“In Silicon Valley you have to learn to distinguish one ‘amazing’ from another”
When you left for Silicon Valley, were you clear on when you would consider your mission a success or failure?
In March, when we arrived in Silicon Valley, we had set three potential scenarios as to how things could go. The worst case scenario was an unsuccessful return to the Czech Republic, the middle case was quite realistic, and the best – the one which we obviously hoped for, was very ambitious. We wanted to immediately get clients and sign contracts, but in the end we had to completely redefine our proposition to address the US market with our mentors. We completely redesigned our website and reworked our market communication from the ground up. As soon as we had tested different lead generation strategies it was June and we were starting to get sales. Soon after that we were getting dozens of orders, so the “fail” never happened.
Why did you change your value proposition right from the start? Was there some kind of negative feedback from the market, or was it part of the plan?
We came to Silicon Valley with a reference from productboard, which had been operating on the American market for some time. This is where our expectations had stemmed from. We focused on SaaS B2B firms and built our value proposition around them. But since there are so many of these types of firms here, we had to narrow down our proposition as much as possible, which is not really necessary on the Czech market. We knew that we would have to take a different approach than in the Czech Republic from our first meeting with customers.
If you look back on your first weeks in Silicon Valley, what sticks out to you as the biggest difference from the Czech or European startup scene?
It was the pleasantly surprising realization that even people in pretty high positions have time for you here, be it investors or founders of other startups. When you write someone a meaningful message asking for a meeting, you can be sure that they’ll give you half an hour of their time and at least give you some feedback on your product. Networking among people in the startup community here works wonderfully as well. On the other hand I have a feeling that Silicon Valley is a bit lacking in honest feedback. Everyone will tell you that everything is amazing. But you have to learn to distinguish one ‘amazing’ from another and figure out how honest your counterpart is actually being.
I’m spending some time in Melbourne, and I get the same feeling from Australia in general…
If you ask me I think it’s pretty tiring overall to really get used to this mindset. I don’t think these people even mean it badly, they’re just used to communicating that way.
What would you recommend I do if I wanted to go in the same direction with my startup as Enehano Solutions? What should I consider before I leave for the airport?
First off, you should know why you really want to go to Silicon Valley. You can’t just say: America is big, I want to expand there. If you’re sure that it’s the right way, you should have some sort of soft landing. I don’t think that burning all bridges and leaving is the greatest solution. First come for a few weeks and get a feel for the terrain. Arrange meetings beforehand, pay for a stand at a conference where you can get direct feedback from the market. What also helped me personally was having accommodation sorted in advance.
This one is unrelated to business, but if you’ve got fewer things to worry about from the start you can focus on work, which is hard to do when you’re trying to keep a roof over your head. Then there’s obviously the visa issue. I had a business visa, but for example CzechInvest recommends arriving first with an ESTA. However, that’s not going to be enough for event participation. In short, before you leave it’s a good idea to get in touch via LinkedIn with people from San Francisco and elsewhere, ask about their contacts, and request introductions.
When you talk about introductions on LinkedIn, how did you go about that?
Simply and honestly. When I wanted to meed with someone, I wrote them and said that I’d just moved to San Francisco, and that their experience in such and such interested me. The first contact is obviously not about selling, but more about getting feedback.
Is there any kind of solidarity between Czech and Slovak startups in Silicon Valley?
Definitely. Czechs and Slovaks who live there were among the first people I met. I’ve got an apartment from one Slovak. These people understand what you’re going through, and as a result they’re willing to help. It works that way even on a business level.
How does meeting with American counterparts go? Is there anything specific that American clients or business partners require, but we aren’t really bothered about in the Czech Republic?
Things here move forward more quickly. When two firms agree to cooperate on something, the whole process is incomparably faster than in the Czech Republic. As opposed to the Czech market, Americans are less sensitive about price. We knew that from the beginning and didn’t want to make price our competitive advantage. We’d instantly be thrown into the same category as Indians and Ukranians, and we can’t compete with their prices. Customer experience is also very important in America. The customer needs to know that they are being taken care of and that they don’t have to worry about anything. In my opinion this principle is still quite neglected in our region. Here in America some firms have taken over the whole market just because of the level of customer experience they’re able to offer.
In one of your interviews I read that your goal was to find a director for Enehano Solutions for the United States. How do people take working for a Czech or Slovakian firm? Is it common or do prejudices play a role?
I don’t think that they would have any prejudices. Of course they’re very individualistic, but I don’t generally think so. Plus we have a great mentor from the partner 500 Startups, which is one of the best business accelerators here. When we were dealing with hiring, he told me a very useful tip: “Before you choose, have a call with at least 20 salesmen. This is the only way to see who is and who isn’t good.” Golden advice. It was after the fourth call exactly that I started to feel that even if a candidate didn’t seem bad to me, he wasn’t going to be that good. Another thing is, an unemployed salesman in Silicon Valley is an oxymoron, because everyone who is good at what they do has a job here.
One last little thing – you mentioned that you benefited from the Productboard reference at the beginning. How would Enehano Solutions’ journey look if you hadn’t had this reference? I read that you had been thinking about the German or British markets.
If I hadn’t had any reference, I would have tried a different market first and Silicon Valley later, as soon as I got one. I can’t imagine coming here empty handed.
Zuzana Maderová is a business & CX designer with deep experience in achieving targets, building high-performance teams and scale-ups' expansions across EU and to the US. She is currently working on two projects: At Enehano Solutions as Senior VP of Expansion & Business Development, leading the US market expansion to bring our services to innovative SaaS B2B companies and at Status Quack as Co-founder, employing new trends within projects for our clients as well our internal ones.
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