Mark Boon took his family to New York for two years to set up the U.S. office of his specialist insurance brokerage, La Playa. Having returned with a whole new perspective, he outlines some of his learnings for U.S. businesses setting up operations in the UK.
Firstly, I want to say “pioneering” is in Americans’ blood – so you already have a head start! Unfettered by centuries of tradition and opaqueness, you have the opportunity to cut to the chase with a fresh, fast-moving and straightforward approach.
The UK is a quirky place, but you’ll find it stimulating and enterprising – a small island with big ideas, a big mouth and a punch well above its weight.
The first thing you should find easier is the fact that we only have four states/countries (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) – and they’re all in a single legal jurisdiction. This also makes for more harmonized and efficient IT, HR and admin systems.
My insights for Americans heading east would be:
- Reconnaissance: I’d recommend multiple trips – I gained incremental learning each time over 6 week-long trips in a 9 month period. Get your feet wet – take your time over reconnaissance, eliminate some of the possibilities, dispel some myths. Things soon become familiar and therefore less daunting. You could schedule meetings in different parts of London and get a feel for the different vibes. It’s worth knowing that Manchester has a thriving media culture with significant parts of the state broadcaster, the BBC, operating from there, and that Cambridge is a major sci-tech hub
- Planning: trust me, it will take twice as long and cost twice as much as you think! Immerse yourself in the culture or industry/sector space and learn its UK language and jargon. Talk to as many people as you can – you’ll learn how to ask the questions in the right way
- Know your risk appetite – and that of your directors, shareholders and employees. Don’t be afraid – and certainly don’t listen to people that say ‘it can’t be done, it’s too difficult’ etc. As soon as you’re there, you realize how absolutely do-able it is
I’d recommend finding a partner – buddy up with a trade organization, find a joint venture partner, a client or suppliers. I found my JV partner through reconnaissance trips specifically focused on competitor analysis! We both have a firm commitment to growth – and doing it collaboratively is often more effective. Having a UK expert/friend (from the industry) as a partner/confidant means you can hit the ground running, gives you confidence and removes some of the high risk and huge financial/time costs of doing it “cold” (by greenfield development or acquisition).
Buddying up allows:
- Faster acquisition of knowledge, resources, facilities or distribution/market penetration
- Curatorship – guiding you through the maze of available options. Clever marketing means that chaff can look the same as wheat
- Open innovation – a collaborative approach has helped my business to develop bespoke products that provide exactly what our clients need, not what the insurance industry wants to give them
Although we’re gradually opening up, you may find English people more reserved. But once we get to know you, our friendship is ‘for real’, and we’ll be there for you.
Use your connections to make personal introductions. Brits are much more open to new faces if they come with a recommendation or referral from someone they trust. At the first meeting, be prepared for small-talk about golf/rugby/ cricket/football (never call it soccer) and the weather, and quite a lot of ‘getting to know you’ – it’s something of a social ‘dance’. Sport and the weather are staple conversation starters – but avoid religion and guns as simply too sensitive! Let them ask in-depth questions in a relaxed way. Meetings are standardly diarized to last up to an hour. If the person doesn’t like your proposition, they may not be prepared to say so – they may think it’s rude, and prefer simply to let you walk away with the impression it’s a ‘goer’! Ask them to suggest ‘next steps’ for a clearer steer on where they’re at!
Whereas in the U.S., “What’s the deal? Show me the money” comes first and relationships come later, in the UK, you need to build a relationship of trust before doing business. We’re very skeptical and wary of being ‘fleeced’, ‘duped’ or made to look foolish.
Networking can be a tricky dance – be careful about just ‘working the room’ as you may offend. Focus on a select few – be curious, listen well and think of ways to help them (e.g. introductions). And follow up afterwards – even if you just LinkIn with them.
In your correspondence – including email – remain courteous, with ‘Dear X’ and ‘Best wishes…’, include a ‘how are you?’ – don’t just fire off your message like a bullet.
