How Journey to U.S. Makes International Startups More Resilient
Leaders of several innovative companies reflect on the value of global perspectives and share tips for changing the tech game
During the past several years of the ongoing, international tech renaissance, countless startups have brought their ideas and products stateside from across the globe, carrying with them a range of innovations, earned perspectives, and origin stories. With a successful 2014 squared away, five companies — including Fever, Voiceboard, and The Next Web — weighed in on what they’ve learned from taking on the U.S. market.
Chordify hails from the Netherlands and Oxford, U.K., and has already collected Shell LiveWIRE and Deloitte Rising Star awards, among others. With a free version and a recently launched premium service available, the platform allows both amateur and professional musicians to create chord transpositions from played music (digital or live) in almost real time.
Co-founder Gijs Bekenkamp explained that his team has been thrilled to bring the product to U.S. markets because, “aside from the fact that there isn’t another serious company out there that [performs this service],” their product offers homegrown “simplexity,” or state-of-the-art technology with the user-friendliest of interfaces.
For Bekenkamp, the Netherlands is “a small country with enormous potential,” and which offers ample government support for new tech; with 10 innovation hubs situated within a two-hour train ride from one another (Chordify’s hometowns of Utrecht and Groningen among them), the nation is “seen by many as the gateway to the rest of the world,” he noted, “where fast-growing tech companies (such as Twitter, Uber, and Tesla) choose to have their European headquarters.”
“I think beginning a startup is like running a rock band,” he said. “You’re with a small team trying to achieve a common goal together [… and] all team members share the belief that it might be successful.” While his team has encountered some challenges approaching the U.S. market — which currently accounts for 25 percent of Chordify’s traffic — he says his advice would be the same to all future startups, regardless of national origin:
It is a hectic ride to run an internationally orientated start-up. All of a sudden you have 200+ markets where you want to become the most relevant party but is is key that you do not forget to celebrate the successes you have already achieved!
Originating from the same hub-filled zone, Amsterdam-based thought leadership group The Next Web (TNW) is also thankful for its team’s international perspective. Responsible for a web innovation blog and annual industry events on three continents, the team points to the “incredibly international” young tech scene in Amsterdam as having supported its success. Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten, TNW CEO and co-founder, explained,
As a European company, you’ve generally entered a vast number of varied markets before you’ve made it to the states, [and developed] significant localization, a deep awareness of very different cultures, and a honed ability when it comes to working remotely in foreign markets.
While 90 percent of Dutch nationals can hold a conversation in English, Veldhuijzen van Zanten said, the city’s multicultural dynamic — supported by 180 nationalities, thus making it “the physical incarnation of a global village” — helped inspire he and co-founder Patrick de Laive to identify the need for “an independent, international, and proudly opinionated media outfit with remarkable perspectives on technology.” At the same time, the city’s “history of alternative and liberal ways of life,” prominent “artistic and counter-cultural population,” and admiration for innovation remind him of “early San Francisco hacker communities” a proved conducive to start-up life. He added,
The U.S. is such a big domestic market for so many companies, it’s easy for technology publications and media houses to get stuck in a cycle of thinking solely about internal affairs. While it’s true that nothing can compare to the monolith that is Silicon Valley, there is so much diversity across the rest of the world worth knowing about.
About 2,000 miles east of busy Amsterdam, the North Yerevan living room of Nigel Sharp served as the launchpad for he and his team members’ co-founding of Lionsharp. After leaving his position with Tumo, a creative technology center, Sharp and his peers worked from his home (“over home-cooked soup daily”) to brainstorm “bigger and bigger visions for the company” than simple IT consultancy.
The Armenian startup recently released Voiceboard, “the world’s first gesture and voice controlled presentation solution” and which supplements speakers’ naturally engaging gestures with high-tech help. After a three-country tour, receiving €25k in investment funding, and registering in the Bulgarian Eleven accelerator, the team began promoting its Voiceboard pack overseas, with stop-overs in New York and London.
Sharp explained that, while Armenia “is at the infancy” of creating a startup culture, “the daily mindset of a local Armenian is naturally very entrepreneurial.” In 2014, he said, the first Armenian VC and virtual accelerator were established, and Yerevan’s Microsoft Innovation Center announced an early-seed investment program for start-ups in the area.
While the Republic of Armenia has “a very strong and diverse diaspora with great links to the West,” Sharp noted that companies are charged with “building trust” with other nations, as the country’s track record of outside investment is “plagued with corruption and losses.” With recent government moves toward developing the tech sector and expanding open internet underway, however, Sharp hopes that the country’s budding tech sector will help strengthen the economy overall, but also its global standing:
We seem to be at the beginning of an explosion of new creativity and opportunities. It’s such a positive sector to be in, and offers hope to a young generation who at times are lost with what to do in a challenging country such as Armenia and instead are slowly being inspired to stay and build globally relevant organizations.
Stephan Starke, co-founder of next-gen photo app Hellow, sees a bright future for startups on his home turf, too: “The tech culture in Mexico is growing by day. It’s still at an early stage, [but we’re] one of the strongest countries in this segment in Latin America.” He added that “there’s a lot of great talent, with high capacity to innovate and compete worldwide.”
When capturing and sharing a photo didn’t work anymore, we decided to create an app for storytellers […] Creating, with your friends, chapters of life in motion; the idea is not what counts, but the people who built it.
Built in Mexico and helped by a Bay Area accelerator program in late 2014, Hellow has benefited from leveraging tech opportunities internationally; ultimately, Starke said, “the challenges and advantages [they] had were pretty much the same for all start-ups, regardless [of native] country.”
Like Starke, many developers credit the similarities between their home countries and the U.S. — rather than their differences — as aiding success. Pep Gómez, founder and CEO of Spanish startup Fever, grew up in the small city of Castellón but quickly realized that a certain problem was affecting young urbanites everywhere:
People in the U.S. and Spain alike are spoilt for choice. Just like all other 21-year-olds, I like to do things in my free time but am often overwhelmed by the amount of information out there. Nothing is personalized and current platforms don’t know you.
With this realization, Gómez “saw an opportunity to create a social marketplace that provides good curated content, tailored to your likes and those of your friends,” and set out to create “a good recommendation algorithm [with] a social component.”
With a framework similar to Twitter’s, Fever aims to “ensure people are offered good content and are aware of what the people they care about like to do in their free time, [and get each] person engaged and interested in going to an event and booking through our app in 2 clicks. It’s all about FOMO,” he added.
Gómez noted that Spain is “a very entrepreneurial country,” full of “young, energetic,” and talented engineers; he points to mentor Bernardo Hernández — who’s served as Director of Product Management at Google, Managing Director at Zagat, and head of Flickr at Yahoo Spain — as “a great example of how our tech culture is influencing the world.” While Gómez is grateful for the opportunities, leadership, and backing he’s received from pillars of Silicon Valley and elsewhere, he also appreciates that Spanish entrepreneurs “don’t just leave Spain and forget about it; we like to see our startups flourish at home as well and hire local talent.”
With seven years of tech start-up experience behind him, Gómez has several key points of advice for new arrivals to the field:
International startups have proven themselves to be equally or more successful than U.S.-born startups. The U.S. market is tough. Everyone knows that. We had defined a set of steps that could be carried out regardless of what city we launched in […] Having a bulletproof action plan is extremely important.
[It’s also] important is to hire strong local talent wherever you go. Also, meet as many people [as you can] from companies whose growth strategies are similar to yours […] there are people who have been in your situation before and you’d be surprised how helpful they are (as long as you don’t compete, of course!).