by Jonathan Fishman
U.S. News recently ranked the United States as the third most productive country for startups and entrepreneurship, despite its GDP being more than double the top two combined (Japan and Germany). The U.S. also boasts the highest number of startups globally and a population of over 325 million, offering a diversity of markets and consumers practically unparalleled around the rest of the world. So, it’s no wonder that hundreds of international businesses elect to break into the U.S. market as a major step in their business development plan.
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The American Market
However, a 2019 study found that nine out of ten startups in the U.S. fail. Whether from a lack of capital, the wrong market or product-market fit, or a dearth of research, starting a business is a treacherous undertaking, especially when your eventual goal is to penetrate an American market from outside the U.S. After having worked with startups for years, I’ve developed a few pieces of advice that I believe are helpful to any entrepreneur looking to scale their business in the U.S. marketplace.
The first and most important step in a company’s effort to scale its business in the U.S. is the entrance. Starting with the wrong foundation can jeopardize your growth plan. Take the failed home service provider platform “Homejoy”, for instance. Its noble goal of connecting home cleaners to customers met an untimely collapse in 2015 after an over-ambitious expansion that the company could not keep up with.
Though Homejoy was a U.S.-based company that branched out into other markets across the world, its example still provides an important cautionary tale for firms looking to expand internationally. Homejoy attempted to expand its business before stabilizing its presence in the U.S., which as one article framed it, “put the entire company at risk.” While there are some startups like Uber that became successful because of a heavy emphasis on growth, for the vast majority of startups, stability is more important. Homejoy sealed its own fate by prioritizing expansion into cities with less market viability over other concerns like retention.
Another understanding that foreign businesses will need to have in order to successfully enter the U.S. will be the different market conditions and nuances in each city. Obviously, New York and San Francisco are more popular entry cities than Detroit or Kansas City.
However, each city offers its own advantages beyond just market size. San Francisco may indeed be a fruitful area
for technology and engineering startups, but it also has an extremely low investor-to-startup ratio which can make it more difficult for startups looking for capital to see success.
On the other hand, secondary cities provide plenty that major startup hubs do not: Nashville is an important
shipping center that can reach 75% of the U.S. in just one day, Austin has a 0% corporate tax rate and Seattle has a profusion of capital groups that help small businesses grow. Factors like these won’t always be especially obvious to startups coming to the U.S., which is why it is vital to do your own research before taking action.
Ultimately, proper entry into American markets must be a combination of the right target, the right message, and the right execution.
In order to ensure that you’re entering the U.S. in the right place at the right time, my most important suggestion to you would be to consult your connections. People in business or finance already in the States have a better understanding of market conditions and climate. This is hugely important because some U.S.-based companies might prefer to do business with someone based here or with a presence here. If you don’t have connections in an area you’re interested in, that’s fine, but make an effort to reach out to people and establish relationships as they can only help.
Some business relationships begin in the boardroom, others in the bar, and naturally each relationship should be approached differently. The biggest distinction in types of business relationships is whether they are partnership-driven or product-driven. In some cases, the best way to get your foot in the door is by simply demonstrating how exciting and unique your product or service is. If you have a truly groundbreaking idea that can get other people just as
excited about it as you are, that’s more than enough of a foundation for a productive relationship.
If that doesn’t necessarily apply to you, there’s nothing wrong with that, it just means that you will have to work to find common interests with your business partners. Because, ultimately, your relationships will be your access points; weak access points will start you on a path going in the wrong direction.
Moreover, your relationships are crucial to a successful scaling process in the U.S. Leveraging those relationships to set up new meetings, execute deals, and develop your business will undoubtedly yield results more quickly than any other avenue of growth. Whether you have connections in marketing, venture capital, real estate or in any other industry, those people who have established networks in the U.S. will be able to guide your scaling plan to a mutually
beneficial place. It’s not always about making the sale or locking down a partner, sometimes the best outcome from a meeting is a strong connection that you can rely on for more than what you had expected. The best relationships that I have had are not built around the pursuit of a sale from either side. They’re founded on mutual respect and trust that compels us to want to help each other in any way we can. If you establish connections like this, you can expect the sales to come far more frequently.
