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"Going to America" Survey

By: Gordon Husbands (Wordbank) - Wordbank Limited


01 May 2008

Since the time of Columbus, many a European has dreamed of finding their own El Dorado by crossing the pond.

In the early 21st Century the US still retains significant allure, mainly because of its sheer size – estimated GDP $13.8 trillion in 2007 – but also because of the relatively low levels of regulation, taxation, and government involvement,as well as a court system that generally protects property rights and enforces contracts.

The total GDP of the EU is now comparable being in excess of $14 trillion.  However, to address this market means potentially operating in some 20 individual countries with each country having their own legal system, culture and languages.  So the apparent simplicity of the US market appears doubly attractive.

While the appeal of the US is not limited to the Europeans, as part of GALA’s participation in Networking Days 4 Paris in March, GALA undertook a survey of the experiences of members who have already embarked upon this US voyage of discovery.

As you might expect, expectations and experiences differed and results varied.

The Survey

A total of 53 member companies from 27 countries participated in the survey. The largest component was from Europe (56%), with Spain (14%) the leading country. Spain was followed by China (8%), with UK, Italy and India all contributing 6%. There were also contributions from the Middle East, and Central and South America.  

Figure 1: Geographic breakdown of survey respondents.

The majority of those companies participating had a turnover of less than US$5M and were mainly small MLVs or SLVs. So while hardly a statistically valid sample they do represent a reasonably broad range of views, from, in the main, the executive level of the companies represented.

Reading this article, many readers may feel that what with the prevailing global liquidity crisis, a domestic housing market that has fallen by 9% and the US dollar dropping 12% against the Euro in the last year, that now may not be the best time to contemplate an Atlantic crossing. However, as any stock market pundit will tell you, “...a bear market means bargains for the brave” and it is sensible for a company to take a longer term view when planning a marketing strategy.

The good news is that the results from the survey, with a few notable exceptions, show that a high proportion of companies that have gone all the way have achieved success and are now well and truly established in the US market. 

Despite the fact that twenty-one participants failed to finish the survey either because they got bored, feel asleep or were otherwise distracted, 74% of those that did finish are planning for growth.

The survey was designed to gather information from members on:

  • The main reasons why they decided to go to America and what their objectives were
  • The experiences they had during the entire process in terms of regulations, people and culture
  • What the outcome of their activities were
  • What advice they might offer to fellow members

Results and Conclusions

Longevity

Most of the respondents (63%) have been in business for over ten years and it is probably quite natural when you have been around that long that you have succumbed to the urge or been driven by customers to operate in the US. Either way, sooner or later most of us will have to consider whether we wish to enter and develop a new market to continue to grow our businesses.

Location

California and New York City both appeared as top contenders among the locations initially selected for the base of operation. Others ranged widely from Delaware to Texas. As the sample was so small, it is unwise to draw too many conclusions from this. However, often the initial location proved unsuitable and relocation occurred boosting the final preferences to California first and NYC second by a large margin. 

It is clear from discussions with CASE (Council of American States in Europe) that the choice of location is more critical for large companies expecting to make significant investments in the US. For small translation companies, the choice appears to be more emotionally influenced rather than a hard business decision. This is echoed by my own experiences having set up in Denver largely by accident.  We did however find it a very attractive city to operate in with a high level of availability of skilled and motivated people.

Business Objectives

I am sure that it does not come as any surprise to learn that the prime objective for the American adventure was to increase sales for 94% of the members, closely followed at 56% by a need to service existing customers locally. Given that we are all in a service industry where relationships play a key part in customer satisfaction, this must be high on all our lists of priorities.

Experiences

Support

In summary, most respondents found access to professional advice in the US good and found the regulations easy to understand; where there was little effective support it was in their home country. I also support this view as I wasted much time, money and effort with the UK Department of Trade. 

