For entrepreneurs building global businesses, sensitivity to business-cultural differences is critical to successfully entering new markets; missteps can cause costly delays and sometimes (as I found out) outright failure.
When I moved to the US with a software startup in 2001 on the tail end of the dot com era, we were very well funded, but we failed – we failed to make a single sale and we were out of business within 12 months.
Now 18 years on, I’m still living and working in the US and, thankfully, I have developed a deep understanding of the differences between doing business in a small market like Australia and a huge market like the US.
So how can a fast-moving Aussie startup level the playing field with American entrepreneurs? How do you compete and win customers, position yourself as a highly-scalable startup, and attract great investors in this hugely competitive (and foreign) market?
It’s not about the cultural differences between Australia and America.
In fact, being Australian in America is a big plus. We have a reputation as being well educated and innovative, we produce extremely high-quality products and we’re great business managers. We’re resourceful. And at the same time, we have a reputation for being fun.
Americans really like us.
It’s about the cultural differences between a small market versus a big market. The way you market and sell in a small market is not how you market and sell in a big market.
Let’s look at the seven characteristics that make up each market’s DNA.
Pace of business
The speed of business in the US has the greatest impact in the early days of entering the market.
From slow product releases, meeting follow-ups, volume of customer/prospect touch points to internal company decision-making; small markets tolerate a much slower pace than big markets.
Adjusting how quickly your company makes decisions – and acts – is one of the earliest changes needed when doing business in a big market.
Comprehensive marketing messages rich in detail are often valued in a small market.
In a big market, these are lost. Short, crystal-clear and compelling call-to-action messaging wins. Simplicity is highly-valued, and indeed, essential.
Small markets lend themselves to a direct sales model where an effective sales force can build an excellent $10-20 million business. That is not going to build a solid $100 million business in a big market where rapid adoption to drive market share is the name of the game.
This requires an indirect sales model where multiple channels are employed to establish a rapid and expansive reach into the market.
Keeping things close to your chest to ensure the competition doesn’t get wind of your strategies and target customers makes perfect sense in a small market where there are limited opportunities.
In a large market this attitude is replaced with one of collaboration where working together (often with a competitor) to share in a “bigger pie” is common.
This has many implications, including the need to be careful how you speak about your competition – they may be your partner on the next deal!
In a small market our complex, detail-rich messaging shines through when asked by our customers “why should I buy your product?”.
We proceed with the many reasons that answer that question; features, functions and benefits take centre stage.
In a big market it’s all about the bottom line: getting to the point and articulating the hard-hitting results a customer will enjoy when using your product.
In a big market, loading up with reasons just sounds like waffle and can have the extremely damaging effect of leaving the customer thinking, “you really don’t deliver results that I care about”.
Small markets often have little access to external capital which means growing organically through careful management of profits to ensure the business is sustained.
In large markets, chasing $100 million outcomes, external investors want to see growth, massive customer numbers (B2C) or big revenues (B2B). It’s a land grab and profits will come later.
This is one of the most difficult adjustments for entrepreneurs from small markets to make. Chasing revenue “at all costs” can feel downright irresponsible, however, in the context of building a winning company in a big market, it is essential.
This final characteristic is less about small markets versus big markets, it’s very specific to the way Americans communicate. They are the most applications-first communicators in the world.
The rest of the world lean far more towards principles-first or deductive reasoning communicators.
Given communication is the basis of everything we do, adopting a more applications-first communication style will be an early and critical adjustment needed to succeed in the US market.
Building a big, global company is a really hard thing to do, extraordinarily hard from a small market. As Australians we have the foundations of world-class technologies and business management skills.
I think adopting these big market characteristics as you expand into the US market can significantly strengthen your competitive position and result in truly rapid growth.
Viki Forrest is delivering an Expert In Residence program, a LaunchVic initiative, with Hacker Exchange and Neighbourhood: ‘Scaling to the US and Beyond’ and partaking in a fireside chat at General Assembly Melbourne on March 19.