After living in five countries, selling US weapons through the Office of Defense Cooperation, speaking fluent Mandarin, and with businesses in Sri Lanka, Dave Chesson now leads Kindlepreneur, top-rated by Amazon to teach people how to self-publish and market their own books. His Navy experience is full of stories of power plays with admirals, “brutally honest” comments inappropriate in other cultures, and drinking and eating games to psych out and neutralize the opposing side. His exciting podcast also presents the pros and cons of doing business in Sri Lanka, the critical role of competent and capable middle managers, how paying in dollars there attracts the best talent for his ventures.
Etiquette for international meetings
Cultural issues that may emerge
Dave Chesson is the creator of Kindlepreneur.com, a website devoted to teaching advanced book Marketing which even Amazon KDP acknowledges as one of the best by telling users to “Gain insight from Kindlepreneur on how you can optimize marketing for your books.” Having worked with such authors as Orson Scott Card, Ted Dekker and more, his tactics help both Fiction and Nonfiction authors of all levels get their books discovered by the right readers. He is also the creator of Publisher Rocket, a book marketing software and Atticus, a writing and formatting software.
Dave has lived in six countries, speaks fluent Mandarin, and has worked in the Office of the Defense Cooperation which sells US armaments to allied governments.
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Hello everyone, and welcome to Global Gurus. 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.
If you’re tuning in for the first time, we start each podcast with a running segment called “Faux Pas Fridays,” in which we explore funny bloopers or mistranslations that do not quite convey the professional image that your organization wants to project. And since today’s guest teaches people about self-publishing, I thought it would be more appropriate to give an example of how meanings in English can change when words are used incorrectly or put in the incorrect order. So, for example, an actual reason for an auto insurance claim stated, “I was on my way to the doctor with rear-end trouble when my universal joint gateway caused me to have an accident.”
With that, today’s guest is Dave Chesson. In addition to his business background, he’s fluent in Mandarin and has worked as the chief of the Office of Defence Cooperation which sells U.S. military equipment to allied countries where he’s lived: in Canada, Korea, the Maldives, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka.
In addition, he is the creator of KindlePreneur.com. This is a website devoted to teaching advanced book club book marketing, which even Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing acknowledges as one of the best in the business. And it tells its users to gain insight from KindlePreneur on how to optimize marketing through their books. Having worked with such authors as Orson Scott Card, Ted Dekker, and others, he found that these tactics helped both fiction and nonfiction authors of all levels get their books discovered by the right readers. He is also the creator of Publisher Rocket, the book marketing software, and Atticus writing and formatting software. Welcome, Dave. I’m glad you’re with us.
Well, thank you for having me.
Before we begin, perhaps you could tell us a bit more about your background, how you grew up, and how you have gained global experience.
Sure. Well, I guess the best place to start was right out of college I became an officer in the Navy. I did nuclear engineering on submarines for about two and a half to three years, then transferred over to military diplomacy, where I became fluent in Mandarin Chinese and got my Master’s degree in East Asia. After that, the military just started sending me around to places. I went from being a liaison to helping in defense cooperation and then kind of being in charge of certain countries for that. But ultimately, I got out of the military with 11 years of active duty and moved to Franklin, TN. It was during that time that I was in Korea that I started building an online business. I started writing books and self-publishing them. I started building Kindlepreneur, started learning about search engine optimization and SEO, and kind of just built multiple businesses from there. So, the moment that I got out of the military, it was an easy transition. And now I get to work from home. I’ve been doing this for six to seven years, coming up on seven years, working full time online.
It’s fantastic. Well, so do you have a virtual company or is there an actual office with the other employees?
All of them are virtual, which is great because we did that way before COVID. So, the moment COVID happened, it was business as usual for our operations. You know, I’ve been using Zoom for like five or six years now, and every time I’d be like, “Hey, let’s use Zoom” some people would say, “You mean Skype?” You know, and I’m like, “No, no, there’s something better now. All of a sudden, everybody used Zoom, and nobody used Skype. I’m like, “Well, okay, well. There you go. Finally, it happened. I’d like to say I was using Zoom before it was cool.
