Atlantic Crossings


By British Airways Business Life magazine

Photography by Joshua Haviv /Fotolia

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May 2016

Discover six stories of Brits doing business in the USA and Americans the same in the UK.

Amazing things can happen when you fly to the other side of the Pond, no matter which continent you start on. Just ask these six successful businesspeople who've made the change...

LA has allowed me to create a lifestyle brand that needs to change and evolve and it has also allowed be to be very unafraid of making mistakes

Eileen Burbidge

Chicago-born Eileen Burbidge spent ten years in the San Francisco Bay Area working for the likes of Apple and Sun before moving to London to work for the then fledgling Skype in 2004. Twelve years on, she has become a leading figure in the capital's tech scene. She is a partner at VC firm Passion Capital, chair of Tech City UK, and the UK Treasury's special envoy for fintech.

I really did think I would be in the Bay Area for the rest of my career. It's the epitome of a tech ecosystem and a mecca for tech geeks. But I think after being in London for a while I started to feel that Silicon Valley was a bit too insular, and that there was a lot more to cultivate here in the UK for me both as an individual and as a fund manager or private investor. There's much greater upside in what's being created here — so much more to build, so much more to do, and so much more value to be created.

Business is different here. Generally speaking there's slightly less risk-taking in the UK than in the US. And it's also less natural for people in Britain to beat their chest and pound their fist on the table and boast about what they're doing. There's more of an appreciation for subtlety and a way of doing business that might be perceived as less aggressive. I don't think people are less ambitious here than they are in the States but they can be perceived as such because of their style.

A lot of companies in the Bay Area get created because it's a lifecycle that feeds on itself. If hundreds or thousands of employees of Facebook become millionaires, they then invest in a friend's business even if it's only ten grand or whatever. We don't have that culture yet here. And in the States you see venture capitalists or tech founders on the cover of Time magazine and other big periodicals. But you don't see the same kind of exposure or familiarity here. You don't see the founders of ARM, which is one of the most successful tech businesses in the world, on the cover of mainstream magazines — they're not being talked about and there aren't feature-length Hollywood films about their journey.

I love the diversity of London — of cultures, nationalities, food, music. It's a genuinely rich and vibrant city, one of the best cities in the world. People in the US tend to think only about the US market, but as soon as you come to the UK, you realise there's so much more to life than one country. You think more globally.

PS What's been the biggest culture shock?

The thing I still can't get my head around is when you go and get petrol, you fill up and then you have to go in and pay. As long as I've had my driver's licence in America, you pay at the pump with your debit card. There are a few garages like that here, but literally about five in all of London. Is it because they're trying to sell more goods in the petrol station?

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  • Eileen Burbidge, chair of Tech City UK © Business Life
  • Christopher Wilcox, Natural Curiosities © Business Life
  • Jani Guest, managing director of Independent Films © Business Life

Christopher Wilcox

Christopher Wilcox grew up in Cornwall and Oxford. At the age of 19 he moved to London and embarked on a career as an antiquarian book dealer specialising in titles from the 15th and 16th century. His work took him regularly to the US, and he moved permanently to Los Angeles 12 years ago. His company, Natural Curiosities, has evolved into a 'creative living lifestyle brand' dealing in art, fashion, music and design. The company has invested heavily in its online presence in the last 18 months and is also due to open a new flagship store on LA's La Cienega this month.

California is oozing with creativity and that is what I am tapping into in my work. It is like no other place I have ever been to. There is this beautiful freedom of expression where you can come here without necessarily knowing exactly what you're going to do but there's no negative energy coming at you from other people. It's 'Try it. And if it doesn't work, try something else.' I find that extremely liberating in the creative process.

There's a certain mindset in England. It's still very creative but it wouldn't allow me to grow what I have in America because of the old school approach of just 'getting the job done' and knowing what you're going to be doing from the time you leave school or university, and then just doing it until you get your pension.

