Tuesday, 15 April 2008

I want to be a Spice Girl

"I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want. I want a zig-a-zig ahhhh". Thus spake the Spice Girls in 1997 as they invaded the USA and dominated the Billboard Charts. Well, perhaps I too need a zig-a-zig ahhhh (whatever one of those is) because in 2008 we are going to take Garlik to the USA.

It's a huge challenge for UK technology start-ups to "take on" America. The phrase "coals to Newcastle" springs to mind, but taking the challenge on is all part of the game and if, like us, you are genuinely trying to build a global company then you have to go for it.

There are so many issues to think about and one particularly interesting one is whether to go East Coast or West Coast to start with. Some say it doesn't matter, that in this global internet age you can base yourself anywhere. I say rubbish. It matters. It will impact the culture and shape of your business in fundamental ways. Let's look into this in a bit more detail.

When we say West Coast we really mean Silicon Valley. Yes, I know people talk about LA or Seattle but frankly if you are going to shift your business halfway around the world, why on earth wouldn't you go straight to the heart of things. So what's it like as an outsider, from the UK, trying to establish your business in the Valley?

I go over to the Valley fairly frequently and I know quite a few guys there now. It's an interesting place. The first thing that strikes me is that Silicon Valley is a long, long way away. 9 hour time differences and sheer distance can't be over estimated. If you are a UK company and you are intent on basing yourself along Highway 101 San Francisco Bay Area then I think you either need to split the company in two and give the US arm its autonomy, or you need to shift the HQ over to the Valley. Any middle ground and you will end up in a mess. I've seen it happen several times.

The second thing is that the Valley can be surprisingly "closed" and it's difficult to break in. I don't know whether it can be done quickly. Perhaps over time, but in start-up timescales? A couple of months ago I was at a dinner with about 50 other folk to discuss social networking. In attendance were guys like Michael Arrington of Techcrunch, Robert Scoble, the A-list blogger, Reid Hoffman, founding CEO of Linkedin and various other Valley guys. The dynamics of the group was very interesting. Despite the fact that all the attendees were big boys and girls, the evening centered around the banter and in-jokes amongst these Valley insiders. If you are a UK start up trying to break in to the Valley scene, you will definitely need to hire someone who is known around the area, who grew up there and cut their teeth alongside these guys.

On the other hand, if you are not there, in the flow, then you are not going to get in to the right converstions. You can't just breeze in and out once a month and expect to become part of what's really going on. KPCB is not going to look at you. eBay is not going to turbo-charge your growth. Techcrunch is not going to cover you. But if you are in the flow, then your business can be transformed, it can be catapulted up to a whole new level overnight. That one key conversation, that chance meeting, that enthusiastic blog, can change everything.

The alternative is to go East Coast. Then you have a choice. Boston or New York? If the financial sector is important to you then it's an easy choice. New York. If you need to be visible to the East Coast media then it's an easy choice. New York. In fact unless there is a strong reason to base yourself in Boston (like your Boston based VC gives you free office space), then New York it is, on the East Coast.

The advantage of East Coast is that it is just about possible to manage the business fron the UK. You can put in place a business development team and a country manager, talk at sensible times of the day on the phone and fly back and forth fairly easily without killing yourself. But, bear in mind that to the Valley boys New York is a different planet, so don't kid yourself that you have broken in to the West Coast start up scene if your office is on Park Avenue.

East or West. Which is best? Hmmm, tricky. Perhaps I am being too conventional. Perhaps there is another way. Do I really have to make a choice? Let's see what the Spice Girls think.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Denver has an impressive tech centre. It's also got a world-class international airport and is between east and west. Not to mention the views of mountains in a state-of-the-art office complex...?

It's a good place, and you can be anywhere these days... plus, there happens to be loads of brilliant coffee shops full of wi-fi...

Can't go too wrong.