The Exotic Entrepreneur’s 3-Step Guide
to Growing Your Business Online

image of vintage map of mongolia

What can Mongolian hospitality, the post office in Antarctica, and a Belgian pommes frites chef teach you about growing your business?

Well, you could take the long way around to the answer by dusting off your passport, selling everything you own, and wandering the world for the next two years.

But, to save you the awkward family questions we got from doing that very thing (You want to do what?!), I’ve boiled it down for you into a quick, 3-part series of lessons from around the globe.

Lace up your walking shoes, strap your camera around your neck, and open your guidebook. The tour starts now …

1. Welcome your customers

The tradition of “guest rights” in Mongolia dates back from the time of Genghis Khan, and it doesn’t matter if you are a family member or a complete stranger.

When you arrive at a ger (yurt), the matriarch will offer you a seat along with a steaming hot bowl of salty milk tea and a plate of dried cheese curds. The eldest man of the family will offer male visitors a bit of snuff from a bottle he keeps nestled in the inside pocket of his traditional deel robe.

If it is summertime and you look like the least bit of fun, you might even be offered some airag, or fermented mare’s milk laced with vodka, to while away the evening.

It can be disorienting as a non-Mongolian to stay in a ger the first time, what with the Gobi Desert looming outside your door and sharing space with husky nomads in traditional garb.

You don’t speak the same language. Customs, food, and even the basics like finding the bathroom are unexpected (it’s behind the big rock out back).

This is when the welcoming traditions are even more valuable, at least from a visitor standpoint. To be shown where to go, what to do, and how to chew those crusty-hard cheese curds without breaking a tooth allows a visitor to relax enough to appreciate the breathtaking beauty of the Mongolian countryside.

It works the same with your website. When someone is coming to you for help, it means they don’t know how to do it themselves. Your expertise is as foreign to them as Mongolia, and it is up to you to welcome them and reassure them their needs will be met.

  • Welcome visitors with a clear, plain English statement on what your business does so they know they are in the right place.
  • Offer your new visitors a “Start Here” page with useful articles, a description of how to get the help they need, and the easiest ways to engage with you and your brand.
  • Demystify yourself by creating an engaging “About” page with a picture or video instead of your logo. People want to do business with those they know, like and trust. They need to see your face or know something personal about you to start the process.

After having tasted it myself, I would not recommend you offer them fermented mare’s milk. At least not if you want them to come back.

Case Study: LearnVest, a financial site for women, has a ‘How LearnVest Works’ button to show the new visitor exactly what to expect and how to make the best use of the site’s tools and courses. The clear, uncluttered look is soothing to someone who arrives from their search already worried about money.

2. Manage customer expectations

When we arrived at the world’s furthest outpost of mail delivery last March, it was a balmy 2 degrees Celsius. Penguins were milling about, and we could easily see the black building with bright red trim against the snow and ice of Antarctica.

This British post office at Port Lockroy boasts a small museum and sells postcards and stamps so you can send dorky messages to your friends and family back home.

How long do you think it takes a postcard to go from Antarctica to North America?

This is the kind of question a customer wants to know. We were told by the postmaster it might be as long as 9 months, since the summer was ending and the ice pack would likely prevent another ship from picking up the mail again for 6-8 months.

Armed with that information, we sent postcards and joked about them arriving just in time for Christmas. Guess what? They did! The experience all the way around was enjoyable, despite the fact that my mom didn’t get to see the cute penguin postcard until we were traveling in sunny Thailand.

Longer delivery times, disruptions in service, and potential issues should always be discussed up front with your new customers. So should the basic steps in doing business with you.

  • State clearly what will happen after someone clicks “buy” or “subscribe” on your website, including a link for troubleshooting. Don’t make them dig for the information after they are already frustrated.
  • Tell readers exactly what to expect in terms of when your newsletter comes out, how often you post new articles, and what to expect from engaging with you. If you send a daily email and they expect monthly, you’ll see a lot of unsubscribes.
  • Let customers know the best ways to reach you or your customer service department, in descending order. You don’t want a dissatisfied client tweeting when you don’t tweet, or leaving voicemail when you expect email.

Case Study: Amazon is the leader in this method. You find out exactly what will happen when you buy a product, how it can be delivered (and when), a link for troubleshooting, and the bonus tip of offering related products for purchase at checkout. Remember, you don’t have to set this all up yourself. We publish our books through Amazon and let them expertly handle distribution and delivery, something we struggled to manage when selling books on our own. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, especially if it isn’t your expertise to begin with.

