Want to know the best way to win over a US customer? Wear Union Jack trousers, according to UK Trade & Investment Officer and Texas native Haileigh Meyers.
“I’m serious!” says Meyers. “Letting people know you’re British and promoting that as an asset is by all means a good thing.”
“Putting that out there is going to make a lot of people excited,” she adds. “Put it on your business card. Have them specially printed with a Union Jack for when you’re there.”
But, while an English/Scottish/Welsh accent and a touch of Britishness might help to win new friends on the other side of the pond, our famed reserve is not without its drawbacks.
“It can be a slight hindrance,” explains Meyers. “Brits need to find ways to stand out and push their personality or they’ll get lost in it all,
“The British personality is not obnoxious. But Americans are obnoxious,” she jokes. “Imitate them!”
I’m talking to Meyers at a special event hosted by UKTI, which aims to help UK companies prepare for a trade mission to SXSW (South-by-Southwest), a huge and much-hyped yearly convention for the ICT and creative industries in Austin, Texas.
The event itself combines an exhibition, a film festival, and a sprawling collection of talks and satellite events. It is, as Meyers describes it, a “hodgepodge” of arty and techie types from the film, gaming, music and media industries alongside internet entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley innovators.
“There’s no theme really,” she says. “Many companies just want be at SXSW and so they find a reason be at SXSW!”
SXSW is, perhaps, also the world’s most raucous tradeshow, with a reputation for heavy drinking, partying and general chaos. Last year, the fun ended in tragedy when a drunk driver resisted arrest and sped away into a crowd of pedestrians, killing six and injuring 20 more.
To avoid another disaster, this year the organisers plan to improve security and clamp down on alcohol distribution – but hope to keep the creative buzz alive. Hundreds of free unofficial events are already springing up around the core convention, making it an ideal place for ICT, tech and media professionals to mingle with new contacts from all around the world.
Despite this, says Meyers, Brits have a habit of herding with their own at international events, limiting their networking potential.
“SXSW is a good time to meet other UK companies you’ve never come across before, but you need to make those connections and then reconnect back in the UK,” she says, urging small businesses to take the opportunity to forge relationships with companies from the US, as well as countries they may never have explored trading with before.
Many of these new contacts are likely to be conveniently located right on SXSW’s doorstep. While California still leads the way in tech entrepreneurship, Texas is fast catching up, helped along by the access to the country’s fastest internet connections and a “business friendly” culture that includes a total absence of corporation tax. UKTI, which supports UK companies that want to export to, or find trade partners in, foreign markets, has two dedicated officers in the state, and is on hand to give advice or even set up meetings through its (heavily subsidised) Overseas Markets Introducing Service.
What’s more, there is funding available for the right companies. Much of this comes from federal funds or educational institutions looking to invest in R&D, but the region has its fair share of venture capitalists with deep pockets, too. The Central Texas Angel Fund is one of the largest and, according to Meyers, is interested in developing relationships with UK startups – although they would most likely need to develop a presence in the state first.
With tech hubs springing everywhere from Denver to Kansas, it might seem that the US has enough of its own ideas without having to look abroad, but Meyer assures me that UK companies are seen as bringing plenty of value to the entrepreneurial landscape. In the ICT world British businesses are considered to be particularly innovative on the social, data-driven and analytics aspects of tech.
Security is another strong suit. Many American companies are keen to ensure that they’re able to meet tough EU data protection laws, and the UK’s knowledge and expertise in this area means that they are often viewed as a gateway to Europe.
That said, while the UK has its own niches, it’s important to remember that you’re dealing with an international audience – and that means referencing or comparing yourself to companies that are well-known in the US, or globally. As Meyers explains, Fairy Liquid might be a household name and an impressive client in the UK, but mention this to an investor in America and you’re likely to get some strange looks!
ICT is a $2.2 trillion business, and with the US taking the lion’s share, it’s certainly an enticing market for British brands with big ambitions. International conferences such as SXSW can be the perfect places to start laying down the foundations for global growth – but you must be ready to talk the talk and walk the walk, US-style.
“Have fun, remember it’s a marathon, and speak to as many people as you possibly can,” says Meyers. “And remember your business cards!”