Lessons from Europe: What Entrepreneurs From the US Can Learn

By Andrew J. Birol, President, Birol Growth Consulting, Inc.

As WorldCom was crashing, the Dow tumbling 1,600 points and the euro achieving parity with the dollar, I spent twenty-five days traveling through Europe. During this extraordinary time, I talked to many French, Italian, Belgian, Dutch, Swiss and English entrepreneurs while observing their local business conditions. As we strive to find our place and success in the emerging millennium, the Europeans are building their region into a highly advanced economic powerhouse. Since our country’s birth, their heritage has contributed immensely to the formation of our country’s entrepreneurial base. What lessons can U.S. owners learn from European business?

In sum, European entrepreneurs are faring better than we are here in the United States despite facing greater regulatory and resource challenges. They focus heavily on generating short-term results while putting in place the ingredients for long-term success. Here are six lessons we can take from their success:

Lesson #1: Live in the Present Instead of Your Legacy.

Despite sharing 3,000 years of history, most of it at each other’s throats, Europeans have embraced a common currency, market and emerging economic system. The Euro is now the currency of the realm. Agricultural, union, and tariff disputes are often resolved by special panels. Entrepreneurs seem more able to embrace change and focus on the present.

  • An Italian general contractor seasonally relocates his headquarters to Marseilles, France, recognizing the two countries are only a short drive apart and that proximity is advantage, in spite of crossing a national boundary.
  • A Belgian owner of an on-demand, specialized air-charter company told me how he is expanding beyond Europe based on his emerging best and highest use.
  • A British law firm owner just merged his practice with an American firm. He recognized that the emerging business issues between North America and Europe will call for collective understanding of both legal systems.

The lesson we can learn in growing our businesses is to not dwell on the past but accept the fact that change is coming and accept that change, opportunity, and the future are synonymous.

Lesson #2: Create Opportunity Out of Scarcity.

Europeans have realized that less is the status quo. They have less space, disposable income, and personal freedom, yet are just as capitalistic. They live well with what they have, perhaps because they have lived so long without having it all. They are far less wasteful and seem to make everything count more. Recycling abounds and most people drive a moped and do not crash. In all aspects of entrepreneurial business, it was clear that Europeans find ways to charge for value everywhere, particularly where it is scarce.

  • Not only does one pay more for a first-class train ticket, reserved seats cost more.
  • Cover charges are standard at any bistro. When you are finished, it is expected that you either order more or vacate their valuable real estate.
  • Go to many beaches and you pay for the beach chair, more near the water.
  • Conversely, an artist sketching my daughter’s picture asked me for some water. Instead of buying him a simple pint-sized bottle, I generously bought him a liter. He asked me why I bought so much when he did not need it.

The lesson we can learn is two-fold: first charge more for true value -- your market will pay. Second, make your valuable resources go as far as possible.

Lesson #3: Serve, Live, Serve, Live.

There is great pride in Europe for the service professions:

  • Waiters live to serve and to do it correctly.
  • Drivers of NCC tour cars can drive right up to the door of any attracting in Italy. They are a tight and proud fraternity.
  • Even the bathrooms are clean. Attendants expect you to treat their facilities well.

In a short conversation with Frank Bruno, New York Times bureau chief for Italy and Greece, we discussed how European entrepreneurs are better at motivating their people. In spite of strikes, mandatory employment rules, and severe regulations, they are very effective at getting their people to move, act, perform, and deliver. Why? I believe owners manage harder, lead more by example and live life fuller than we do. They seem much more engaged and willing to roll up their sleeves. My lesson learned is to remember to deliver on what you promise. Otherwise, growth is not real or sustainable.

Lesson #4: Apply technology to solve acute problems instead of fussing over where to use it.

Europeans have quickly implemented and embraced some of the very technology that we are struggling to use. Here are some examples:

  • Because wireless technology lets smaller businesses process credit cards -- even in the most remote regions of Italy, i.e., vineyards, the smallest shopkeeper will pull a little wireless device out of his drawer which swipes your credit card and produces a paper receipt for you to sign.
  • In response to their six-dollar-a-gallon gas prices, uncompromising pursuit of style, and medievally narrow roads, Europeans are buying the Smart Car in droves. Produced through a joint venture of Mercedes and Swatch, this $20,000 four-seat convertible, no bigger than a kitchen table, is perfect for navigating roads cost efficiently and with a sense of style.
  • In the major cities pay phones now have keyboards and LCD screens built in, allowing the user to actually access the Internet anywhere.

The lesson we learn here is do not dwell on the technology itself, but offer simple, practical applications for real people with real problems and money to buy things they can use now.

Lesson #5: Dont Think, Do It!

Europe is now a world of "work hard and play hard".

A Belgian antique trader remarked that as much as everyone loves America, he was worried for us. He said, "You Americans used to say Go Out and Get It! Now you seem to say, bring it right to me." Europeans seem to focus less on how they needed government, association or corporate assistance to grow their businesses. I did not hear people talk about the amount of time they spent working on something, but rather talk about what they had accomplished. A partner of a Dutch law firm remarked to me, "You Americans are always so concerned with how much time you put into things. We take month-long vacations here as well, but we don’t think about it."

They have a way of living life to its fullest, both in terms of how hard they work and how hard they play.

Lesson #6: Walk Your Own Talk.

Surprisingly, Europeans now perceive American business more as a peer than a role model. As the Europeans watched our accounting and financial challenges in dismay, it became very clear that Europe has in fact become much more of an adaptive society and has learned the lessons from us. Many comments were made and heard about how hopefully America practices what it preached to the Japanese about cleaning up our financial and accounting systems allowing for objectivity and to pervade financial reporting.

On several occasions I was asked who is better: Bush or Clinton. Now everyone’s reaction is typically Bush would be better in this country. Interestingly enough, when we look at the results that Clinton achieved from the eyes of the Europeans, he in fact looks better than what Bush has achieved to date. This leads me to recognize the overall fact that Europeans are much more focused on results than they are on presentation.

While the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence, we here in Northeast Ohio need to acknowledge that real success will come from not looking to build up our institutions or develop a collective group think towards business success, but instead to focus on the oldest and most basic of all lessons -- discover your best and highest use, provide extra value, look for pain and problems in your market place, sweat the details, and follow through. Let’s keep pushing forward, for it’s the right way to go as proven by those who built our country.

Articles by Birol Growth Consulting are © copyrighted and all rights are reserved. However, articles may be reprinted with prior written consent if attribution is included as follows:

© Copyrighted by Andrew J. Birol, President of Birol Growth Consulting, who helps owners grow their businesses by growing their Best and Highest Use ®. Andy can be reached at (412) 973-2080, by email at abirol@andybirol.com, or on the web at www.andybirol.com.

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