No sooner have we landed in San Francisco, than it’s time to pack our bags and head for home. We’ve worked hard, visiting leading companies including Serious Materials, Arup and Better Place. We’ve met with officials at City Hall. We’ve met financiers, with the companies pitching to no fewer than 15 VCs at Orrick’s Silicon Valley offices. Yes, we’ve played hard too, with an unforgettable visit to Birch Castle, the pub located within the beautiful home of Michael and Xochi Birch. It has felt best when we’ve combined work and play; at Susan MacTavish Best’s Sunday Brunch, where CEOs pitched their businesses to journalists over scrambled eggs and French toast. At the Consul General’s residence, where deals with leading influencers were plotted over fish and chips. And late at night, as travellers discussed potential ways of joining forces over one last Sam Adams.
This is the third trade mission I’ve been involved with, and I’ve jotted down a dozen things I’ve learned. ‘Takeaways’, as they say;
1. There is a certain urgency created by being somewhere for one week only. You can’t be palmed off with a meeting in a month’s time. Why should an investor meet you on Thursday? Because by Friday, you’ll be gone.
2. A group attracts attention, which benefits everyone. I’ve lost count of the number of times when someone has said ‘Oh, I heard about you guys’. As news of the mission reached the media, several companies reported unsolicited approaches. Being part of the group is a great conversation starter, as you point out friends and colleagues around the room.
3. You can have a series of conversations with people. For example, we have been travelling with several journalists (from the Guardian, Wired UK and Spectator Business) and there isn’t the pressure to go into pitch mode at every opportunity. You know you will be able to follow up in a couple of hours, and to share your story as it unfolds.
4. There’s (just) time for two meetings with the same person. Lots of the companies have been following up Tuesday’s pitches with Thursday or Friday meetings. Some have been back to see Arup, or to arrange a formal interview with a journalist, met over brunch at the weekend. Two meetings in one week back home would seem over-keen. On a mission, it’s par for the course.
5. The competition element adds credibility. People are impressed when they hear that over 140 companies applied to attend the Clean and Cool Mission. It gives them confidence that an hour spent with our group will not be time wasted.
6. A blend of funders works well. The backing of the British Government goes down well here in the US. Back home, this can trigger eye-rolling and tutting, which may be silly and naive, but it’s true. The people we are meeting are smart enough to realise that UK Trade and Investment plays an important role in brokering valuable connections. They recognise the significance of the Technology Strategy Board (our lead sponsor) and this goes down well. The companies fund their own plane tickets and accommodation. We use the sponsor’s money to add value to the week.
7. Work hard play hard. The people we’ve been meeting are driven, and they love to have fun. Sometimes it’s easier to build relationships over pub quizzes than formal meetings.
8. Wall to wall doesn’t work. I must admit that one of the days this week was too full. The days which work best are ones where we have at least a few clear hours to do our own thing. Some take the opportunity to rest or catch up with work, others pack in impromptu meetings. The energy when we reunite is fantastic.
9. Leverage the social networks of local friends. Susan MacTavish Best’s brunch worked well because she invited her own contacts. The farewell drinks at the Consul General’s house had over forty influential, hand-picked guests. The events which work best are the ones where we join forces to pull the list together.
10. Skills develop as the week goes by. Sitting around the enormous table at City Hall, I was aware of just how much clearer our ‘elevator pitches’ had become in only three days. Following Kevin Surace’s master class in dealing with Silicon Valley VCs, the changes in presentation style and substance were obvious.
11. Opportunities emerge within the group. Already, several companies have agreed to work together. In every case I have heard about, they had not met before the mission.
12. A ‘hive mind’ emerges. As we get to know each other, we can help each other. Meeting a VC who doesn’t invest in your particular area? Allow me to introduce you to someone I think you’ll love. The entrepreneur you’re talking to is after press coverage? Have they met the Business Week reporter, standing in the far corner?
As I prepare to leave for the airport, I believe in the value of trade missions more than ever. I also believe, despite the nonsense talked by some naysayers, in the value of public-private collaborations. Without the significant private cash of Orrick, BP Alternative Energy, and the Clean Tech Group, we wouldn’t have had a Clean and Cool Mission. Without the Technology Strategy Board being first to sponsor, we could not have begun planning. The introductions brokered by UKTI have made the trip worthwhile. If this is the last mission I’m involved with, I’ll be disappointed and more than a bit surprised. Thank you for tuning in, and watch this space!