The session given by Bruce Greenwood of CASE, during the Networking Days 4 (ND4) event illustrated the good level of support that is available from CASE members for companies wishing to invest in a US business. This appears to be much stronger than any domestic support for the export market. However, GALA would be interested to hear from any members who have experienced excellent export support from their home country in an export drive.

Resources

In general, the feeling is that in the US good people are not only easy to find but also are generally highly motivated and loyal. The main issue was the cost of employment, i.e. salaries. Here, I would say that if you are coming from China or India, then a huge leap is required relative to what has to be paid locally. For example, a good senior project manager in Beijing is going to expect a salary of around $12-14K per year compared to $30K-40K in the US. However, at today's exchange rates, $40K is around €27K or £20K. So by European terms, the US is a low cost economy, but for emerging economies these rates may still seem extortionate. 

However, I would also add that in my experience, US employees are highly productive, understand the profit motive and do not need the concept of “customer service” drummed into them on a regular basis. 

Customers

From a cultural perspective we were interested in finding out whether customer’s behaviour in practice differed much from member’s expectations. With a few notable exceptions, the majority found US customers fair and their selection process relatively standard.  Nearly 50% had tangled with the customer’s procurement department and nearly a third had been involved in online auctions. For anyone contemplating a US entry, these two aspects are facts of corporate life and you will not be able to avoid them for long. 

Biggest Challenges

As in any market, finding new clients is tough and they can be demanding to deal with. The US Dollar may be weak but salaries and costs of operation can still seem high. Finding and retaining good people was seen as quite a big challenge, with several members commenting on the need for several hiring/firing cycles before finally landing on the right people.

Figure 2: Biggest challenges to entering the US market

Interestingly, over a third did experience problems in contacting and dealing with customers. As part of the ND4 afternoon panel discussion, the topic of “Voicemail Hell” was a common point of irritation. Although it is also fair to say that once you do connect with a person it is relatively easy to get an appointment, when compared with other countries, reaching US potential customers is often tough because of the ever-present barrier of calls ringing directly to voicemail.

It may also be that the importance of having a focused sales team and a sales strategy, supported by lead generation campaigns, is overlooked by smaller, investment-constrained members. The lack of the above can be a major disadvantage when addressing the sophisticated and mature US buyer.

Words of Advice

Plenty of advice was offered by the participants with the themes remaining consistent. I have listed them in rough sequence

  • Do your market research (How big is the market? What are the barriers to entry? How much will this cost me?)
  • Do a cost/benefit analysis (Could I get a better return from my money somewhere else?)
  • Set clear objectives and have a detailed plan for market entry
  • Get some local clients first before you go.  This will help you test the sanity of your efforts in completing the preceding points.
  • Employ local staff.  Ex-pats are expensive and are either continually complaining or loath ever to return home.
  • Be prepared for the long run.  It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

One final word of advice I would offer. There is a well-entrenched localization skill that you will do well to apply to any market entry: attention to detail. The US is a different market, on a different continent, so assume nothing. The US Banking system’s love affair with the Check is not about to change and certainly many US companies are not about to bend over backwards to accommodate the needs of a small SLV from Outer Mongolia (no offence intended to any Outer Mongolian SLVs).

Figure 3: Rates of success in crossing the pond.

Take heart, all those of you who follow on, as 74% of members made a successful transition to the US and are anticipating ongoing growth, 50% have been established in the US for more than 3 years and around a third have several offices.

My thanks to those that participated.  And don't forget – if you if you completed the full survey, you will be in the draw for a bottle of the finest Scottish single malt Whisky and to be the proud owner of a silk tie in the Royal Stewart Tartan.

Whether you aspire to be Columbus or Marco Polo, remember in the final analysis that it’s largely a matter of courage, determination, vision and the ability to take risks.

Gordon Husbands is the VP of Worldwide Sales & Marketing at Wordbank Ltd., a marketing communications localization company based in London.  Gordon oversaw the establishment of Wordbank’s US operations in Denver, Colorado.

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