American business and marketing strategist, and Founder of USAccelerator, a strategy consulting firm, Matthew Sawyer, tells EMMANUEL OJO how international businesses can succeed in the US market, and his experience with Nigerians at at Columbia University and New York University, where he teaches graduate courses in strategic marketing and communications as an adjunct Professor.
This interview was originally published in The Punch, Nigeria’s Most Widely Read Newspaper
Photo : Peter Serling
You founded the USAccelerator project. What exactly inspired it?
The idea for this business venture was hatched while consulting with international companies. I saw them struggle to understand the US market dynamics and business practices. They struggled to find information and answers to their many questions, and they struggled to find trustworthy US business experts and good local resources.
The exact time was seven years ago when I was helping a French technology company enter the US market. The company had sent a sales team, which had won dozens of European customers, to expand its Google-endorsed software business. But after 10 months, the team had secured only a few customers in the United States. During a six-month consulting project, my team interviewed dozens of potential customers to map the competitive and market landscape to develop marketing and sales strategies to penetrate the US market. It helped them gain traction, and the company later secured $24 million from a group of investors led by Goldman Sachs.
Other consulting projects confirmed there was both a need and a gap for trusted sources of strategic guidance and support in the United States. Discussions with leaders at chambers of commerce and other trade organisations encouraged me to write a book that would help foreign companies be better informed and prepared for their journey. Over an 18-month period, I researched – including interviews with over 150 people in 40 countries – and wrote Make It In America – How International Companies Can Successfully Enter and Scale In US Markets. The book was published in 2022, and it received strong reviews in CEO, CNBC, Forbes, and others. Also, I was invited to speak about it at a Financial Times event, a radio broadcast in Ireland, and a conference in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
When was it founded?
USAccelerator was officially founded in February of 2023. While the book provides a lot of information, many non-US executives wanted hands-on guidance and assistance to accelerate their journey. So, I enlisted several business professionals to provide consulting, coaching, training workshops, and connecting people with resources and service providers. Our mission is to be the most trusted source of strategic guidance and support for international companies to successfully enter and scale in US markets. Unlike other business accelerators, we don’t invest or take equity in the companies that we help.
The team includes leaders from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and North America. Marcela Miguel Berland is an internationally recognised strategy expert and former Head of LATAM at Edelman Intelligence. We are fortunate that Gbenga Adebija, former Director General of the Nigerian-American Chamber of Commerce, joined the team to head up our operations in Nigeria. In addition to working with companies and entrepreneurs based in Nigeria, Gbenga will lead educational seminars and workshops to reach a wider audience.
What would you say makes your book stand out from the others?
First, there haven’t been many books written about doing business in the United States for people from other countries. That said, Make It In America is different from most business books in how it can be used as a guide, similar to a roadmap for travellers. It provides explanations, insights, and tools to develop a playbook for success. There are chapters on how to establish a US business entity, how to finance US expansions, how to navigate the legal and immigration systems, and how to establish a market presence. There are several checklists for both established companies and startups. In addition, the book has 15 case studies of companies that tried to enter and grow their foreign business in the United States. Some of these companies were successful, and others were not so successful.
What roles can you say that culture and language play in global trade or international business?
Let me define the word, culture, for this conversation. The word, culture, is used to describe many things. In the world of theater, it might be opera, drama, or dance. In music, culture could be used to describe classical, jazz, gospel, or rock ‘n roll. For the record, I am a big fan of Nigerian music. In America, this genre of music is called Afrobeats. I’ve been listening to Burna Boy in preparation for this interview. (Laughs)
As presented in my book, I define, culture, as the way groups of people think, feel, and act. It’s the emotional preferences that members of the group have in common for both everyday and momentous decisions. These preferences are shaped by the group’s shared values on what’s right and wrong, what’s proper and improper, and what’s normal and abnormal. These values have been passed down for generations by parents, grandparents, and teachers.
Research shows that each country has a unique set of values, rituals, heroes, and symbols. You can see it in the way people interact. American children are taught to be friendly and upbeat. They are told to say hello, hi, howdy, and how ya doin’ to everyone they meet. It’s an ingrained part of American culture, which to people from other countries often feels superficially friendly. But to Americans, the friendly greeting is a ritual that signifies every human deserves to be acknowledged and feel welcomed.
