If I Did It Again: What I Learned From Launching My European Company In The U.S.

If I Did It Again: What I Learned From Launching My European Company In The U.S.



“We’re big in Europe.” Bad pickup line or famous last words? I run a workplace insights company called kununu that is, yes, big in Europe. Haven’t heard of us? So far, kununu’s existence has two chapters. In chapter one, we grew quickly: from humble Austrian beginnings to dominance of the European employer-review space. Then we decided to come to the U.S. It was a huge dragon to slay: people here knew literally nothing about us. We expected things to be different, but not nearly as different as what we’ve encountered. That has been kind of funny. And kind of hard.


#1: Cultural differences go beyond lunch choices.

Here’s the thing about Americans: turns out you guys have a lot of feelings.

That’s not to say Germans don’t have feelings. We do! Specifically, we feel strongly about getting work done efficiently (the stereotype is true). Of course, Americans do, too — but in German work culture, communication is pretty black and white. If something isn’t going well, you’ll hear about it directly.

Apparently, Americans prefer to communicate in more of a grey area. I’m told there’s something called the “Sandwich Approach.” It’s safe to say I’m not a convert.

When I moved to Boston, my style of feedback instantly offended people. It’s important to note that I am an extreme version of this stereotype, and in fact a lot of people back home feel offended reading my emails. I managed to make one employee cry in her first 2 weeks! To help combat this, on my third day here I created an email signature: “writing polite and politically correct emails is not my strength; please focus on content.”

That helped, but in all honesty I just didn’t expect the land of John Wayne to be quite so… sensitive.


What We’d Do Differently:

  • Have an open conversation, right away, about the cultural differences in styles.
  • Add the email signature on day one.
  • Bring an American into the leadership fold from the beginning.


#2: Markets are different, and the “playbook” needs to adapt.

Our success in Europe gave us a solid playbook for launch in the U.S., and we did “market research” to mitigate some of our risk. But there’s one thing we didn’t do enough of: actually talking to customers. That’s pretty important for understanding what people want. Turns out we had some serious Americanizing to do, which only comes out of real conversations with Americans.

What We’d Do Differently:

  • Talk to the market — i.e. actual people — face to face, from day one, with the goal of understanding their problems and solving them.
  • Adjust our messaging to speak to the U.S. market’s specific needs.


#3: It’s easy to see why Americans hate lawyers.

From incorporating as a U.S. entity, to employment contracts and legalities around hiring, to office lease negotiations, it has been a whirlwind of new codes, contracts and fine print. We hugely underestimated how much paperwork there would be — and how much time it would take to fully understand the implications of the new rules.

I understand lawyer jokes much better now. Unfortunately.

What We’d Do Differently:

  • The American legal system isn’t going to change anytime soon. Sidenote: as an entrepreneur, I see tons of opportunity here.
  • If we did it again, we’d budget more time and resources for tasks which, in Germany, are way less of a pain.


#4: You just can’t replace face time. So mothership communication has to adapt.

Skype. Google Hangouts. Slack. Zoom. With all the technology available in 2016, we thought we’d be fine relying on remote communication between Boston and our European headquarters.

But the fact is, the decisions that really matter happen over coffee. Or drinks. And they’re not always planned. Those “hallway conversations” can’t be replaced (for me especially: I’m a walker-talker).

Why? Intangibles make a huge difference. I can’t predict the mood of a given day—or my employees in a given moment. We were missing the little things best addressed by real human interactions. I learned the hard way that facetime is invaluable.


What We’d Do Differently:

  • Plan regular travel to headquarters from the beginning. Even when it’s a pain. Even when you think it’s not necessary.
  • Establish a cadence for regular all-hands video calls — even without groundbreaking developments — to foster a stronger team rapport.
  • Encourage regular peer-to-peer communication across the whole organization.


#5: Hiring is really, really, really hard.

Let’s just say I have a newfound appreciation for HR. We faced some real hurdles in the US. For one thing, we weren’t able to take advantage of referrals. When you’re new to a market and have few connections on the ground, it’s really tough to attract great talent, especially in a competitive job market. This stung; in Europe, our best hires have always come from referrals.

Another hiring issue? Lack of brand recognition. Job candidates are increasingly aware of the “employer brand”; that’s a game everyone’s playing at this point. Despite our strength in Europe, we were completely unknown to people in the Boston market.

We have to get things done and move quickly to build our business. There are lots of people with experience on paper, but that doesn’t always translate to the ability to get things done. Culturally, as Europeans, we struggled to see through the BS in American resumes, which resulted in some regrettable hires. I learned quickly that a “Marketer” — even one with 10 years of agency experience on big brands — is not necessarily going to help me quickly move the needle and drive measurable results.

What We’d Do Differently:

  • Immediately bring a local counterpart onto the executive team.
  • Be true to ourselves and hire people with the right “DNA.” For us, that’s smarts and hustle plus domain expertise (Internet, SaaS, and DATA).
  • Vet candidates such that they “show” us who they are vs. just “telling.”
  • Say quick goodbyes — having the wrong people on the team in the early days is painful for everyone.

I’m thrilled to be in the U.S., especially now that I know what we’re dealing with. After all, our whole business is based on workplace transparency; it’s fitting that we’d have some bumps in the road. All the better to open up and share them with the world.

Moritz Kothe is the Chief Executive Officer of kununu, the workplace insights platform, which he now leads from its Boston, MA headquarters. He is also Senior Vice President International for XING AG, which acquired kununu in 2013.


October 8, 2016 / by / in , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons