An entrepreneur’s story: Why I relocated to the States

Earlier this year, I relocated from the UK to Boston to focus on the growth of my business Mimecast [shortlisted for the Digital Innovator award at the 2011 Growing Business Awards] in the US. 

I knew that this was big decision for me, my family and the company. 

What I didn’t expect was the reaction that this move would provoke from some parts of the entrepreneurial community in the UK. 

It seems that many believe that when the CEO of a UK company moves overseas, it is part of some kind of brain drain of British talent. That is wrong and, as a native of South Africa, I confess I do see a slightly parochial view prevailing here. 

There’s a certain amount of pain you have to go through to build a global business and it often involves relocating geographically for periods of time. 

When Mimecast took the decision to open up in the US, we shipped out two of our most experienced employees to start the business, and set about hiring local US talent to build a workforce made of the same essential DNA as we had in the UK.

Yes, I could easily have continued living in Oxfordshire, working out of our Kings Cross office and orchestrating our US growth from there. But the US represents a massive growth opportunity for a company like Mimecast and, as CEO, one of my top priorities has to be to ensure we tap into that opportunity to the best of our abilities. What that means, in practice, is a fairly delicate balancing act, simultaneously empowering a strong, local US business staffed by bright, ambitious people, and driving global initiatives out of our UK HQ in London. 

There are potential tensions there, but there’s also tremendous opportunity if we get it right. And to make it work, I need to be in the US – travelling back to the UK on a monthly basis so I can keep that collaborative energy at fever pitch.

There is no sell-out to UK business. Quite the opposite. I’m helping drive a UK success story.

This is all part of our global growth plan. I sometimes have to pinch myself when I consider that we now have more than a million users on our system and close to 5,000 customers.  

The challenge for me – boss of 270 or so staff – is to retain the vital components of the startup culture. What makes startups unique (and uniquely enjoyable to be a part of) is the lack of constraints. It’s about constantly challenging the status quo, almost to the point that there never really is a status quo. It’s about – for the CEO at least – driving massively audacious, game-changing plans from the top of the business, as opposed to settling for evolution through small incremental steps. 

In a startup you don’t really have board meetings. You tend to have gatherings around the table in the kitchen area, where you talk about breaking the mould and doing unpredictable things and where your overwhelming focus is on making sure your customers are happy and your technology is helping them do new things. It’s an environment where people are imagining what’s possible. How big is the opportunity? Who could we hire? What could we invent?

The danger as a business grows, and naturally spawns more formal boards that include, among others, external investors, is that the boardroom becomes a place constrained by budget limitations, safe, predictable fiscal responsibilities, and is motivated by pleasing stakeholders rather than innovating for customers.

I’ve seen both, and if I have to replace every mahogany boardroom table with a sink and a nice coffee machine, then I will. 

Mimecast is not a startup any more, but we’re still a company that thrives on urgency, rather than anxiety. Give me the kitchen table any day.

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