conscious decision not to do business in the UK, but that was for reasons specific to my industry that made going abroad a faster route to success.
But if you are reading this, then you have probably made up your mind to at least consider how to go about starting a business here in the UK.
I am going to concentrate on the bigger picture in this article, rather than walk you through the steps of actually starting a business, which I cover more deeply in my article, “How to start a business in the UK (Steps to starting your business).”
So let’s get straight into it.
Business and country culture
The UK is a very multi-cultural country, which is why it is a good place for someone of any nationality to come over and start a company…but, you must understand the “English way” of doing things and also the culture, which may differ drastically from your own.
It is essential that you conduct your research to make sure you understand the history, culture and how the people live, plus all of the regional and country differences that apply — the UK is made up of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
And to complicate matters further, although everyone speaks English, there are different accents and dialects across the UK, depending on where you are.
The video below just about sums it up:
Please do not be deterred by this, it is just a matter of understanding that there are many ways to say the same word and just like when I started my business in the US, I had to understand the cultural differences between the North and the South, plus all of the different dialects that exist in different states.
Here is a great link to give you an overview of the UK language, customs, culture, and etiquette…enjoy!
Making sure you and your business are legal and compliant
There are two aspects to consider here and one of them is the legal ability for you as a person and this, of course, entends to your direct family members and the other is the legal entity of the business that you wish to start.
When I left the UK in 2005 to expand my business further in the US, there was a requirement to have a visa to enable me to enter and live in the country, as well as establish a US company that would allow me to trade.
In my case, the two were connected and I was limited to only working directly for my US company (which was a subsidiary of the UK company), which also required me (at that time) to make a significant investment into that subsidiary.
Those were broadly the terms of my visa, which was pretty much the only way I could live and work in the US. Also, I had to be married and not just living with my long-term partner.
Remember that this information was correct at the time and can change in a heartbeat.
The first step you need to take is to consult with an immigration lawyer, as this is a very specialist field and you can try an international firm such as Fragomen, who I have personally used in the past.
The next thing to take care of is the legal and compliance issues of setting up a company here in the UK and there is a lot of help available online from the UK government, as far as setting up a business, but I would also advise you to work with a specialist accountancy firm, as well as a legal firm because again, this is a specialist area that needs specialist advice.
I have used a company called Morison KSI, to help establish my companies around the globe — they are an association of professional service firms that to me have been invaluable with regard to the advice on offer.
Now I must stress the importance of taking these aspects extremely seriously and to also beware of “cheap” solutions or ones that offer any form of shortcuts — they can cost you far more in the long run.
You are making an investment in your future, so make sure you make the right investment, by getting the right advice from the start.
Remember also, that when you are engaging with the right people, there are a ton of other benefits that go with the advice, such as getting access to the networks of your advisors.
When I moved to the US, I had a great lawyer who also introduced me to a real estate broker, explained to me the best school districts and also the nicest restaurants to entertain my clients in!
Getting your business started
Now comes the exciting part and if you have diligently worked through the steps above, then you are more than ready to get into the UK and begin the journey.
I couldn’t wait to get off the plane after a flight out of London to Dallas and to begin my adventure in another country that lasted for ten years!
So I can imagine how you feel.
If you are like me, then you have probably been doing business here in the UK from your country of origin, in some format at least, or you will have some contacts who are ready to work with you when you arrive.
Whatever your situation, you will now be here in the UK and ready to generate some revenue.
This is where you have to understand the culture and it is critical to avoid disappointment and also for you to manage your expectations.
For example, in the US, there is a much stronger “sales culture” and you can be far more direct with your approach and follow-up business proposals, but you can’t go over the top, it’s just that you can push further and harder than some countries.
I found that as long as you were respectful to people, then you could be direct.
From a cultural perspective, I was used to entertaining clients in Europe, where lunch was common and in Spain for example, could start at two in the afternoon and would involve some wine with the meal.
Not so in the Southern States of the US — lunch could begin at 11:00 and would usually involve a glass of iced tea!
It was just the way it was…and still is over there!
In the UK, we are slightly more reserved when it comes to a sales culture, so you have to take a more subtle and engaging approach.
Expect to work hard for the sale and also to follow the process in line with the UK culture.
I talk more about sales here in my article, “How to become a good salesman” and this applies to sales and selling in general.
Selling is the lifeblood of any business and for me, when I sold in other countries, it not only excited me, but I believe it gave me some advantages as I was “different” and when you combine difference with an effort to understand the people, the culture and history of another country, it can be very powerful.
Growing your business and surviving
As an entrepreneur, you will know the importance of networking and it is essential that you start to meet new people and hopefully not only make new business contacts but friends.
I talk specifically about my time in Dallas because it was the only place I lived and worked in, outside of the UK, but I also spent a lot of time in South East Asia and Mexico — two vastly different cultures, but where the business ethic is extremely strong.
I grew my business opportunities through the two important points that I covered at the beginning of this article — understanding the history, culture, and business etiquette and also using the networks of the professional advisors that I had worked with to get the business established.
But be careful…just because you have engaged a professional services firm, don’t expect that you will automatically be connected to their network.
Just like all professionals, including myself, I am extremely protective of the people that I have been fortunate enough to connect with over the years and I will only give introductions to those people if I believe the people who want those introductions are genuine.
In the UK, most people in the business world are happy to help, but you have to be careful as to how you approach people. It is easy to be full of energy and enthusiasm, with the belief that it will become infectious and it is not wrong to have these valuable qualities.
I would urge a little caution here just because in the UK, we tend to “back off” a little when we experience this outward enthusiasm and especially from people we don’t know.
It’s back to the old “English reservedness,” that we are famous for — but on the other hand, times are changing and with that, the attitude of the people as well.
But I have to at least give you my view!
Now to survival.
You may think I am being slightly negative here when I even talk about the possibility of surviving in business as it may imply that you could fail.
Well, it’s a possibility and if you look at my entrepreneurial journey, you can see that it hasn’t been plain sailing!
You are always one step from disaster as an entrepreneur and also one step from making millions and that precisely the lure and addiction of being an entrepreneur.
In the US, I learned about the various differences and discrepancies with regard the laws in each state and it proved to be a painful lesson, as I had to make sure that due to the nature of my business, I was compliant legally in each State that I operated in, even though my business was based in Texas.
In the UK, you don’t have such considerations in the main, but for example, if you buy a property in Scotland, you will be subjected to different property laws than if you bought a property in England.
Now let’s get to the part that I hope you will never have to get to and that is when things go wrong, for whatever reason.
It can happen and there is nothing worse than when you find yourself in trouble in a different country, whether for personal or business reasons — I have never fallen foul of the law personally in any country I have visited, but I have come close in business and that is because I either did not know the consequences of my actions or taken matters seriously enough at the beginning.
No government in any country is going to allow you to use the excuse that you “didn’t know” and it is your responsibility to make sure that you know!
Us entrepreneurs are a strange bunch of people and we have traits that others don’t — mostly in the belief that we can transform an idea very quickly to a business, or we can spot flaws in other companies that others cannot.
But sometimes, we are our worst enemies — having too little thought for the details and the foundations.
We are experts in creating revenues from nothing and most of us would rather be homeless or sleeping on someone’s sofa than taking a job.
But when it comes to starting a business in the UK, don’t make the mistake of shortcutting the most important steps that I have pointed out above.
Last modified: May 28, 2020