Let’s get back to your question. Culture plays an essential role in global trade and international business. It’s not enough to just speak the same language. People on both sides of every commercial transaction need to trust the other side will deliver on its commitment. This mutual trust rarely happens without an understanding and respect for the cultural norms of the other group.
It’s not easy for people from other countries to understand Americans and American culture. And the United States is huge with many groups and regional cultures. Our firm, USAccelerator, helps businesses understand and navigate US markets and business culture. Our process usually includes conducting research with potential clients and customers. Then, with insights from this research, we develop effective marketing strategies and communication messages.
The world today is said to be a global village with the deployment of technology in trade and business. What’s your assessment of the role of technology in international business?
Again, we need to define what the word, technology, is. I define it more broadly than the tech industry – often referred to in the US as Silicon Valley. And I define it more narrowly than scientific ideas and concepts, which are often referred to as intellectual capital. That gets into legal and regulation areas where I am not qualified to assess. Let’s leave that to experts in those fields.
That said, technology plays an important role in international trade and business. Technology has been a huge enabler for cross-border trade and business. Certainly, the internet and broadband have enabled businesspeople to connect from virtually any place in the world. Digital communication is fast, relatively inexpensive, and potentially clearer. Technology has made it easier and faster to ship and track items across borders. Technology has made financial transactions easier and more secure.
Advances in technology will continue to expand the volume of international commerce and business.
What would you identify to be the biggest challenge facing businessmen from Nigeria and Africa who come to the United States for investments?
Businesspeople from around the world tell me they’re attracted by the American Dream which promotes the idea that any person – no matter their background or social status – can find a fulfilling and rewarding life here (in the US). However, most worry about the risks, as they’ve heard international companies often struggle and most startups fail after a few years.
One reason is that international businesspeople and entrepreneurs underestimate the difficulty, cost, and length of time required to enter and grow in the US market. The competition can be fierce, and customers are often fickle as they face many choices. In addition, there is the challenge of living and staying in the US, because of the high cost of housing and living expenses.
Many foreign businesses struggle with marketing, sales, funding, legal issues, and managing US employees, as all of these are vast and complicated areas, which at times differ from how it’s done in their home country. The way to success in the US is to work with local, American business and legal experts who can help them navigate these challenges.
Some say money is not the most important item needed by an entrepreneur to start a business. Are you also of that school of thought?
No, I’m of the school of thought that thinks ideas and knowledge are the most important. These ideas and insights are the capital, the intellectual capital that it takes to start a business. However, once the business starts to grow, entrepreneurs need money to fuel the fire – money to scale the business, money to pay for capable employees, legal experts, and sales teams. Media and marketing costs can get expensive, too.
Here’s an important point that I want to stress. The US market is an expensive one. Housing and living costs in US business centres – cities such as Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami – are among the highest in the world. Legal fees are expensive but it’s necessary to work with qualified lawyers who know the federal and state business and employment laws and regulations. You’ll probably need lawyers who specialise in immigration, too. So, if you are planning or thinking about bringing your business to the US, you’d better have an ample supply of money and access to additional capital that will be needed in future years.
Money does play an important role in entrepreneurship, particularly after a startup venture has created a viable product. Then money is needed to enhance the competitiveness of the business, enabling it to attract top talent and acquire needed resources. That’s why venture capitalists and other early-stage investors play such a big role in the startup world.
As a marketing strategist, what’s your assessment of the Nigerian market?
Sorry, I don’t know enough about the Nigerian market, legal systems, and economic dynamics to answer that question. My expertise is marketing and business strategy to American consumers and business buyers. Fortunately, we are privileged to have a seasoned and highly regarded business leader, Gbenga Adebija, at the helm of our Nigeria operations. However, I know the Nigerian business landscape is marked by its diversity and dynamism, mirroring Nigeria’s position as the largest economy on the African continent. Within this multifaceted environment, entrepreneurs and businesses encounter a spectrum of opportunities and challenges.
Do you think the Nigerian market has been fully explored in terms of business, technology, and human capital?