3. Limit your expertise

“Chez Antoine” is little more than a hut on a small square, a destination for anyone in Brussels looking for the best in Belgian frites (please don’t call them French fries!).

The line forms early and extends out into the street. The smell of frying potatoes is intoxicating, and as each satisfied customer walks away with his paper cone of Belgian frites, the hungry people still in line stare longingly.

Some of them will wait up to an hour, getting antsy when they discover the person in front of them is ordering 2 dozen for a party. Yes, in Brussels there is such a thing as a ‘frite run.’

In a city where hundreds of restaurants and stands offer fried potatoes, Chez Antoine stands out because they are the focus of his business, not just a standard menu item.

He specializes in the “double fry” preparation of pommes frites, even having a window dedicated to frites-only customers because of their popularity. At his restaurant, your burger or sandwich is the side to your pommes frites.

People are more likely to buy from you when they see you as an expert at one thing and not a jack of all trades.

  • Make it clear from the first glance at your website what you are about and who you can help. Readers should feel like you ‘get’ their needs from the start or allow them to move on if they aren’t a good fit.
  • Be consistent in your messaging so people will know who you are and what you do.
  • Spell out who is best served by your various offerings of this one overall thing so people can find exactly what they need. Make it ridiculously easy.

The scent of Antoine’s frites wafting from your site would probably speed the buying process, too.

Case Study: Cheeseweb is a site for English-speaking expats living in Belgium. They don’t pretend to be experts at 20 different destinations, but they do know all the best things to do, see, and eat in and around this surprisingly diverse country — including a stop at Chez Antoine for frites.

Going local

Today our tour took us to Antarctica, Belgium, and Mongolia, and your souvenirs include:

  • Welcome your customers like a Mongolian nomad. The traditional deel and snuff are optional, but the hospitality and ‘I’ll take care of you’ message are essential.
  • Manage customer expectations like a postmaster in a parka. Tell people what to expect and when and you’ll have a higher click-through rate.
  • Limit your expertise like an egomaniac chef with a basket of potatoes. Shout out your specialty and become known as ‘the person’ for what you do. Don’t get caught up trying to be everything to everyone because you can’t.

Being an entrepreneur on the road is no easier or harder than doing it from your home office, but it does provide more colorful examples of the business lessons all around us.

Now that you’re back at home, you can continue your lessons in your own backyard (or, from your couch).

When looking for ways to improve your business, think of the times you feel most relieved, welcomed, entertained or helped in your everyday life. You might not be going to a Mongolian ger anytime soon, but you just might learn a great lesson about service from the manager at your local Mongolian BBQ restaurant.

Join me on our next tour in a couple weeks as we take a few lessons from ancient ruins, South American beauty salons, and Asian food carts.

Do you have any great travel experiences that inform your business practices? If so, let me know in the comments!

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Reader Comments (45)

  1. says

    Awesome post Betsy! Three valuable lessons from unexpected sources. I love it when writers are able to connect marketing lessons to experiences like these.

    By the way, I think #3 (limit your expertise) is particularly important these days as so many more people are empowered to start their own businesses. I think that’s one of the biggest and most damaging misconceptions that the modern entrepreneur has of success. The one-stop shop is becoming less and less relevant.

    Thanks and I look forward to the next post!

  2. says

    Hi, Rishi. Thanks for your feedback. These lessons are all around us, and looking to see what works in our daily lives can be a real eye-opener for our businesses. I agree that trying to be all things to all people is the death blow to an entrepreneur (and think this extends to a personal level, too). Stay tuned for part 2.

    • says

      This is really a great post! One that had me thinking of the different places you were in.

      And Rishi is right. It’s great to find writers who can connect the dots so to speak. Thanks!

    • says

      Anabelle, that’s an excellent idea. What kind of sites do you think would generate the most in beer sales? I need to start putting my marketing plan together…

  3. says

    Many thanks, Betsy, for both the education and entertainment!

    I especially like your point about managing customers expectations. Like Amazon, Moo (custom business cards, etc.) does this well – even down to the bright sticker that says “yay!” on their delivered packages.

    When promoting online classes and networking for women in business, walking people through each step inspires trust from the get-go. That not only helps them have a fantastic experience , it reduces my own need to clarify, explain or answer questions. Win/win!

