Julie Kim had a successful career at a Silicon Valley firm in London, but she had a nagging feeling that something was missing. She needed a change, and returning to Edmonton was not an option.
Ms. Kim had gone to Britain to travel for six months after graduating from the University of Alberta, and more than a decade later she was still there. The adventure of living abroad had her hooked. Plus, she had fallen for an Englishman.
“My life was here,” Ms. Kim, 42, recalls in a north London cafe.
Her father was a symphony violinist, her mother a painter and Ms. Kim had always been the girl with the camera. As an outlet after work, she took classes at London’s Saint Martin’s College art school. She decided it was time to make her passion her job.
Julie Kim Photography was born five years ago in a cafe as she jotted down her strengths and interests.
The idea crystallized: documentary-style wedding photography.
“I enjoy the chaos of the day, I wouldn’t want to do studio portraits. With weddings, there’s always lots going on and you’ve got instant access, working with lots of different people.”
Ms. Kim bought a professional camera – charging £15,000 ($24,000) to her credit card – registered with British tax officials as a sole trader, and took the plunge.
Britain does not track small-business owners by nationality, and Ottawa has no figures for the number of Canadian entrepreneurs overseas. But Ms. Kim is part of a small army of Canadian entrepreneurs chasing opportunities from Shanghai to Johannesburg.
Some are bringing existing businesses to new markets, some decided to start a venture after trailing a spouse or partner overseas, while others like Ms. Kim just fell into an unexpected life outside Canada.
Experts say Canadian entrepreneurs have qualities that help them abroad.
John Womack, a coach and business consultant who runs The Alternative Board in Mississauga, says Canadians tend to value ability and experience over formal qualifications. But, he adds, they can be more conservative than Americans.
“The flip side is Canadians have very similar values to Brits and Europeans regarding ethics, being thorough and accountable for deliverables and progress,” explains Mr. Womack, who is originally from Bridgend, South Wales.
But the expectations of Canadians may differ from the “norm” in places such as Britain, says Paul Beare of Kevin Beare & Co., who specializes in advising foreign small businesses setting up in Britain. “There are times when you could call on your naivety of how things work in the UK and use that to your advantage.”
As a Canadian, Ms. Kim says she feels wide-eyed when she’s shooting Scottish castles. Her fresh perspective has produced award-winning photos of brides and grooms in helicopters, at the top of skyscrapers and in centuries-old country homes.
She’s earned a reputation as one of Britain’s top wedding photographers, but Ms. Kim says she set herself apart early on by providing prompt, friendly, “Canadian-style” service. Little things, such quick e-mail replies, went a long way.
She also brushed up against Britain’s class system. At some meetings, she quickly sensed couples were not comfortable with her. For one posh wedding, another photographer declined to work with her, saying “you haven’t been around this kind of people.”
“I don’t think anyone does it intentionally, but people naturally make judgments about the way you speak,” Ms. Kim says.
Those experiences helped her find her focus: less traditional couples. In her first year in business, 75 per cent of her clients came through Facebook advertising and her style resonated with London’s creative community. One of her most memorable shoots was in Scotland after the London riots, with a young couple who worked in theatre and emigrated to Toronto days later. It was full of homemade touches, she says, and focused on community.
“I really wanted to show the sharing in the photos. I wanted to show people passing things to each other, lots of interaction not just the couple,” she explains.
Her Korean upbringing in Canada made her sensitive to body language within families and small rituals such as heirlooms or traditional food.
Her business is growing and her rates start at £2,000 ($3,200). This year she registered as a limited company, and her British boyfriend is now her husband and an employee.
She is nearing the £73,000 ($116,500) income threshold, where she will have to charge 20 per cent valued-added tax, and she will have to turn down work or generate more business to make the additional accounting costs worthwhile. “I know if I want to grow the business I have to make a steep leap.”
Are there drawbacks to being a Canadian entrepreneur overseas? “None at all,” Ms. Kim says. “People are quite good to Canadians. People do warm to you immediately.”
Then she reconsiders and laughs.
“There is one: driving on the left side of the road. I’ve had to drive all over the country and the first few jobs I thought, ‘Oh I hate this.’”
Special to The Globe and Mail