As Belgium-based entrepreneurs who took the leap across the pond to extend our business into the U.S., we knew that understanding cultural, business and geographical differences would be essential to our success. What we didn't anticipate is how unique many of these differences would be. Adaptability and quick thinking have helped us navigate the international waters and grow our company.
For entrepreneurs preparing to venture into the U.S., here are valuable and unexpected lessons we learned in year one:
1) Vision Versus Product? An International Business Needs Both. In Belgium, and much of Europe, the key to success is focusing in on the product and making it the best within the market. When speaking with partners, and venture capitalists in the U.S., the success formula is more forward-looking. The emphasis is both on what exists, and more importantly plans for the future (i.e., how will the world be changed?) Venture capitalists want the business idea plus the product. While this was initially a "foreign" concept, having both a vision and a stellar product can give foreign-based companies a unique competitive advantage.
2) Support Networks: Leave No Stone Unturned in Creating a Home Away From Home. When entering the U.S. business market, leverage any and all connections. Most European countries have a U.S. based Chamber of Commerce offices, which can be an indispensable resource, doling out advice ranging from finding an apartment in San Francisco -- which is notoriously difficult -- to networking with the right people.
Conduct research and find experts whose skill sets align with business goals. If approached wisely, these experts can help guide new businesses through the U.S. start up market, as well as boost credibility, which helps with recruiting, funding efforts and more. Also, connect with your fellow expats! Socializing with our fellow Belgians living in the U.S. at tech events or World Cup parties has provided us with strong business connections and a local support system.
3) Don't Get Lost in Translation. International business owners need to wear many hats in order to address the various requirements and characteristics of their audiences. In Belgium, the language is straightforward and cordial in tone, but in the U.S., everything is Awesome(!). This dichotomy inspired us to create the internal catchphrase, "Obliged to be Awesome." We quickly learned that enthusiasm and hyperbole need to be bumped up a notch when addressing a U.S. audience and toned down when presenting to European audiences. Since enthusiasm is so high in the U.S., it is important to read between the lines: If someone says, "That's interesting" in Belgium, it is. However that same phrase uttered in the U.S. can mean, "I have no interest in that whatsoever." Mixing up explicit and implicit communications can crush potential deals: if a sales call in Belgium was as electrified as pitches in the U.S., most likely the sale would be lost.
4) Don't Count on Underdog Support. In many countries throughout Europe, investors and customers root for the underdog, but that phenomenon is exclusive to sports in the U.S. It's sink or swim in here: VCs and customers alike want to see aggressive business plans and sales and marketing teams. This style elicits suspicion in Europe. Being earnest and humble in the U.S. may win a friendship, but not a deal.
5) Pets, Snack Policies and Naptime: Recruiting in the U.S. Means Being Prepared for Anything. In America, the talent pool is large and competitive -- especially in Silicon Valley. To attract top talent, establish credibility that proves leadership -- otherwise employees won't follow. The U.S. employees are much more savvy about compensation and arrive with expectations about salary and equity. Understanding these factors are essential for U.S. recruiting, but don't negate the need to be prepared to field questions about snack, office dog and even nap room policies. These questions arise as employees are searching for companies that offer a "home away from home" vibe -- a concept that is uniquely American.
When bringing business from Europe to the U.S., understand the unique cultural, communications and styles of the country. With the right support, resources and cultural comprehension, businesses can graduate from the startup market, and be rewarded with funding, customers and partners.
Louis Jonckheere and Pieterjan Bouten are co-founders of mobile sales enablement platform Showpad.