America is still the promised land for many startups. When internationalization appears on the agenda, a transatlantic adventure is often part of their ambition. The partnership between imec.istart and BelCham helps Belgian based startups conquer the US.
A bridge between continents
BelCham, the Belgian-American Chamber of Commerce, represents Belgian entrepreneurs and companies in the US. Imec.istart has a longstanding partnership with BelCham, internationalization officer Lies Boghaert explains. “We were among the founding members of BelCham Atelier in New York. We have recently renewed our membership to strengthen the relationship even further and give our startups direct access to the United States.”
BelCham helps startups to make a soft landing in the US. They provide founders with a network of interesting contacts (from service providers, potential leads to fellow founders), the knowledge needed to scale up faster, and a place to do their best work (BelCham Atelier in NYC). In January 2021, BelCham Online was launched: a digital community platform that connects the Belgian-American community in order to supercharge their business plans and network in the US. “We, Belgians, often think we know the US because of its Western culture. Yet, the market is totally different from ours. Differences in consumer preferences, regulatory environments and regional costs can pose tremendous challenges – as well as opportunities – when starting or growing your business in the US. You cannot just copy-paste your business plan, you need to experience the (fast) way of living, networking, and doing business by going in person. To maximize your chances of success, it is also necessary to be aware of how fragmented and regional the US can be. BelCham can point you to the critical milestones, important considerations (i.e. immigration, incorporation and more), as well as the right people to translate and adapt your business plan to the American market.”
Look beyond New York or Silicon Valley
Silicon Valley and New York are critical business hubs but are certainly not the only ones. There are a variety of reasons why taking a closer look at other states or cities in the US might be a better fit for your business. Different hubs of innovation are popping up, often centered around one specific industry. “Via BelCham our companies can get a clear view of the place to be for their startup – from economic considerations, infrastructure availability, access to capital and government incentives, to workforce quality. Who knows, for the products you are developing, Florida or Colorado is where the magic is happening?”
Lies is convinced that Covid-19 boosts the international ambitions of the startups in the imec.istart ecosystem. “Many of our portfolio companies used the crisis to do market research and work on their international strategy. Although introductions are now easier made online, building familiarity, gaining visibility and establishing trust with key players and customers, are one of the best ways to predict success. That is why it remains important to connect with the market, build a network, and go meet with partners, potential hires and clients. BelCham guides founders through those early steps and questions, and creates a professional home to help explore the American market – faster, more efficiently and with less risk.
CitizenLab: ‘Start from scratch in the US’
CitizenLab is one of the imec.istart portfolio companies that are conquering the US with its e-democracy platform. “We participated to BelCham’s US readiness program in August 2020 and landed our first client this year: the city of Seattle”, founder Wietse Van Ransbeeck says. “Three other cities have jumped on board. By the end of 2021 we want to work with 40 cities across the US.”
BelCham has helped CitizenLab find its way in the US, Wietse says. “BelCham gave us heaps of useful tips and tricks. They linked us to Belgian legal advisors, tax advisors, etc. The people at BelCham understand startups, they know what we need and what we are looking for. They are also familiar with the American culture and the American way of thinking. Our platform allows cities to engage citizens and strengthen communities. But American citizens are not used to participation the way we are. So you need to approach them in a different way.”
“The moment you want to launch your products or services in the US, you need to realize that you’ll start from scratch again. Bigger cities might be impressed with the way Paris or London uses our platform. Smaller cities need other use cases they can relate to. You need all the help you can get. That’s why imec.istart and BelCham really make the difference, they accelerate your growth by guiding you through the first steps in your American adventure.”
Wietse is convinced that the momentum is there for Citizenlab to enter the US market. “Inclusion and connectedness have become burning issues. Cities are looking for new, innovative ways to boost community engagement and bridge the gap between different communities. They are ready to use technology to give their citizens a voice. In Seattle, citizens can share ideas for a 30 million dollar participatory budget. That’s highly innovative in the US.”
Do you have further questions about Belcham, coworking in NYC, upcoming programs or US market coaching? Please contact Lies Boghaert (Internationalization Officer at imec.istart) or Valerie Van Den Keybus from BelCham.