That’s great. Yeah, I know the virtual model very well with my two enterprises also. So when a person says, “international business,” what does that mean to you? For example, since you’re in publishing, if a person sells a book overseas, is that an international business? Or Is it much more than that?
I think you know directly, truth be told, that as we become more digital, international business starts to grey out. The fact of the matter is that you can sell anything to sell it in a domestic market and yet it can easily be applied and sold in foreign markets. When I published one of my first books, I never did anything to try to push my book into the Japanese market. And yet, all of a sudden, some of my books were selling there, and, interestingly enough, we started getting Japanese and Chinese customers contacting us about things, opportunities, or things they liked. And so, it quickly brought me into a second international business, even though I was focusing on a domestic business. So, to reiterate, the more digitized the world becomes, the more I would say international business has almost become a part of everything. You may plan on selling at one local, but as a result of everything, you’re being forced to see it as a global component rather than just a domestic one.
That’s true, especially with books, where you have immediate appeal in other countries.
Books, software, do they have any digital products, courses…
And please tell me more about KindlePreneur, the types of customers they serve, the types of authors they serve, and where they market.
Well, I gained a very in-depth knowledge of search engines, and that could be Google, which is the big famous one, but the other one that I studied was Amazon because Amazon is a search engine. You go to it, you type something in, and it presents it to you with a list of products. When I was writing books, I was always curious as to why Amazon would choose to show one book over another.I thought to myself if I could figure this out and understand why they do what they do, I could get them to show my book more often to their customers. And I like this idea because if Amazon was actively helping to sell my books, that’s a better situation than me having to actively try to sell my books. So, I dug into them and I realized that nobody was writing about them. So, because of that, I created a Kindle printer. That’s like Kindle entrepreneur Kindle Preneur and just started chronicling all the things that I was doing and how I was able to get Amazon to sell my book more often and have it discovered by more shoppers. And it grew to become one of the largest book marketing websites, with a large following, and it’s been a lot of fun. And so, we’re constantly teaching both self-published and published authors how to create their books, write their books, publish them, and market them. And so that’s kind of a Kindle Preneur in a nutshell.
And most of your authors are American, selling in the United States. Do you have foreign authors as well?
Generally speaking, the majority are in the United States, but it’s surprising how many we have that are foreign, you know, looking for an opportunity. I mean, if you imagine, there are certain countries in the world where if that person were to sell one or two, $100 worth, they’d be set if they read a book a month, so there’s a lot of desire taking their English skills, creating a book, trying to find a way for it. To let you know when to enter the market.
We also write a lot about international marketing for books. Because an author in the United States, if they’ve created a great book, has a wonderful opportunity to then have that book translated and have it sold in the German market or the UK market or the Japanese market; these are all right markets. The other thing is that publishing companies in those countries will come to US self-published authors and say, “Hey, this is a great book. Would you mind selling us the rights to the book in just our country?”
This is an incredible opportunity for those authors because, for example, I had this buddy of mine, whose name was Steven Geise, and he wrote this great book on Mini Habits, and it’s sold out. It’s done extremely well. The Japanese publisher came to him and said, “Hey, we’d like to buy the rights. OK, so we sold the rights. And they created this book cover. And he looked at the book cover. He’s said “Ah, this is awful. This is so boring, and the Japanese said, “No. No, no, it’s OK. We want it to be as clean and sterile as possible. And Steve replied, “That sounds terrible.” Anyway, the Japanese took it. The book became the Number 3 bestseller in all of Japan. They didn’t change his writing; they just changed the way it was marketed. And let me tell you, both sides made a lot of money from that.
And that’s the key. The Japanese publisher knew what the Japanese market wanted. They knew this would be a good book. They just did their thing to it, and they created a cover, whereas in America that cover would have just been terrible. But in Japan, it fit what people wanted when they were thinking about changing their habits and improving themselves, and it was a knockout. So, we do cover a lot of cases like that and how authors can take advantage of that.
It’s fantastic, yeah. One of the keys to international business, of course, is what I call acculturation or cultural adaptation …. whether it’s the name of the product; or the name of the company; or product tagline, slogan, whatever; or simply the book design, the packaging. The pricing, of course, is separate. But the packaging is often very critical– the colors that are used in the graphics. Each market sees things differently.
