Let me tell you a story that happened to me about two weeks ago. I was standing in a coffee shop not far from the office. An attractive lady comes in - for those that know me I never miss out on an occasion to make new acquaintances. So I started the conversation with something easy and stupid like:
“hey ! how you doing? you work in the building?”
The lady does not respond. Too bad for me. But what really struck me was the excessive reaction from the owner of the coffee place who rightfully (or wrongly?) assisted to my unsuccessful crusade and "gently" brought to my attention that such behaviors in his bar should never happen again.
Having spent time in the US, where I may have picked up this easy-going attitude, really got me thinking about many things which eventually developed into this post. My thoughts were all on whether I had picked the right place to spend my time and money developing a business. Is it really worth it to open a business in Europe with so many regulations, protectionism (nepotism) and people being so conservative? The lady in the bar, the other day, was just the tip of the iceberg...
Check out the picture below I took in a Belgian newspaper (L'ECHO) the other day:
These are the world's most successful entrepreneurs. Notice any trends? The great majority of them come from America. First European comes in 4th position-just off the podium, all others are self made US entrepreneurs. So why are Americans leading the world's economy, why are they so successful?
The answer appears in this great book below, recommended to me by a great friend. It's not an easy read, you should probably take notes while going through it as the concepts the writer expresses are sometimes at the opposite to basic business practices.
ZERO TO ONE by Peter Thiel, second ever investor to Facebook, after co-founder Saverin and PayPal co-founder alongside Musk.
Thiel says you can survive a business venture by creating monopolies. You have a monopoly when your product and services dominate the market. Monopolies come in three ways:
1. The government grants you the privilege of a monopoly.
2. You illegally "bully" your competitors out of business
3. Your products or services are way superior to the competition and you keep on top of the game by continuously improving them (the American way).
Luck also plays an important role, but let's focus on Thiel's statements. Successful startups know they have to dominate their niche with products and services which way outmatch their competition and by securing funding to rapidly expand and establish their monopoly. It's called VISION, not everybody has it, it takes both money and time. Depending on where you are, or who you are dealing with, some investors/entrepreneurs may have neither. And here in Europe it's full of them.
So here are 8 aspects to bear in mind when starting a business in a particular country, including your home country:
1) Choose a country that makes you happy. Happiness is that feeling that makes you wake up the morning and gives you positive energy throughout your day. To Americans this is so important that they even added it in their constitution, it's called the pursuit of happiness. We all have a right to be happy, which is not necessarily always linked to money but also to personal experiences shared with people and places.
2) Test its people. This may seem obvious, but you really need to test people's goodwill and openness in what I call the Forrest Gump test. While waiting for your transportation at a bus stop, engage in a conversation with anyone. How easy it is to communicate? Are they open? Do they ask questions back? If they engage, they are intelligent. They will respect you and most likely buy your product and/or service.
It's also worth testing people in the streets for signs of:
- Do people refrain from urinating or spitting in public places?
- Do drivers respect pedestrians?
- Do minorities, who are born in the country, speak their host country's language correctly?
- Do people keep their their homes clean and the streets dirty?
3) Are minorities welcomed or do minorities take a step to welcome their hosts? I was on a Uber drive with my father about a weeks ago. I run into a discussion with the driver (born and raised in Belgium) and he confessed that he had never ever been invited to dinner by a white (French speaking) Belgian, ever. A week later I had a chat with a Belgian, who also admitted he had never been invited by minorities either.
Never invest your time and money in countries where minorities and locals don't spend time together.
4) High taxes is a no go! When a country has too many freelancers it is not a good sign. It means that taxes are too high and the system is entirely devoted to benefit large corporations who can skip taxes by hiring freelancers. Belgium has the highest taxation system in the world as you can see below. It means that the infernal trio composed of banks, corporations and politicians, does not want you to come in and start a business to challenge the "establishment". Most west European countries want you to be a freelancer at the service of corporations or unemployed. Nothing else.
5) Choose your co-founder(s) right. Don't promise too much. Don't take her/him for a fool. Equally, be careful who you take on board. If you have doubts or she/he does not responds well to your generous offers, then drop her/him. You both gonna loose time and money. If you are on the same page you should most likely move in together. Get an Airbnb for 1 month to test yourselves. Make the house your HQ and hire students or interns. Make it work!
If no-one accepts your offer, then you are probably not in the right country.
6) Education. You'll probably start hiring locals, most likely students to start with. How is their education ? Some countries produce flocks of sheeps ready to enter the butchery of work without challenging the system or questioning themselves. If you are in a foreign country check how much importance is given to tech and startups vs. history and classical studies.
In Italy they give way too much importance to junk poet Dante Alighieri, a middle ages frustrated man unable to express his feelings to a married woman and who wrote three thick books in rhymes to express his eternal frustration. Just read a couple of pages and you'll realize just the amount of useless bullshit Italian students have to assimilate every year. And the politics over there still wonder why the economy stagnates.
7) Will locals buy your products or services? The United States of America's embassy in Brussels occasionally invites BelgiBeer on its premises to conduct business and its a success every time we show up. However when we are invited to a typical Belgian event organised by public agencies and even though we give our beers for free, almost nobody takes them.
This is a clear indication that locals are afraid of innovation and change. Are you sure you would like to invest in that particular country?
8) Celebrity apprentice Vs The apprentice. Have you watched Donald Trump's infamous "Apprentice"? While candidates in the first series struggled to raise money, celebrities got the job done with phone calls to raise as little as 300K.
This happens a lot in business too. Some people just have it easier than others. While some need to work 10 years to obtain validation, other, better connected people, need only to pick up the phone to obtain media attention or an invitation from a head of state.
Perhaps it's like this everywhere. But at least in some countries people fight for the their rights, they fight against an unjust system. Live in those countries. It will give your life excitement and purpose.
My conclusion, and you may challenge me in the comments below: Europe is great for bored American employees who seek excitement in their life. America is great for European entrepreneurs who seek validation for their projects and who don't care about visiting the Statue of Liberty but will surely make America great with their work!