From London to St. Louis
This post attempts to cover their first impressions when they arrived in St. Louis to grow their startup. They came here from London after winning a $50k Arch Grant. Things have exponentially grown better for them since they arrived.
Last year we found ourselves getting deeper and deeper into our startup – Tallyfy. We were praying that after winning a $40k grant from Startup Chile, that something just as amazing would come along. We needed to finish off the product in order to start piloting with over a hundred companies that had signed up to try it.
Tallyfy is a real-time process management tool. It enables businesses to simplify critical processes into intuitive checklists that can be tracked by anyone, really easily. It ensures the process is done consistently and on time, every time. Over 90% of the people that had signed up to try Tallyfy when it was just an idea were from medium-large size companies based in the U.S. They were still doing processes on paper, Excel, documents and email and were eager to try Tallyfy. It was then that we knew we had to find a way to get to the U.S.
We happened to hear of a unique startup program in the Mid-West, Arch Grants – no equity investment supported by philanthropy – we applied. The chances of winning two such grants would be pretty slim, but we gave it our best. And, we won! The terms for the grant was that we would have to headquarter our business in St. Louis, Missouri. We had been in London, spent time in NY and heard of Silicon Valley and knew how saturated those places were for a start-up. Everybody there seems to be battling it out with 100 others for the same customers, investment, talent and real-estate. We both jumped at the opportunity to explore something unconventional and a place that housed several big companies like Emerson, Nestle Purina, Express Scripts and Mastercard.
First and Long Lasting Impressions
After numerous trips back and forth to the US embassy in London, 200 pages for a visa application and half a year later, we were finally granted an E2 visa to enter the USA to carry out business. We flew into St. Louis during a bitter cold spell in January. We had decided we would not invest in a car and would use public transport to get into Downtown where Arch Grants and our office was based. We very quickly hired a car and bought one – you just can’t get by without one – especially if you want to get around to all the business networking and startup events that are going on in town.
The startup scene was absolutely buzzing – even in the winter, there was so much going on that we exhausted ourselves trying to be everywhere. Arch Grants has been an incredible springboard, something all startups are not lucky enough to have. They provided us with invaluable mentorship, legal and accounting pro-bono help from Polsinelli and Stone-Carlie, we would have more than struggled without it. They told us about events in T-Rex, CIC, Washington University etc and had connected us with Mosaic and ITEN. They introduced us to Emerson and Nestle Purina, they are now our customers. Since then we have been making the most of all the opportunities that we have come across and these relationships have blossomed into customers, investors, trusted advisors and great friendships.
Our instincts were right, St. Louis is a market that is not as penetrated by the high tech startups compared to the coast. Existing businesses and their people are open to new innovations and to help emerging startups pilot. In terms of investment, there is indeed a gap between small seed and series A investment, especially if you are not a bio-tech company. Broadly skilled cutting-edge programmers are snapped up fast and are difficult to find, but we’re hoping we can attract some from the coast with the low-cost of living. When people say ‘Why St. Louis?’, we say ‘Why the hell, not?!’ It’s startup friendly, it’s cheap and it feels like home. If St. Louis will have us and continue helping us, we’d like to stay and hopefully grow Tallyfy to a position where we can one day contribute back to this community.
When we first came Google Maps and AirBnB had been our only guidance during this decision-making process. We had thrown a dart at the map and decided to live in the Central-West-End (CWE) to start with, a well-connected place next to a MetroLink that runs into the centre of the city. CWE happens to be a vibrant and swanky place for young people and students to hang out. The city’s Forest Park was a stone’s throw away, we were happy with our choice.
Flash news had interrupted our movie on TV, warning us of a blizzard, so we decided to ration up. On day 2, we coated and booted up and ventured out in the minus 10 degree (Centigrade) biting-cold air for our first grocery shop. We were pleased to learn that most commodities were on average cheaper than London, and so we left the store with almost 10 bags hanging off our backs, fronts and shoulders, about 30 kilos of rations to get through the blizzard. We had barely made it halfway out of the car park and we heard a car pull up right by us and honk. It was the store security guard. Amit had been speaking to her, fascinated with her gun. She rolled her window and insisted that she wanted to give us a lift home. We were strangers to her, she was a mum clocking off her shift early so she could get home before her kids were back from school, a woman holding down 2 jobs, a lady who had time to give two strangers in a new city struggling with heavy bags in the cold. Our hearts sank, and at that moment we began to fall in love with St Louis.
Everyday Efficiencies, Pleasantries and Surprises
Our weekly shop is different. We’re quite particular on what kind of chillies we like, we like them sharp and hot! Supermarkets give a ‘Scoville’ score for each chilli type they sell. It ranges from 0 – 20,000 Scoville units, the higher the score, the hotter they are, so damn useful! Supermarkets seem to just sell shredded cheese! That explains why we couldn’t find a cheese-grater in our AirBnB accommodations. Once you’ve done your shop, the checkout person takes just seconds to bag up your groceries using this simple but super-efficient whizzy bagging system which spins around – it makes our shop so much less stressful.
After discovering that the snow-blizzards were not going to go away until spring, we invested in a car. No one we know really uses public transport. The MetroLink tram run infrequently. It ran through just part of the city centre and just wasn’t practical enough for a couple who lived on the edge of the city and like to explore. What is so refreshing about driving around the US is that most areas are based on a grid layout, and one can never get lost. You can also turn right on red lights, as long as you stop for a few seconds to check no one is coming – it saves so much unnecessary waiting. There seemed to be hardly any billboards in St. Louis – strange, but we’re not complaining, we love taking in the view of the monumental buildings and mansions on our drive into work.
All bath tubs have a double shower curtain, why? So that one side with a magnet stays in the bath tub to keep the water from splashing out and the other side stays outside to look pretty. Very useful and prevents careless tenants ruining the bathroom floor.
The pharmaceutical ads on TV are hilarious. The 5-minute long ads had images full of life and vitality, a voice tells you the benefits for the first 30 seconds and for the remainder of the 4.5 minutes the voice continues to positively talk about very horrible side-effects and that the drug may actually – kill you. Thank you for being so honest, we won’t be buying that then.
Static electricity was everywhere, due to the dry air in the winter! Touching a door knob, putting on our coats and even shaking someone’s hand was scary. Vegetarians in particular seem to be highly sensitive to this, apparently because of their heavy green-leaf eating habits – leading to high iron levels. The trick is to always walk around with a metal object (a pen, not a knife) and tap/poke the object with it first to break the electric shock your about to get. It’s really is quite unnerving.
So, we have to tip in the USA, but we don’t mind. Especially if you always get a glass of water with ice without asking and a complimentary bread basket. We walked into a Vietnamese restaurant in CWE (Little Saigon) on a very cold evening, and we couldn’t bear to take off our coats and gloves. The waiter brought over a teapot of hot water just so that we could put our hands around it to warm us up, all without asking. Good customer service here seems to be defined by genuine empathy. There seems to be some real innovation here because of this ethos. Apparently the Sub-Zero vodka bar in CWE is the first place in the States to serve flavoured beer on tap, but we weren’t sure about the coriander which happened to be the flavour of the hour when we visited. The popular Ted Drewes frozen custard is the pride of St. Louis, we look forward to joining the queues to try this in the Summer. We’ve been to a few burger joints and brisket places, they serve meat and burgers on a tray with simply a sheet of paper on top. I guess it saves them doing the dishes.
So these were our first impressions of America – a while ago. We are now settled in St. Louis Hills, and could not be happier living here – surrounded by wonderful people and growing an exciting business!