Landing US Customers – like Box and Nextdoor – as a UK Startup


Words by Adam Mitcheson, Director, APM International


If you are a UK based startup looking to enter the US market, the first question I would ask is why? Beyond the obvious market size in comparison to the UK and other regions, the reason I ask this is what reason or reasons have you identified to validate the US market as your target for expansion or even early traction? 


Many startups can have a seemingly universal product and appeal to a mass, even global market, yet how they expand and understanding the nuances of a market are crucial to their success. As a UK startup, you will need a compelling reason to attract US customers, especially as a tech business. In California for example, typically the market leader can be located in the same state, city or even town when it comes to tech, so first and foremost, identify what makes your offer more compelling, and also why you are targeting these customers. 


If you are targeting tech businesses, then Silicon Valley makes sense as a location to target, but if you are a fintech, New York might be a better target audience for customers as the US Financial Capital, and even then, if you haven’t sold into and/or cracked the London market, then why are you targeting New York? Don’t let vanity get in the way of smart business decisions. It can be great to have famous logos on your website, but they need to add real value to your business, and vice versa. Which State you target will need consideration too as each state has its own laws, and as a company selling in, you may need to consider local taxes, laws and other implications. GBx is fortunate to have people such as Dan Glazer of WSGR as part of the network. I cannot recommend Dan highly enough as he knows the legal implications between the US and UK better than anyone. 


So, having identified for the right reasons that the US is the next logical step to grow your business, my first recommendation will be to visit if you can, network and build relationships. GBx was integral to the success of my startup, my2be, expanding into the US. Our first major client was Box, which came about having met a fellow GBxer, Ian Storrar at a networking event in San Francisco. Over time, we built a relationship, and then when the timing was right, we were introduced to the right people at Box for us to speak to about our product, eventually successfully closing a deal. Ian then became one of our greatest advocates, and we are now great friends. 


Landing such a prestigious customer was huge for us, but one logo does not guarantee more customers, you need to repeat the steps that lead to successfully securing your first customer whilst also creating and building your US presence. 


This does not mean you have to jump on a plane and move yourself and your family to a new life in the US (although it’s not the worst idea!). You can first do this with a few simple steps to build up your customer base before having some kind of physical presence. Things like a US phone number and even address can be obtained via services – we had a Zoom account and a desk at a WeWork which allowed us to have a US phone number and address we could display on our website and social pages. This also means you can label yourself as based in San Francisco when in reality you are still in the UK. I must say at this point that I’d highly recommend this as an early/temporary measure only, one mistake we made was not setting up physically with boots on the ground earlier. You can also ensure that you are using subtle yet powerful steps such as using US English in all communications (largely a lot of z’s instead of s’s, a confusing date sequence, and some vowel removals e.g. color not colour!) 


Now that you look American, sound American, and have landed your first American customer, you need to build upon this. For us, this allowed us to try cold outreach, and it worked as we landed our next US clients: Nextdoor and Niantic. Once this is happening, that is the right time to seriously consider your actual physical presence in the US and this is where the GBx network is invaluable. Landing those early customers is hugely exciting, but it is also a tremendous amount of work, including customer support, and customer success which many startups overlook or don’t consider this early. We did all of this ourselves, which meant a lot of long hours, managing different time zones, and often working late into the early hours. 


So, if you are at this stage, speak to members in the GBx network that can help you with the decisions: you may be able to set up a remote US CX team in Austin or other ‘satellite cities’ rather than San Francisco, saving money but giving you presence in some format. You may feel the right decision is to move to the Bay Area or not, again, the GBx members have done it, speak to them about this. 


Another reason many founders are looking to expand into the US is they want to attract US investors. However, many of the same reasons for attracting US customers apply to attracting US investors. A GBx investor gave me great advice here that now seems unbelievably obvious; US, especially Silicon Valley investors are probably the most pitched investors in the world, and they don’t need to look outside of the Bay Area, however, if you are gaining traction with US clients, and are building a US presence, suddenly you may look attractive to US investors. Ultimately, you need to give them a reason to look outside of the Bay Area if they are going to invest in a foreign company, and usually this is exceptional traction and growth. 


Successful expansion into the US from the UK as an early stage startup is not easy but it is possible. We signed multiple Silicon Valley PLCs from a kitchen table in Manchester via Zoom, and this is largely thanks to building a network in the US via GBx and visiting in person. If you are looking to expand into the US, I can’t recommend enough joining GBx.