Brits doing business in the USA

By Ian Sanders for British Airways Business Life magazine

Photography by Getty Images

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May 2016

More and more businesses are expanding their reach by setting up shop abroad. We caught up with four British business people making it big in America.

Dave Stewart

Musician, creative entrepreneur, president of Dave Stewart Entertainment, Los Angeles

I've been living here for seven years now. I like being in LA as I'm surrounded by all the companies who make TV, film and music. I'm interested in any projects that involve music — music is what ties all my creative and business interests together.

My advice to a startup or entrepreneur moving to the US is to make sure you visit a few times first. It's very hard to understand a work life from the outside looking in.

  • Dave Stewart: Musician and entrepreneur © Matt Herring

    Dave Stewart

    Half of the 1980s pop duo, Eurythmics, Stewart is a Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter and producer running Dave Stewart Entertainment - an 'ideas factory' and production studio that links creative ideas to a host of projects in music, film, television, books, theatre and new media.

  • Stephen Godfroy: Co-owner, Rough Trade © Matt Herring

    Stephen Godfroy

    Rough Trade started as a west London record shop back in 1983. The business remained small, waiting nearly 25 years before opening its second store in east London. In November 2013 it launched its third store in a 15,000 square foot former warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It's now the biggest record store in New York City.

  • Richard Newton: Co-founder, OP3Nvoice © Matt Herring

    Richard Newton

    Richard worked as a journalist in the UK for six years before entering the tech world and is the author of Stop Talking Start Doing. OP3Nvoice describes itself as a 'conversation intelligence platform', which makes it easier to search for video and audio data.

There certainly are differences between the American and British approach to business. The American attitude means you often get more of a positive reaction to ideas over here. Instead of being greeted with a negative, the company you're pitching to often wants to hear more. After all, unless they listen to your idea, they'll never know if you mightn't be the next Steven Spielberg. So there tends to be a lot more immediate positive response. 

Of course, when you're pitching your idea, what's important is your story. Here in the US, you have to walk in there and know what the story is. For example, if you're selling me a car, don't tell me about the nuts and bolts, tell me the story of 'why and how', of the thinking behind the brand.

Britain is still an incredible place for ideas, the arts and music, especially, when you think how small the country is. With great British creative talent like Ridley Scott, Sam Mendes and Damien Hirst, we've rocked the world in every way. But in the UK I've found it  difficult getting traction on the commerce side. Getting creativity and commerce to collide is easier here: Americans see arts and entertainment as massive business, they understand it.  

Just as British cities like Newcastle and Sunderland built ships, here in Los Angeles they build films, music and TV shows. So many people around me are employed in the entertainment industry, whether they're carpenters or electricians. Here we're in the centre of entertainment — everyone talks the same language, which is great. Just in the street I work on, there are 15 amazing photography studios, 36 recording studios — all in one street. Just like Soho in London, here I have my corner café near where I live that's full of writers working. The city has a real spirit of creativity.

My advice to a startup or entrepreneur coming out here is to make sure you visit a few times first. It's very hard to understand a work life in the US on the outside looking in. Once you're over here, you'll learn so much in your first month.

  • Hopping the pond: Stephen Godfroy divides his time between his two Rough Trade stores in London and his newly opened ‘megastore’ in Brooklyn, New York

Stephen Godfroy

Co-owner, Rough Trade, New York and London

Bringing Rough Trade from Britain to the US continues to be an inspiring journey for us, as we learn as much about ourselves as we do about our new surroundings. As a retailer, the education is priceless, and not just for what you learn about the US, but also what you learn about the UK from a newly gained perspective.

Without doubt, our Britishness — or perhaps our London-ness — is an important characteristic, as it references our heritage and ethos, which in turn underpins brand credibility. Also it helps differentiate Rough Trade from other stores over here as we provide a transatlantic connection with UK music culture. For example, we're introducing a lot of UK artists to the US ahead of any local media coverage.

I'm currently splitting my time between London and New York. My time in New York is gradually evolving away from being a troubleshooter to becoming more akin to the role I have in the UK: less about shaping the present operation, and more about defining the future trajectory of the business.

When I'm here in New York, I live in an apartment next door to our Williamsburg store, so I allow myself to become consumed with work, working longer hours than I would in the UK. Most of my meetings, like in London, are held at the store, so I tend not to venture out unless I'm taking time off for myself or eating out in a work related capacity. Having spent four years working on and off in NYC, I've got to know the city fairly well, but the discoveries and experiences are endless, so I continue to enjoy exploring the boroughs whenever I get the chance.

