Aiming your startup at the US – without leaving the UK

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Four guys in Edinburgh now run a site aimed entirely at the US. Even the UK section of the site appears under “International”. What have they learnt? The following is a guest post by Nigel Eccles, co-founder and CEO of Hubdub, the prediction trading game.

Many start-ups in the UK face the challenge that their major market is the US. While Hubdub is based in Edinburgh, 75% of our users reside in the US. That was a deliberate marketing decision and here are our top tips on how to better compete there.

1. Decide on your target market and focus

Very early on in the development process we decided that the US would be our target market. The US represented a much larger market and is home turf to our main competitors. Winning there was strategically important for us. Before launch we considered launching in US and UK simultaneously but quickly realised that running two sites would significantly increase our costs without any clear strategic benefit.

2. Launch at a tech conference

We launched at DEMO in January. It was expensive ($18,500) but worth it. We got a huge amount of exposure and also probably pulled forward our launch date by two months (which stopped us from developing a bunch of features our users would never have used). While DEMO was good for us, TechCrunch 50 is probably better tailored to web start-ups and also happens to be free.

3. Use a PR agency for the launch

There is quite a lot of debate about whether or not web start-ups should use a PR agency. If you are a UK company trying to launch at a US tech conference, then the decision is a no brainer. You need a PR agency. There will be 50-80 other companies out there all screaming for attention. No matter how great your product is you need a way to get to key journalists and bloggers.

4. Build a US based board of advisors

Look at the advisory board of US based start-ups in the same industry (but obviously not competitors) and work out who could add value. Use your network to get to those people and start building a relationship.

5. Always write in US English

Dates, spelling and phrases – UK readers are generally used to reading both UK and US English. Many US readers aren’t so don’t make understanding your product harder for them. Also US English will be better for your SEO.

6. Travel stateside regularly

Pack out an agenda of who you want to meet. Work UK hours in the morning and US hours in the evening. Sleep on the flight home.

7. Ask fellow entrepreneurs for help

Nearly every successful entrepreneur I have met is happy to help entrepreneurs starting out. Work out who can help and use your network to get to them. Go direct if you can’t network to them. Make sure that you are asking for something that they can easily help with (e.g. making an intro, quick piece of advice etc), explain who you are and concisely ask for help. At least 80% of the time you will get it.

8. Use web tools to track your industry and competitors

Use Google Alerts and Summize RSS Feeds on your product name and your competitor names to track what people are writing about your industry. Get involved in that discussion.

9. Build a virtual team from your US user base

Apart from you, no one will be more passionate about your product than your top users. If you need someone to evangelize your product then look to hire from your US user base.

10. Start the US visa process early

Skype and show that UK based start-ups can compete with US competitors and win, however geography still matters (I know start-ups in Seattle that feel their location is a handicap). Most UK based entrepreneurs want to stay in the UK and help build the start-up community here, but if geography is becoming a serious issue then move to the US, successfully sell to AOL for $850 million and then invest in some UK start-ups.

  • Richard M Marshall

    Couldn’t agree more. Two companies ago at QSS we did exactly this and eventually sold successfully to a Swedish company which has now been bought by IBM to acquire our product, DOORS.

    When we launched we only had US customers and dressed the company as US based complete with Delaware-registered “parent” to our European sales.

    Another surprising angle to Nigel’s rules is that it’s easier to sell to corporate Europe if they think you are an American company. Sad but true.

    Be glad to meet up for a coffee and a chat sometime – we have a mutual acquaintance in Sandy McKinnon.

  • Rodolfo

    Finally a guest feature that doesn’t blow ass

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  • Sam Michel

    Really interesting post. On the Internet no-one knows you’re a dog or pays much attention to where you’re based. Kinda.

    It’s worth noting that there’s also support available from UK Trade & Investment, who have recently started focusing much more on the digital sector. As TCUK reported, UKTI are working with us (Chinwag) on the Digital Missions to New York (next month) and SXSW interactive (March 2009). And it’s great to have TCUK’s support in the planning, judging and publicity of these.

    The aim is to support UK business in exporting their products/services and encourage inward investment. The Digital Missions –
    – aim to help this process by providing an insight into some of the practicalities that Nigel mentions – visas, legal, publicity – as well as providing opportunities to meet potential clients, distributors and investors.

    The full list of companies is attending the Digital Mission to NYC was recently announced:

    Applications for the Digital Mission to SXSW are planned to open in early October and interest has already been really strong. The size of the US market certainly is a strong drawn and the more entry points, the better.

  • Simon

    Why do you keep talking about the UK, and display Ireland’s flag at the top of the site?

  • jim

    Great post – especially relevant I think for startups who are outside of London (and who miss out on inevitable networking opportunities).

    Raises the question tho of whether *all* uk startups should follow a similar route, if the US market is so much more promising?

  • N

    Regarding point #5, I totally understand, but it is sad that you give up your culture.

    I’m neither British nor American and I hate to see the American way squashs everything else.

