6 Differences When Doing Business in the US vs Sweden

After 10 years as an entrepreneur with my 29th birthday coming up (!), launching 3 companies in 5 countries across 3 different industries I figured it’s time to start wording my thoughts. Also my kick-ass husband @fritjofsson may have inspired me with getting his writing on lately at fritjofsson.com/blog.

Here’s the thing: I think about the same subjects a lot. I come back to them trying to understand them and finding an answer to my questions or thoughts, and sharing them with you might shed some lights over these subjects.

Yesterday I found myself talking about the differences in business culture between Sweden and the US and how long it has taken me to “sort-of” understand them. This is a subject I’ve tried to undress to it’s core a few times, but since I’m a Swede and we think we’re “just as American” as any other Hollywood movie we’ve seen it’s not all that easy.

The differences hide behind a silky curtain of unhindered conversations, people that look and act like us, with childhood memories from the Lion King and Little Mermaid that we share. We’re just the same, right? Still, there is these small nuances that creates small hiccups in our dreamy international world. These are the 6 most prominent differences I’ve encountered since moving stateside and launching an American business:

1. Hierarchy

You’ve probably heard this one before: the hierarchy in Sweden is basically non-existent compared to how it works in the US. Interestingly enough the difference is seen in companies of all sizes which is the biggest surprise to me. Coming from Sweden, there is definitely a difference in how big impact hierarchies have in the company culture dependent of size of business, but across all sizes of businesses there is generally an open business culture where you speak up to your managers and expect to take part in setting corporate structure, rules and behavior as an employee. Since moving to the US, I noticed a difference in how I’m being treated as a “CEO”, and mind you, this is a small scale start-up we’re talking about. There are less open discussions (even though I have asked for it), and there is an expectation on me setting a framework for the company culture and present this in full to the team. All of this have previously in my life been something the team creates together — and if I would have created this entirely myself I would have heard about it from the team! Furthermore there’s not the same frequency of questions, and I see my friends at the big corporates struggling to keep up with being, or having a manager, who always has an answer to everything. I know I’m biased — I’m used to the Swedish way and with that said I can see how a lot of people are thriving in a more structured company setup and a clear path to climb to the top. But again, I’m still dedicated to building a flat organization where managers are not supposed to have the answer to everything, where input from all levels of the organization is welcomed and where the CEO does the dishes every now and then.

2. Fake it until you make it

America. I love you because of your impressive self-esteem and man are you giving me grey hair because of it :) Swedes have a problem of being too humble at times, and with an international world we are slowly learning how to promote ourselves better. When interviewing in Sweden I would constantly hear the phrase “No, I’ve never done that and have no experience but I’m eager to learn” where in the US I meet people who are experts at everything, even though I can’t find any experience proving it in their resume. This can cause problems at times. When asking someone how fast they run for one of my running classes and they tell me the double pace to what they are actually used to, it creates a small problem for the group of runners I’ve set them up with. When hiring someone to do social media that later proves to not know how to create social media account — that also means trouble. On the other side you learn how to focus on the person faster and skip the bullsh*t. What you know or not is less important — it’s the person that matters and who does not want to work with strong go-getters?! Key = You just have to know what you are getting yourself into when hiring people to weigh the answers correctly.

3. Save yourself

Here’s where our social system plays the biggest part. There is a constant fear of being fired in the states that we do not see or feel in Sweden. In California the employment agreements are set to “at-will employment” which means you can be let go on the day without any explanation to why and without any further pay, which is to be compared to a well-in advance warning and guaranteed pay after resignation in Sweden. The “please do not fire me” effect also reflects what I mentioned as items number 1 & 2 on this list and creates a culture with a nervousness after something as simple as poor presentations and with taking every shot to shine in front of your managers.

4. Smaller Me in a Bigger Pond

I feel there is a difference in terms of how you treat your own personal brand, how you take advantage of businesses and how you build relationships. When I first started spending time in the US I remember how impressed I was with how easy it was to get meetings, how friendly everyone was and the speed I could make friends. The problem was, the second time I wanted to get a meeting the ease disappeared, and the time I wanted to follow-up on that dinner invite my new friend did not remember me. When telling a Swede “let’s have dinner” we go into planning mode and where to have drinks before tapas. The sad part is that the American is just striking a conversation. It’s a thin line that you need to learn how to read. A meeting is an opportunity for an American to meet someone that might give them something of value, and if not, there’s simply not enough time to keep on engaging and that promised call-back will probably never happen. I’ve seen the same tendencies on how companies, startups and brands are handled. In Sweden we tend to see and take business personal where in the US companies, regardless of size, will never be tied to someone on a personal level. Therefor, the business climate in Sweden tends to be a bit friendlier than on a market like this. Bigger pond — smaller me.

5. Go Big or Go Home

Boom. Feel the speed. Feel the size. From feeling kind of OK about what I’ve done in Sweden I quickly realized — I’ve got nothing on this city. The size and the power is exhilarating, exciting, amazing and scary as f*ck. Go big or go home, there’s simply too much competition, too many people and too much opportunity to build something small-scale in the US compared to Sweden where competition is not as fierce. So take a deep breath, plan your next step and make it happen.

6. Swedes are dark

Having spent my first couple of month almost entirely with Americans I felt a bit out of place during social engagements. My normally oh-so-funny comments and stories did not have the impact I expected. Slowly Swedes entered my social-life in SF and mixed with my American circle of friends, and all the sudden they helped me realize what it was I had experienced. “Swedish humor is SO DARK” they explained. I was not a freak, I just had Swedish, dark humour. Swedes have a tendency to go where other don’t. Swedish humor was mothered by Carl Michael Bellman in the 1700s and his poems and songs were a mere mix of drinking, death and sex and most of the time very sarcastic. And let’s face it, only Swedes will laugh at celebrating your vegetarian manager by giving him a minced meat burger produced on the meat of his wife…. https://vimeo.com/99437142

Yrrol — one of the best known comedy sketches in Sweden

Please note these learning's are based on San Francisco as representative for the United States of America — which certainly is not a 100% truthful depiction for the entire country.

What differences am I forgetting? Anything you want to challenge me on? Looking forward hearing from you!