I recently attended an intensive three day workshop on penetrating the US market, hosted by US MAC during their recent trip to Belfast. Having made my first business trip to the US last summer, with a subsequent follow up trip before Christmas, I'd like to share what I've learned.
I'd highly recommend anyone based outside of the US to visit the country on a regular basis, it will completely open your mind to much bigger thinking and innovative ways of doing things. For the purpose of this article, I'm going to assume you're a tech/software company and the obvious place to visit is therefore Silicon Valley in California.
Why visit the US?
Aside from being an incredible, high impact learning experience, there are a number of reasons why you should visit the United States:
1. Product Validation
Coming from Northern Ireland, I'm only too aware of the adversity to new ideas and technology; you may have some incredible ideas that people think would never work but you can't properly validate them here unless your market is exclusively Northern Ireland. People in the US are much more open to new ideas and will often 'get' your product when people at home don't.
We'd previously written off some ideas we had for Get Invited because no-one at home got excited about them when we performed demonstrations, but after showing these ideas in the US, some of our customers from across the pond couldn't wait to get their hands on them.
2. Market Validation
With a population of 316 million, the US is one of the largest markets in the world for many businesses, so it's definitely worthwhile making the trip to assess the size of your particular addressable market and to get to know your potential customers.
3. Customer Acquisition
Silicon Valley is a great place to aquire new customers quickly, especially if you're seeking early adopters for an innovative new technology. People are much less risk adverse and are open to trying new things.
4. Building a Network
Having a good network is vital for any entrepreneur and the US is full of people who can provide a lot of value and help along your journey, particularly people who have built and exited companies of enormous scale in the past. You can learn so much from these people and it's knowledge that we unfortunately can't tap into at home.
Preparing For Your Trip
Once you've made the decision to visit, you'll need to do some preparation before your trip. Unless you have the right visa, then you won't even make it as far as the runway. For short term business trips you have two options:
1. Visa Waiver Program / ESTA
This is the quickest, easiest and cheapest option. You can visit the US for multiple trips in a two year period (up to a total length of 90 days per trip) on the visa waiver program. It costs £40 and the application process can be completed online in minutes. This is fine for one off visits, but technically you're not supposed to engage in certain business activities under the waiver. If you're found to be abusing it, customs can ban you from entering the country for any length of time. You have no right to appeal a ban under the waiver program.
2. B1 Business Tourist Visa
Slightly more expensive at £105, is the B1 visa which enables you to enter the country to perform certain business activities (such as sales, market development, contract negotiation). The process requires you to fill out an online application (20 minutes) and is then subject to an interview at your local US Consulate. Following this, the application can be turned around in 3-5 days. This is the recommended option to keep yourself on the right side of customs. If you're refused entry to the US under a B1 visa, you have the right to appeal.
Be extremely careful with income tax!
If you stay in the US for more than 31 days on a single trip, or more than 183 days in a year, you will have to pay US income tax on your worldwide earnings.
If you're travelling from Ireland, then I highly recommend flying to San Francisco from Dublin, rather than connecting at London. In addition to a shorter flight time (11hours) and no connection, you can clear US Customs and Border Patrol in Dublin, which will save you a significant amount of time (the process takes 10-20 minutes) as opposed to several hours at a busy US airport. When you land in the US, you simply get your baggage and go.
You'll need to ensure you have booked your return flight and accommodation in advance and have evidence of this if requested. You can't enter the US without providing a destination address.
Setting Up Meetings
It's a good idea to set up some meetings in advance but this is relatively easy to do once you identify who you want to meet. I've found most people are open to meeting if you're making the effort to travel halfway across the world. You can also play the Irish card, which helps.
Leverage Your Existing Networks
Tap your local network for people who have relevant contacts in the US, even if you come across some contacts who aren't relevant to your industry, look them up on LinkedIn to see if they're connected to anyone who may be of interest to you and who they may be able to connect you with. Also consider local organisations, I managed to secure a meeting with the Vice President of Goldman Sachs in New York through my old University, as the VP was also a University of Ulster graduate.
Cold Calling is Fine
Contacting people you don't know and asking them to meet you is also perfectly acceptable, providing there is some synergy and a reason for the meeting. I've found people in the US much more receptive to this than in the UK and I've had great success in setting up meetings with people I don't know. It's a good idea to email 1-2 weeks in advance rather than months ahead. I've included a copy of the email I used to schedule meetings for my first visit.
