An Englishman in New York: 4 Surprising, Alarming Things About Doing Business in the U.S.

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As a native Londoner in New York, coming up on my first full year of residence in the Big Apple -- where I'm building the U.S. arm of our tech PR agency -- I would point to several obvious parallels between our two cities:

Both are global financial, technology and cultural hubs. Both speak (almost) the same language. And both are filled with local denizens who'll resort to fisticuffs to defend the claim that theirs -- whether London or New York -- is the greatest city on Earth.

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No surprises there. But this native Englishman arrived in New York also expecting these similarities to extend to the workplace. And whilst -- no, change that to "while" -- many aspects of doing business in the United States do indeed mirror those in the United Kingdom, I’ve found some things very surprising. And more than a little bit alarming.

1. The U.S. tax is punishing. 

For a country that markets itself as the natural home of the entrepreneur, the place where businesses flourish and capitalism always wins, America’s tax system strikes me as surprisingly punitive and uncompetitive. For example, corporate tax in the U.S .is roughly double that of the U.K.

I find this fact astonishing. It supports the notion that legislators want companies to flee to lower-tax jurisdictions. And it’s hard to understand the rationale for a punitive tax, which in turn strikes me as completely at odds with the ethos on which the United States was founded, and the economic principles that helped it grow into the world’s biggest economy.

For our part, as British entrepreneurs, given the fact that we work in the tech startup sector, we simply had to have a sizable presence in the US. The tax implications weren’t even a factor in our decision to come here. We’d have come even if U.S. corporate tax were set at 80 percent.

But we still have to wonder: Since any company serious about growth has to crack the U.S. market, perhaps the powers-that-be know they can basically charge whatever they like to foreign companies just for the privilege of trying. Maybe that faint hint of a conspiracy is what lies at the root of the astronomical tax rates over here.

And perhaps there's something else to explain this country's astronomical rates: that virtually any foreign company serious about growth will still find it imperative to crack the U.S. market. Tax rates or no.

The powers-that-be know this and also know they can basically charge foreigners whatever they like just for the privilege of trying to make it here.

2. The U.S. bureaucracy is mountainous.

We love to whine in the U.K. It’s a national pastime. And if you’re a small business owner in Britian, one of the most popular subjects for complaint is the excessive amount of red tape we have to process there. But having now spent eight months in New York, I shall never complain about U.K. bureaucracy again.

We like a bit of paperwork in the U.K, but America takes things to an entirely new level. It’s so overwhelming here -- and so awesome -- it’s almost impressive.  

There’s a piece of paper for everything over here. Actual paper, made from actual trees. Stored in a filing cabinet, not on a hard drive. Sure, it’s 2015 in New York, but the paperless office remains nothing more than an unlikely, almost absurd, futuristic vision. Like flying cars or jetpack commuting.

Staying on top of it all is basically a full-time job -- even for a small company like ours. It’s little wonder that every year 33 percent of U.S. small businesses get fined for failing to satisfactorily complete what is the bureaucratic equivalent of a Tough Mudder obstacle course. 

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Perhaps the paperwork blitz is a deliberate policy. It certainly creates a lot of jobs. And the fines must mount up to a fairly significant governmental revenue stream. It’s like the ultimate stealth tax.

I find myself marveling at how U.S. businesses manage it all, and wondering how much more productive and successful this country might be if its bureaucracy were streamlined.

3. Americans love meetings.

I haven’t done any quantitative analysis on this, but I’d estimate that I spend approximately 50 percent more time in in-person meetings in New York than I ever did in London.

Considering that our U.K. business is about 10 times bigger than our business in New York, I can’t help but reach the conclusion that there’s something different going on here.

We Brits are famous for our reserve, but we must seem positively misanthropic for our reluctance to meet in person. The following is clearly a gross generalization, but Americans seem to place a much greater emphasis on having regular meetings in order to start and maintain healthy working relationships. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I am surprised that the talking/doing ratio isn’t weighted more heavily on the latter.

4. There's a blurred line in New York between work and play.

I may be guilty of generalizing once again, but, broadly speaking, here in New York every business meeting is a social occasion, and every social occasion is a business meeting.

The line between one’s work life and personal life in London is much more clearly defined. In New York, even in casual social encounters, you’ll find people promising to make an intro to someone who might prove to be a valuable business connection.

I think that in New York you’re more defined by your day job than you are in London. Indeed, your job seems to determine your social circle. It helps people pigeonhole you into a tribe. It’s why pretty much the first question anyone will ask you is, "What do you do?"

This practice has cultivated an extraordinary sense of community in our sector: Frequently, the working day bleeds into the social evening. And everyone wants to get to know you personally. It’s as refreshing as it is disarming. It's as alarming as having to learn to call chips "french fries."

We “miserable Londoners” apparently have a lot to learn.

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