You know, it’s funny. The reason is that when I was in the military, we had to go to a lot of parties or dinner events, and understanding how to interact with the other side was always incredible. It’s just the customs or how you drink, or when you drink, or if you don’t drink, or if you do drink too much. Is that good or bad?
But the same thing with a product: a book in Japan that is sterile blasé bland and I’m not dismissing what they discovered, but it was a fresh start for them. It was tidy. It wasn’t flashy. And that, for them, was a big deal. As I said, you know it comes from your name, your brand name, your colors, all of that. It can be a big deal when you go international.
Perhaps you could give some examples of the different kinds of etiquette that you’re talking about with parties and drinking or eating and introducing people and so forth. What have you found?
Well, a major part of this was always military, for me. And so usually what would happen is that one of our admirals would come to meet with, say, the other country’s admiral. And it was my responsibility to ensure that they did and didn’t get into trouble. Also that I didn’t do something stupid or, didn’t break protocol, or do something taboo. So, I’d brief him on all the things. It was also my responsibility to ensure that the other Admiral became so inebriated that he had to bow out. Well, because if you think about it right, it’s a big power play. They get you there. And if they get our Admiral, like totally blitzed and he’s got a hangover, at the next meeting, you know he’s going to be sheepish and that puts him on his heels, right? And I mean, these are Allies. We’re not trying to hose each other over, but it comes down to doing this. As a result, my job was to always undercut a power play.
For example, in South Korea. They say they don’t eat live octopus all the time. It is not something they do all the time. But every time our US admirals would show up, it would be the main course there. It’s a live octopus, and it’s not technically live. What they do is take the live octopus and cut it up into all these pieces, and then immediately bring it out. So, it’s dead, but it wiggles for two hours. And of course, every American just goes white in the face, and then, you know, the Koreans are over there kind of smiling.
And so, I would do this trick, and the Korean translators would know I do this because I’ve been through many of these parties. I would grab the chopsticks. I’d grab a big hunk of that octopus and throw it in my mouth. And, like, pretend I chewed twice and then swallowed. I’d like to pretend I swallowed. Every one of the Koreans went super white in the face and just about lost it. And the reason for that is that every year, 2.5 Koreans die from live octopus because they don’t chew it enough and it chokes them from the inside. So, I’d play that against them, pretend I was choking, and they would all like it immediately. You know, the paradigm shifted when I let a little piece of the octopus stick out. You know, wiggling. Just be like that. And it was just a way to take that whole thing away from him and swing it back at them. And at that point, we get back into eating. So, there’s that.
I also feel like every time we went to these military dinners, no matter where we went (Thailand, Taiwan, Sri Lanka), it was always something that they would bring that was the hottest: Burn your face off possible. The Taiwanese would bring out an alcoholic beverage to this day that I think could strip the paint off of a Buick and then they would just make you drink it. They all had that thing, so you could just really kind of get used to it. So, I lived in Sri Lanka, so I ate super spicy hot food, and I would go for seconds and thirds of the soup and totally power-play him out..Gal Yang. I just had to learn how to share.
So, what is Gal Yang?
It’s that, uh, is that terrible, terrible Chinese liquor. It’s called Gal Yang in mainland China. It’s called Argo in Taiwan. And so, I just had to learn how to drink it. It is terrible. But you do that because, you know, if they try to do a power play on you, you’ve kind of turned the table on them and you show it doesn’t matter.
Drinking was the hard part. So how to get the other admiral drunk so that your admiral feels fine the next day? And so, what we did was, there’s a way where I think it’s like almost in every culture, there’s a way to isolate one and to make them feel obligated to drink. But you pre-set it up with like a bunch of the lieutenants or something like that. It’s all right. You’re going to see. I’m going to go up and I’m going to, you know, go up to the Admiral. I’m in Korea. There’s this thing where you bring an empty shot glass and some soju. You put it down between you. And then the key is that you’re not allowed to pour your drink. So, you pour him a drink. So, he drinks it, then wipes the edge of it, then pours your drink, and finally, you drink it. So, there you go. I now have a chance. So, then you nudge the other Lieutenant. About five minutes later, he goes over there and does the same thing. The next one does the same thing, and then I do the same thing. And then we get a whole table of it by then. I’ve got five shots on that guy, and we’ve all only had one or two shots total and that’s the way you do it. So that’ll work, that it’s a Military Engagement 101 dinner party idea.
