Case study: Pearlfisher on opening a US office: An Englishman in New York?
In 2004, Pearlfisher opened a studio in New York. It was a natural progression – we had US clients, we had experience of living and working in New York, we had a good local network – and were keen to grow our business.
Initially we teamed up with a former client who became our agent – ‘our man in New York’ – and our accountant loved the simplicity of this arrangement! But as demand grew we then took the step of opening up a full studio. Then the endless decisions started… Do we take staff from Pearlfisher UK? Relocation packages? Are we now one business or two? How do we charge across studios? How do we find the best people? How similar should our studios look? How do we empower locally? What do we control from afar?
Eight years on, in 2012 we’ve gone from agent to satellite to a fully established US business. And like any brand or business that expands internationally, probably the biggest question we have had to address time and time again is what do we keep and what do we change.
From the big picture of the way we express our brand to the operational details of how we handle staff holidays (and both are equally important!). In the early days the temptation was to export – our people, our culture, our working practices – I certainly felt that if it worked in London then it would work in New York and consistency was key.
And it’s very natural to put your faith in people who are tried and tested in your business. It’s a way of transferring knowledge and culture quickly, it reinforces authenticity and credibility and it provides plenty of work for immigration lawyers! But the danger is of becoming a cultural transplant. Over time the real challenge has been how to stay true to our roots and yet become fully integrated within the US culture and industry landscape.
Our approach has of course evolved and is still evolving but there are now several key principles that are important to our success in the US.
- Focus on one brand, one philosophy and one offer, with a consistent branded expression (we draw no distinction between London and New York on our website).
- Treat each studio as a separate business, operating in a way that is right for its market and business culture – we’ve allowed the identity and personality of the NY studio to emerge over time (our Manhattan loft feels different to a our converted London schoolhouse).
- Invest in local talent who buy into our vision and brand of design – and only recruit from London very selectively (today of the 24 people in our NY team only 3 are from Pearlfisher London).
- Clearly identify shared expertise and resources across studios (for us it’s insight, communication, technology – and partners).
Pearlfisher Inc. in New York is a different entity to the Pearlfisher Partnership in London. The key has been to enable it to develop in a way that is right for the US – to allow it to take on its own language, structures, practices and people. The more we’ve been able to do that the more we’ve benefited from a richer cultural exposure, increased diversity of creative work and breadth of clients – and the more we’ve become part of the US design industry.
I may still sound like an Englishman in New York but Pearlfisher Inc. is a walking talking New Yorker!
Thinking of exporting your design services overseas? Or already exporting but looking for new market information or strategy advice?
To make it easier for you to navigate the wealth of information available to exporters, we’ve pulled together the key details and advice relevant to the design industry and included signposting to further information and contacts.
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