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Disruptive Technologies, World Travel, Adapting and Mentoring: International Business with Mark S.A. Smith

Mark S.A. Smith

Adventure. Exploring. Ask. Be humble. Enjoy. These are some of the insights that Mark S A Smith presents in his podcast on doing International Business in 54 countries over 42 years … with tips about foods, meetings, interpreters and learning quickly how to behave abroad.

Highlights:

Mark Smith’s journey. Growing up and gaining global experience.

What does international business mean?

What makes international businesses successful?

Why you should use a professional language agency as opposed to an individual.

How to adjust to a market when the environment in that culture or country doesn’t match what you already know?

Food in other countries.

Mark S.A. Smith Bio

Mark S. A. Smith is an international businessman who has helped introduce new, disruptive technology to world markets for 42 years. He is an engineer, marketer, speaker, executive coach, consultant, and author who has recently released his 15th and 16th books. He has also been paid to work in 54 countries. Now he works with executive teams making the transition to the Transformational Economy with the release of his newest two books, The Nimble C-Suite and The Nimble Company.

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Full Transcript

Hello everyone, and welcome to the series premiere of Global Gurus, where every Friday we explore stories of international business and speak with industry leaders operating around the world. I’m your host, Philip Auerbach of Auerbach International.

Thank you for joining us.

We’re going to start each broadcast with a running segment called “Faux Pas Fridays” where we explore a funny blooper or mistranslation that does not quite convey the professional image that your company wants to project. 

So, for example, a sign in English in a Romanian hotel said: “The lift -the elevator – the lift is being fixed. During this time, you will be unbearable”.

Today’s guest is Mark SA Smith.

Mark is an international businessman who has helped introduce new disruptive technology to world markets for 42 years. He is an engineer, a marketer, a speaker, an executive coach, a consultant, and an author who has just released his 15th and 16th book. 

He has also been paid to work in 54 countries. Now he works with executive teams, making the transition to the transformational economy with the release of two new books. His two new books, The Nimble C-Suite and The Nimble Company, welcome Mark.

Why, thank you, Philip. It’s a delight to be here, and I love that sign in Romania. It reminds me of a couple of signs I’ve seen that were written in English in different parts of the planet. For example, in this little town outside of London, on the lift was “gone wrong”. And then in the Deep South, there was a sign on the elevator that said: “Tore up”. So even if we think out of order is the right answer, not everybody thinks out of order is the right answer, the thing to say.

So, it’s a delight to be here and to share with you these things that we share as a common language and a common world. But boy, do we get things out of alignment sometimes.

Yes, we share a common culture and a common language, except when communication does not quite work. So, before we dive in, could you briefly tell us a bit more about your background, how you grew up, and how you gained some global experience?

And I love to explore, so when I was hired out of college, the company who hired me, Hewlett-Packard, said, “Would you like to introduce this new product in Europe?” And I said, “Heck yeah”. And so, I had my first experience at 23, I flew around Europe introducing a new piece of disruptive technology and just learning so much just at that young age about how to do business internationally, and I caught the bug. 

I ended up living for three years in Amsterdam looking over some technology sales for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and traveled extensively, and then later in my life did a lot of international business doing training, international training again for Hewlett Packard, just coincidentally. So, I’ve always been interested in other cultures.

I like waking up in strange cities and talking to strange people about their strange problems.

That’s wonderful. This may be a bit easier for you since you’ve traveled so much around the world, but what does international business mean to you?

Well, at a baseline, that means that you’re doing business with somebody who is not of your culture and perhaps not of your language. And in the narrow sense, it means you’re getting on an airplane and flying to some country to do business with them. You need to have a relationship-building process that will get you to the transaction and then navigate the financial situation that will end up with you producing a product. Now, each of those four steps may be very different in each country.

Very, very true.

And we’ll explore that a bit more during the podcast. But, I’m guessing, which of your ventures or launches was the most successful, and what did you do to make them successful?

Well, I think the most successful one was when we did 500 events for Hewlett-Packard worldwide. I had 13 trainers on the road worldwide delivering technology training to help people sell the technology. And of course, we had to make sure that the sales strategies and the sales scripts were going to work in all the languages that we were operating in. We did translations of workbooks and translations of PowerPoint decks and things like that. We did local training for the trainers, and we also delivered in English, sometimes with simultaneous interpretation.

That ended up being very successful. We made a lot of money, and our client made a heck of a lot of money. They went from a 23% market share to a 63% market share in three years, and in some countries, they completely dominated the market. There were zero sales of the competitor products in certain countries. And so that was very successful, partially because we did the research, we needed to do to make sure that the techniques we were teaching were completely aligned with what the culture needed, as well as being highly engaging and very cookbook-ish, you know, step one, step two, step three, step four, so that nobody was confused about what they should do. It was a wonderful experience. I’d love to do it again.

