THE AMERICAN DREAM (column) - Developing a business in America

Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 11/82 item 01 - scanned

America, according to its self-international markets with our publicity, is the land of opportunity, the place where anyone can make it good providing they have something to offer and are prepared to work hard enough. Indeed, many Britons have fared rather well over that side of the pond - Adam Osborne springs to mind, as well as old timers like Cary Grant and Bob Hope. Silicon valley seems to be littered with expatriate Britons, all carving themselves enriching little niches in the New World.

But what about those of us left behind? We in this country have much to offer the world's largest market, especially when it comes to microcomputing. Through years of making expensive but piddly little machines stand on their heads, we have developed computing skills of a very high order. Many of us would love to take advantage of this national strength - possibly Britain's best potential revenue earner - and, Goodness knows, we need that. Unfortunately, many people who have travelled to America have decided that they would prefer to operate from this country. Some have already succeeded. David Levy, for example, has pulled off some very nice deals for his company's chess programs. There's no doubt, though, that most British successes are chalked up by those who open American offices - Micro Focus, Sinclair and The Last One are but three of these.

But what about you and me? My company's experiences are highly relevant in this context. We decided that we needed to go for the international markets with our software offerings. The key reason was that with the bigger customer base, we'd be able to spread the cost of product development better and therefore be able to price our products competitively. Having decided on this approach, it seemed sensible to go for the US market first, closely followed by the UK. Rightly or wrongly, that's exactly what we did.

The first thing we did was decide to start with advertising before going over there. We kicked off by exhibiting at a major show, decided who we wanted our major clients to be and visited them. We advertised in InfoWorld on the grounds that it is popular with both the trade and with consumers. We booked a booth (they're not called stands in America) at the West Coast Computer Faire and made a few appointments with potential clients. We think the approach worked. I say "think" because there's no way of measuring what might have happened had we done things differently. At least people came to see us at the Faire because they'd seen the ads and potential clients realised we were for real when they saw the booth. Anyway, the upshot was that we initialised a number of deals, some of which we had not even considered possible, so from that point of view the show was a good idea. In fact just one of these unplanned deals virtually covered the cost of the trip.

What's happened since has convinced us that there's really no substitute for actually being there, especially if you want things to move quickly. For a start, I'll swear that half the Americans I've telephoned didn't even know you could call another continent. "Are you really calling from England. Gee, this is my first-ever transatlantic call." It's true, someone really said that. In general, it's no good asking someone to call you back. Some of them will forget the time difference and call you at three in the morning, others will just not bother. Be prepared for a pretty astronomical telephone bill if you want to get serious with our US friends. Be prepared, too, for nothing to happen unless you force the issue. Their natural wild enthusiasm for doing deals turns to apathy the moment you set foot on the aeroplane home. For example, a number of companies loaded themselves up with "evaluation copies" of our products and, promising signed contracts "within two weeks", went quiet. Telephone calls a month later unearthed the fact that they couldn't get the programs going. A suggestion that they read page one of the manual was usually all that was needed to get them started on their "evaluations". It didn't occur to any of them to call us.

And why the heck should they make the effort? We're a long way away and there are plenty of opportunities right there on their doorsteps, and people who can hustle them daily. The answer is, of course, that they need our products (yours and mine) but don't realise it. If you don't believe that then you may as well forget about selling in America. A few hundred pounds' worth of phone calls will move the more enthusiastic Americans nearer to a deal and, in really exceptional circumstances, you might even get a signed contract this way. The less exceptional people can only be converted by another face-to-face. That means another trip and you may begin to wonder by then whether the whole exercise is worth the effort and expense. One company needed four face-to-face sessions, involving something like 100,000 miles of travel, before the signatures ended up on what was essentially a very straightforward contract. Now, some seven months after that first visit, we still have a couple of deals "in progress".

So, be prepared for things to happen very slowly if you're not on the spot to drive them through. Be prepared, too, to make all the running even if it does mean astronomical 'phone bills and a certain amount of pride-swallowing. If you want the business badly enough, this seems to be the only way to achieve it short of actually being there. It is well worth going over every few months to massage your contacts and to move your deals along. At least when you are there you are taken seriously and you can advance each cause with just a few hours' effort..

America does offer UK resident companies a chance to stimulate a significant flow of dollars back across the Atlantic. In general, any deal you can make in America is worth more than its equivalent in other countries. And it can be done from the UK with regular visits, plenty of phone calls and a lot of patience.