Hi xxxx, I hope this finds you well and you’re enjoying the same beautiful weather over in NYC as we are here in Ireland. The reason I’m emailing you is to ask for your help – I’m visiting NYC in 2 weeks as part of a research initiative for a new UK based startup called Get Invited – the next generation of online event registration; which has a heavy focus on social media tools that enable an event organiser to monitor social media conversations about their event. The trip objective is to start building a network in the US and performing some product validation exercises outside of the UK. As an expert in social media, I thought you may be able to help me out – would you be free any time on the week of 23-28th June to grab a quick coffee (on me, of course) in NYC and provide some product feedback and pointers on who we should be talking to in the US? I know this is a big ask coming from a stranger, but I would appreciate your help enormously. I look forward to hearing from you soon. Regards, Kyle
One Meeting Leads to Another
You don't need to have an action packed schedule before you hop on the plane as a meeting with one person will unlock additional meetings. Meetings can be scheduled quickly and typically people will meet with you 24-48 hours if they know you're visiting from out of town, especially if you've received a warm introduction from someone else.
The ultimate goal is to unlock a super-connector who can introduce you to anyone you want, provided you have established some trust. I've met with one of these people so far in California and I've been able to achieve incredible meetings through their introductions.
Use Invest NI & Entrerprise Ireland
If you're from Ireland, then you can get support from Invest NI or Enterprise Ireland, who both have offices in Silicon Valley, Invest NI have been great in helping me to build my network and have set up some excellent customer meetings as well.
Invest NI can provide you with travel support too, covering 50% of airline fares and £75 per night accommodation which is really helpful, especially for a startup.
Be Careful with Calendar Invites
If you're using calendar invites to schedule meetings, be extremely careful with navigating the timezones and check if your calendar software has multiple timezones enabled otherwise your recipient may be receiving invitations in your local time and not theirs. I learnt this the hard way.
Where to Stay
If you're travelling to Silicon Valley then the best place to stay is San Francisco, aim to locate yourself as close to Union Square as possible as you'll be able to walk to most companies within 5-15 minutes. You can travel directly from the airport to Powell Street station (a 5 minute walk from Union Square) using the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) service, which operates directly from the airport.
Steer clear of the Tenderloin neighbourhood beside Union Square.
You also need to be cautious and vigilant when walking the streets of San Francisco, there are a lot of mentally ill homeless people, many of which will interact with you and some will appear aggressive.
Travelling around Silicon Valley is easy, provided you're not travelling by car, which I'm told takes between 3-4 hours to travel just 30 miles. The Caltrain will travel to most primary locations in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco station is just a 20 minute walk from Union Square. You can also avail of the BART service for travelling around the city and the wider bay area.
The city also has a MUNI service (a bus/train hybrid) which is reasonably priced at $2 per trip. Uber is a convenient alternative to taxis but can be expensive. Use UberX if you're on a budget. There are also several car rental services, such as Zipcar or Getaround.
Culture & Protocol
Much like anywhere, there are cultural protocols that you must follow when meeting people. Fortunately, US culture is not hugely different to our own, but bear in mind that 70% of the residents in Silicon Valley are originally from outside the US so maintaining an awareness of as many cultural behaviours and mannerisms as possible is good practice.
Don't Be Late
There is zero tolerance for arriving late. Always allow yourself plenty of travel time, especially when visiting the city for the first time when you're not familiar with walking around or using the transport system.
I generally aim to arrive at my destination 20-30 minutes in advance, there are coffee shops everywhere so you can catch up on emails while you wait. Google Maps and now, Citymapper are great tools for planning your schedule.
You should always plan to meet the person at their office or a place convenient for them. It's rude to ask someone to take time out of their busy schedule to come and meet you for your benefit. Meetings typically last for 30 minutes and if you don't show up or arrive late, there are no second chances.
Always Follow Up
Business cards are widely used so make sure you travel with plenty and always, always follow up with people – in hours, not days or weeks. LinkedIn is huge in the US, so I make a habit of returning to my hotel every evening and:
a) sending a LinkedIn request with a small thank you message
b) following up with an email if appropriate
Always thank people for taking the time to meet you!
No Messing Around
People are generally straight to the point, sometimes brutally. If someone is interested in using your product, things will progress quickly. Equally, if they're not interested they will tell you upfront and not waste your time, they may even abruptly cut the meeting short, as has happened to me in the past.
Adopt the Local Language
If you're distributing marketing or promotional materials, then these should utilise the local language and way of communicating. Color not colour, program not programme etc... and your pricing should always be in US dollars.
Attending Networking Events
Networking events are a great place to meet new people but finding the right one can be difficult. I attended lots of random events I discovered on Meetup but the quality of these was questionable. There is a ruthless mixture of self-promoting startups and people looking for new jobs and neither group are interested in you or your company.
I found it more beneficial to ask local people within the community for recommendations on which events to attend, some of the best ones aren't listed online.
It's also a volume game, the startup/tech community in California is huge, the more people you meet, the higher your chances of developing quality connections.
Silicon Valley is a wonderful place to develop your business and you can never really spend enough time there, so it's worth visiting several times a year if your budget allows - you'll be able to gradually increase the quality of your meetings and networking each time you visit by leveraging your new US network.