LA has allowed me to create a lifestyle brand that needs to change and evolve and it has also allowed me to be very unafraid of making mistakes. I just don't think I would have been able to do that in England. Here there is an absolute zest for creativity and an ability to think on multiple levels about multiple different business ideas. And there's the opportunity to push those through and for them to be accepted and celebrated.

Right now California must be one of the most influential locations in the world. There are just so many different creative realms that are breaking the rules of what traditional business is. There's a flair for a new way of doing business, with creativity at the forefront. It's almost a rewriting of how business is done and how business can succeed — by pushing yourself to discover what it is you want and to go for it. You have to listen to the little voice in your head that tells you there is a different way to the way that you've been told. California is the home of that thinking.

PS What's been the biggest culture shock?

To be able to go to the supermarket and do my grocery shopping and walk into Brad Pitt. Back in England, I just used to see the celebrity world through the television. Now I'm living that life for real.

Jani Guest

Jani Guest worked in photography and graphic design in Los Angeles before moving to London in 1995 as an executive producer for a film production company. In the two decades that have followed she has been responsible for some of the UK's highest profile commercial advertising films and has established a reputation for bringing big name American directors to the UK. She is currently managing director of Independent Films.

When I arrived in London I didn't know a soul. Culturally it was a bit of a shock because the British and Americans are very different in terms of how they respond to ideas and how quickly they trust people. In the US, if you are intelligent and articulate and driven, doors open very quickly and relationships can be formed. In the UK my experience has been that when people trust you, that lasts for a very long time, but it takes them quite some time to make that investment with you. It took me six to nine months to form relationships. I had to keep on going back to prove myself.

I think the choice of working in London depends on your personality. My experience has been that the production company community in London is very friendly and supportive towards each other, whereas in the US market there is a fierce competitive nature to relationships and that's just not me. London is a fantastic place to live. I've had many offers to go back to America and it always takes me about 20 seconds to say no.

PS What's been the biggest culture shock?

I'm still astonished by the pub culture. In my business there are still people who go to the pub at 12.30 for a pint of Guinness and then go back to their desks. I mean, that would never ever happen in America!

  • Brad McDonald, executive chef of The Lockhart and Shotgun © Business Life
  • Ruzwana Bashir, founder and CEO of Peek.com © Business Life
  • Jules Ehrhardt, co-owner at ustwo © Business Life

Brad McDonald

Brad McDonald was born and raised in Mississippi. After university he embarked on a peripatetic culinary career that finally took him to New York. He brought his 'farm to table' ethos to three new openings in Brooklyn, but disaster struck in October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy flooded Governor, his modern American fine dining restaurant, leading to its closure. Eight months later he moved to London, where he is now executive chef of The Lockhart and new opening Shotgun.

My wife and I decided to leave New York and seek out a new adventure. I saw it as a learning experience but also as a chance to move to a foreign country. When my initial contract was coming to a close, we decided that we liked it and decided to stay.

I think London is a good place to spend your life in your 30s, particularly professionally. I like the sense of community where I live in east London. We're on Columbia Road, so a flower market pops up on our street every Sunday. Maybe London is a little bit more romantic for us than we found New York to be. My main advice to other chefs coming here from the US would be to come with an original idea.

PS What's been the biggest culture shock?

I wish the English would eat with their hands a bit more! I run two restaurants that are predicated on comfort food and a lot of times that involves picking something up with your hands and putting it in your mouth. I'll often walk into the restaurant dining room and see that people are eating fried chicken with a fork and knife!

Ruzwana Bashir

Ruzwana Bashir grew up in Yorkshire and studied PPE at Oxford University, where she was president of the Union. After stints at Goldman Sachs and Blackstone, she did an MBA at Harvard and then threw herself into the startup world in New York. The difficulties of arranging a trip to Istanbul gave her the idea for Peek.com, a travel website offering hand-picked tours and activities both at home and abroad. She founded the company in San Francisco in 2012.

I moved to San Francisco after business school with a single suitcase. I hadn't intended to stay in America. I thought I would just learn some skills that I could take back to England. But once I decided to build a startup, I realised that America, and specifically San Francisco, really has a much richer ecosystem, which impacts the overall success of starting a business.

