Tips for small businesses bent on breaking America

Richard Parris, founder of cyber security company Intercede, discusses how to make inroads into the US market.

‘I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger…’

It’s not just a line from a Rod Stewart song, it’s actually a very true point with which everyone will be able to empathise at some point in their lives, be that professionally or personally.

The whole notion of hindsight strikes me as particularly poignant when I consider breaking into the US market for the first time. And it’s challenging enough doing so in your native land, never mind a foreign one.

With the recent news that DropBox is opening a London office and the increasingly opaque nature of international trade boundaries these days, it should come as no surprise that businesses (big and small alike) must play on the global stage if they are to truly succeed.

While I consider Intercede a great success today, how much further might we have come if I’d been exposed to the experience and knowledge of people who had already made that journey? That’s something to ponder.

With the UK and global economy finally beginning to show the growth it has lacked over the last five years, more and more British companies are setting their sights West. It’s with this in mind that I hope my personal experiences of running a successful UK and US business can provide some guidance for aspiring trans-Atlantic entrepreneurs.

Pointers to crack America

1. When trying to break into the US, it’s important that you first be clear about which industry sectors your product fits into. If your product is a consumer technology, then you would obviously be best placed in Silicon Valley – right at the heart of innovation. But if your product is better suited to government, then it would be foolish to set up shop in the Valley when the vast majority of potential contacts and clients are based in and around the capital, Washington DC.

2. Before you actually physically ‘touch down’, I’d recommend seeking out the niche trade organisations that match your product specialism or your industry sector(s). Not only will this help you gain an insight to what others in your industry are saying and doing, but it will also provide a platform for making extremely valuable connections.

We are all aware of the value of networking for opening doors and hearing of new opportunities so make the time to do this – don’t just talk about it. Attending industry events will not only enable you to evaluate the competition, but will also give you an opportunity to build relationships with potential clients in a far more appealing manner than cold calling. We gained our first customer in this fashion, so it does work!

3. Company leadership plays a prominent role in the set up and running of any company, let alone an extension of your company abroad so take the lead and do it yourself. In doing this, you will gain a greater insight into the cultures and priorities in the region and you’ll engender and empower your employees to get behind you.

By doing it yourself and getting your hands dirty on the front line you’ll also learn the value and subtleties of the language: just because we speak the same language don’t take it for granted that something said in ‘British English’ will have the same meaning and impact in ‘American English’ – as you’ll find out it often doesn’t!

4. Marketing through partners is the quickest route to market as it means they are already trusted by end users and have the right accreditations for your target industries. So be sure to make the most of these partner networks.

5. There are plenty of pitfalls to watch out for too. Watch out for those competitors who may take legal action in an effort to hamper your entry into the market. Such action will often sink a smaller start-up before it even gets the chance to take off, and for those larger, better-established companies it can still prove an expensive and time-consuming task.

And finally, don’t assume that because you’ll be working in the US that you need to be a US-registered company. Doing this will only bring with it the headaches of administration around taxes and employment issues. Employing the use of a trusted outsourced payroll company and Regus-type office space will also significantly reduce cost.

Last, but not least, if there was one thing to consider from all the above, remember that while being hands on is admirable and good in many regards, you can’t do everything yourself, all the time. Step back once in a while and learn to delegate.

Further reading on international trade

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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