The Datahug Guide To Breaking America

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For a company outside the United States, branching into the American economy is a lucrative, yet daunting idea.

There are tons of obstacles to simply setting up shop, and then you have to actually succeed to make it a worthwhile venture. A huge percentage of companies entering the market fail to establish a sustained presence. An international growth strategy requires hard examination of the viability of such a move, and careful planning. But pulling it off successfully makes it all worthwhile.

Picking A Place:

The first decision you’ll have to make is where to land. Many companies make the mistake of picking a city with lots of Fortune 500 companies, like Chicago or Atlanta. The pitfall here is that acquiring customers is far easier than acquiring talent. Locating in a business hub may make it easy to hold in-person meetings with prospective customers, but thanks to the modern digital economy, these are hardly ever necessary anymore. And though remote-work has become more and more popular in recent years and has its role in a modern workplace, there’s no replacement for the energy and creativity that comes from being in a room together. There are businesses built specifically to help young and foreign companies create a nurturing, productive environment for their team. At Datahug, we work from the excellent Rocketspace office in San Francisco. Building our American operations in a building filled with similarly-minded companies has helped foster an invaluable culture of ambition and helpfulness.

Tackling Red Tape:

The next challenge you’ll face is paperwork. There are lots of administrative and legal requirements to handle before you’re allowed to do anything in America, and just getting through them is a job itself. You can try to tackle this all on your own, and many companies do so successfully. This is an enormous time sink, however, and there are plenty of professionals who help businesses set up shop in America for a living. Take opportunity cost into account, and consider how much faster you could take your product to market if that was your primary focus rather than navigating the waters of international trade law on your own. It’s a no brainer: hire the pro and let them do what they do best, so you can focus on building your business.

Making Your First Hire:

Eventually you’ll need to make new hires to continue to grow into your community. This is when prioritizing talent over customers when selecting your location will come in handy. Hiring local talent as a foreign company comes with a mix of challenges and advantages. On one hand, you’re new to the area and your local professional network will be limited. You’ll quickly exhaust your personal connections to talent, so at some point you’ll inevitably need to use a job board or hire a recruiter to find your next hire. But once you’ve found a worthy candidate, being a foreign company gives you an edge. As long as your salary and benefits are up to par with the industry standard, your American employees will get the added benefit of the chance to travel to a foreign country without taking time off work. Don’t underestimate the value of this part of your company – especially among experience-driven young professionals.

The first hire you’re likely to make in America is a salesperson, as you’ve already built out your engineering team at home. There will be large selection of candidates looking to be your head of American sales, and selecting the right one is a challenge. It can be tempting to hire a sales leader from an incumbent company in your target market – don’t feel pressured to do so. Focus on finding candidates that make your company flexible and maintain a startup energy and mentality. Take chances on promising candidates with less experience. You will be rewarded.

The culture in your headquarters office and American office will always be somewhat different, but it’s important to maintain certain common pillars between every outpost of your business to keep everyone moving in the same direction. Keep your first overseas office culture linked to that of your home base by maintaining a balance between employees from both your home and local cities. Your local employees will bring an understanding of your adopted market and expand your professional network in the area, and your expats will maintain your founding values as the office grows. The early local hires will eventually become the cultural leaders during further growth.

Finding Your Community:

If you have at least a minimum viable product or service built out and ready to sell, your next step will be to find your niche. Network with other companies selling similar wares, join professional associations for the role your product serves, and attend events in your area. This doesn’t mean paying to sponsor a conference every few months and considering it a job well done: it means building personal relationships. Get to know people with similar goals, and finding out how you can help each other. This is the most important element to get right; no company can grow in a vacuum. It takes connecting to a community to make success happen.

Bridging The Gap:

In addition to balancing hometown and local culture in your new office, you can build an internationally cohesive company by connecting your teams, digitally and in-person. When you have offices in Europe and America, there’s a narrow window in which you can hold company-wide meetings. It’s hard to say which is more difficult; getting everyone in a West Coast office into a 9am meeting, or getting everyone in a European office into a 5pm meeting. But doing so and creating a habit of inter-office communication – even if there’s no inherent business need for it – goes a long way towards making each office feel like part of a greater whole.

One More Thing:

Above all, the most important element of an overseas expansion is communication. Managing from a distance is difficult. You might have succeeded domestically with a loose strategy and hard work ethic, but when branching into new territory, clear roles and objectives must be laid out for every step of the journey.

You no longer have the luxury of face-to-face communication, so invest in the communication and collaboration tools necessary to stay up-to-date with your team. Check in frequently with those you’ve placed in charge of the expansion, and make sure they’re equipped with what they need to pull it off. You may find you have to sacrifice some sleep to keep up with multiple time zones. But if you put in the effort up front, the office will be able to stand on its own in a shorter timeframe, and you’ll soon be an international business success.

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