Business in the Bay: Becoming an Expat Entrepreneur

In the UK I was a speechwriter at Lloyd’s of London, the global insurer. When my husband was offered the job of a lifetime in San Francisco, I decided to use our West Coast move to pursue my own dream, of running a business. I set up Thoughtful Speech, which offers speechwriting services and coaching for people who want to deliver stellar presentations and pitches. It’s been an exhilarating and challenging journey, and I’d like to share with you some of the things I wish I’d known when I stepped off the plane from London eight months ago.

Launching your own business


Business alone - Empty boardroom

1. Be prepared to spend a lot of time on your own

This sounds obvious, but it was one of the hardest things about starting my own business. I was used to spending five days a week in a busy office and almost every evening either playing squash or going out with friends. When I arrived in San Francisco I knew almost no one; I had no squash partners and no colleagues to distract me. On the upside, I was much more productive. I love what I do and I’m very self-motivated, so I’m not easily distracted by Netflix, Facebook or Twitter. But I was also lonely. I craved conversation and I counted the hours until my husband got home from work. It takes time to adjust and I wish I’d had the patience and the confidence to understand that I’d come to love the days that are just me and my laptop, much more than I ever enjoyed the ones in a corporate office.

2. Network, California style

Soon after I arrived I started going to lots of networking events. I had hoped that I might make some friends as well as meet new clients. Some of my closest friends in London I’ve met through work. Networking in San Francisco is a very different beast. There’s an explicit assumption that networking is purely for business, not pleasure, whereas at home the lines are more blurred. San Franciscans are also a lot more direct! There’s much less in the way of chit-chat about family, favorite restaurants and your next holiday. The conversation is more: what can you do for me? What can I do for you? It was only after I’d been to a few networking events that I realized I needed to go with a very clear mental list of what I had to offer and what I wanted in return. People are very generous about opening their contact books to you, very encouraging about entrepreneurship and very positive about business. But in the fast-paced world of Silicon Valley, if you don’t ask up front, you don’t get.

Business in the Bay

3. Get an awesome website ASAP

In the world of tech start-ups, you need to look the part. I’m very lucky that my husband is one of the techno whizz kids building the worldwide web. If he’s good enough for Eventbrite, he’s good enough for me! He rustled up a very suave (even if I say so myself!) looking site. My only regret is I didn’t get it up and running sooner. In the US there’s a greater willingness to publish/launch/deliver something before it’s 100% perfect. Now that is live I’m very proud of it, I just wish I’d hit the big red button a little earlier.

4. Stay positive

One of the lovely things about Americans is that they’re eternally cheerful. In England we’ve turned moaning about our job/house prices/the National Health Service into an art form. Now, I must admit, I do miss the chance to have a good long rant. But in California, it’s important to stay upbeat. People really respond to a smile and a positive attitude. So even if you’re panicking because you’ve still not booked your first client, or freaking out that your venture’s going to fail or having a meltdown that you’ve made a terrible mistake, in the words of my mother: pin on a grin. With all the sunshine you shouldn’t find it too hard!

5. Be prepared to take a pay cut

If you’re starting a business I’m assuming you relocated as the partner of someone with a job. I knew it would take time for my new venture to grow wings and fly me to a place where I was earning a similar amount to my London salary. We budgeted for it financially, but I did not prepare for it mentally. It’s really tough to work hard without the monthly ‘ca-ching’ in your account. Keep giving yourself little treats to keep up your morale. You’ve taken on a major challenge and you need little boosts to keep you motivated. Now is not the time to book a Caribbean holiday, but it is the time to watch a Scandi-crime drama, buy a skein of yarn (I love to knit!), or go for a cycle ride in the Napa vineyards. Ok, I know I have quite niche hobbies, but you get the point.

6. Pat yourself on the back

If you’re crazy enough to relocate and start a business at the same time you’re in for a stressful period. But it’s a very different stress to the sort you might be used to. If you were in an office job before you probably had colleagues who drove you crazy, an overflowing inbox and a long commute. For expat entrepreneurs stress comes from trying to start an enterprise at the same time navigating the San Francisco rental market, the fear that your start-up won’t start-up and the challenge of building a network from scratch. So when it all gets a bit overwhelming, take a breath, pat yourself on the back, and try to remember you’ve taken on an epic challenge. Try not to lose sight of the fact that you’re doing something you love, on your own terms, every day. Try and remember that it’s going to take time, it’s going to be tough, but it’s also going to be the best thing you’ve ever done.

About Felicity H. Barber

I am a speechwriter, who coaches people to make awesome speeches, presentations and pitches. I moved to San Francisco from London with my software engineer husband and two cats in 2014. As if moving half way around the world wasn’t enough, I made the crazy decision to start my own business at the same time! Life has been a big adjustment to go from in-house to freelance, tea and scones to coffee and brownies, rainy days to constant sunshine, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

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