  • Robin G

    Question – do you book revenues in the USA? I’m wondering about finding an accountant / legal firm that can help me set up our UK operation in the US – i.e. legalities of company set up, tax etc.

  • Simos -

    Some interesting points (and decisions that need to be made) particularly relevant to all those of us with a product that could be used (with relatively minor adjustments) in the US. Do you start with a strategy to capture the UK market first (which is less competitive but smaller) or think ‘big’ and start with the US as the focus?

    We went down the former route as we believed that there was a clear opportunity in the UK at the time for a website such as (and haven’t regretted that decision) but as our US-based traffic is increasing constantly we are factoring this in our plans.

    I agree fully with Nigel’s point on trying to find (at least some) US-based advisors, especially for startups targeting the US; we have been fortunate enough to have Fabrice Grinda (Co-CEO of classifieds site on our advisory board, who has been very helpful on a number of different fronts.

  • Leslie Bunder

    that is really spot on!

    Now is the time for people to seriously look at where their traffic is coming from and make sure the content and material as well as advertising is relevant to the traffic.

    There’s no excuse now for geo-targetting the advertising (banners/buttons etc) with plenty of free and low-cost options available.

    Also advertisers now quite rightly ask where is the traffic coming from.

    But it is also important that is you see yourself as a US site based in the UK you make sure that you are as good if not better than those US sites who are your rivals.

  • Eamonn Smyth

    Shows are beneficial, my experience is they are just social affairs. Companies are built in the software room or engineering department, too much time drinking tea and CRUNCHING biscuits, a company it does not make.

    To my fellow UK and native Irish friends, I invite you to invest in my technology.

    I have lost track of what success actually is in business, is it the procurement of money from which to make your idea and then the proliferation of more often than not, snake oil.

    Or is it genuine back room, garden shed, innovation, evolution and growth?

    I am claiming to have solved P=NP problem, I never intended to do this, I just ran into a problem whilst coding, and never gave up in my search for the mathematics, all told it took six months.

    I have opened the door on the prime world.

    I have a formula also for Fermat Primes, there are only five known and Einstein theorized that there are an infinite amount, because I know the simple formula it is now computationally easy to find the next set.

    I want to show the world a most beautiful picture, generated from my mathematics, a message from the creator?

    Nasa have visited, the NSA, so many people who have an interest in my field, yet not one person asks how?

    I am resigned to the strangeness of the world and the negative effect of greed.

    That is why I shall be releasing my technology for free, Open Source for the betterment of the world, absolutely no patents.

    Still reading?

    So I won’t be going to America, if I had my financial Independence I would live out my years seeing what else I can discover in the math world.

    I consider myself the best data structural engineer on the planet and openly challenge any company to beat my technology. Mine is based on mathematics, yours probably isn’t YET!

    So why would you invest in my tech, when I am planning to give it away for free?

    That’s for you to answer.

    £350,000 for 20% Equity would be nice.

    All to go on marketing and product base expansion.

    The one vertical market, that cannot be stolen, is my personal story of discovery and the maths lessons themselves. Just as Pluto is deemed not to be a planet, every computer math lesson needs to be rewritten, the one fundamental mistake I say you all made was to put a full stop on binary.

    There are better ways to build computers and easier ways to write programs.

    If you want to invest contact my first name at my website nu dot fm.

    If you want to see a very small example of NP Complete technology then keep an eye on (should be up within the week) I have just finished the nicely formatted xml render engine and guess what you don’t need closing tags. Structure is completely separate from data, highly compressed and Human Language friendly.


    I would be happy to attend a tech show in the UK, not to punt my wares, but to teach the missing maths of computers. My guess is you have never even heard of a problem solving computer variable, until now, but friends computing just got better.

    I have everything to gain and nothing to lose, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose so we are equal.

    In years to come at least I can not be accused of not trying to offload this heavy burden of discovery. Once the knowledge is passed to the human conscious, I will be able to rest and feel I have achieved, even if it brings no wealth nor notoriety.

    Why I took time out to write this rant, we’ll never know, or is it destiny.

    Anyhow good luck your companies, personally I’m an invent it first, then raise the money person, and thankfully that’s my position on a shoe string budget.

    Good luck with your companies, if you are building one.

  • Andrew J Scott

    Great post Nigel – and as someone who’s spent alot of time in the valley this year, I’ll second virtually everything you’ve said.

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  • Alx Klive

    Great post as already said. I would add a couple of suggestions…

    If you’re not doing so already, track the major US blogs for your industry – if that’s tech, then TC USA, Techmeme, ValleyWag are a given.

    Also. Get a hardwired (preferably) US VOIP phone or use SkypeIn to have a North American phone number. It’s good for both inbound and outbound calling. We use a service called Primus based in Canada. A box plugs into ethernet and has a regular (US) telephone jack on it which is plugged into a US cordless phone. We actually have two of them, one in our Irish office and one in London. We even use them to call each other – from US phone to US phone as the local calls are free. Much handier than Skype or Skype cordless phones which are usually pretty awful.

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