Advice for American Entrepreneurs Looking to Do Business in Britain
In my last article, about my experiences as a British businessman operating in the U.S., I promised to return the favor and offer a few words of advice for American colleagues wanting to do business over in the U.K. I enjoy my transatlantic trips and having a foot in both camps -- it's genuinely one of the parts of the job I enjoy the most -- but it does give me an awareness that, as the old saying goes, we are at times "two nations divided by a common language." I'd add culture, style and personality.
This would have been equally true 50 years ago, but the details would have been totally different. Britain would have had a stuffy, class-bound, hierarchical and distinctly amateurish business culture, barely changed since the Second World War, and a microcosm of wider society. We've come a long way since then, and our model has really been the U.S.
As American corporate and entrepreneurial culture has developed, so the developments have been mirrored a few years, or even decades, later across in the U.K. A perfect example is dress-down Friday (originally "Casual Friday"), which began in Hawaii in the late 1980s and spread to California, then eastwards till it was adopted in Britain, where it's now pretty prevalent. Where you guys lead, we tend to follow, though we don't always get it right.
That sounds like a facile point, but it's really not. Americans will find a degree of Through the Looking-Glass about British business culture in that a lot of it will seem very familiar, but under the surface it can be very different.
Dress-down Fridays are only symbolic of the fact that we Brits have adopted a greater degree of informality than we once had, believing it to be more American, and therefore more dynamic, more go-getting. Hoping it will clear away the stuffy, cobwebbed atmosphere of the old boy network. Good intentions are there.
But, because we're British, we see things through a very specific prism. As a people, we are obsessed with self-taxonomy. We want to know how to categorize colleagues and competitors into cohorts. So we judge by ever-finer gradations; labels on clothes, markings on bags, tiny whispers of accents. These differences, key to a British understanding, may not immediately be apparent to visitors to our shores.
What else should I tell you? We look at distances differently. Britain is a small island, given the population, and, although the coming of the digital age, with all its benefits like telecommuting and conference calls, has brought communities closer together, we still think about travel on a different scale from Americans. For a Brit, a business meeting three or four hours away would be a major undertaking, only to be contemplated sporadically and as a matter of seriousness. For Americans, of course, it would hardly raise an eyebrow. It wouldn't even be in the next state.
But, technology is bringing us together: In my company, the team based permanently at the London office is quite small. However, we have staff in London, Chester, Peterborough and Rotherham, as well as New York and Los Angeles, and we all speak daily as a group and feel ourselves very firmly part of one family firm.
Conversely, of course, we are perhaps a little more used to trading across national borders than some American companies. The domestic market in the UK, while strong and thriving, is relatively and necessarily limited, while France is only a few hours away -- from London, you can get a train to Paris more quickly than you can to Edinburgh -- and, for the moment at least, British companies have free access to the huge market which is the European Union, from Lisbon all the way to Bucharest. So, while we might think quite small at home, we lift our eyes to the horizon habitually.
Perhaps a last thought is that the UK, in commercial and business terms, is dominated by London. The capital has a population of 9 million in a country of 65 million. The financial services market is concentrated very firmly in London, as are the levers of political and economic control. The media is largely London-centric, though efforts have been made to diversify to other regions.
Remote working notwithstanding, I would not have set up my U.K. business anywhere but London. A publishing house would be brave to base itself away from the capital. You don't have quite that unblinking focus: We have an office in New York and one in Los Angeles, but the federal government is in D.C. and there are plenty of major firms in Chicago or Austin, etc.
I hope that's been a helpful nudge for those of you already doing business in my country and those of you who hope or plan to. As two nations, two cultures, there is far more that unites us than divides us -- it's just all about nuance. The bromance between the U.S. and Britain is long-standing, and long may it continue. We just need, like any close relationship, to keep learning about each other, nodding at our similarities and delighting in our differences.