Our New York staff have had the tough task of having to learn a lot, very quickly, as there's no 'like for like' equivalent of working in a 15,000sq ft Rough Trade store. It combines the scale of a 'megastore' but with the uniqueness, personal attention, edit and expertise of an independent store. Depending on which area of experience staff have had, they usually have to learn the missing half once we've employed them.

I'd say that there are more chances to collaborate and grow a business in the US than back in the UK. Clearly, it depends on many specifics, and a presence in NYC is very different from LA, but if you're looking to bring a UK brand over to the US, I would say that you're 'evolving' a UK brand to suit the US, rather than 'introducing' a UK brand to the US. I've learnt there's a significant difference between the two.

  • The Williamsburg Bridge in New York connects Manhattan with Brooklyn
  • Enjoy business by the beach in Los Angeles

Richard Newton

Co-founder, OP3Nvoice, Austin, Texas

Why did we relocate from London to Austin, Texas? Well, they say everything is bigger in Texas — and we're a startup with ambitions to be big, so we thought we should take a look! More seriously, we wanted to raise funds from US investors and be on the ground as we built relationships with the huge pool of talented software developers based here.

Life in Austin has a lot of advantages — the quality of life, the people, the support for entrepreneurs and of course for a Londoner there's the novelty of year-long sunshine. It's also a great cycling city — you can be out in the surprisingly green hills in no time at all.

Working life is different here because it's an earlier start. People get up early, way earlier than Brits. I'm not a morning person, so am at a disadvantage here. But the other reason for starting early comes down to practical business imperatives: the fact that OP3Nvoice has a lot of business relationships in Europe and beyond demands that we are up and running early. So I'm working on the 'fake it till you make it' approach. And doubling my intake of coffee...

One of the biggest differences in working life is the directness of US business conversations. The average American entrepreneur is a far more confident public speaker and sales person than your average Brit. And that matters a lot. So much of the business of creating a successful and persistent startup is about articulating persuasively the reason why someone should invest in your company or why a superstar developer should work for your share options and not others. If you're already a persuasive public speaker, you're in pole position. 

If you're a British startup thinking of relocating here, then do it. And as soon as possible start making new contacts and doing new activities — such as, for me, joining a regular bike ride. Be wholehearted: there's a great enthusiasm for  innovation and ambition and what you put in will be returned with interest.

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Andy Bird, CBE

Chairman, Walt Disney International, Los Angeles

Bird is responsible for Disney's businesses outside of the United States and, since joining in 2004, he has succeeded in expanding the company's presence around the world. He spends 50 per cent of his time travelling outside the US.

We're very happy living in LA, where we've been for ten years now. The biggest difference about life over here is that most days I wake up and the sun is shining — that means choosing what to wear to the office is easy. Because of the climate I find myself rising a lot earlier than I would in the UK. I tend to wake up at 5 or 5.30am. I also go to bed earlier. Anything after 10pm is a late night.

We live out by the beach between Santa Monica and Malibu. I love the outdoor, health-conscious lifestyle. Sometimes Brits get the wrong idea of Los Angeles, but in reality there are a lot of different LAs. I love the fact that you can be out hiking in the mountains one day and on the beach the next. The city's relationship with Asia Pacific is a real plus, bringing a great cultural diversity. For instance, LA has the second largest Korean population outside of Seoul and the variety of restaurants across the city is huge, including Korean, Ethiopian and Thai.

Of course, there are lots of Brits living and working in LA, especially in the entertainment industry. I network with some of them through organisations such as the British Consulate, which hosts regular events. I'm also chair of the Innovation Awards, which is part of 'Britweek' over here. I love California's can-do attitude, there's so much innovation, not just in entertainment, but also in rising sectors like healthcare. I follow that scene with interest.

Some say the US is the land of opportunity and I think there's a lot to that notion. Career success does seem easier: if you're prepared to work hard, you get rewarded. I think there's less cynicism than in the UK. In business here, failure is more accepted, it can be like a badge of honour.

When I was based in London, I worked for a US organisation, so I didn't have too many surprises when I relocated here, I already understood a lot of those American cultural nuances. The biggest adjustment was in my family settling in to life in the USA. Then there's the traffic. My commute to work can be unpredictable — in LA we measure journeys in time, not distance.

I do still miss the UK but of course it's easy to follow British news and business over here. I read most of the UK broadsheet newspapers on a daily basis.

It's hard to compare the UK and the US — they're very different countries. Just in sheer size, they feel so different — California's GDP makes it the world's eighth largest economy. What advice would I offer a British executive relocating to the US? Work hard, do your homework and don't be afraid of failure.