Last week I landed in JFK, New York. I took a cab to Manhattan and I realised that seeing the skyscrapers landscape is always breath-taking — no matter how many times I’ve done that ride. 45 minutes later (if lucky with traffic) you’ll find yourself in Manhattan. That’s when the real energy kicks in. Busy streets, noisy traffic, steam rising, food smell… It’s New York — where anything is possible, any time.
This got me thinking: ‘where anything is possible…’ And that’s not only in NY but also in many other places in the US. It’s the American dream. A belief that has nurtured the American culture with optimism, drive, and an enriching way to celebrate success.
After living a few years in the US, I’ve gotten to appreciate the American way of celebrating success. I think this is one of the big differences between the American and most European cultures. It’s likely also a driver of a historically stronger US tech ecosystem. In the US, people celebrate each other’s success in a much more genuine way. Often, founders use others’ success stories as a driver to push themselves further. Thinking someone managed to build a big business is already a reason to pursue even bigger dreams. Moreover, Americans have historically been better at sharing and fostering the value of their network. Finally, a shared culture in a very large market has also helped creating big companies in the US.
However, Europe is now catching-up. European founders are becoming more and more ambitious — reflected by the increasing number of European success stories. More capital available, better investors’ support, and an excellent talent pool are making some European cities great hubs to start a company. As Glenn Kelman suggested ‘the Valley is going to become an idea instead of a place’ or like Reid Hoffman said, ‘Silicon Valley is a mindset, not a location’. And indeed, it feels like Europe is getting that mindset. Europoean founders are thinking big.
Yet, for Europeans to be successful in their ambitions, entrepreneurs need to not only think big, but think global from day one. To build a giant, companies still need to have an international mindset from the start.
That’s why at Balderton, we recently discussed what it takes to become a global player during our ‘Going Global’ event in Paris. We have published the key takeaways from our discussion with top European leaders and our own experience here.
Internationalisation is often a second thought, but a must to become a big player.
The world is getting smaller — as my partner, Bernard said — ‘The common use of internet technology, social media platforms, and the fluidity of information is such that new products and services can be found and used globally, at an extraordinary speed, regardless of where they come from. Borders do not exist for internet companies. A product launch in a country is known all over the world right away’. To build a big company, founders need to have an international mindset since day one. That doesn’t mean expanding into a new market too quickly, but building the infrastructure and team that will help doing so early on. Product readiness, funding, and team structure, among others, need to be considered to make internationalisation-related decisions.
The answers to when and where might not be obvious.
Since day 1, entrepreneurs should start thinking about internationalisation. The country by country European expansion might not be the best play early on given it’s a hard and slow process. Cultural differences, regulation, and the need for local talent make the European expansion difficult. We believe it’s often better to enter a big market early on to avoid competition taking over that larger opportunity.
Becoming a global player also means building a global team.
Hiring the right people overseas is key but it is also important to reflect the international mindset at home. As my partner Bernard said: ‘A European company not only needs to build a great US entity, but even more importantly, it needs to upgrade itself to higher standards, and transform itself back home at the headquarters’. Thinking what type of talent a company needs and where to best find it is also a key factor to consider when deciding where to expand. As Laurent Bride, CTO & COO of Talend, suggested ‘you need to think about where are you going to find the engineers, the best mathematicians or AI guys. So depending on what you do, you really need to think that through’.
Adapting to different cultures is key but it needs to be done in a thoughtful and scalable way.
While companies should maintain their identity and values, it’s equally important to think about the cultural aspect and the local ecosystem. However, and as Poppy Gustafsson, Co-CEO of Darktrace, said, companies can’t adapt their business model for every single country, as that’s not a practical or sensible way to scale — ‘when you’re doing something new, you will constantly be told by people all the reasons why it won’t work. And one that will come up very regularly is: ‘Oh the distributor says that’s not the way it works here…’ So whilst we talk about the fact you need to be mindful of cultural differences, you do also need to push back and challenge at times’.
Finally, I’d love to encourage us all to celebrate each other’s success. Let’s be better at sharing and uplifting each other to think bigger and go further. We have the talent pool, the understanding of different cultures by our geo-political structure in Europe, and the means to create very big global companies out of Europe. ‘Problems’ are often opportunities in disguise. We’re only missing truly believing we can keep on leading company building and helping each other do so.