That’s fascinating. You mentioned how you dramatically increased Hewlett Packard’s business and they had a lot of translations. As you may know, I run a 30+-year-old translation agency. We translate anything into 120 languages, and one of our biggest successes was for Fujitsu. Just by delivering the translations on time, we were able to increase their business by about $500,000 over various years.

That’s substantial, boy, I wish I had known you back in the days when we did HP. We had one translator we worked with that ended up being a thief. And what happened is that he charged us $5 per PowerPoint slide to provide us with proofs. Well, when you have a 150-slide deck, that ends up being a lot of money. And he would do that for every single PowerPoint slide deck that we had him translate, and it ended up costing us thousands and thousands of dollars. Totally unnecessary. Completely ridiculous.

And very unethical.

So, it was completely unethical, and the guy taunted us about it. So, it was unfortunate, and it was one of those situations in which you live and learn. We didn’t do our due diligence on this cowboy.

But it’s one of those $5,000 pieces of information that you discover the hard way.

Exactly.

In my experience, most translators and interpreters are extremely ethical and very, very professional, and this is a good example of why one should use a professional language agency as opposed to an individual because the agency is then responsible and can screen people accordingly.

Well, you know, actually that’s a very interesting point because we would do the same thing and we would travel internationally. We would not contract with individuals. We would do everything through the hotel.

So, for example, when we landed at an airport, we would always have a driver from the hotel come and pick up the trainer so that we knew that they would be safe and get to the right hotel, versus relying on getting a taxi or a party, a driver that could take them to the wrong place or whatever it happened to be, but by contracting through the hotel for things like that, we never failed. 

Yeah, it costs a little more, but what’s the cost of failure? It’s extremely high.

Yes, it reminds me of doing business in India. It’s one of the places in the world where I would never drive, and I would never advise any non-native to drive there because it’s insane. But I would trust the Indians to drive there because it’s their country. And they know exactly what to do and how to do it.

Right. 

And even though I was one inch from the back of a bus, I always trusted the driver to get us where we needed to go on time. 

Absolutely yes. Right. 

You’ve talked about some successes, and perhaps you could also share a big business blunder, either your own or something you’ve heard about, and the lesson that our audience should take from it.

Well, I was very, very well coached. When Hewlett Packard sent me overseas as a young man, I was escorted by somebody who had deep experience with international work. I was well briefed about what to do and what not to do. And so, I have to say that I was prevented from making any big blunders. 

That’s great.

Along the way, and I think that’s an important thing, if you’re going to do international travel, make sure you find yourself a guide who has experience in the countries that you want to do business with, whose history is your future in doing business with those countries, and it’ll keep you from making the blunders. We’ve all heard You know the classic blunders of misinterpretation. and accidentally insulting their hosts. 

Although in my experience, most hosts are extremely gracious as long as you are humble and respectful. And from that location, that location of appreciation for their country? No criticism whatsoever about anything. Don’t ever say, you know, it’s kind of dirty around here. Don’t ever say, you know, boy, we sure do it differently in the United States. Just keep your mouth shut. And you’re going to stay out of a lot of problems.

That’s excellent advice. And you mentioned interpreters somewhat. One of the lessons that I’ve learned and that we tell our clients is that if you’re going abroad, my agency, or any other professional agency, can normally hire a professional interpreter for you in that country, but you should always have your professional interpreter. And do not rely on your host to provide one for you or on the host’s interpreter, because that person may conveniently forget to say certain phrases or certain words that may be detrimental to you but beneficial to your host.

Yeah, that’s exactly right. There’s a place, you know, where being lost and interpreting makes sense. And so, yes, having your interpreter, I agree with you.

That is, part of the secret is that you have to hire your own. And of course, you can, you know. It can be done through an agency like yours, or if we needed to, we could hire. I mean, before I knew you, we just went through with the hotel.

Yeah, and that’s wise. The hotel normally, of course, has very reliable people because the hotel’s reputation is at stake. That’s great.

Right. 

There are certainly, of course, a lot of cultural differences when doing business internationally. Could you tell us about a cultural difficulty that threatened or ended an adventure, and how you dealt with it?

Well, you know, I don’t. I don’t. I’m sorry, I don’t have one. And it could.

Could be yours, could be anyone else’s, or whatever?

Well, again, I think the reason why is that we did our homework. 

Good!

We made sure that we were culturally prepared everywhere we went. And, you know, in the 65 countries that I’ve been to, I just can’t think of a situation where we had, you know, problems or challenges just simply because of the prep work that we did. By now you’re probably aware of the book Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands.

Yes, it’s wonderful.

And if you’re going to do business internationally, this is a must-have book. Unfortunately, the last edition was in 2006, but even though the book is out of print, you can get copies, and it’s worth getting and reading. 

