THE SIX CS OF STARTING A BUSINESS FOR FOREIGN NATIONALS
By: Michael Blake
In spite of our relatively welcoming economy, foreign nationals face challenges when starting a business in the U.S., relative to their U.S. citizen counterparts. You can prepare yourself in advance by studying the six Cs – capital, coaching, customers, community, compliance, and culture. By thinking about the six Cs before you launch your business, you, the foreign-born entrepreneur, can better position yourself to be able to focus on success and avoid unnecessary distractions.
You need capital to start your business and give it a reasonable chance of success. You probably won’t be making millions of dollars the second you open your doors or when your website goes live. How long can you go without paying yourself? Do you need equipment? Do you need employees? Do you have money for marketing and advertising? As a foreign national, it’s going to be nearly impossible to borrow from a bank unless you have considerable assets to pledge, (and then why bother getting a loan?) One exception is if you are a permanent resident, you would be eligible for a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan, in which the federal government guarantees up to 90% of loans made to your business. Otherwise, you’re on your own. You’ll need to bring your own money to the venture or find it from friends, family and angel investors. America has a large angel-investing community, but you’ll need to convince those investors of your commitment to stay in the United States for the long haul. If you show your commitment before, investors will show theirs. Make sure your business has sufficient capital to have a fighting chance to survive, whatever your capital resources and needs may be.
Some entrepreneurs achieve great success on their own but they are the exception of the rule. One of the reasons places like Silicon Valley, Boston and Atlanta have such a thriving entrepreneurial community are the coaching resources available – often for free (though if you are desperate to pay someone to coach you, you’ll find takers!) Take advantage of the free and heavily discounted expert resources that can give you and your business the best chance of success.
There are numerous of organizations at the local and national levels that offer coaching and consulting support to all entrepreneurs, regardless of immigration status; for example the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), SBA workshops, Small Business Development Centers, and many others. Before you start your business, find out how to reach those organizations and get help with pre-launch planning. Even the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Office offers tools to help you start your business.
No business in the world survives for long without customers. If you’re reading this paper, you are considering two huge commitments – leaving your home country for a long time and starting a business. Before you do either, you need to be sure it’s the right decision. Entrepreneurs need to do of research before entering a new market – the current in-fashion term is called ‘customer validation’.
The U.S. market is usually perfect for consumer goods or service, discerning, and competitive, partially because the basic formalities of starting a business are so easy (see Compliance below). If your customers are Americans, it’s important to talk to Americans. Do they see value in the same way that you do? How do they see the need? Don’t try to sell right away – listen. You can’t gather information while you are talking. How do you reach Americans with your advertising? Americans aren’t big on public transportation, so signs on buses and trains have limited value. A large part of the American population doesn’t have a smart phone, so you have to be careful about relying on mobile ads. Whether you are launching a data security business or a food truck, you have to understand your customers.
Small businesspeople often form communities for mutual assistance and encouragement. A community could be a meet-up, spree-cast, LinkedIn group, Facebook community, trade association, chamber of commerce, or simply a weekly coffee group. One of the most daunting challenges for foreign nationals launching a new business in another country is building a network. Networks are great for free advice, finding resources, identifying customers and hiring talent.
Don’t ignore your cultural associations, either. While it is natural to want to assimilate into American society as quickly as possible, expatriate communities have been and are tremendously helpful to their fellow entrepreneur-countrymen. The North End of Boston, the Lower East Side of New York, and Buford Highway in Atlanta are all examples of ethnic communities that stuck together in order to help each other become successful – not just culturally, but economically as well.
Laws govern business everywhere, including in America. The good news is that, wherever you’re coming from, it is almost certain that the laws in the U.S. are more transparent and less burdensome to your business than those in the country you are leaving.
In no way does that mean there are no laws and regulations to contend with. Quite the contrary – our legal and corporate code has plenty of opportunity to keep regulators, commissioners, inspectors, and lawyers very busy. Depending on the nature of your business, there are laws and regulations to comply with at the town, county, state, and/or federal level. Laws are important in American society. They are generally enforced efficiently and enthusiastically by the relevant authorities. At a minimum, you’ll need to incorporate, obtain a business license and a tax identification number. You need to file tax returns. In many cases, you need to collect sales tax. The good news is that many of these tasks are ones you can do yourself and you can even complete online.
It is your responsibility to understand which laws and regulations apply to you and your business and then comply with them. You may want to strongly consider retaining an accountant and an attorney to ensure that your business launches in compliance with the law and stays that way. Failure to comply can cost you money and time – both will hurt your business.
The manner in which business is done in America is different from how it is done in many countries – not just because of differing laws, but because of differing social norms and etiquette. Some examples:
- Americans generally expect that you will behave like other American business-people if you are doing business in the U.S.
- American business-people like to research and gather information before making a decision.
- Honesty and integrity are highly valued in a business transaction – often more so than the price.
- Most Americans consider paying taxes a civic obligation, even if they consider the tax itself to be too high.
- Most Americans believe that complying with the law is important, even laws with which they disagree.
- Americans will fight for what they perceive as injustice, and they believe in the integrity of the legal system to impose justice if they feel they have been cheated.
- Most Americans believe that a transaction should result in a positive outcome for the buyer and seller.
- Bribery and gifts to officials are not just illegal, with strong civil and criminal consequences, but are considered repulsive to most Americans.
- Contracts should be honored (though they are sometimes open to renegotiation).
- People who owe money should do their very best to repay debts.
No culture can be summed up neatly in 10 bullet points, but these are a good start, and you’ll learn more bullet points as you gain more experience. If you expect to do business in the United States exactly as you would do business at home, you’ll be putting yourself at a severe disadvantage.
The Six Cs: capital, coaching, customers, community, compliance, and culture are the essential building blocks for starting and growing a successful business in the United States. Starting a business is never easy, and starting a business as a foreign national presents additional challenges; but by thinking about and planning how you will address these issues as you start (or better, before you start) your business, you are setting yourself up to avoid many obstacles and give yourself the best chance for success.