How to Be a Local, Anywhere
If you’re a leader, lead. When my company explores a new market, I’m the first one off the plane.By Pat McGovern | Apr 1, 2007
Occasionally, I meet people who believe communications technology will make it possible for them to run a global business without setting foot outside their domestic comfort zones. Experience tells me that is not realistic. When a company ventures abroad, its point person should be its CEO, traveling frequently and acting boldly and enthusiastically.
I founded my company, IDG, in Boston in 1964, and I have spent an average of four months a year for the past 40 years launching our technology publications, events, and research and online services from Antarctica to Zimbabwe. When I established IDG, the United States accounted for 78 percent of the world’s information technology market. I forecast then that that share would decline to 35 percent by 2000 (the actual number was 33 percent). So for us, globalization was not optional. Today IDG operates in 85 countries; 80 percent of our profits come from outside the United States.
Where the business goes, I go. Or as my colleagues say, where I go, the business goes. IDG launches businesses in three to five new countries each year, and for virtually all of them I’m first on the ground, meeting with potential customers, government ministers, and management candidates. It’s a hierarchical world out there: People respect a title. If I’m there, we work together to define the market, set the mission and goals, and sign the contract. If I sent my staff, they’d meet with local people and merely exchange information. Nothing would get decided.
Of course, it helps that I love to travel. Even after 40 years, my adrenaline starts pumping every time my plane touches down in a new country. I never tire of exposure to unfamiliar people and places. Every trip is a story waiting to happen.
Books on foreign business cultures can’t begin to prepare you for the unusual situations you encounter. I remember one that began on a snowy Boston day in 1975. I was in my office when the phone rang. It was a Brazilian entrepreneur who wanted to start a computer publication with IDG as his partner. He told me it was 90 degrees in Rio; I got on a plane and met him at the Copacabana the next morning. We worked on a business plan for three days. On the third day, which was New Year’s Eve, the entrepreneur transferred the business plan to a single sheet of paper and took me to the beach at midnight. Standing on the sand, he folded the paper into the shape of a boat and placed it at water’s edge. He explained that if the first wave at midnight carried the paper boat out to sea, the gods blessed the plan and the venture would be successful. If the wave pushed it back up on the sand, the gods disapproved. He seemed very serious so I went along with it, and fortunately so did the waves. Ten years later IDG Brazil was the largest technical publishing company in that country.
In nations with socialist economies, assumptions about business go out the window. My experience in the former Soviet Union is illustrative. In 1988, I signed a contract to launch PC World magazine with the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Russian Printing and Publishing Ministry. We determined that the first issue would have 150 pages, 30 of them full-page ads that we would sell to companies outside the Soviet Union.
I flew with a group of our largest advertising clients to Moscow for a launch party at the National Hotel. As the first issue was passed around, I heard the clients muttering, “Where’s my ad? Where’s my ad?” I flipped hurriedly through a copy and found only four ads in the whole magazine. When I asked the manager of our joint venture what had happened, he explained that the Soviet editor in chief had reviewed the ads and found half of them lacking in solid technical content. Another 11 were redundant because the company was also mentioned in an article. In the editor’s judgment, only four of the 30 ads were sufficiently useful to pass muster. It was no small matter to persuade the editor that we needed ad revenue to pay expenses, his salary included.
During the past 15 years, about two-thirds of my international travel has been in Asia. Of course, the customs in Asia take some getting used to. When I first went to Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, my business partners took me to a restaurant where the waiter decapitated a snake and poured its blood into our glasses. People in my party told me that toasting with the blood would make me a member of the “Hunan Mafia.” Fortunately I have an iron stomach (I’ve also eaten monkey brains and scorpion), so I downed the stuff. Becoming part of the inner circle paid off: Today many leaders of our Chinese business units are Hunan natives.
I know that anti-American hostility has escalated in recent years, but I haven’t experienced much. The only time that I was a bit anxious was in 1984, in Ethiopia. I was being driven around Addis Ababa when a group of men started beating on the car with clubs, crying “Die, Western devil! Die, Western devil!” Fortunately, we escaped before the windows were smashed.
My wife, who was CEO of a computer company when I met her, accompanies me on many of my trips. My children often come along as well. We typically take our vacations overseas, and if a business opportunity pops up during one of those occasions, so be it. For my wife’s 50th birthday, I took her to the South Pole, where we spent a week in an unheated tent. While we were there, I met a scientist from the National Science Foundation‘s South Pole research station. He gave me a tour of the facility’s telecommunications room and let me send out e-mail reports about the use of computers for seismic research, ozone layer analysis, and glacier movement. From those reports, Computerworld Antarctica was born. It’s a website with 20,000 monthly visitors. With the site’s launch, IDG became the only publishing company doing business on all seven continents.
In 2000 my wife and I founded an institute for brain research at MIT. Researchers in neuroscience have discovered that when the brain is stimulated by new experiences it generates neurons, and the birth of those neurons improves the immune system and general health. In other words, learning promotes longevity. And one of the best forms of learning is traveling to new places. Over the years, international travel has helped IDG reach $3 billion in revenue. I believe it will also help me reach my 100th birthday.
Pat McGovern is the founder and CEO of IDG, a Massachusetts-based company with more than 13,000 employees.
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