    • Betsy Talbot says

      Lynn, I do love a site that tells me what to expect, especially for a class or service to be delivered later. It just makes me me comfortable about the purchase so I can get excited about what I’m getting instead of worried I won’t get it.

  4. says

    I enjoyed how you used your travel experinces to illustrate your point. When I met John Nordstrom his message was treat people like they were in your front room of your house. Would’t you not at least ask can I help you. I also liked the idea of knowing your expertise.

  5. says

    This is a great post for a Monday… I love to travel!

    “Do you have any great travel experiences that inform your business practices?” Yes, I do.

    When you travel to a foreign country, you need to remember you’re the foreigner. It won’t hurt you to attempt to speak the language. Most locals will appreciate that you actually tried to communicate with them in their native tongue. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and ask the locals for directions or where the best nightlife is. Get to know the locals — show an interest in them, their country and culture.

    Another tip is to remember it’s not just about you. When I stayed in a hostel in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2007, there were two twenty-something Americans from L.A. in the same room as me who were extremely rude. My odds improved when they left the hostel to fly home to L.A. I’ll never forget when they left because a girl from England told the girl from Spain not to apologize for her broken English. Of course, the English girl looked directly at me when she spoke. Thanks to the rudeness of the guy and girl from L.A., I was lumped in with them. I quickly told Marisol, the girl from Spain, that her English was fine. Lucky for me, speaking up smoothed things over.

  6. Betsy Talbot says

    Amandah, this is a great lesson for speaking your customer’s language, too. Don’t use industry-speak if your customers don’t understand it, and Never make them feel dumb or reaching out to you. It’s bad practice in travel, business, and life to treat people this way, and you deserve to get what you put out. So glad you were able to right the situation in Scotland (one of our favorite countries, by the way, and on the list for part 3 of this series).

  7. says

    Excellent article Betsy, I really liked the way you described the experience at Chez Antoine, I felt like I was there and I have never been to Belgium.

  8. says

    Hi Betsy,

    I look forward to reading part 3 of the series. Scotland is a great country. The Edinburgh International Fringe Festival is a brilliant festival. It’s a great experience in more ways than one.

  9. says

    Love this post, Betsy! Aren’t you the adventurous one?! Mongolia and Antarctica, indeed.

    Using the the Mongolian ger example to illustrate #1 — make your customers feel welcome — is spot on. Until I read this post I had completely forgotten about a similar experience I had (*much* closer to home, mind you). When I lived in New Mexico, I visited the Santo Domingo pueblo on one of the feast days where outsiders were allowed in, and there were many older folks there who spoke entirely in an eastern dialect of the Keresan language. I was there with a friend who is Santo Domingo and much younger, so she helpfully translated some of what was being said. The highlight of the day was traveling around from home to home eating all the amazing food. And no matter how full you become by the time you’re at the last house, you don’t dare turn down anything offered, so as not to offend; instead you accept as graciously as you did at the first home. My friend made sure I knew this going in — “You’re going to be eating yourself silly, so wear loose-fitting pants, haha,” she told me.

    I’m reminded that welcoming folks graciously and showing them the way on a website works much the same way. At the pueblo I was an outsider, and if not for my Santo Domingo friend, I would’ve been lost and might’ve said or done something inappropriate without realizing it. So it was great to have an “insider guide.” I recently did some editing on my site to make it more welcoming/easier to navigate, but after reading this post I can think of some additional ways I might improve it to lead people to the most helpful place for them, without them feeling confused, unwelcome, or in any way like they’re in the wrong place!

    Thanks for a super interesting read!

    • says

      Kimberly, I love your story (partly because I’m from New Mexico myself). Some of the best memories of our travels are when we are with local people who show us the way, point out the things we would have missed, and explain what the heck is going on. It takes the experience from interesting to amazing, just like your trip to the pueblo. And isn’t that how we want our customers to think about us? Thanks for sharing your story!

  10. says

    You are very right about not trying to reach everyone. People who attempt to do that end up miserable with no sales. The best way to make an income and keep your sanity is to specialize according to the needs of your audience.

