Tell us a bit about you.
I’m a Canadian who has worked for many years in the US, most recently in the Bay Area with start-ups and small business in diverse fields looking to break into the US market and get funding here.
And we’ve convinced you to talk to us anonymously so you can speak more plainly than you might otherwise.
That, and I like to remain an International Moose of Mystery.
A fitting title. Ok, let’s start back in Canada. What should every start-up do before coming to the Valley?
Establishing yourself and your business in Canada first is a requirement. If you don’t already have a proven track record in Canada you’re at a significant disadvantage. You should also look to have some traction in other parts of the US.
It’s exciting to be here, but the Bay Area is a harsh environment. If this is your first international sale, it will be very challenging because you’re competing against all the highest-flying start-ups that are established here. You need to prove you already understand the US market.
For example, if you’re a start-up in Vancouver doing food delivery, don’t just sell to 20 restaurants in Vancouver and then try to come here, but scale closer to home first. Grow a customer base in Bellingham and Seattle to show you understand how to operate in an American environment.
You have to come with success that people here can relate to, you mean.
Exactly. Start-ups come here for fundraising — and that makes sense — but for those trying to establish partnerships or grow a customer base they need to show that they have a record of success that is relatable here.
Aim to arrive as a proven idea that resonates with Americans. If you meet with a VC and say you have your product in 15 Canadian Tires, that won’t mean much because many of them have no idea what Canadian Tire is. Is it, what, a tire store? Nobody here knows. We sometimes forget that Canadians have this frame of familiarity that only extends to the border, so being able to give an example of how you’ve cracked a US or international brand is key.
That’s one drawback of coming from a different market. Is there a way peoplcan use being Canadian to their advantage?
It’s a big advantage because we’re well educated about what’s going on in the rest of the world, which allows you to just talk with people and build relationships with them. Canadians bring a modest personality to the table and it’s a charming interpersonal soft skill that makes them likable. It’s always valuable to have good conversations and let people talk about themselves and where they’re from, and we have these little invisible parachutes that help us be friendly, good conversationalists.
Anything we shouldn’t talk about?
Nobody wants to hear about the NHL, or Tim Hortons. Really. I’ve seen people watching the Habs in the playoffs at an event where they should be networking. Don’t do that!
With sports generally, actually, it’s pretty diluted here. The tech ecosystem doesn’t have enough of a critical mass of people from the US that care about American sports.
No sports then. What are other common mistakes you see people make, and how can they avoid them?
The biggest one is not doing enough research and not having a targeted enough pitch. I see start-ups have one single approach to every target and investor and don’t dig deeply enough into who the audience is and what they want. They arrive and have identified the top 5 VCs and go in with the same story to each one without taking the time to find out about the firm’s business. They talk about how the VC is useful to them when they should be figuring out how their start-up can bring value to the firm.
I get emails all the time saying, “I’m coming to the Valley next week, tell me who I should meet with.” I shouldn’t have to tell you that, you should be telling me! (Here’s a great article about how to do that.) And you should also tell me why it’s a good use of their time to meet with you. Learn how to explain what you do and what the value is for the company in a way that makes sense to an outsider, because most people are outsiders to the niche you’re in.
The emails you describe sound kind of like sending the same resume to every job ad without changing it first.
Just like that. If you send me an email and tell me you have this great idea and want me to help you talk to Google, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, Samsung, etc. I know immediately you haven’t done your research because these are very different companies with different areas of focus. If you’re asking to talk to Sergey Brin, or just “Google,” it’s hard for me or other people to help you because it’s not targeted enough.
And you have to be a bit lucky to get to the right people at the right time, you have to know if a company is even looking to invest in the kind of product you have right now. Big companies don’t just randomly invest in small companies, they partner strategically to grow parts of their business that are a priority that year, that quarter. You need to know that too.
How can people figure out who they need to speak to?
It’s not easy, but Canadians wanting to break into the Valley should come down regularly and just network without desperation. People tend to expect things too quickly, expect deals to happen right away, but it takes time to build up credibility and trust here. It’s like dating. You don’t set up a blind date and then expect to get married and buy a house on date #2. There is no shortcut into these things.
Go to a bunch of events where it isn’t so high pressure and you’re just meeting and talking to people. Figure out how to get around. The C100 Valley 101 and Canadians in Tech meet-ups are very casual and you’ll meet people who want to help Canadians. There are also lots of tech and VC meet ups happening all the time.
Add the people you meet on LinkedIn and, eventually, the six degrees of Kevin Bacon thing kicks in and you’ve developed a network organically. This is a closely connected area, so even if you don’t meet the person you want to meet right away, you will likely meet someone who can introduce you.
Do you have any practical advice people may not have thought of that they should?
San Francisco is actually quite far for many people in the Valley and people aren’t in San Francisco all the time, so it’s inconvenient to get together for a quick breakfast or something. Often Canadians don’t understand just how big the Valley is. Even in bigger cities like Toronto, everyone works downtown or in very specific places, but here people are spread out all over the place. You could be driving all day for two or three meetings.
The Caltrain is your friend if you can figure out the schedule and the shuttles. It’s a great way to hedge against traffic.