Written by Liz Derks on the 27th of July, 2017
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Whilst the SheStarts delegation was in the United States, we heard from a number of incredible Australian entrepreneurs, a few years down the track, who had already made the bold move to Silicon Valley. And while many people don’t tend to think of the United States as considerably different from Australia, it’s important to keep in mind that it is, in fact, a different market with a different startup ecosystem and different business practices. One of the entrepreneurs who made the leap into Silicon Valley is Deb Noller, CEO and founder of Switch Automation. Over dinner, we heard Deb’s story and she shared her tips and tricks that will help any entrepreneur thinking about going to the US.
Having worked in IT and technology since 1998, Deb founded Switch Automation back in 2005. Serving a broad range of clients in different industries, Switch Automation helps companies manage their building operations by connecting data, devices and systems. In 2012, Deb was approached by Springboard to participate in their first Australian program and to become part of their network for female startup founders. Not aware of the issues women faced when building a startup Deb was initially a bit sceptical, wondering why she’d want to be part of such a network. She remembers:
“I was thinking to myself, why would I want to be part of a women’s network? Do I need to feel sorry for myself? Should I resign and let some guy run my company because I’m holding it back?”
It was the first time she ever really thought about it and it wasn’t until she got into the network that she realised its power: “Women don’t know how to network like men do. Men are incredibly good at networking and they know how to ask for things. Women in the past always felt the need to prove themselves. If you were a female doctor or female engineer you knew you had to be the best in your class. If you were to get a job, you had to be the best and you couldn’t ask for help because that was a sign of weakness.”
One of the first lessons the Springboard program teaches you is to think big; don’t create a business just for the Australian market. Having created four businesses prior to starting Switch Automation Deb was already on the track to create a global business. However, she had always thought of the US as a bridge too far: “Everybody had always scared me off from going to the US by saying it’s a really difficult market to tap into and giving me all these reasons why we would find it hard to crack the US market. So our plan was to expand the business to Singapore first.”
However, Deb’s lightbulb moment came when she attended a conference in the US: “I heard three companies describe how there was no enterprise operations platform to collect, manage and analyse property data. And then I realised, that’s what we do! It might not be what we’re calling ourselves, but that’s what we do!”
“It was that moment in 2012 that I realised it doesn’t matter how big the US is; if there’s a market for what you’re doing and no one else is doing that, somebody else will claim that space if you don’t”.
She decided on that day she was going to the US and in January 2013, that is exactly what she did: She landed in San Francisco, took an apartment and started to figure it out: “That’s the first step. No one can help you, you have to figure it out yourself and you can’t figure it out unless you come here.”
For those thinking of making the leap into the Mecca of innovation, startups and technology, Deb has the following five tips:
For Australian female entrepreneurs Deb strongly recommends becoming part of networks such as Springboard, Heads over Heels, and Scale Investors. And when going to the US, there’s plenty of networks and communities that can fast track you into doing meaningful business. An important one for Australian founders is the Aussie Founders Network, who can help you with practical business things like banking, setting up your company and accounting.
Once you’re part of networks, don’t be afraid to ask, but make sure you are intentional when asking for connections or information. Deb states:
“There’s no shortage of networks for people that can help you make the connections, so you need to think about who exactly you want to meet and why you want to meet them.”
“Most people here will happily introduce you if you have a specific ask or a specific thing you want to find out. So, don’t come up and say ‘Deb I’m starting my business in the US, how can you help?’ Instead, ask ‘I need to meet these people, I’m interested in this, how would I do that?'” .
Following from the point above Deb continues: “Don’t turn up in the US and say ‘I want to meet investors’. That is ridiculous, we all want to meet investors. If you’re going to meet investors, you need to be ready to meet investors, you need to know exactly what you want from them and what they’re going to want from you. And remember, if the first time they see you they knock you back, it’s unlikely they’ll let you back in again, so don’t waste the opportunity.” Deb strongly recommends to get to revenue as fast as you can:
“Almost no one gets funded without revenue, and personally I don’t know anyone who just got funded on an idea, so you have to work out how to get people to pay you money for what you do. And then try and get the traction, cause once you’ve got the traction, there’s no shortage of investors.”
Americans almost speak the same English as Australians. Almost. Deb states “It’s very easy to think that what Americans tell you is the same as what an Australian would tell you. Trust me, it’s nothing like that.”
“Americans are incredibly polite and will almost never turn you down with a blunt ‘No, not interested and this is why’”.
Deb encourages everyone who is serious about doing business in the US to hire an American: “Hire the most expensive American that you can in your field because they will understand the business language that you’re not getting. That’s really important; I probably wasted two years on that. We had no problem getting meetings, everybody wanted to talk to us, but it took me a long time to realise that we were never going to write business with all these people that we were taking out for coffee and lunch.”
Lastly, timing is incredibly important according to Deb; you have to be ready for the US:
“Start with discovery trips where you find out as much as you can about the market. And when you’re ready, come and be serious about it.”
“To do business in the US you’ll almost certainly have to be here full-time. Otherwise Americans will think you’re going home, they’ll think you’re not serious about the market and they don’t think you’ll stay. You’ll also have to set up a company here, as no one will sign a contract with an Australian company. This, in turn, also means you’ll need to have sufficient funds: Don’t come until you’re ready and you have money to sustain yourself and your business for at least 12 months”.
We’d like to thank Deb for taking the time to share her insights with the SheStarts Founders. To see these brilliant women in action, watch the latest SheStarts episode and make sure you head to to our facebook, twitter or instagram for all the info and news we share.