Innovating Across the Atlantic Divide

Being back home in New York after having lived in Northern Europe for years, I often find myself sitting at the intersection of American and European concerns regarding innovation, growth and international expansion. It’s an occupational hazard that I tend to speak to and network with a lot of different startups, entrepreneurs and small business owners on both sides of the pond.

Generally speaking, it’s fair to say that nearly everyone who is in Europe is keen to make the move here to the States.

And who could blame them? The US represents the largest single language market in the Western world, has a relatively unified legal landscape (especially as compared to the European myth referred to as the “Single Market”), and is arguably the global seat of innovation, enjoying international bragging rights over both Silicon Valley and New York.

As the saying goes, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere…

Rather than focusing exclusively on how disruptive their solution is or how innovative their algorithms are, the question I think most entrepreneurs would be best served by asking themselves is not whether or not they should come, but whether or not they, themselves are ready for this market.

For sure, amongst many advisors, consultants and experts, this isn’t a popular view.

There’s a fervent drive to push any and all ideas into the flames of truth, to meet their fate whether or not they are ready, and often with what appears to be a large disregard for the longevity or success of the same in favor of an opportunity to collect a sizeable fee.

(Disclaimer: This is of course not always the case, and I have met those who would never dream of putting their own interests before those of their clients, but it is the case often enough that it is a very real concern for those currently in it.)

It’s also worth noting that there is often an echo effect at play which can promote a sometimes misrepresented view of what things are really like here on the ground. I believe this is mostly driven by a now antiquated and largely unjustified imperative on the part of capital to maximize for deal flow, rather than optimizing for outcome at an individual investment level, which would entail working to adjust the expectations on the part of both the LPs and the entrepreneurs who ultimately serve as grist for the VC mill. But that’s a discussion for another post.

So while it’s generally true that failing fast = failing cheap, when you’re navigating a launch in a foreign market – especially this market – the “cheap” part doesn’t always hold true.

Well then, what’s a startup to do? How will they know when they’re ready to make the jump, and what they actually need to optimize their chances for success vs. what they think they need?

The obvious first place to start is with a quantitative analysis of the market. This is something most entrepreneurs already do naturally, and do quite well.

This should come as no surprise, given the number of engineers-turned-founders. There are more metrics to examine than you could shake the proverbial stick at, like data points relating to your target demographic and TAM, the state of the venture market in the US, the volume and USPs of local competitors, and so and so forth. It’s the stuff that compelling business cases are made from, and entrepreneurs who undertake the long hard work to do this well should be commended.

The problem, however, is when the process of making a decision that will impact you, your business and, ultimately, your investors stops there.

It’s been my observation that what’s often forgotten, or overlooked, in the zeal and excitement of going global and in particular making your mark in the US, is the importance of performing a thorough and personal qualitative analysis of your new market and how you are positioned and primed for it.

There is certainly a necessary element of what I’ve come to call the “entrepreneurial cloud of denial” (watch this space for a future post all about this), which is an absolute requisite for anyone looking to successfully make their dent in the world and change the way things get done.

But, it’s also very true that it’s easier and more effective to work with consumer behavior, preferences and psychology than it is to work against them – regardless of how much you are looking to disrupt.

And that doesn’t just mean positioning your value proposition for easy adoption. It also means taking a cold hard look in the mirror and asking yourself some tough questions.

Are you crafting your message to resonate with your intended audience?

Or are you expecting to transplant your way of doing business and your assumptions as to what matters to others, without doing the work that it takes to effectively translate across cultures, attitudes and expectations?

Have you taken into account the realities of the time and effort you’ll need to expend in order to build and establish the relationships you’ll need once you’ve landed?

And will you even be allowed to legally stay here long enough for those to develop naturally?

Or will you constantly be playing catchup thanks to jetlag, and burn through your existing runway on the cost of transatlantic flight tickets? Remember, all this will come at the expense of the financial, professional and personal foundations that are currently supporting you.

Is the operating structure of the business you are building suited to operate across the time differences and work ethics that divide the continents?

Do you have ready access to a talent pool within your network that is both local in presence and international in mindset?

And, perhaps most importantly, while your English is not the question, have you asked yourself if you are fundamentally speaking the same language as the people you are looking to engage with, both at an investor level and from a prospective customer perspective?

Everyone tends to assume the answer to this last question is yes, but if you can’t adapt yourself and your business persona to be able to engage with someone at a networking event in a way that makes it easy for them to engage back… on the points that are of interest to them, then how can you expect to win over potential investors or acquire your target customers at scale and in time?

If you’re not careful, you could very well find that you’re left sitting on the opposite end of a divide that is much larger than any ocean.

Innovating across the Atlantic is no easy task. But then again, neither is starting or growing a business, whether you’re following a traditional model or a disruptive one.

So, if after reading this you’re left with that feeling of having taken a cold shower – that’s ok.

Bringing your startup to the US can absolutely be an amazing strategic choice, and one that I encourage you to explore.  Doing so will almost certainly open doors and opportunities that can be life changing.

Just remember to look before you leap, and do take the time to search out the help, advice and connections that can help you bridge not just the distance but the culture, as well.

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