Note: This is update number three to this blog post (recycling FTW!), having originally appeared on this blog last May with an updated version posted on Telegraph.co.uk in February. I also used it as the base for my talk at FOWA London last October. I’ve amended this post with some new ideas and stuff I’ve learnt during my twelve months in San Francisco.

Whatever the reasons – US-based VCs, partners and customers, a large potential market or a desire to take on the Americans at their own game – many European start-ups have considered moving West. Back in May last year, Huddle did exactly that and I found myself in the heart of San Francisco’s SOMA district surrounded by hundreds of other tech start-ups and industry movers and shakers.

This is the place where the cash flows like wine, where you can’t travel to the office or walk into a bar without bumping into a prominent angel investor, and doing business is drop-dead simple. Right? Well, no, actually. Ah, unless of course you’re building a Valley-based location-aware photo-sharing app, in which case it’s apparently a walk in the park. A $48 million park, at that.

Yes, investors brandish larger pots of money, invest in businesses far earlier and you’re likely to live next door to the chief executive of one of their portfolio companies.  However, doing real business – actually selling software, in our case – in the US is far from easy and getting started is, without doubt, damned expensive.

Regardless of how successful you are on the European stage, don’t expect to jump off the plane at San Francisco International and be welcomed with open arms by the local press, find yourself a trendy loft apartment, hire a team and start trading in the space of a few weeks. It’s hard work, and European tech start-ups considering taking the plunge should ask themselves: “Is going to the US really necessary?” Sit down and establish whether it’s honestly worth the time, expense and distraction. I’ve seen a fair few start-ups flirt with U.S. expansion and watched some burn in flames as the founders get tied up with the romance of transatlantic travel and forget to work on their business.

If you do decide that a move across the pond is worth the effort, you need to ensure that the foundations for your US business are in place well before you open your office doors. By the time I relocated to San Francisco, I’d been visiting the West Coast five or six times a year for the previous couple of years. You need to be prepared to spend time familiarising yourself with the geography, immersing yourself in the culture and getting to know the locals.

There are plenty of great events that you can go along to, such as SF Beta, SF New Tech and Startup2startup Dinners in order to build relationships with other start-ups and meet investors. However, not satisfied with the existing rosta of meet-ups, we decided to import DrinkTank and have successfully run four US events in the last six months, with more than 300 attendees at the last one. Lesson learnt – even (specially?) Americans love a free bar.

You’ll also want to figure out location (yes, there’s an app for that) and take a look at what kind of companies are based where and the best ways to get around. Different geographies attract different organizations. For example, Mountain View and Palo Alto are the heart of Silicon Valley proper and home to companies like Oracle, Siebel, Facebook, Apple, HP and Microsoft’s valley campus. These towns remind me of Reading (coincidence that UK branches are located there?) but with bonus sunshine and palm trees. Although they lack soul and non-generic shops, they are the ideal locations to move a 1,000+ person company into.

In contrast, the SOMA and financial districts of downtown San Francisco are fly-paper for start-ups, creatives and social media companies.  As we’ve grown, we’ve moved from a tiny two-person room inside UserVoice’s offices to a suite in a SOMA Regus serviced office and now our permanent home on Bush Street, complete with enough room for plenty of new hires as well as a Champagne fridge and shuffleboard table. It’s not all work, work, work, you know.

One of the areas that you certainly shouldn’t scrimp and save on when heading to the US is lawyers – they will become your best friends as the stacks of paperwork involved in setting your company up as a US entity, obtaining visas and hiring a team will make your eyes bleed. To avoid spending your evenings wading through forms and making errors, rather than getting that all-important actual work done, just get professionals involved.  A few key tips here – firstly, the majority of US companies incorporate in Delaware, regardless of where they are actually based, because of the state’s generous tax benefits and well-defined body of case law. Secondly, working without a visa is extremely naughty and one slight mistake on the application form will completely void your application. Just use an immigration attorney. And if they seem anal, then that probably means they’ll be really good.

Add the list of other legal requirements involved when it comes to hiring a US team – US employment contracts, payroll, healthcare (including vision and dental), social security, IRS etc. – and you start to see why professional legal help is so vital. And be prepared to budget for healthcare – costs can run to USD 750+ per month per employee for good cover.

Our US sales team has been performing so well that we’ve had to grow our US-based Customer Engagement team by 300 per cent in the last month. Having Huddlers on the ground to help new US accounts with deployment and existing accounts with growth and best practise has proven to be extremely popular. So much so, that we’re now offering the Huddle Adoption Guarantee, which you can read about here.

So, clearly moving to the US involves far more than simply jumping on a plane, stocking your start-up snack room with unhealthy treats (although this is very important) and purchasing expensive Aeron chairs.  Be prepared to invest a lot of time and effort into getting it right because when it is a success, a move to the Bay Area is well worth it.


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