That’s fascinating. What about some of the cultural issues you’ve encountered, both in your business dealings and in the military? Other than eating and drinking, other activities include interacting with people through various business methods, for example.
Yeah, one of the things we Americans are well known for is being very boisterous and very, uh, kind of like cutting through red tape with a machete.
We’re not as … we’re not only not guarded, you know, but we’re also not as honest. And I say, be truthful. That can be a bad thing. Like, for example, again, this is not stereotyping. This is a kind of experience-based answer to the question in Korea, they will tell you exactly what they think, and they think that it’s the right thing to do. So, when I was on the Korean base, someone I literally wouldn’t even know would say, “Dude, dude, come over” and tell me, “Oh, you got fat over Christmas.” And I’m … Who are you? He’s like, “Oh, you gained a couple of pounds.” You should go to the gym. To him, he’s being polite by letting me know I’m fat. So when I say “honest,” I mean “brutally honest, you know because they think it’s the right thing. To lie to me and not tell me I look fat or disgusting with that shirt on is to disrespect me. And so, there are subtleties. You know, in certain cultures and certain languages.
The Germans are a lot more apt to do that. The Koreans do. You go to the opposite side of the spectrum. The Japanese will not tell you what they think. And so, you could go into a meeting and that person could be thinking, I hate your guts and I do not like being around you. And the whole time, they’re just sitting there smiling, you know, and going through what they’re doing.
So., I mean, it’s trying to understand that and also understand that you can’t just go into some of it. These meetings will just be like that. All right, great. Here’s the deal: you guys have this. We want that. We’re willing to do this. Let’s make it happen. Like some of them. That’s terrible.
You know, the other thing too is just kind of understanding what a social norm is. In China, a big social norm for them is trying, I guess the best way to put it, is to try to take advantage, and that’s an OK thing to do. If you go to the market, OK, and you go to haggle prices. I don’t mind. Fine, I got 5 bucks. I don’t want to sit here and waste 20 minutes haggling this down to three dollars. Here are five dollars. Even though that vendor just made money, we’ll think a lot less of you because something is wrong. You know, you knew you could haggle the price, but you didn’t.
You know, and there’s a bit of this. Whereas, if you bring them down to the point, you know, like, the breaking point, there’s almost this whole, “Good for him.” He saw that he did that. I get that, you know, there’s just all these little nuances. And I think it’s really important to understand that regardless of whether you try to understand a bit of that culture with the businesses you’re going to work with, understand where they’re coming from, what they like to do, you might think you’re doing the most effective thing and that could backfire on you. You know, some cultures need you to get ingrained. Some cultures would prefer you to just spit out what you’re thinking. These things can change the paradigm as well as the strategy that goes forth, so understanding that’s key.
That’s fascinating. I know you’ve got some businesses in Sri Lanka. Is that right? And what kind of businesses are they, and what kind of issues have you encountered either in setting them up or dealing regularly with them?
So, one of the companies is a software development company. And another one is a software company that my software development company built, and that software company is a job applicant tracking system. So, like in ATS, think like workable or greenhouse IO but we made it a lot more cost-effective and so we focused on Southeast Asia.
And were their issues and setting up the business different? And how would you do it there versus here or hiring people or running it?
Well, when I was stationed in Sri Lanka, which is where I was able to gain some very strong relationships with people that I trusted, we started building things together, and at that point, it was just a phenomenal opportunity for me, but now looking back it is. Sri Lanka is an excellent place, and I think it’s kind of like a diamond in the rough. Sri Lanka is that island, the Teardrop of India, as they call it, but it’s just south of India. People like friends of mine say, “Hey, I want to go to India to go visit.” I’m, don’t do it, go to Sri Lanka. It’s way better.
