Even with the rise of markets like the EU, India and China, the US remains a significant market for UK businesses. It’s the largest single export market for the UK and offers a host of exciting opportunities. However, expanding to establish yourself in this competitive and fragmented market should not be undertaken lightly.
Our company has operated successfully from the UK, addressing the professional services sector since 2011. The internet allows us to demonstrate our product with customers around the world. This has given us plenty of experience of selling to countries as diverse as Columbia and Vietnam from our UK base.
However, looking across the Atlantic, the US offered a target market eight to ten times the size of the UK, which was a tempting prospect. But to exploit the US opportunity to the full, we knew we’d need to have a physical presence and a strategic goal to make it our largest operating market.
Expanding into a new geography takes a lot of investment and risk. We asked ourselves which would be a better option for growth in our business: to do something new in the UK market? Or to export what we’re doing here to the US? When the answer was the latter, we knew it was the right time to expand into the US.
Challenges of operating in the US
Technological advances have removed many of the barriers that previously hindered entrance to new markets. However, there are still challenges that foreign businesses have to overcome to be successful in the US.
From experience, SMEs often wrongly assume the US is a ‘single’ market, but the reality is that it’s more like a continent of country-like states, each with its own market and nuanced culture that must be navigated if you are to connect with customers. Then you also need to factor in that the US has nine standard time zones, so dealing with clients all around the country can be difficult to manage while also taking care of things in your home market.
So, rather than look at the country as a whole, we focused on the regions where the bulk of our customers would come from. The East Coast and the North East are home to huge numbers of consultancy firms, so it made sense to concentrate there first rather than spread ourselves too thinly.
Recruiting in the US is also challenging if your business will be operating in multiple states. The legal requirements, tax framework and employment legislation are different for each state. So companies must prepare themselves for the complexity involved. For instance, there’s always the mild frustration of having to have local lawyers for each of the different states you operate in.
Despite it being the smallest part of the business at the time I, as one of the founders, along with some of our best performing staff, focused on the US market.
Having founded, grown and sold several consultancies over the years, I’ve seen businesses send less senior staff or employ local talent to facilitate entry into the US. This makes it difficult to instil the same passion and know-how in the team you are assembling in the US as you have in your HQ.
That’s why we often have our all US staff join us in the UK for a short period to meet with the UK team and some US staff (visa permitting) for longer periods and feel like they’re really part of the whole. These things go a long way to establishing a robust and passionate team.
Regarding Kimble, integrating the teams ensures the UK and US operating models and culture are closely linked but also demonstrates to the UK team how serious we are about our US strategy. In our case, given the size of the US market, we needed to make it our primary focus and having a permanent and functioning presence on the ground, as we do in the UK, is vital in maintaining strong client relationships and cultivating networks,
We’ve enjoyed a lot of success in the US, with many major client wins. And last year we became a key strategic partner with Sage, augmenting their best-in-class accounting solution, Sage Live for consulting organisations. Wins like these are the result of paying close attention to the US market and having a regional presence there. We have found this to be particularly useful in differentiating ourselves in the regions we operate in. People like dealing with locals or with companies that are invested in their communities.
But maintaining momentum means that you need to continue to cultivate relationships indefinitely. It’s no good just having an office in the US. As the business owner and senior member of staff, you can’t just visit bi-annually and then go back to your home market ignoring the vital relationships you need to nurture to make headway in the US – it’s an ongoing task.
Get this right, and you’ll have no shortage of friendly contacts willing to offer support and advocate for your company, as we can attest to.
By Mark Robinson, co-founder and chief marketing officer of professional services automation provider Kimble Applications