“Americans love an underdog story, but they want to hear it from the hero’s mouth.”
The choice of US lead is critical: You need someone trusted by the CEO to build, sell and have complete dedication to the effort. We’ve written before about the various lessons learned by over 50 VC-backed CEOs in the US, and the consensus around one particular issue is clear: CEO and/or Founder DNA is a necessary – if not sufficient – condition for success in the US. When asked about the #1 insight the CEOs tell other entrepreneurs about entering the US, the most cited phrase was a variation of “a founder has to move to make it work.”
“ If it is your most important market: send a key member of the core team. Don’t hedge. Commit.” – Rhodri Thomas, Swiftkey
“ Do it yourself or don’t do it at all. And hire local talent in any new market that you are going after” Ryan Gallagher, Iovox
“ When you’re first on the ground there’s a lot to do and there often isn’t a team physically there to support you. The default expectation can be that, being local, you’re going to do everything. Ask for help from HQ: for example, calling real estate brokers, getting referrals for people to interview, introductions to the right connections. If you’re the first on the ground, you should make sure you’re spending your time doing the things that actually require you to be there in person so that you have maximum impact.” – James Allgrove, Stripe
It’s a point worth emphasizing, given its importance to your success at home and abroad: If you cannot spare a key member of the team, the domestic business is likely not ready for the expansion; if you cannot have a key member of the team on the ground, the US operation is likely to suffer on a variety of fronts:
US customers will be less likely to trust your commitment to this market.
Market credibility and signaling commitment are important given the level of competition in the US. All things being equal, Americans are more likely to purchase products and services from local companies. The absence of key executives on the ground can signal that the US is secondary and raises questions about the company’s commitment to the market long-term. Ultimately, “ Americans love an underdog story, but they want to hear it from the hero’s mouth.”
The internal culture is likely to diverge – and suffer.
Culture is critical for hiring, retention and brand identity – and consequently critical for your success as a company. The culture of the organization is defined as the collective behavior of all its members, and it takes intentional and concerted effort to model it and incentivize its healthy development.
A common mistake is to assume the culture you’ve built will transition to the new US office seamlessly. Even with a leader on the ground there will be challenges, as local practices and the lack of corporate memory of the new office influence the behaviors of the new members of the team.
Effective remote communication and decision-making in transcontinental teams is still a challenge. While collaboration tools have improved across the board and video calling and project management software are having their best day yet, those tools are most beneficial for well-defined, structured and agreed-upon projects. When it comes to defining, structuring and agreeing on projects, remote tools still fall short of the benefits of in-person communication and decision-making, particularly in situations of scarce resources and important trade-offs. Company building is about prioritization, and prioritizing in the midst of different contexts is much harder.
What is your plan to mitigate these shortcomings?
Being the US lead is a huge challenge, so rely on support from HQ and give yourself a pat on the back from time-to-time.
“ There’s no smooth way to set up in the US; there will be mistakes; you just have to adapt quickly; the nucleus of the team has to be a completely trusted exec person who built it in Europe – they bring the culture, the product knowledge, the value of the service or product, the zeal to the operation that you can’t replicate with a US newcomer” – Tim Brown, Maxymizer
“ You don’t end up running a company in a new country by accident. It’s worth remembering that you asked for the fight and fights don’t go all your way all the time. If it were easy, everyone would do it. Remembering that helps you stay motivated and to come out fighting!” – Will Grogan, VanMoof
“ You need to figure out where you need to adapt to American culture and where its more valuable to keep your European DNA. There’s a lot to be said for applying the rigorous, disciplined and detailed approach taken by many European founders. You can build some really big businesses that way.” – Ed Boyes, US CEO, Hello Fresh
“ It’s really important to have people spend time in other offices and transfer their learnings, not just coming together at offsites, but actual tangible working time.” – Joel Frish, Prodigy Finance