You know, you have what is considered by Westerners and Indian culture. It is a very clean country compared to India, so there’s a lot less pollution. Unless it’s a lot less crowded, the capital city of Colombo is a great city. Most of them speak English there, so you don’t have to worry about it. You’ll still get your usual drivers who try to take advantage of you, con you out of money, or something like that. But I mean, I feel very safe there. I’ve never felt in danger; I’ve never felt that there was a …. The other thing too is that they’ve got a lot of great skilled workers. You know, there are a lot of garment factories there. I know that Lululemon is, the Banana Republic, and Victoria’s Secret, they create a lot of their garments there. I’ll bet you if you start looking at the back of your tag, you’ll see Sri Lanka listed on a couple of things you’ve got in your closet.
Also, they have excellent programmers. It’s a phenomenal area for it. It’s also a lot cheaper to be able to do software out of there, so they’re very capable and there are a lot of industries that they do well in. So, especially if you’re building software or you’re doing something digital, working out of a country like that is a lot more cost-effective, and it’s a great opportunity.
The hard part is that they’re literally on the other side of the world. So right now, it is in this case, it’s 130P. Yeah, it would be midnight tomorrow, their time. You know, it’s literally that I subtract an hour and a half and then switch from AM to PM, and that’s it.
So, I have to do a lot of meetings from around 6:00 AM to like 9:00 AM with my counterparts in Sri Lanka because that’s 4:30 PM to 7:00 PM their time. And so, I do run into that sometimes with software too. During the day, we might have a bug or an issue, and I’ve just got to wait until they all wake up. I can’t deal with that bug in a moment. So, there is a lot more organization that we as a company have to have.
We have to prepare all of our support tickets and programming cards ready to communicate with the programmers so that they get everything they need so they can fix it while we sleep. And then it’s the switch system, so there’s that.
The other thing that I ran into was Sri Lanka. I swear, I think they have the most holidays in the world. I think somebody, somebody looked it up. It was like they were the seventh most celebrated holiday in the world. Go to Sri Lanka because they acknowledge everyone. The US Embassy in Sri Lanka had to put a stop to it because it was so bad that they said, “We can’t do this.” So they ignored it and said, “We’ll acknowledge these Sri Lankan holidays, but everything is just US holidays” because there are a lot of Sri Lankans that work at the US Embassy.
But I think what they do is they just acknowledge every religion’s holidays as well as their national holidays and some four national holidays, and that just makes it so that it’s like every week there’s at least a day off somewhere. I think the funniest thing was that for Christmas, which, by the way, they’re, a Buddhist country.
Buddhist majority? I think maybe 10% of the country is Christian, if that, and they get three days off for Christmas. Man, when I was in the military, we only had two. How does that work? So, you know, it’s like you guys got three. There’s only like 10% of you that care. And the best part was the others. The others, especially those that were Buddhist in my organization, were like, “Yeah, Merry Christmas.” I’m like, “Whatever. You’re going to take off, so go.”
What about issues of productivity compared to the United States or cultural assumptions? Americans, for example, would expect you to be on time and also expect you to be direct. You’re talking about this to some extent .. just those kinds of business issues.
Yeah, that is a very important part of business, I think the way to counter that is to have good middle management, and that can sometimes be the hardest thing to find. I’ve always told people you can find some incredibly talented programmers, you know, or textile workers in Sri Lanka. There again, there are other industries; it’s just not my jam, so I don’t know.
But finding that really good middle management that does a great job, that understands, that can communicate with clients, you know, on the other side of the world, that’s like the diamond in the rough. And so that’s what’s important for us to do. Find people who can lead the team. To create great products, communicate with us on the other side of the world, and do that for a sustainable period.
Do you have businesses in different parts of the world, in different countries?
Ah, no. But as I said, rooster.org, which is the applicant tracking system, we do a lot in Africa as well as South Asia. So, it has people in those areas, but we center it outside of Sri Lanka, that’s the HQ, the home port.
And did you have to change them? We change the software, change the model in some way to do business in these other countries.
Luckily, no. But the gateway entry or I call it the gateway drug, I’ll just call it what it is. The gateway drug to getting into the system has to change. So, one of the strategies that we used was the applicant tracking system is the same, but then what we do is we go into these countries and build something like a monster.com, you know, the equivalent of a job board. Because in a lot of these countries they use something that looks like Craigslist for their job boards. And then we build this dynamic job postings platform and way to apply for jobs, and then those companies that use that, start learning about ATSs and they start using them. And, as I previously stated, this is how we get them to learn about first-world technology and apply it to their businesses and know that American companies use ATS, which is the reason why they haven’t heard about it or don’t do it.
