Gilles Bertaux is CEO and co-founder of Livestorm, where he shapes the future of end-to-end video communication.
As a European company, the idea of expanding operations and setting up offices in the United States can be both daunting and exciting. For every business in this position, because it involves such a big time and money investment, the question becomes: “Do we need to do this?”
In my opinion, that really depends on the product or service you’re selling. For instance, fintech businesses need physical local offices and general managers when selling products like credit cards in the U.S., but for us at Livestorm, a technology company with a platform sold online, it was less clear.
As we began to attract U.S. customers, however, we realized quickly that sales and customer relations in the U.S. were such a different beast than in Europe that we needed to put in place U.S. employees, headquarters and even bring on local investors to help us network and build out this new market in a purposeful and efficient manner.
For example, we experienced dramatic growth as a video engagement platform during Covid-19 when the whole world went online to meet; our first order of business was to hire quickly to meet U.S. customer demand. However, that process wasn’t simple to do remotely from Europe. We used an employer of record (EOR) to begin the recruitment process, but we learned off the bat that hiring for tech positions in the U.S. is quite competitive and involves hefty benefits and higher salaries than in the EU (sometimes even four times what we were paying employees in France).
We took a step back and began the process of incorporating our business in the U.S. Once those building blocks were in place, we could concentrate on human resource processes and learn the difference between benefits here in Europe and in the U.S.
For example, the government in the EU mostly handles everything related to health insurance and retirement. The company takes a cut, and the rest is sent to the State. In the U.S., however, each company has to set up insurance and retirement or 401(k) plans themselves, so this was something we had to learn about for job offers we were putting in place for U.S. candidates. We started compiling packages and then comparing them to other big tech companies to see how they stacked up. We also shared them with a third-party U.S.-based recruitment agency to make sure our job offers were truly competitive.
Once we felt comfortable with the job packages we created, we could set everything into motion and used software from another company to automate the onboarding process for new U.S. hires. The software could manage the complex payroll, 401(k) and healthcare benefits based on the rules we defined so we could continue to concentrate on recruiting.
Now, we could really jump into hiring in the U.S. in a very competitive and aggressive way, especially to support sales. We learned very quickly that because there were so many tech companies in the U.S., finding good salespeople was going to be both challenging and expensive. We had to decide whether it was worth recruiting someone at a very big company and paying a high price for that candidate or whether we could place a bet on a hidden gem and believe that the person would grow and learn at our business. Location made a big difference as well. Recruiting candidates in San Francisco and New York City were often out of our price range, but we could find great salespeople in cities like Chicago, Boston or Portland that, as a startup, we could afford.
The other interesting challenge in recruiting salespeople in the U.S. was determining if they were actually great in sales or just great at selling themselves. We found that many people in the U.S. are educated very well on public speaking and how to sell themselves, more than in the EU, so it forced us to learn very quickly how to cut through the showmanship.
Bringing on U.S.-based investors was important because of their local networks with customers, prospects and candidates, and we also established our headquarters in Boston because of its strong ecosystem on the B2B tech scene. Although the headquarters didn’t limit us for recruiting, we did need really good people on the ground for networking as well as for doing field marketing, PR outreach and coordinating events. We hired a U.S.-based PR firm to lean on its relationships with local, national and tech press, and we’re now hiring more than 10 U.S. sales and customer care employees this quarter and plan to triple that number by the same time next year.
While there’s certainly been a lot of trial and error, it’s been a successful endeavor for us. Looking back, one of the most important lessons I learned as a CEO is that in the U.S., your network is your most valuable asset. Establishing your company’s presence in the U.S. is really like starting over, and it’s important to have that mindset and put partners in place to build that network for you.
For EU-based tech businesses, it’s not about opening expensive physical offices in major cities in the U.S. Rather, it’s about having people on the ground who know how things run, who to contact, how to recruit, how to package enticing job offers, how to tell compelling stories for the media, how to run engaging events and how to sell to U.S. businesses. The investments we’ve made in the people versus the infrastructure in the U.S. is really what has made the difference in the success of our U.S. expansion.