How to Open the US Market: 3 Tips for British Start-Ups

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The United States and Britain are two nations separated by a common language.

George Bernard Shaw

As an American who’s spent the better part of the last decade living and working in the UK, I’ve always found the George Bernard Shaw quote completely wrong. Yes, there are linguistic differences, but I grew up on the East Coast of the US and there are linguistic (and arguably cultural) differences between the east coast and the south of the US. But are these differences important when we look at how to open the US market as a British company? 

To generalise, I do believe that many Americans think of the UK as being foreign and would agree with Shaw. But it’s not just the language. It’s the business culture and marketing as well. We can argue whether there really are differences or not, but it doesn’t matter if you’re looking to open up the US market because American VCs and companies will believe that these differences truly exist. These challenges are made even greater because of the pandemic and travel restrictions, you can’t just pop over to New York for a few meetings. So what steps should you take to overcome this bias and how do you open the US market?

Have a Trusted US Presence

The first thing you need to do is to set up a US presence. This is a challenge during the COVID pandemic because you can’t physically be there so you need to find a trusted party to represent you. You also need to think about where to go in the US.  American cities spend millions to try and lure foreign investment, so don’t be fooled by their polished sales pitches and offers of free office space. You don’t want to end up with your US HQ in Sheboygan, Wisconsin (sorry to pick on Wisconsin but I needed an example).

Instead, you need to do the work to build personas of who your target buyers are, and where they live and work. Then, with some local US knowledge, you can decide the best place to set up shop, as they say. It takes time to open a US company, so you need to start that before you get in front of customers, American companies are very reluctant to pay overseas for anything, so you need an Inc. before you sell. 

As a final aside, every UK and European company opens a Silicon Valley virtual office. This may make sense for you, but at the same time, US VC’s would rather see your US office closer to where your real market is. If there is a reason to be in Silicon Valley (access to talent, or you sell to customers there) that is one thing, if you just want to list it on your website, then you might think twice and save some money since the cost there are astronomical. 

In the US Data is the King and Money isn’t a Four Letter Word 

American businesses are obsessed with data, calculations and ROI. As a stereotype, Americans often think that European Companies (sorry to any Brexiteers out there but to Americans the UK is still part of Europe) don’t focus enough on data and are afraid to talk about money. You need your marketing to be laser-focused on a business problem, which you explain using data, and then present a clear solution to and back up with data and ROI calculations. 

Market like an American: Short & Sweet: Sound More American 

It’s the economy, stupid. Think Different. Got Milk? These are just a few iconic US marketing (and political) slogans. Your marketing, website and content should be straight to the point and catchy, so it looks like and sounds like other US-based startups.  

How to Open the US Market: Always Be Closing

You need to be obsessed with sales, like a US company would be. This means having a strong sales process and a sales orientated (or oriented as they’d say in the US) company culture. The stereotype you’re coming up against here is that European companies are seen as “engineer-led” with a focus on building great technology not “sales driven” with a focus on closing business. Honestly, this stereotype isn’t  bad news, if you can show that you’re sales driven then you could be seen as having superior tech and a sales driven approach.

I personally never agreed with George Bernard Shaw and always prefered Winston Churchill’s take, when he said, “The gift of a common tongue is a priceless inheritance”. While British companies do have some work to do to successfully open the US market, our “common tongue” does give UK companies an advantage over other European businesses.  But there is the question of where to raise money (the US or Europe) and how Funding has changed post COVID but that is a topic for a different day. 


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