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Lessons from San Francisco Design Week: Bootstrapping your way to the US

Our startup platform Dovetail X allows creative and tech freelancers to collaborate on projects, while retaining their independence. The number of freelancers has clocked over 57.3 million across industries in the US alone. We’d be silly to ignore numbers like that.

With the budget of a cash-strapped Kiwi doing an OE, we set out for San Francisco Design Week to launch Dovetail X.

Having a great development team at home ready to respond was essential to our launch. Right up to the wire, our team was refining features in response to market opportunities.

Launching in the US was a goal from early on. Here the market is big, and the pace is fast. We chose to launch at San Francisco Design Week to create credibility around our brand and get straight in front of our target audience.

People are enthusiastic for new products in the US. The general mindset is optimistic and forward-thinking. They are less concerned about the potential issues, and more excited about the possibilities. You can reach out to someone with a cold tweet, they’ll grab coffee with you, then introduce you to three other people you should meet.

Our concept was to bring a mini co-working space to San Francisco Design Week. With talks, panels and workshops happening alongside the exhibition at the Design Hub, we promoted the Dovetail X studio as a place to come work and hang between events.

This was not your average co-working space. We set up four unique Refold cardboard desks, each top designed by a talented international illustrator –  Zac Fay for The Design Kids, Natasha Vermeulen, Brett King for Kallan & Co and Daniel McQueen for The Designers Foundry. Everyone who came by the space went in the draw to win a desk. We proved a little thought and lateral thinking goes a long way. You don’t need dollars to stand out, just ingenuity.

The evening opening party was huge, with 3,500 people surging through the waterfront hub. For a solid four hours, three of us gave what seemed like back-to-back TED talks for hundreds of small groups. We forged valuable connections, handing out our ‘swag’ and chocolate. Whittakers’ –  you can thank us later for your new niche market of San Francisco designers.

We met graphic, industrial, and interior designers, architects, writers, marketing consultants, studio and multi-national agency owners and managers, and prestigious design school leaders. Each gave us insights into the problems they faced.

Our small studio made a big impact, and landed us some great feedback. On the final night’s Design Week Studio Crawl, we nabbed an insider-look at Pinterest HQ where their Design Manager told us Dovetail X had stood out to him like a beacon at Pier 27.

Fellow Design Hub exhibitor, Matthew Sellens, a Kiwi who’s lived in the US for 29 years gave us some sage advice. Based in Oregon he makes bespoke furniture using reclaimed timber from heritage buildings. “Leverage your outsider status for success in the US. This is a legit perspective — don’t take it for granted.  

“What is it you see that others don’t? Everyone saw this timber, but no-one saw its potential to be repurposed, or its beauty. They didn’t see what I saw.”

Five ways to hit the ground running in the US

1. Start with a unique market insight

Research on your market by reading up on published studies, but also more ad-hoc by keeping your finger on the pulse of the industry. I make an effort to be part of a variety of creative/tech industry forums and Slack groups. This is a great way to understand the sentiment of people on the ground in that market. For me it became a valuable network-building tool.

2. Go there, test the market

From the beginning we invested time in our key market. We visited three times in 15 months, spending a lot of time interviewing people in our industry, finding out how they worked, what pain points they were trying to resolve. We got some fresh thinking around product design, improving on what was still in production. We also took the opportunity to canvas interest from potential investors, who provided candid feedback we used in developing our business model.

3. Start building your networks

Do your research and start finding people who can be nodes in your network. Shoot them an email with a brief intro on you, and specifically what you’d like to talk about. Sometimes you won’t get a reply, don’t worry about it. When people do take the time to grab a coffee with you, make sure you’ve got a compelling story and enthusiasm about what you’re building. Leave the classic kiwi humble/self-deprecating humour at the door. Leverage the fact that you’re only in town for X amount of time. People will feel more compelled to meet you if you’ve come across the world and are only here for a finite amount of time.

4. Stay a while to follow up

If you are on the ground it is simply easier to respond to opportunities. After launching Dovetail X we allowed almost eight weeks in the US for follow up and networking. If you come for a conference, consider staying an extra week to follow up leads. If the US is important to you, stay three or four weeks.

5. Resources purpose-built for Kiwis

Based in San Francisco, Kiwi Landing Pad was a valuable resource for us as market newbies. We make an effort to get involved in all their in-person and online events. 

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, is based in San Francisco in the WeWork facility.  It’s an excellent, connected resource on the ground. NZTE also partners with the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center to provide one of a kind,  learning tools and seminars for Kiwi businesses.

Stripe Atlas is a product from payment processing company Stripe that allows you to incorporate in the US for USD$500. Stripe Atlas sets you up with an address, bank account with Silicon Valley Bank and other extra services. Even US startups use it to incorporate because it’s so much easier than the system here. They also have a great community forum with Q and A session from top industry people. NZTE are a referral partner.

Kate Darby is the founder of Dovetail X. Based in Christchurch, she and her co-founder Simon — also a designer, and her Dad — have devoted the past two years to developing Dovetail X, bootstrapping from their design business Darby.pro. 
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