11 lessons learned as a legal alien running a US travel tech companyNewsBy Viewpoints | January 28, 2014Share This article was originally published on I grew up in a small town, Grimstad, on the southern coast of Norway. It’s very different from Boston, where I’ve lived and worked for the past decade.I’m fortunate enough to lead the team at StudentUniverse – a tech company running the leading youth and student travel marketplace in North America.NB: This is a viewpoint from Atle Skalleberg, chief executive of student travel marketplace, StudentUniverse.Along the way I’ve learned a bit about this market, some of which I’ll try to share. I hope this helps those fresh off the boat and those who hope to make their “American Dream” a reality, whether a founder of a travel tech startup, someone expanding into the US or, it might even be insightful for those with an eagle on their passport.The American Dream is not deadAllow me to limit the concept of the American Dream to business and business culture. By doing so I will exclude the highly complex (and politically loaded) upward social mobility aspect, yet focus on the same set of ideals that this nation became famous for: where freedom includes an equal opportunity for prosperity and success achieved through hard work.I have found that the American business community has a greater appetite for risk and a more pragmatic approach to failure than what you find in most other industrialized nations. At a macro level these qualities are key drivers for continued innovation. At a micro level this means fewer speed bumps and more open doors as you build a technology company.Age matters less than you think in tech (and likely less than where you are from)Unfortunately I see this too often; smart people accepting age-based barriers (not skill based). Friends in Europe, Asia and Latin America all complain of “a certain order of things here”. There is no doubt barriers exist in the US too, and they undoubtedly vary greatly by industry, but my experience is that they are not nearly as rigid.US leaders and investors are willing to take the risk. Twenty-something founders are able to raise millions for their tech ventures. CEOs still living with their parents remain in charge even after the company takes off. Kids turn down billion dollar offers after consulting with their mentors.The work culture is shockingly aggressiveThe part of the American Dream ethos that surprising amounts of people seem to live by is “success achieved through hard work”.Americans spend a lot of time at work. I grew up in a country with labor laws that are among the most generous in the world. Employees in Norway are granted a minimum of twenty-one vacation days per year and maternity leave is more than forty weeks at full pay.Americans on the other hand are used to a few days of vacation per year as they join the workforce. Most new US mothers go back to work after just a handful of weeks off. You can argue that Americans live to work, whereas Europeans work to live.You can quote the four-hour workweek. You can show me research on the benefits of vacation. I’m merely sharing what I’ve observed at all levels of respected tech companies; if you want to succeed in the high-skill US market you will, more likely than not, need to work more than in most other markets.Failure is not another f word in the tech spaceThere are two big aspects of this; societal and professional. The two feed off of each other and the result is rather amazing to a legal alien. The sheer size of the professional part is staggering; an unparalleled network of venture capitalists, private equity firms, incubators and angel investors with an appetite for big thinking.In society, leading universities have embraced and taught entrepreneurship for decades. Tech founders are rock stars. People try again and again, as failure is seen as a common and even important part of the road to success. I’m not saying failure is fun or pain-free, but founders of failed startups get funding for their next venture. Successful business leaders talk about the importance of their failures.Not only is there a greater tolerance for failure, there is almost a culture around it.Fortunately this is spreading around the world and other countries and communities are now increasingly open to failure. VC investments per capita in Israel are greater than in the US. Sweden has had a substantial impact on the tech-startup scene, and so on and so forth.That said, the lesson I’ve learned is clear; when your society and professional community tolerate failure you are free to think bigger and go for it. For a lot of tech entrepreneurs (and intrapreneurs) this makes a world of difference.It truly is the land of extremesCulturally and economically there are some rather enormous variances. Much like Westerners have been mesmerized by Chinese stats the last few years, I have also been more and more taken aback by the extremes in these United States of America. The composition of its three hundred million people (plus), the sixteen trillion dollar GDP, calories per portion, obesity rates, number of high speed train routes (zero), its more than twenty million college students and thousands of airports – to name just a few.These are all just figures until you spend enough time here to realize that they are not. They say that stereotypes exist because they are grounded in truth – well, everything is more extreme in America. Understand and address the extremes and you can succeed personally and professionally. Let the extremes drive you nuts and you will hate it here.Be prepared to be an individualIn Scandinavia we have the “Law of Jante”. This refers to a mentality that de-emphasizes individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while discouraging those who stand out as achievers. The first (of ten) rules states: “You're not to think you are anything special”. Although this mentality is getting diluted there are still dramatic differences in our cultural platforms.In the land of extremes you must be prepared to be an individual – to market yourself and your achievements. Remain humble of course, but personally I had to be twice as aggressive as I was comfortable with in many situations. It can feel strange and I still struggle with it, but with small adjustments you can make the ride smoother. This is true for tech companies raising funds, presenting their products and pitching to partners.Sometimes it feels like the country is run by attorneysOk, that might be a slight exaggeration, but brace yourself for legal-impact. Lawsuits are more frequent in the US. The downside is significant, so get a good attorney. You see it in your everyday life too: restaurants asking forty year olds for identification, warning signs for the most obvious dangers and basic agreements turning into twenty page documents. My mentors told me this very early on and my personal experience is that as long as you understand the (exaggerated) importance of legal counsel in this market you will be more than fine.Get local mentors (aka coach, friend, advisor)The second word, 'local', is the key word. Don’t think you know the market because you speak the language and binge watched American series on Netflix. I’ve found that people are genuinely willing and able to help. I have benefitted greatly from my mentors’ advice and I have been fortunate enough to meet frequently with people that are much smarter and more experienced than I am. All I did was ask them nicely.Starting small can be big enoughDo not get paralyzed by top-down maths. "Even if we just get a 1.5% market share we’ll still be a billion dollar business."Guess what? You likely won’t (not that way).So what can you do? Roll out in one market or segment first, because there is still plenty of money in that: population of Norway: ~5M. Population of New York City: double that.Travel tech - it is a saturated and sophisticated marketPlease don’t let the saturation scare you. It’s a great market with plenty of opportunities for disruption and very few other markets give you tens of millions of empowered consumers that share one language. One lesson I have learned, arguably true for any venture, but amplified in this market: have a unique value proposition or get killed.Also, I have learned, first hand and through friends (entrepreneurs): for a market like this; raise more money than you think you need and don’t build a “feature business”.Think of segments like you normally think of countriesConsumer groups with solid purchasing power, for example college students, and compare to entire countries in the rest of the world. You don’t have to try to be everything to everyone and you can still have a huge addressable market: population of Norway: ~5M. College students in the US: ~20M+.I have first-hand experience with this. At StudentUniverse we have focused on the student travel market and by doing so have had a unique selling point with suppliers and consumers. Our business has grown exponentially from our first online booking in the dot com days to serving millions of students each year. We were able to raise tens of millions of dollars with this strategy and continue to believe we can build a multi-billion dollar business without going head-to-head with those who serve everyone.These are some of the lessons I’ve learned as a foreigner running an American travel technology company. I hope fellow immigrants can share some of their experiences and that Americans chime in too.This was not intended to be a contribution to the skilled labor immigration debate, however, I will say that it is not easy to get permission to work in this country and I find that unfortunate as I hope many more get to experience the ride that I feel so fortunate to have been part of.NB: This is a viewpoint from Atle Skalleberg, chief executive of student travel marketplace, StudentUniverse.NB2: Alien meets human image via Shutterstock.