This is a guest post by Mårten Mickos (born November 6, 1962 in Finland) who was CEO of MySQL from 2001 to 2009 when Sun Microsystems bought the company. In September 2009 venture capital firm Benchmark Capital hired Mickos as an ‘Entrepreneur In Residence’ until he was named CEO of Eucalyptus Systems, the company behind the Eucalyptus open-source infrastructure for the implementation of cloud computing on computer clusters. You can follow Marten on Twitter at @martenmickos.
The US is a huge market, and it’s a fantastic market for European entrepreneurs. Linus Torvalds demonstrated how a Finnish hacker could become a global open source leader based in USA. Niklas Zennström showed how Skype could succeed wildly in the US with practically no office or staff there. Léo Apotheker is evidence that the biggest IT companies may need a European leader. As a general observation, there are few places on earth where foreigners are as welcome as in USA.
Despite these success stories, it is not always easy for European entrepreneurs to succeed in the wild west. American business culture moves faster, is more open and can be more confrontational than what we are used to in Europe. Going from a comfortable and familiar European home market to a vast and unknown US market requires courage, planning and determination.
But not taking America seriously can be a critical loss for any company – as Nokia is experiencing now after having focused on all other parts of the world, except the USA, for the last ten years.
As CEO of MySQL, I moved from Finland to Silicon Valley in 2003 to continue the rapid ramp-up of our business. In my years so far in the San Francisco bay area, I have learned many things I only had a vague idea about earlier. I love Europe and I love America, and I am grateful to have been able to see both continents from the inside.
Embrace the business attitude
Watch out for the crooks, but even more importantly, don’t fail to recognize those who genuinely wants to help you. On my first visit to the US on my own when I was 16, I got fooled by a taxi driver who overcharged me many times for the ride. At that point I learned an expensive lesson. But many years thereafter when I started doing business in Silicon Valley, I made the exactly opposite observation: people were genuinely honest and helpful. Today my most important advice to European entrepreneurs is: America has a strong culture of fairness and integrity, and although the country may appear to be home to some big crooks of our times, on average it’s a place of wonderful fairness, collaboration and helpfulness. Embrace this attitude and you will be more successful.
Time really is money
My second advice to Europeans who enter the US marketplace has to do with time. When Americans say that time is money, they really and completely mean it. In Silicon Valley, meetings are punctual, efficient and no-nonsense. Get your business done, and then get out of the meeting. Skip the long introductions and the descriptions of “background” and “history” – just get to the point. Close the deal if a deal can be closed. Never stay longer than what has been agreed on or what is implicitly expected. Time is money, and if you waste somebody’s time, you are seen as unproductive and rude.
Forget your prejudice
USA is big, and it is also varied. This is the third piece of advice. We may have a stereotypical view of America based on what we see on TV and in the press in Europe. But USA is a most varied society. Some customers may prefer one product, but others will prefer another one. Some people may not travel outside the US, but those who do have typically seen much more than their European friends. Some Americans may appear insensitive, but many of them have a profound understanding and respect for foreign cultures. These are just simple and superficial examples; the principle is universal. America is the home of a large number of different people and different businesses with different needs and different priorities. Drawing stereotypical conclusions about this country would be a huge mistake.
There are many other differences between Europe and USA, but knowing about the above three will take you a long way. If you can connect with the good guys in USA, if you respect every second of their time, and if you recognize that they all represent different market segments, you are onto a good start.
You will be able to establish your business in the US, and you will have the opportunity to be wildly successful there. All the best on your US conquest!
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