    • says

      MaLinda, I think we’ve all made that mistake to some degree or another, anxious to get every possible customer we can without regard to fit or expertise. It does get better as your business grows, and I think most people eventually figure this out. But it is a hard lesson to learn at the beginning! (or was that just me?) Thanks for your feedback. :)

  11. says

    Very interesting article, especially the “limit your expertise” which can be so hard to do. Some of us can be a “master of none”. I really got a lot from this and I am so glad I stumbled across it and will pass it on to others!

    • says

      Hey, David. Like I said above to MaLinda, it is harder to hone in on an expertise at the beginning, but it does get easier over time. I’m glad you found the article helpful. :)

  12. Lauren says

    Hi Betsy,
    Thank you for such a fantastic post. Your souvenirs are a helpful way to stay on track with my daily business activities. Thanks again!

  13. says

    ‘It’s behind the big rock out back’ … love it!

    Great post Betsy, and I 100% agree with your closing statement – more and more these days, building a successful online business doesn’t need to depend upon any location – in fact it’s better if it doesn’t,

    take care & best wishes,

    • says

      Hi, Sherrell. I love hearing the brainstorms from people who see something and attach meaning to it in a totally different way. It’s the only way a message comes alive for me sometimes, so I like to share it when it hits me, too. Thanks for reading!

  14. says

    Customers need to be given the first priority, they are the main reason why we engage in business. They are our reliabilities and they do add fuel to our diminishing spirits.

    • says

      Hi, Wiley. I differ a little bit with you on this. I think if we don’t make ourselves and our mission first, then the customers will never appreciate what we have to offer (and trying to be everything to everyone will DEFINITELY diminish your spirit). Sometimes it means turning some customers away to be true to your expertise and your mission (but the customers who are your exact target? – yes, they are priority!). Thanks for your feedback.

  15. says

    This is amazing work Betsy! I really was encouraged here for both your inspiring experience and the awesome entertainment! Was actually pleased with your point of view about managing client’s potentials. Sounds so educative also in the part of approaching your customers in the field of business and I utterly would adore such an business atmosphere. Thanks a lot for such a nice share!

    • says

      Hi, Rickie. Thanks for reading. We all have such different experiences to share, even though we’re all working in an online business. I love seeing how the different perspectives all merge into a similar goal. The world is huge, but it is also very, very small. :)

  16. says

    Many thanks for sharing your thoughts Betsy. It’s all stuff that we kind of know, or at least should know, but sometimes we don’t use it or do anything with it.
    A lot of the time the warmth of the welcome is down to staff. Engender hospitality in your team and your customers will keep coming back. I think of the charming receptionist who greeted me at a Normandy chateau with a warm and open smile, and I know I’ll be returning. But one place I won’t be going back to is the German themed restaurant in Chernovitsi, in the Ukraine, where the manager merely glared at us when we had the audacity to ask to be served after an hour’s wait.

  17. says

    Hi, Alan. Thanks for your examples. I think many online businesses don’t have staff, which is why making your website welcoming, informational, and easy to navigate is key. You certainly don’t want to make them wait for an hour! :)

  18. says

    Great post and an interesting way to draw parrallells to customer experience. In reference to one of your earlier points about “who we are”, I’m always amazed when I open the “who we are” page to find another page of generic, third person sales copy.

    My instant reaction is usually “Ok, this is a one man band pretending to be a big business”. I want to do businesses with people, faces, teams or otherwise. If you’re a single consultant, be proud of that and don’t waste the opportunity to “Brand You”. If you’re a team, show that off. Get up photo’s, fun trivia etc.

    This also helps with expectation management – corporates wont expect SLA’s and 24/7 support from a consultant, and likewise they wont be surprised to find £750 day rates from agencies with a team of 20+

  19. says

    One part really stood out… Where you mentioned building your website, that it need to be inviting and easy to find the information they are looking for. I can’t even count how many times I go to websites and get frustrated at not being able to find simple information.

  20. says

    Every website owner should have “about us” page. It is where the visitors should start from in knowing all what the website is about and individuals/company behind it. Thanks for sharing this information, it is useful when it comes on how to handle/help visitors(clients).

  21. says

    Letting others know who you are builds connection. The minimal thing to do is having an “about us” page. It applies to Facebook too. Some Facebook users use dog photo, cartoon characters to represent them. I usually won’t add them as friend, even if they add me unless I know the person.

  22. says

    Awesome post – I love the combination of humour, fascinating experiences and hands-on tipps that can easily be applied. And its fun to read marketing tipps from a person like you – I can feel that you love what you do.
    Thanks and be well

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