Although we take time building trust, we tend to take less time in communicating messages – far more is assumed as ‘goes without saying’ or ‘a given’. You may find turns of phrase really obscure or opaque – built on generations of shorthand and shared culture! Maybe we use more verbal shortcuts because we’re less linguistically diverse?
The British tend to disapprove of individualism – ‘we’re all in it together’ (a wartime hangover), and we expect people to be respectful and put others first. Employees have rights – it’s not a ‘hire and fire at will’ culture; in fact it’s actually very difficult to get rid of even poorly performing staff. And while I’m on HR, paid vacations are important: the legal minimum is 20 days (plus the eight UK bank holidays), but many companies offer 25 days plus bank holidays (33 days in total). Staff will also expect training and development programs.
The Brits work hard – but unlike Americans, they know that if they lose their job, they’ll get benefits from the government and healthcare is free to all. Although healthcare is free, the National Health Service is somewhat under-resourced and there can be long delays for treatment – so it’s still worth buying private healthcare for staff if you can afford it. That way they’ll get treated and back to work sooner.
Novelty and newness won’t necessarily impress – you’ll need to demonstrate your product or service is a definite improvement on what they’ve got. Being ‘established’ counts for a lot. They may also have loyalty to an existing provider that over-rides commercial sense.
In my experience, UK business structures are more hierarchical – there’s more of a pecking order.
Vocabulary and spelling – you’ll just need to fit in; Brits love to shudder in snobbishness at American spellings! Usually it’s an ‘s’ instead of a ‘z’ – spellcheck will help.
SEGMENTATION AND SCALABILITY
Although the market is smaller, segmentation is still important if you don’t have a huge marketing budget – modify your product and delivery to suit each segment. Stick to the Crossing the Chasm* model: create a beach-head by becoming market leader in a small market segment (it can be tiny!) and then annex neighboring segments, citing your leadership in the adjacent segment. Avoid the temptation to diversify or dilute for broader reach – people want to know you’re ‘bespoke’, just for them.
Given my experience in the U.S., I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the bureaucracy in the UK – most government forms are electronic, and relatively streamlined.
- Visas: one of your first tasks is finding a good immigration lawyer to handle your visas – and allow time for that process if you’re starting a new business. In the months preparing and waiting for your visa, you can use the 90 day ESTA visa waiver
- Accommodation: when choosing your office and home locations, consider the commute, and listen to anecdotes. While the City of London is great for financial businesses, other areas are better priced and just as connected – Holborn, Westminster, or Stratford, which has been massively developed for the Olympics. Consider flexible workspaces, or the Enterprise Zone in the Royal Docks area in east London (which offers incentives on business rates etc). Don’t hesitate to negotiate on price! And, of course, London isn’t the only option, take a look at the rest of the country
- Schools: full time ‘primary’ school usually starts in the September after a child’s 4th birthday. Most schools have a basic uniform, but expect homework just once a week until ‘secondary’ school, age 11 years. Schools are free – but private schools are an option too
- Utilities: use www.uswitch.com to compare natural gas/ electricity providers in your postcode (zipcode) area
- Cost of living: although London can be very pricey in tourist locations, overall groceries and utilities are cheaper, but electronics and clothes more expensive
You should know that local pubs (public houses – bars) provide a backbone of community bond in British society. It takes a lot for a Brit to share his/her innermost thoughts – but after a few beers, people inevitably open up, are more heart-on-sleeve and indiscreet. This seems to cement bonds between people, and pubs can be the focal point of many villages and communities. It may be worth doing some field research on the many kinds of beer and ‘real ale’ – it can be quite a passion and a good way to connect with people!
Finally, I’d say this is a great time to come to the UK – after tough times, the UK economy is set to lead Europe’s growth, and there’s a real buzz in the air, with a global outlook and lots of support for new business. Follow the two great transatlantic mantras: ‘keep calm’ – and ‘just do it’!
*Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers by Geoffrey A. Moore
Mark Boon is CEO of La Playa: Insurance with Intelligence, an international, boutique insurance broker.