It’s fun to read, just a blast to read, and so that would be part of our pre-work. You know, people would get the pages out of Kiss, Bow or  Shake Hands to review before they would, they would go off and do anything. But yeah, you know, there are lots and lots of classic stories about, you know, people showing the bottom of their shoes to an Arab businessman.

To a Muslim?

Yes, indeed yes, and causing serious issues in those areas. And of course, they didn’t mean anything by it, but if you’re not aware of that, it can cause problems. And I think that’s the reason why becoming culturally attuned through a book like Kiss, Bow or  Shake Hands is the secret to avoiding these issues.

Yeah, that’s very, very true.

For our general audience, the book “Kiss, Bow, Or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than 60 Countries” is available, and it’s got sections for each country on cultural overviews, behavioral styles, negotiating techniques, protocol, and business practices.

It’s a superb international business bible, even if it’s a bit out of date.

It’s almost there. It’s close enough. 

And the example you gave of not showing the soul of your foot to a Muslim; what I’ve learned in traveling in over 56 countries is that, in general, there are certain things one does and what one should not do. Because you never know who might be there. You never know who a Muslim may be, for example. So, therefore,  Americans to do this a lot, they cross, especially men, they cross their legs, and the sole of their foot is pointing at the person next to them. Well, if that person is a Muslim, in Islamic culture, that’s extremely offensive. And people may remember when President Bush went to Iraq and declared victory or success, and a lot of people threw their shoes at him.

And that was the equivalent of that being an obviously very negative gesture. 

Indeed.

Even with the background that you have, how do you adjust to a market when the environment in that culture or country doesn’t match what you already know?

The secret to that is just asking. You know you can ask. 

You can ask anybody who provides you with service. So, somebody at the front desk, if you have somebody who invited you to come there, you can just say, “Look, fill me in. I don’t want to disrespect anybody. I want to be completely respectful. And I want to make sure that our business is successful, so please help me. If I have a blind spot about cultural behavior or my Americanization is out of line, please let me know.

I am here as a world businessman, not as an American businessman. I am here so that I can be successful, and we can have an effective business so that you get what you want, and I can get what I want. So, would you be willing to do that?” 

You know, and they’re like, “sure. This is amazing. You know, most of these guys come blundering in and complain about the food, and they complain about the water, or they complain about everything. And now here you’re just trying to say… yes!”

So just being open to feedback, asking for feedback.

And everybody gives it graciously and gladly because, so few people are willing to say, “Teach me.” I’m not arrogant. I’m here to learn. I’m here to be successful with you. That’s the secret.

Yeah, that’s very wise. You know, most, not most, but many Americans travel abroad and come back with this, uh, cultural assumption that the whole world should be like us, and we are superior to the whole world, which can get you into trouble before you even step off an airplane or a subway. So just as you had suggested earlier, be humble and then ask.

And so few people do ask that, as you say, the locals. They will be most gracious and most willing to help you and guide you.

They fall all over themselves! I think the thing to keep in mind is that America is a young, brash, arrogant, egotistical country. We are a somewhat smug country, and we forget that most of the countries that we’re going to are many times older than we are. They’ve been doing it way longer than we have, and yet we have this feeling that we did it the right way.

Let’s just not. So it might be right for you, but only once you do international travel. Your experience and your expectations change radically. Yes, I love being in America. Yes, I love living in America. And yes, I love having the experience of going to other places. Quite frankly, I think the food in most other countries is substantially better than in the United States because we’ve been so dumbed down our palates with fast food everywhere, and everybody and every fast-food restaurant is selling a burger.

Right. Right.

Oh, come on, there’s more to life than a burger and fries.

The food abroad is marvelous most of the time!

Indeed, it is, and even when it’s not, it’s different.

It’s different, and I’m sure you will agree that when the host takes you out to lunch or dinner, the proper cultural etiquette is to try it.

Try anything that is put in front of you, even if you don’t like it. Don’t make a face. Don’t grimace. Just try it because that shows graciousness to your host.

You know, I’ve never thought of that, Philip, but I’ll eat it. And part of the reason why is that I may not like the taste, but why not try it? Why not taste it? Why not see?

I’ve even had durian. You know that nasty, stinky fruit that smells like, you know like you’re standing over an open sewer? And one of my hosts in Malaysia took me there and said, “Would you like some durian? 

And I said, “Hell yeah!” 

And it was, it was quite an experience, and yeah, I’d do it again. Although it was, it was exactly as described, like eating onions over an open sewer. But it was quite delicious once you got past the smell.

That’s what I’ve heard. I’ve never had it myself, but you’re describing it exactly as I’ve heard. That’s wonderful.

