When I first joined Atlas AI, it was always known that the company would have an international presence as the problems we aim to solve are global in scope. In fact, some of our earliest customers were outside of the US. Given our initial success in the African market, we decided to formalize our presence in the region. We now have a team of 6 across East and West Africa and are continuing to grow!
As the Head of Operations, I was tasked with building and managing our company’s operations in Africa– remotely, I may add. Running operations in-person is a complex charge as is, but managing it all from a laptop in San Francisco, California–11 hours behind local time–brought on a new set of challenges and obstacles that I hadn’t anticipated.
So I decided to write a blog detailing the top 5 lessons I learned in building our African operations:
1. Explore all options.
Because my previous operations experience had been limited to just US-based operations, I had to determine how much help I needed:
· A full scope/suite of operational support (specialized international business operations consulting)
· Partial support (a global PEO to operate HR/payroll/insurance matters while operationalizing all other business matters internally)
· Bootstrapped (doing everything in-house, a scrappy, startup mentality)
After multiple conversations with consulting firms and global PEOs, I had a good sense of the basic checklists they would be using to establish fundamental operating requirements for our business. While the pros of using either would have been speed and ease, the most prohibitive con was cost. Equipped with knowing what I needed to do, I set out to find the vendors to accomplish it.
2. Rely on your local network.
In the initial search, my team and I reached out to dozens of local vendors: business consultants, legal, accountants, bookkeepers, healthcare providers, insurance companies, etc. The results were dismal. We spent a lot of time on outreach and received almost no response back. As a result, we decided to tap into our local network. We already had an established local team delivering on project work in the region, so we asked if they had any recommendations for any vendors– and they did! Not only did they have recommendations, they connected us to the vendors directly. The result? 100% of the vendors we work with are a direct referral from our local team.
3. Ask a lot of questions.
Once we had our vendors in place, it was time to execute our checklist. However, there are a lot of unknowns and this is where asking a lot of questions comes into play. The local vendors don’t know what you don’t know. What is routine, everyday work for them will be completely different and new to you. Take something as simple as registering and incorporating the company. Here are some of the questions I asked: Can a US company register in your country? Is registering and incorporating the same process or different? With which entity do we register or incorporate? Are taxes or fees associated with registration? Do we need a bank account or physical presence to register in-country? What information or documentation do we need? How long does the process take? The more questions you ask, the more you’ll learn, and this information will be useful throughout the process.
4. Allot plenty of time.
Originally, based upon timelines from earlier conversations, I estimated that we’d be fully up and running in 3-4 months. It took roughly 6 months. Some of what we experienced was out of our control, such as processing time varying across each government agency or our chosen company names being rejected multiple times for being too similar to existing entities. Other matters were within our control but unexpected, such as not receiving any responses from our initial vendor outreach or not realizing many matters couldn’t be handled concurrently but rather needed to be done one step at a time. Managing those expectations with stakeholders (leadership, the team, vendors, etc.) and having open communication is important to ensuring project delivery won’t be impacted by delays in internal operations.
5. Build in stages.
Because the Ops team is small and we have a limited budget, I knew from the onset that the biggest priority was establishing the basic requirements to operate in the region (company registration and incorporation, insurance/tax compliance, payroll/hiring). As a result, I ensured we had a specific scope in mind to not encounter scope creep. Now that we’ve accomplished the fundamentals, this year we look forward to expanding into the next stage of building and scaling operations in the region.
Want to learn more about our work in Africa? Feel free to reach out to us!