Expats from big corporations land in a new city and straight into the bosom of the company and the country club. But founders and startup migrants today face a different set of challenges.
Often the first one to arrive, not only is their social circle thin to non-existent, so are the domestic basics: home, utilities, travel and the place to buy the milk. You’re probably moving from a senior position with a larger team into one where you have to take care of all the small details. Simply rooting in can feel like building a brand new startup, complete with the existential angst.
We asked four startup migrants about their experience.
James Allgrove, Stripe
“Bring as little as possible”
Bring as few possessions as possible. Moving is a great opportunity to declutter your life, both physically and mentally. Make your first place temporary, short-term, and arrange things from there. Bringing a lot of stuff with you will create a tangle of “inadvertent path dependencies” importing your stuff creates. For example, I brought my bed from London which meant my bedroom had to be a certain size, which limited my choice of apartments, etc.
“Capitalize on being new”
Business and personal mix well in the first six months. Being new can be the perfect excuse to reach out to people you’re interested in meeting for whatever reason (or no reason at all). You have the fact you’re new as the purpose of meeting up rather than any specific agenda. With an open mind you can get a lot from this experience, even if not every conversation goes somewhere. Definitely don’t just hang out with work people and try to reach beyond your industry.
“Social Security Number; bank account; phone”
The three basics. Everything else flows from them in the US and without them it’s very difficult to move onto the bigger things like where to live and getting paid. Get these sorted before you arrive. It’s even worth considering visiting a few weeks before you actually move to do so.
“Leverage your HQ”
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.
“Don’t lose touch with friends back home”
Think about sending an email with your highlights of the month — where you’re living, what you’ve been up to etc. It keeps you connected and avoids repeating the same conversation 50 times when you visit back home. Don’t be boring. Don’t be smug. Short and sweet works well.
Julia Paolucci — Workwell.io
“Welcome to the Shark Tank”
A thick skin, particularly in New York, is worth bringing. You will encounter dismissive and abrupt behaviour. Equally, big egos can be sensitive: telling a potential client that their current solution is not market-leading may cause upset.
“Co-working spaces can be an answer”
They put on events all the time. You’ll meet people in the same boat as you. WeWork, AG collective, the Neue Collective, Spacious… and there’s an all-women’s one, The Wing.
“Find your “thing” outside work”
Whatever it is — sport, arts or other — any big city will be full of opportunity and new connections.
“Go back to your team often”
Keep connected to keep you going and motivated. Make sure you have a really good webcam / microphone set up. Bring the team culture with you. (Julia visits her team back in Paris once a quarter).
“Don’t expect help from the competition”
However developed your sector’s community, there’s likely to be less willingness to collaborate in the US than in Europe.
“Give it time”
Nobody likes NYC at month 5, but at month 7 (for some reason), it clicks!
Will Grogan — VanMoof
“How do you know you’re not being ripped off?”
This can be a reality for the newly-arrived outsider. A lot of contract business gets done via informal networks built on local knowledge into which you have little insight. If you’re a local, you know how much a good lawyer should cost, who to contact, and what to avoid. As a newcomer it can be difficult to assess a situation no matter how long you look at it, even though all the information is “knowable” in a concrete way. It just takes a bit of time.
“Boxing gyms in Amsterdam are the same as they are in New York”
It might sound trite, but joining a local group full of townies (gym, music, culture, volunteer work) is a great way of settling into a new place. The closer you get to universal habits, the more obvious it becomes that people are essentially the same everywhere.
“Everybody wanna be a bodybuilder, but don’t nobody wanna lift this heavy. ass. weight.” (Ronnie Coleman)
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!
“James Baldwin was right”
(“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”) Literature is especially rich on the subject of people displaced for one reason or another. It can help you get out of your own head and appreciate other people running up against the same problems.
Danny Hakimian — Onfido
“I’ve lived in four cities on three continents”
… and New York’s real estate scene is unlike anything I’ve seen. If you’re on a tight budget and want to live in Manhattan, you’re going to have to accept some very small spaces. New York does have a great public transport system, so if you’re okay with a commute there are plenty of outer boroughs with a ton of character and good access to the city. The StreetEasy app is your best friend.
“Know a good immigration attorney”
The visa process can be a huge battle you’ve got to be mentally ready for. A good immigration attorney will know the details of your various options and can set expectations and plan accordingly.
“Everyone knows someone in NYC”
I messaged people I hadn’t spoken to in a long time. It’s amazing how many random connections from over the years also end up in places like New York. I also asked a lot of friends to intro nice people they knew. Remember there are a ton of people in the same position as you.
“Enjoy feeling slightly unsettled!”
If getting a bad haircut from a new barber or not having your favourite cheese in the supermarket is going to bother you, it’s going to be a struggle. You obviously get more in to a routine as the months go by, but part of the excitement is knowing there’s always something different around the corner.
“Change the rhythm, change the rhyme”
(…come on up its blobsled time?). If you’re having a hard day, pick up the phone. Get out of the office.
“Don’t miss out on the watercooler chat”
Stay connected to the mothership office. Make sure they know what you’re working on and make an effort to find out what’s happening on their side, including the smaller tasks and little challenges they’re facing.