And in the open-air areas where they’ll serve it to you, they have a sink where you can wash your hands afterward, and they run the water over the outside of the fruit. And there is something on the outside of the fruit that deodorizes your hand.

Oh, that’s fascinating!

And you know, I said, you know, if you don’t run the water over the outside of the fruit, your hands will stink. But you do. And they were right. My hands didn’t smell anymore.

You said two things I just want to comment on. I think I saw some in a market the other day. Do you know where you can find packages of dried fruits? 

Yes

I found one that said dried durian, which was amazing. I did not buy it because I, you k

now, already had plenty of stuff, but I wasn’t really surprised to see it in this country.You know, you can find it fresh in some Malaysian markets, but…Uh, yeah…what the heck, right? It doesn’t matter. Try stuff, see what you think of it, and then you’ve got stories to tell.

You know, the other wonderful comment you made is how the United States is such a young, brash country. And in many ways, we’re sort of like young teenagers. An experience that made me chuckle was in Istanbul, where there was a sign that said, “New Mosque. Built in 1583.” 

Ha ha ha ha.

Hello, context Oh yeah.

Yes, when cultures, and countries are hundreds or thousands of years old. You know that  I come from Philadelphia, and we have the oldest, continually inhabited residential street in the United States. It‘s called Elfreth’s Alley and I think it dates from like 1683 or something.

Yeah, a hundred, hundred years after the new mosque!

So, if you could give your past self some advice from your present self, what would you say? 

Adventure even more

That’s a great adventure even more, just yes, go try to experiment.

Yeah, go, go. Go to the weird-looking little restaurants; go to the strange little areas. Hire a guide for the day. Some of my very best experiences have been hiring a driver for a day and saying “OK, show me things.”

Not just looking around.

“Yeah, just show me things. Show me things that you would want to show your brother or your mother”, and so on. I don’t have an agenda. I just want to see what they think is interesting and important and valuable and worth respecting.

Yeah, and even in the United States. I attended a conference in Mobile, Alabama a few months ago. And the driver was a lady Uber driver, and she was wonderful. I was curious about her town, and she showed me some parts of Mobile that I had never known … that the Spanish occupied that part of Alabama. And she showed me an old Spanish fort from whenI think the British were there. The British tried to take it over. So anyway, again, even in this country, just show curiosity and have the time, and it’s quite amazing what you’ll learn.

Indeed, it’s lovely. Those are all that I love. The hidden things that 99.99% of the population never see right, so they’re the hidden gems. Truly a hidden gem.

Well, I presume that your life is not all business. What else gets you excited?

I continued the adventurous life, so I am now a nomad and I live out of a little travel trailer that goes anywhere my 4-wheel drive truck will go, and I will go explore the national parks. I love looking at the geology, geography, and history of these areas. So, quite frankly, my experience of adventure has not stopped. It continues and is even more intense because it is my home and where I am currently staying.

That’s wonderful. It’s great. So, before we close, is there anything else that you’d like to share with us?

Don’t be afraid of the unknown. 

The unknown is where all the good things exist. 

Imagine how boring life would be without your willingness to step out into the unknown, to go to places where you might have a little fear because you don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t know where I’m going. I might get hurt.

The odds of you getting hurt are very low. The odds of you being inspired are very high.

So, embrace it. Go get it. Go get on that roller coaster and go to places you’ve never been to; your life will never be the same.

And even if you don’t know the language…

Oh, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. You know you can pick up a little card that has all kinds of symbols on it. You point to it and people point back. It’s just the most amazing thing.

If you have a cell phone service, you have a translator in your pocket. It’s so easy these days to get around, way easier than it was when I first started. So, you have no excuse not to get going. And hey, when you get there, you can learn a few things.

And just before we close, you mentioned something correctly called ‘pocket translators.’ Those are good for traveling, as you’re saying, and for asking simple questions: Do you know where the church is? Where is the station? Does stress come in blue? Regardless of which scenario you prefer, whatever you have, they’re not good just for general edification.

They’re not good for anything professional, anything business, technical, marketing, legal. No, and you should never use them for that.

That’s where you need an interpreter who knows your business and knows what you’re attempting to do, whether it’s negotiating or legal or anything of that nature. And the good news is that I’ve yet to find a country where we couldn’t find somebody who spoke English and who was probably educated in England or Australia, or perhaps even the United States or Canada … who didn’t have a complete command of the English language and, of course, their local language, that could take care of us from a legal standpoint or a negotiating standpoint, those people exist.

That’s great. Well, thank you, Mark. It was a wonderful, true pleasure to gain your insights today, and I appreciate you joining us.

I’m delighted to share my wisdom with you.

Thank you. It truly has been very, very wise. So, this has been Philip Auerbach. Please join us again next Friday for another edition of Global Gurus and the stories of international business.

Thank you.

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