7 Tips for Entrepreneurial Expats
Kate Williams, an Australian transplant and the founder of Pistol PR, shares her insights.
After finishing law school in Australia, Kate Williams spent a year on a round-the-world trip and fell in love with New York in the process—so much so that she decided to move here. Upon returning to Australia, she met her husband, Hugo, who coincidentally wanted to make the same move. “On our first date, we talked about our plans for the coming year,” Kate recalls. “He had planned to move here in September and I was planning to move closer to November. We had a laugh about it, but as things progressed throughout the summer, we spoke about what it might actually be like if we lived in New York at the same time.” They decided to move together. “It was a really exciting, intimidating thing to do with a partner,” says Kate. “There are a lot of challenges with being an expat,” says Kate. “There are things you take for granted when you live in a city or a country you grew up in.”
By chance, Kate and Hugo had moved to the US just as the economy crashed. She started meeting with recruiters, only to learn that most law firms were on hiring freezes. “It was a good pause for reflection,” she says. “I really enjoyed the law firm I’d interned at in Sydney—it was quite young and progressive—but meeting lawyers here in New York painted a different picture in terms of the hours they worked and the expectations put on them. I thought that if I was going to be that dedicated to a role, I should really be in love with what I was doing.” She started questioning things and thought, “If I’m not really passionate about this and it’s not something I want to do forever, now is a good time to think about doing something else.” It was an uncertain time. She had gone to school for law and trained as a lawyer. “It was how I identified myself,” she says. “While it was thrilling thinking I could do something else, it was also intimidating wondering what that could be.”
After reaching out to contacts from back home, she had the chance to help a group of friends bring their thriving jewelry and home goods business to the US. From there, she transitioned into the PR side of things, growing her expertise and building a roster of Australian clients who were looking to move into the American market. With enough traction to strike out on her own, Kate started Pistol PR, where she now represents a list of 18 clients in the lifestyle, beauty and wellness spaces. She sat down with us to share her insights on building a business from the ground up—halfway across the world from her home country.
1. Call on your contacts back home
I was lucky to have an opportunity presented to me. A group of women in Sydney had a great sustainable jewelry and homewares brand, and I’d kept in touch with them when I moved here. I let them know that I was thinking about not going back into law, and they asked if I was interesting in launching the American arm of their Australian operation. I set up their New York office, helped them with trade shows, did road trips across the US to find stockists and did PR. I wasn’t sure that it was what I wanted to do forever, but I felt lucky that I’d been given the opportunity to try it. From there, I started working with other Australian brands that were doing well in that market, helping them develop their US brands.
2. Talk to expats and experts
The logistical stuff—visas, tax issues, getting a social security number—is the hardest part of moving to a new country. Being part of an expat community allows you to meet people who have had to face the same challenges. They can offer insight into what worked or what they would have done differently. After speaking with Australians who had moved to New York and started from scratch, I started by applying for a social security number. While I waited for that to come through, I convinced my local bank and cell phone provider to set up accounts on the promise of providing the SSN once I had it. I registered a business name with the City of New York, set up a business bank account and started building a website (with the help of a fellow Aussie expat). When it comes down to visas and taxes, it's great to hear about other people's experiences, but ultimately you really need to consult with experts, like an accountant who specializes in working with expats. My visa, in particular, was tricky—I needed to be sponsored by a US company, but I was in the unique position of working with independently with Australian brands in the US market. Once my husband and I realized we wanted to be in the US long term, we began the process of longer term visas and now have Green Cards, which gave us both the flexibility to pursue different work opportunities.
3. Brace yourself for culture shock
While working as a lawyer in Australia, I had a vacation coming up and asked the firm I was working with if I could access my work email while I was away. Admittedly this was before smartphones were a huge thing, but my boss was incredulous that I'd want to work while on vacation. It was a big shift moving to the US and having people be available around the clock, whether they’re on sick leave or traveling. I still get a three-week-long out of office email from my Australian clients over the holiday period, and there's no chance of getting in touch with them while they enjoy their vacation. Ultimately, the differences in work culture led me to change my entire career path, once I realized that working for a law firm in the US would look very different from working at law firm back home.
4. Put yourself out there
When I moved to New York, I didn’t know anyone here. The process of finding work contacts was similar to that of finding new friends, and in both cases I tried lots of things to varying degrees of success. I joined a book club. I would go to McNally Jackson when they’d have readings, and I’d kind of sidle up to people and start a conversation. Sometimes I think they could smell my desperation, but I was lucky enough to meet a few great women who were in a similar position when they had moved to New York. They took me under their wing and were proactive about inviting me to things. Developing work relationships was quite the same thing. I didn’t know any editors or writers or journalists when I moved here, but the things I learned about making friends in New York could be applied to meeting work contacts. For example, there has to be a genuine connection—and there’s not always going to be one with every person you meet. You really can’t force those relationships; they take time to build. Once you do find a relationship—professional or personal—worth pursuing, the key is to be available, polite and accommodating.
5. Build a support system
Hugo and I moved to New York together eight years ago, and it’s been an incredible thing to do with a partner. It was wonderful to have him support me while I started Pistol, because I didn’t have a business partner and he was a valuable source of advice. (He just quit his job to open a cafe in Williamsburg, so now the tables have turned!) I also hired a senior staff member this year who is very knowledgeable and compliments my skill set nicely. Since starting my business, I’ve made sure to surround myself with people who can support me with their expertise and experience.
6. Take your time
When I was considering starting my business, Hugo gave me a great piece of advice—to save enough money to live comfortably for 3-6 months. It takes time to build a business, from finding clients to finally being paid at the end of a project, and New York is a hard city to enjoy without an income. Like all good relationships or experiences, your business will grow over time as you gain experience. Expecting things to be huge from the get go means putting unnecessary pressure on yourself.
Image courtesy of Ivanka Trump Illustration by Jonny Ruzzo