Startup Advice

Do you speak Silicon Valley? Aussies need to change their chat if they want to succeed Stateside

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

If Australian startups are going to be successful in the US, they need to learn to communicate as Americans do, according to Viki Forrest, chief of the ANZA Technology Network.

Speaking at a General Assembly fireside chat last week, Forrest, who is credited with helping 70 Australian and New Zealand startups launch in Silicon Valley, explained that success Stateside is very much tied to how you interact with potential partners and investors. And with going in with your eyes open.

Forrest’s story begins in 1999 when she became the fifth employee at a software startup, where she helped raise $25 million to fuel a launch in the US.

She moved to San Francisco, but “11 months later, we were completely out of business”.

The startup had never made a single sale.

“I was a very rapid and very educational failure,” Forrest said.

On the one hand, “the timing was lousy”, she explains.

“It was right on the tail end of the dot-com collapse.”

However, on the other hand, she admits “the reality was we didn’t have a clue”.

The startup in question had become a “media darling” in Sydney, which had helped it raise money. It had cutting edge technology, but it didn’t have a product that was scalable, Forrest said.

It had no focused target market and no network in the US, she adds.

“There were so many errors, but mainly, just complete naivete.”

The US is the third-largest market, in terms of population, and “by far the largest English-speaking market in the world”, Forrest said.

Any entrepreneur entering from a small market (including Australia) faces the same problems.

Just knowing the differences between small markets and one as large as the US can mean the difference between success and failure.

Australians are generally well received. The education system here is respected, Aussies have a reputation for being good business managers, and the quality of products they produce is “second to none”, Forrest said.

“We’re seen as very trustworthy, we’re seen as having a great sense of humour and fun to be with,” she adds.

It’s a good starting point, but as soon as discussions turn to business, if you don’t communicate in the way that’s expected, you will undo “all of that good work you did by opening your mouth with an Australian accent”.

When it comes to building a startup in the US, “it’s actually very dangerous to not understand how they communicate”, Forrest said.

So, if you’re thinking of heading to Silicon Valley, here are four communication tips to keep in mind.

Viki Forrest

Viki Forrest speaking at General Assembly in Melbourne. Source: Kathy Drasky.

Get to the point

In the US, things happen much more quickly than in Australia, Forrest explained. And that’s not only in terms of how quickly you should respond to emails and return phone calls.

It’s also about how quickly you get to the point.

“I have had people literally walk away from me at networking events mid-sentence,” Forrest recalled.

While she said she’s “not known for being boring”, she explained that once she made some close contacts, she was told she was taking too long to reach a point that others would get to in a matter of seconds.

This is “one of the most dramatic differences in communication style”, Forrest said.

“The communication style is tuned for speed. It is tuned to get what has to be said said very quickly, to get what has to be done done very quickly.”

The “fluff” we’re inclined to put into emails actually result in them not being read at all.

This also relates to the speed at which you do business—how quickly and how frequently you can create products, and how quickly you can respond to unexpected bugs.

If customers ask for something to be changed, “how long does it take to make the decision to make that change?”

This is “one of the most critical differences” between small and large markets, and can be a shock for those not used to it.

“When you think about how quickly or slowly decisions are made in your business as you’re trying to grow and scale in a big market, at first glance you would be horrified.”

Applications-first communication

In Australia, “we operate from a principles-first perspective”, Forrest said.

That is, Aussies tend to offer some rationale, context and reasoning about why we’re making the claims we are, before we make them.

In the US, however, that suggests that either you’re covering something up, or you don’t know the answer to the question, “because you’re spending an awful lot of time doing anything but goddamn answering it”.

Aussie entrepreneurs need to understand that Americans “typically expect and require a bottom line statement of offering in terms of results”.

For example, rather than explaining to prospective clients, for example, what an algorithm does, the difference it can make to staff scheduling, and how it compares to the competition, go straight in with the headline: ‘I will take 5% off your labour costs and increase your revenue’.

This is applications-first communication, rather than principles-first communication. It may result is disbelief, Forrest said, but that client will likely want to see your demo.

Know your stuff

Applications-based communication should also be applied to investor meetings.

“If you’re successful at getting the first meeting with an investor, it means you’ve done a few things right,” Forrest said.

However, she advises that the best way to begin a meeting is by thanking the investor for the opportunity and stating your hook—what the startup is and what it does, in a nutshell.

The key is reminding the investor, in the middle of a busy day, what exactly your meeting is about, she said.

“That’s the confident, out there, absolute way that any investor meeting should be started,” she adds.

Then, founders must be prepared to answer any questions about their business.

“You have to know your business sure-as-hell better than the investor does, but more importantly, you really have to know the market,” Forrest said.

She herself has seen meetings in which the investor has pointed out competitors the founder pitching had never heard of.

“You really have to know your stuff,” she stressed.

“That takes a concerted effort.”

Expand your horizons

Finally, Forrest advised making an effort to network outside of fellow Aussie founders. While groups like the Aussie Founders’ Network have a role to play, it’s one of “a welcoming home away from home”, she said.

The very reason the ANZA Technology Network was founded was because, when it came to Aussies in the Valley, “you could always find someone to have a beer with, but it wasn’t going to help you in business”, she added.

“It is my belief that if you want to go to a country and do business in a country, go there, embrace that country and bring real value to that country, because that country is going to bring real value to you,” she advised.

“And you do that by building an American network.”

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is the editor at StartupSmart. You can contact her at [email protected].

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