Timing is a feature of business relationships that is often overlooked, as well. Be cognizant of your business’s market position and what it needs to grow in the most immediate sense. Having connections is all fine and well, but if you don’t go about utilizing those relationships in the right way, they simply won’t be helpful. Be strategic with your approach to your network and ensure that the people you reach out to can help you at the moment of the ask –they may lose interest in helping you if you reach out too early. After you’ve successfully reached out, it is imperative
that you use that momentum to propel your connection forward. Prepare a follow-up or thank you email, give them a call to thank them or try to meet them in person so that the energy you’ve generated by reaching out and reconnecting can be directed back to them. This will inspire confidence in your relationships that will encourage you and your counterpart to begin thinking about how you can serve the other’s needs.
Image and Brand
Image and brand are also valuable tools that need to be used correctly to properly scale your business. Your image doesn’t only include the messaging that your company promotes, but it also incorporates your personal presentation and appearance. Sloppy presentation or disorganization can easily turn away companies that may have otherwise been interested in your product. That’s not to say that appearance must be uniform across the board. Sometimes, the stiff, buttoned-up and quantitative presentation that you would give to a corporate audience isn’t the impression you want
to give to a startup looking for a partnering firm. In any case, poor professionalism and bad form will often resonate more strongly than a powerful content proposal. Be concise and articulate with your wording and messaging and be clear about exactly what your product or service offering is so that your counterparts won’t have to go digging for it.
As an aside, try to use visual cues given by your audience to tailor your presentation. While this may be difficult to do virtually, you will certainly find yourself standing in front of a group of interested faces soon enough, which will give you the ability to read them more accurately. If one group is especially concerned with the quantitative side of your presentation, for instance, spend more time on it so they get more of what they want.
Beyond personal presentation, you should also assess how you market your company. How is it unique? Why is it preferable to your competition? As I’m sure you are aware, investors or partners won’t engage with a company that they do not internally believe is positioned for success or is not differentiated in an industry with an abundance of competition. Thus, find out how your messaging and marketing strategy can best highlight why your product or service is distinctive and interesting.
Research is vitally important to a good marketing strategy and outward image. When presenting to an investor, for example, you can look through their portfolio (typically posted on their website) to get a sense of what they look for in an investment. Try to gather as much information as you can on investors or partners so that you can assemble a holistic view of their business.
You should also be aware and conscious of how your country or area of origin is perceived by U.S. companies. Deciding how to incorporate being foreign-founded is a delicate move. Time zones and language barriers can make communication difficult and tech competency and security of data can determine how much people trust you. If, for instance, you design and manufacture shoes in Italy or you are a technology company from Israel, most Americans will have very positive associations with your industry and origin, so do your best to capitalize on those perceptions. If you don’t have any assumptions like that to take advantage of, try to excite American companies with the benefits of your country of origin, but also reassure them with the idea that you currently have or will soon have a presence in the U.S.
Be Humble and Authentic
In addition to these scaling strategies, it’s important to go into this process with the right perspective. First, approach the scaling process with authenticity. No one wants to engage with a salesman. Try to connect with others sincerely and genuinely so that you can establish a sense of trust. Second, be humble about your product. Just about every enterprising individual with a business to promote believes their solution is the right one (and we know just often that’s actually the case, too). Be confident about what you have to offer without coming off like an egotist or braggart. Third, don’t go in with an all-or-nothing mindset. Sometimes, your growth plan may stall or lag — and that’s ok–, nobody should expect it to go off without a hitch. Be understanding of why the process may be slow and work through it. Being overly accommodating should be a no-brainer for startups looking to partner with other firms — once you get your foot in the door it will lead to bigger and better things. Finally, along those same lines, be determined.
Persevere in the face of the inevitable challenges you will encounter by trying to grow in a foreign market. It may be difficult, but no one ever got anywhere by giving 50%.
Scaling your business in the U.S. can be quite a difficult and intimidating process if not done the right way. I believe, however, that you can put yourself on a path to success by ensuring that you enter the market with a clear understanding of how your relationships can assist you and which American market will be most hospitable to your company. Then, assess how you can leverage those relationships to develop your business and create opportunities for your firm to thrive. Make sure that you are presenting yourself in the right light and promoting the right brand messaging so that American investors, partners and customers can get an accurate sense of who you are and what you
do. Ultimately, each of these tools develops self-awareness in your industry, which will help you in every area of your business, even beyond business development.
Jonathan Fishman is co-founder of Bizydev, an NYC-based business development firm that helps innovative startups across the globe accelerate growth and increase revenues in the U.S. marketplace.
Before starting Bizydev, Jon spent over 15 years working in the real estate industry on the owner/operator side, where he helped lead the acquisition and value creation of 40+ properties totaling over $1 billion