First off, there are a lot of investors based in San Francisco, which means there's access to capital. And then there's really great talent. There aren't that many places in the world where people have built multi-billion-dollar companies, but there's a real concentration of those people here. The third benefit is all the knowledge sharing that goes on. People are more than happy to share their tips on things that they tested that did or didn't work. The community is very open, so you can learn a lot from others as it's a very collaborative culture. That's ultimately what makes San Francisco special.

Businesswise, I think Americans tend to be more direct than Brits might be and probably are a little bit more aggressive in terms of wanting to get things done. And they're much more willing to admit that they have big ambitions. I think in the UK we prefer to be understated, whereas people in the States are more frank about what they want to achieve. There are different attitudes to startups as well. The idea of failure is still something that's pretty scary in a UK context. It's perceived very badly, whereas in the States it doesn't have the same level of stigma. Trying and failing is seen in a more positive light, and people are much more willing to go for grand, ambitious projects.

I love being in San Francisco and being part of a community that aims to have a big impact on the world. Another plus is that the sun always seems to be shining. As a Brit used to rainy days, this upside on the weather was a real focal point in the early days!

PS What's been the biggest culture shock?

I'm always surprised by how much the entire service culture in the US revolves around what the consumer wants. It's wonderful once you get used to it, but initially the idea of ordering any food you want without any thought about the menu seemed really strange to me. I remember going for brunch and a friend asking for an extra egg in an omelette. I was thinking, what do you mean, an extra egg? My perspective was: 'They've told you what's available and that's all you can have'. As a Brit you don't expect to be able to have something different to what's been advertised, but in the States there's a focus on always finding a way to make the customer happy.

Jules Ehrhardt

Jules Ehrhardt grew up in Wimbledon, south London. After graduating from Newcastle University, he lived and worked in Japan and Australia before returning to the UK and joining digital product studio ustwo in London six years ago. The company currently has around 300 staff in four countries and partners with leading brands such as Google, Sony and Barclays as well as startups to develop new products and services. He moved to New York three and a half years ago with his family to establish and grow ustwo's US operations.

Every ambitious British company looks toward the US, especially in tech. So around five years ago we started exploring what we could do in the US market. We conducted 18 months of research, heavily informed by several trade missions to New York, Boston, LA, San Francisco and Austin with UK Trade & Investment. These were integral in helping us establish our footing in the US. The entrepreneurial instinct is to always try and do it all yourself and not expect help from government. But we found with international expansion, UKTI was key with advisors in major cities, market knowledge and senior contacts in every field.

In the end we decided to start our US journey in New York, for several reasons. The time difference of five hours allowed us to collaborate and lean on the resources of our London studio in the crucial early stages. Travel-wise the flight is relatively short and inexpensive and culturally, New York has a lot more in common with London than it does with San Francisco. I believe it's more of a shock for someone from San Francisco to land in New York than it is for someone from London.

I love working in New York. I'm quite an outgoing, upfront person, which seems to be the New York spirit. Business is more direct than it is in London, people like to get deals done and things happens at a faster pace. People are also far happier to connect you to their network. You'll have a meeting and pretty quickly that will lead to four introductions. In London, people play their cards more closely to their chests, whereas in the States they're happy to facilitate each other's success a bit more.

Even though I'm London born and raised, I'd have to say that New York is the most exciting city on the planet to live, work and play in. It has everything and it has it on tap 24 hours. You can feel the energy as you walk the streets. Most people come to New York to try and make their 'something' happen - there's a sense of challenge in the air. For me, that challenge has been everything I imagined - and far more.

PS What's been the biggest culture shock?

Trying to get my head around the tipping culture. The basics of how much to drop the barista or barman are fine, but running into the holiday season at the end of the year you get to nannies, teachers, concierges and maintenance staff, even barbers. It's bewildering. Suddenly you're dropping thousands of dollars in tips for people you've already been paying for the last 12 months!

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