For the past 6 months, I have been living in San Francisco to support the expansion of Brand Embassy. Four years ago, we set out on our mission to help companies become more human by designing a social customer service platform that helps businesses create deeper connections between agents and customers. While our company is headquartered in Prague, the Czech Republic, where we have grown to 40 amazing employees, raised $2M and worked with inspiring customers such as Telefonica O2, T-Mobile, GE, and Samsung, we have decided it’s important for us to expand into the US.
I took responsibility for opening the market, booked a flight to California and left. Six months later, our highest-spending customer is located in the US, and we’ve also gained a new non-executive board member and grown our pipeline of sales opportunities and business partners. Was it as easy as it sounds? No way. I will always remember the sleepless nights, the moments of absolute desperation and the months of insecurity and doubt. And we are still at the very beginning of our expansion journey.
I have continuously made and remade many plans, decisions and practices with my partners and colleagues until we recently found a system that allows both our head office in Europe and our small “office” (you wouldn’t call it an office just yet) in the US to work effectively and with mutual support and understanding. This post is a collection of best practices. They should hopefully help you avoid a few mistakes if you are about to expand your startup office to another continent. Recently I shared my overall productivity tips, which are useful for all startup employees, here.
- Set smart goals with your partners
Agreeing on specific goals with my partners put us on the same route and really simplified the way we handled the constantly shifting priorities that are so typical for early-stage startups. We focused on four areas (the numbers here are just examples) for our US expansion project (which we actually called our “US Pilot” because we knew it might crash):
- Sales — Generate qualified leads worth $1M within 6 months
- Business development — Sign distribution partnership with $3M+ sales potential within the next 18 months
- Recruitment — identify through referrals and qualify two candidates for VP of US Sales role
- Fundraising — qualify 10 relevant investors for upcoming financial round interested in a 2nd meeting
- Make routine daily status calls
Every day, I wake up by 5am Pacific time and spend 3 hours on 20-minute conference calls with my teams (we prefer GoToMeeting after also trying Skype, webex and Hangout). The time is always set in advance and is a regular event. Everyone needs to attend, including my partner, team leaders, and others, depending on the agenda. Don’t have anything to discuss today? Join anyway. On the way to a super-important presentation? Move the agenda and join the call in Uber on your way. Make the calls set in stone so everyone joins and is prepared. Listening to the team, seeing their emotions and body language via webcam and giving them continuous feedback and support have proven to be an extremely important practice I continue to do even when I’m with my team in the head office.
- Respond early to emotions and signals from the team
Do you have a bad feeling that something is happening but you can’t say just what it is? Address the topic on your regular status calls or set up a 1-to-1 call right away for the same day. These are the times my colleagues used to stop by my desk and say “Hey Vit, so I was thinking, why don’t we…” I made it more difficult for them to do so by being 8,000 miles away, so it’s my responsibility to let them voice their concerns as soon as possible. At one point, we wanted to try using laptop webcams to capture our facial emotions every minute or so and share it with others across locations, but not everyone liked the idea.
- Get involved in daily topics via team chat
One month after introducing Slack to our company, we got rid of all our internal emails. Instead, more than 300 private group chats and company-wide chat rooms have been created organically by everyone who has something to share. I am invited to dozens of new conversations every week. Although it’s easy to just rush through them right after I wake up (and it’s already 2pm in Europe), I set a regular time during the morning to read through all the important conversations and respond to everything so nobody needs to wait for me more than a few hours. My afternoon hours, when Europe is already asleep, are perfect for brainstorming new ideas and topics that my colleagues will receive when they wake up the next day.
- Frequently report both successes and failures to the entire company
My days in the US are like yours elsewhere. I can celebrate small success every day (“whoa, this new lead seems to be super-excited about Brand Embassy!” or “Looks like I just spoke to our next sales guy in the US!”) but too often I also encounter many failures (a great lead stopped responding, a business partner closed a deal with our competitor, I lost an entire day seeking an opportunity that turned out to be a waste of time). My colleagues need to hear all of that in order to form their own opinion on my value in another market. Therefore I share both my successes and failures with my partner every day (both of us do) and I share the same with relevant team leaders. (Additionally we hold monthly all-hands meetings where each team team shares their top successes and failures with we discuss them all together. “Failing forward” is one of our key values.
- Grow a relevant network through introductions
Cold mailing and cold calling doesn’t work in the US. Every valuable new contact I’ve made has been through a recommendation. My primary group of referrals included our investors, advisory board members, team colleagues and friends. I typically got two or three additional introductions from each meeting I held with relevant contacts. It’s a process that goes on and on. Within three months I’d had more than 30 meetings with leads, partners, investors and job candidates, all through recommendations. The conversion rate to set a meeting, make the meeting on the arranged date and actually have a meaningful follow-up has been roughly 100% higher than it was with cold-call leads. It works.
- Travel home regularly and have fun with your colleagues
I travel home every five weeks for about two weeks. When I am home with my teammates, I spend most of my time with them. Often, we have brainstorming sessions, workshops or team outings so we can do what we couldn’t do effectively when I was away. Although I try to deal with all discussion topics as soon as they come up, sometimes my colleagues want to sit down with me in person. I make sure I have plenty of time in my calendar exactly for this purpose.
- Continuously explore unique local opportunities
I came to a new market for a reason. So every day I work for a few hours on meaningful activities that could not easily be achieved remotely. These are typically meetings with potential customers, partners, job candidates and investors. Sometimes, people are surprised by my willingness to travel to a different city (or even state!) to meet them after a brief connecting call, but face-to-face interaction has proven to be far more efficient in building strong human connections that can then be effectively followed-up on the phone. In many cases my colleagues take over the contacts after my initial meeting and mutual introduction. Having these people meet me in person helps them trust my judgement that introducing more people into our discussion will definitely be worth their time and financial investment.
- Meet new friends, keep an exercise routine and read every day
Last year I read 50 books, exercised twice a week (on average, though not every month — it’s something I need to improve this year), and walked or ran 10 miles a day on average. Living 9 hours behind your family, friends and colleagues actually makes these activities simpler. But it’s very important to stay motivated because sometimes it’s hard to get out of bed and start moving through the daily to-do list. Luckily, I have my family and friends to help with that — they motivate me and I’m glad to spend at least an hour a day on FaceTime with them.
- Don’t write productivity blog posts on Saturday at 6am
Working a lot is great. Seeing great results from your work is even better. But working too much will not make me a great entrepreneur alone. I’m learning this the hard way, by pushing myself every year to work a bit less, to increase my productivity every month and to enjoy what I’m doing every day. Perhaps that’s why I wrote this piece one calm Saturday morning while walking through the streets of Manhattan, watching the sun rise between the tall walls of beautiful skyscrapers while my wife was still sleeping at a hotel a few blocks away. Although my work is super-important, having my family close and being healthy is even more important. Speaking of that, I should get back to my wife now. See you around soon?
A closing note:
Recently, we’ve encountered internal challenges related to our continuous push to add new features to our product based on customer requests. We have a growing need to refactor parts of our existing code, which has caused a number of pretty vivid discussions across our company and led to many bottom-up improvements which have affected all of us. Being half a world away from the epicenter of these changes made me pretty nervous, but it served as a great test for the productivity tips above. I will continue to explore and reiterate them and I am grateful for any of your thoughts and feedback.