The main differences between American and European startups – Cross-border experiences by Colin Orviss
August 03, 2018
Colin Orviss (UK) is a well-established business angel with decades of experience on disruptive technologies and international business. He has invested in startups from various industries and continents. He is always looking for innovative technologies that'll have a societal impact. Read more on his views about the differences of American and European startups - and how on Earth is he able to speak Finnish?
This article is a sequel to a series of articles on cross-border investing
Colin Orviss (UK) has had a global career, working in over 50 countries and establishing companies from France and Finland to the States. At the beginning of the 1980’s he moved from Finland to California where he ended up working for Teknekron, which was one of the first innovators of venture backed incubator programs. They took the best students from MIT and other top universities and provided them an environment to turn ideas into viable businesses. Orviss ran their global business as the managing director of international operations. At the beginning of the 1990’s, Orviss moved to Cannes to start his own business. Together with his Irish business partner, they built their French/Dutch consulting company into a 200+ worker corporation with subsidiaries in 10 countries on 4 continents and servicing clients in 60 countries which he sold in 2007.
The angel activity came into the picture about 14 years ago. He had done some small personal investments before deciding to co-invest with his current Canadian business partner. She has a background as a digital business transformation specialist with a background in IT and is very business focused. Orviss returned to California and together they established Parhelion Global Communications Advisors providing IoT and digital transformation advice to governments and corporations as well as providing due diligence services to investors (PE/VC/HnW) and looking for the disruptive ideas to invest in for themselves. Lot of deals are found from acquaintances and familiar syndicates, the same as in many cases that FiBAN members invest in, too.
“What kind of companies are you looking for?”
“We saw that society is increasingly being impacted due to technology advances, so we are looking for technology-based solutions with use cases that have a net positive impact on the quality of life of the individual and the business eco-system.” Parhelion’s business model is based on thinking about how society will change due to technology advances and to help the individual, community and corporation to extract value from this change. They think that real innovation comes from small startups not the big multi-billion corporations. They work also with private equity companies and VCs that require blended business/technical due diligence on companies. They have twelve companies in their joint portfolio in total, and the industries range from immunotherapy-based cancer treatment to personal data/cyber security and blockchain based transaction engines.
“Have you invested in Finland?”
“I have personally done early stage investments into a few Finnish companies (Nordic247, Accanto Systems and Futis). I actually worked in Finland for 7 years as an engineer for what is now Sonera, that’s why I speak Finnish”.
Thus, Orviss has an extensive background working both in the States and in Europe with innovative startups. He tries to bring the so-called Nordic flavor to the States as well. “With Nordic flavor I mean that people in the Nordics tend to have more the ‘us’ mindset rather than ‘me’. Americans tend to be very money-driven, whereas here people want to make a positive impact and also make money out of it”, Orviss paints. But there is a downside to the modesty. “Nordic companies are almost apologizing about having a good idea. Startups almost want to first make their ideas bulletproof before selling their idea to investors. That sometimes leads to companies undervaluing their ideas and business concept, thus underselling their equity. Values and growth aspirations are often so modest that it almost makes it more difficult to justify investing into them, but it seems that Finnish investors prefer more conservative valuations.”
Some key differentiation points between the American and Nordic companies according to Orviss:
Access to grants:
- US doesn’t have state backed funding like many countries in Europe, thus startups are from the get-go more revenue growth driven and private capital oriented
When to launch:
- US: when the idea and “maybe” prototype is baked. Nordics: when the product is baked, and things are “effectively” perfect.
- US startups’ valuations tend to be considerably higher than European – more a reflection of the expected rate of return than anything else
Go to market:
- European countries are often too small for startups to stay local, thus they tend to be more international early on than their US counterparts
Expected rates of return:
- US has really high expectations with a defined exit strategy from the get go, but Europe is getting higher, as well.