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In pursuit of the American dream

Fifteen years ago, Europe’s most ambitious tech entrepreneurs had but one option.

To relocate.

A scarcity of talent, funding and customers forced those building the next era-defining businesses to cross the Atlantic, often from day one.

Fast forward to 2020, and a Silicon Valley zip code is no longer a prerequisite for success.

Thanks to the efforts of founders, policymakers, educators and regulators – to name but a few – Europe’s tech ecosystem is thriving.

Just this summer, two of its brightest stars, Adyen and Spotify, reached $50bn valuations.

In fact, far from being an obstacle to overcome, establishing a business on the continent can now be an advantage. Technical talent is more available and affordable, employees tend to be more loyal, and in sectors such as finance, luxury, travel, and gaming, Europe’s rich heritage gives it a competitive edge.

But while a wholesale relocation may no longer be necessary, accessing America’s tech-savvy customers remains a critical step in achieving global success.

Nowhere is this more true than in the case of B2B software. A more conservative corporate culture when it comes to adopting new technologies has been a significant growth barrier for founders looking for early-adopter clients in Europe, compared to innovation-hungry corporations in the US.

Which means there will always be a drive, and a need, for many founders to strike out in pursuit of the American dream.

The difference today is that there are now many more ways in which they might do so.

Expanding to the US is no mean feat, a fact we know only too well at Index Ventures, having helped 40 of our own portfolio companies to make the move, as well as taking on the task ourselves when we established our own operations in San Francisco 9 years ago.

Our experience has shown us the importance of having a ‘guide’ on the journey. Knowing how, why, and where others have succeeded, as well as the obstacles they faced, is invaluable as you take your first steps in America’s ultra-competitive marketplace.

Which is why we undertook extensive research into the expansion strategies employed by Europe’s most successful transatlantic tech unicorns. Using surveys, case studies, and business model analysis for over 275 firms, we have developed an essential guide to help pioneering founders as they venture across the Atlantic for the very first time.

Our overwhelming conclusion is that there is no longer a single roadmap for success. Indeed, we have identified four clear business archetypes, which should guide and define the best approach for each business – from when and where to expand, to the constitution of the team needed in-market.

Identifying which of these four archetypes best represents your company should now be the first step for any founder, as they begin their journey to the US:

  • The Anchor – “Tethered, like an anchor, in Europe”. Businesses that target 15-30% of their global revenues from the States should stay anchored to Europe, but build an autonomous sales operation stateside. This can involve a trade-off between securing local market knowledge, and ensuring new employees are a good cultural fit – a challenge that businesses such as TransferWise resolved by sending a ‘landing team’ from their European HQ to make the first, crucial local hires.

  • The Pendulum – “Distributed customers, distributed organisation”. Companies with between 30-50% of their market and target revenues in the US need to maintain balance between the two continents. The company’s CEO might move to the US, or criss-cross the Atlantic, but this will likely be later in the journey. Other leadership roles will be spread between the US and Europe. Spotify is a good example of this business model, with the States now responsible for over a third of its revenues. Having originally drawn back from US expansion because of financial constraints, Spotify made its first US hire in 2010. By then, it had also shifted its commercial hub to London, while maintaining an R&D base in Stockholm. Its proven scale in Europe helped ensure that US record-labels appreciated its potential.

  • The Compass – “Built in Europe, sold in the US”. Where the US clearly represents >50% of the target market, companies need to make the US their new ‘true north’. While the bulk of R&D remains in Europe, the CEO will relocate to the US soon after proving product/market fit, building the rest of the leadership and go-to market teams stateside, to focus on achieving growth there.

  • The Telescope – “Focus on US, through a lens in Europe”. More recent distribution models, such as app platforms and self-serve software, has allowed some European startups to function like telescopes – zooming into the US market and winning customers entirely remotely. Gaming companies like King, as well as Pipedrive in software, have followed this model successfully. Strategic partnerships may be in the US, but the rest of the leadership team tends to remain in Europe.

Once you’ve discovered your archetype (and we’ve built an app to help you do just that), it will inform your future decisions about how to expand. There are many questions to be answered, from when and where to go, who should be the first boots-on-the-ground, and what is the optimal approach to culture, communication and cohesion.

These elements of execution are critical.

Expand too soon and you risk spreading yourself too thin – failing in the US, and losing leadership in Europe.

Expand too late, however, and you could have handed US market leadership to a competitor, who is later able to challenge you back in Europe too.

Knowing the paths that like-minded businesses have followed can set you up for success – and so we have tackled each of these questions in detail in our new handbook.

In the current climate, it may appear that Europe’s startups are more likely to be doubling down on existing markets, than seeking to expand. But the creativity and resilience of our brilliant entrepreneurs will be critical in the global recovery. We need them to break down barriers and borders, driving innovation and growth in their wake.

So we must now begin to look ahead. Because this time it’s not only our economic stability, but the very way that we live and work in a world forever changed, that is truly in their hands.

Index Ventures has launched the comprehensive guide ‘Expanding to the US’ plus the ExpansionPlan app to help pioneering European tech founders navigate transatlantic expansion. Register for Slush Node session with Index Ventures Partner Jan Hammer.