Based on my conversations with Gbenga Adebija, I would say that Nigeria has made significant strides in the advancement of business, technology, and human capital. Yet, it remains an extensive and intricate market with substantial untapped opportunities. Ongoing efforts in the area of regulatory reforms, infrastructure expansion, and investments in education and upskilling, are poised to make the Nigerian market even more attractive for further exploration by local and foreign entrepreneurs. Thus, it is safe to say that the journey of exploration is ongoing and cause for optimism.
Some world leaders have said that Africa is the future of investments and business opportunities and Nigeria is very pivotal to this. What do you make of that?
Africa is definitely an attractive hub for future investments and business opportunities within the global economy. Nigeria, as a prominent African nation, plays a pivotal role in this narrative due to its population size, market potential, natural resources, and ongoing efforts to enhance its business environment. However, just as it is difficult to enter the US market, businesses looking to enter or expand in the Nigerian market should also be prepared to navigate the unique challenges and complexities that come with doing business in the country.
In your opinion, what would you identify as a major setback holding Africa and Nigeria in particular from breaking even in the world of trade and business?
Again, leaning on the knowledge and expertise of my colleague, Gbenga Adebija, I would say that factors such as political stability, substandard infrastructure, regulatory and trade barriers, lack of diversification, and access to finance have constrained African entrepreneurs from achieving even greater heights. However, it is encouraging to see the commitment to socio-economic reforms and the resilience of entrepreneurs in Africa and especially Nigeria doing so well despite the challenging macro-economic environment.
As an adjunct professor at Columbia University and New York University, where you teach business and marketing strategies, to what extent has this influenced you in business?
I am fortunate to teach at two great universities, surrounded by smart, hard-working, and well-intentioned educators and students from around the world. In fact, NYU has over 21,000 international students from more than 140 countries. Columbia has over 16,000. Certainly, it has made me aware of the tremendous talent from throughout the globe. Also, seeing our students’ desire to make the world better and their belief that they can has given me hope for the future. It’s made me an optimist.
Secondly, teaching has helped me to always be learning and searching for new information. The subjects of business and marketing strategy are constantly changing, so I need to keep current and challenge old rules and norms. Both schools are in New York City, and business leaders regularly visit our classrooms to talk about new developments, technologies, and practices. The joke that I tell my students is that I learn more than they do.
You have won many prestigious awards, what exactly drives you and makes you want to do more?
Awards are nice, but they aren’t what drives me. What drives me is being able to make a positive impact in my time on earth. Earlier in my career, I worked with Harvard Business School professor, Clay Christensen who was named one of the world’s most influential business thinkers by Thinkers50. In our conversations, Clay explained his views on the importance of having a clear purpose in life. He even wrote a book about it, titled “How do you want to measure your life?”. Clay measured his life in the number of people that he positively impacted – not the amount of money accumulated or career recognition. He was most proud of the accomplishments of his children, his students, and his consulting clients. Clay Christensen’s thinking made a big impression on me, and it led to my decision to become a teacher, consultant, and author where I could interact and make a positive impact on many more people.
As an author, to what extent does writing make you a better person?
Writing helps me to clarify my thinking and to evaluate if my ideas deserve to be communicated. You should know that I use an eraser more than a pen or pencil. Each chapter in my book was written and rewritten many times. Each revision was better because it was clearer and more concise.
You have interacted with Nigerians. What would you say stands them out?
Yes, I’ve met dozens of Nigerians at international conferences, personal introductions, and my teaching at Columbia University and NYU. Overall, I have been impressed with Nigerians’ intelligence, work ethic, and problem-solving skills. From my interactions, Nigerians seem similar to Americans in being honest, sincere, and open to new ideas.
The US is a beneficiary of the Nigerian human capital in different sectors of the economy. How would you assess their performance in the medical and academic sectors?
Nigerian human capital in the United States has enriched the nation’s workforce, culture, entrepreneurship, education, and innovation. I spoke earlier about being a big fan of Burna Boy, and Nigerian professionals, including doctors, engineers, IT specialists, and academics, have contributed to the US workforce, filling critical skill gaps and enhancing America’s productivity and innovation. Nigerian entrepreneurs have established businesses and startups in America creating jobs, driving economic growth, and contributing to the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Wally Adeyemo, who was born in Nigeria is currently United States Deputy Secretary of the Treasury.