I’m sorry. What is ATS?
Application Tracking System. The reason why they don’t use them is that they’re around $3000 a month starting. You know, they’re extremely expensive, so it’s not something you go for. So we just create it for Uber on the cheap and just make it something that is a part of their operations. The next thing you know, they’re all just signing up for it.
Amazing. It’s incredible. What do you like to do when you’re not doing business?
I like to read a lot of books. I also have three children at home. One of them is graduating from college, but the other two are 10 and 8. As a result, I do a lot of coaching for their sports. Yeah, they pretty much take up the rest of my time.
They do, yeah. Plus, marriage.
If you had a chance to give your past self some current advice, thinking back on your previous experiences, what would you tell your current self?
Well, I’m not sure I want to tell. I would tell you if I were talking to my past self, Now, yeah. Uh, I probably wouldn’t tell my past self anything. I just let it roll. I like how things turned out. I’m also a big fan of sci-fi. You think about that whole timeline thing, like what could change, move the chair, and you know, we’re all listed people or something like that. I know. I just want to tell him anything about it, dude. You’re going to have a fun time. Just go with it.
Are there any other cultural issues or perhaps examples of adventures that you started or that you know about that didn’t work out well and that you learned lessons from?
Well, I mean anybody you talked about those businesses we have. Lots of them fail. Opportunities or things that we did. Things that we learned from. There are lots of niche websites or stuff that I built in the past, and from that, I’ve learned and grown. And the key is that it’s important that when you do fail, you take that second and you look back, or you take the necessary time to look back and learn from it. Ask yourself, why did that fail? There was a point in your life when you believed this was going to work.
Look at what you thought. Look at what happened. So, you tried to figure out what the disconnect was, and so you didn’t do it again.
Yeah, that makes perfect sense. And that’s a lesson for any business, domestic or international. Now before we close this, is there anything else you’d like to share?
No, I think that’s it.
I think one thing I will put in there too is that with Sri Lanka, I like to travel there two to three times a year. I think it’s really important to have boots on the ground as well as get to know the people.
I think last I heard, there were like 183 people that worked for the combination of those two companies together. And I think I only know about one third of them. For the others, it’s just good to be there. It’s good to understand what’s going on. The last time I went there, I found out there were a lot of complications. There are a lot of issues that need addressing.
The Sri Lankan economy, as many economies are doing, is just kind of collapsing, and the Sri Lankan rupee is falling fast, and it’s been a while. And it was kind of a benefit to the company that I was bringing in U.S. dollars into it for sales, right? And the US dollar is up here, whereas while the Sri Lankan rupee and value go down, that means that my company was paying them the same rupee, which means every month if I got the same revenue from the U.S. dollar, I was paying out the same rupee. I was making more money every month because the rupee was depreciating so much, and just being there, you know, and being able to talk to them about it made it very clear that companies that offer to pay in USD are extremely valuable in people’s minds, and so we want to have to change there’s something like we wouldn’t have to change what we’re doing, but just that little switch there would be huge.
And so, hearing that, we implemented it, and we are now hiring some of the best people because we are one of the only ones that are doing that. So, it’s like, “Congratulations,” and “You get paid. You should get a raise every month. It sucks that the rupee is devaluing, but you’re getting a pay raise. So that’ll work. And so, it was really good to find that out and to be able to figure out that that was a good win-win for both situations.
So, are you paying people in dollars instead?
Yes, we’re paying people in dollars now. That’s one of the big advantages of working for that company, and there aren’t many people doing it.
That’s incredible. A very obvious and great strategy and a tremendous motivator.
Congratulations on discovering that.
Hiring talent is one of the biggest things. When you get the right talent, it makes life so much easier.
Well, thank you so much. It’s been an incredible pleasure to gain your insights and your amazing background, how you brought it all together, and where you are in your business life currently.
And thank you for having me.
This has been Philip Auerbach of www.auerbach-intl.com. Please join us again next week for another edition of Global Gurus and their stories of international business. Thank you.
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