Lessons From Expanding Delivery Capability to South Africa

Published: Mar 11, 2023  |  

Founder and co-CEO at Instant Impact

South Africa

Illustration by Sarameeya Aree

In Q4 2021, demand for in-house recruiters—including our business, Instant Impact—went mad: companies all over the world seemed to want to make two years’ of hires in six months; even our own hiring couldn’t keep pace. The irony was not lost on us!

We needed to find a new source of highly talented recruiters able to support our clients, and thought that we might find the answer in South Africa. After all, they spoke the same language, had a similar time zone, and we’d just spent the best part of two years working over Zoom.

Whether we’d be able to pull it off was a different question. We currently have a team of 70 across EMEA, the United States, and (spoiler alert) South Africa, but at the time, we were a very London-centric team of 20.

As is our way, we jumped in headfirst and couldn’t be happier that we did. We learned some important lessons along the way that have proven critical to our subsequent launch in the United States and our upcoming launches in the Philippines, and South America.

My key takeaway is not to underestimate anything—there’s more to gain from becoming a global business than I ever thought possible, but almost every stage of the process was more complex than I had expected.

Going forward, we’re setting big goals, but we’re also allowing ourselves generous timelines to achieve them—we know that something will go wrong, even if we don’t know what that something is.

The opportunity is MASSIVE

It’s important to say that we’re thrilled that we launched in South Africa. The talent we’ve hired there is phenomenal, but more than that, we’ve enriched our business (which was previously very UK-centric) with new perspectives, new culture, and new ways of working.

Access to overseas team members has allowed us to create more flexible and innovative solutions for our clients that would have been difficult to deliver from the UK. As we expand our footprint, we plan to build a recruitment solution that follows the sun.

Company culture is key

We knew how critical it would be to transplant the unique culture that we’d built in the UK to our colleagues in South Africa. It’s the secret sauce that makes Instant Impact such a special company (did I mention that we have a 5* Glassdoor rating?). 

We invested a huge amount of time and effort to turn our first South African team members into true Instant Impacters. We flew them over for our Summer Party and our Christmas party. We changed our regular team meetings to be remote so that we could create geographically diverse teams.

Finally, we ensure that our South African team gets enough time with our UK leadership. All of these efforts keep our company culture consistent, regardless of geographic distance.

Don’t forget the language barrier

We may all speak the same language, but sometimes the words we use have very different meanings. It turns out that there are days of difference between “now,” “now now,” “just now,” and “right now.” Also, South Africans don’t cross fingers, they hold thumbs…

Without taking care, these nuances can significantly change the meaning of carefully constructed corporate communications.

History shapes reality

When I visited the team in Johannesburg, they told me how differently they approach talking about ethnic diversity. Apartheid forced them to confront race head on: they don’t tiptoe around the subject, they just leap right in. No topic seems off limits.

Perhaps that is a better method of tackling the issue, but it certainly makes us Brits uncomfortable at times!

This difference in approach brings additional complexity to a critical and already complex topic that’s key for us to get right as an organization.

Triple your timelines

When establishing operations in South Africa, it took us two months to set up a bank account there. Setting up our first bank account in 2011 took only three working days. I certainly underestimated the red tape involved in our South African launch: it’s not something I plan to repeat with future geographies!

Find the right partners

We couldn’t have launched our business in South Africa if we didn’t have the right partners on the ground. Finding the right accountant and lawyer was critical to helping us navigate the bureaucracy and avoid potential pitfalls of new legislation in the country.

If you’re expanding internationally, make sure you find someone who has launched foreign businesses into the country before. It can require a “back to basics” approach that some might find frustrating!

After a number of failed attempts to research suppliers on our own, we found all of our suppliers through clients’ recommendations. Their advice proved invaluable.

All in all, Instant Impact’s launch in South Africa and subsequent expansion into the United States have been amongst the most transformational decisions that we’ve made in the last decade.

Despite the aforementioned challenges, our company has thrived as a result of the effort, and I’m glad we took the leap when we did. No business needs to wait until they reach a certain size before venturing overseas: the world is quite literally there for the taking. You just have to take that leap.

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