This October I was in the US for the first time on a two-week business trip. I am a CTO of LangPrism, and my friend, CEO and co-founder Alex Efremov and I were invited to participate in a Startup Access program in Boston, MA. This educational program gives start-ups from Russia an opportunity to get acquainted with the Boston entrepreneurship ecosystem, to establish business contacts, and to learn about American best business practices.
|LaGuardia airport, NYC, Alex Efremov and Georgiy Savchenko (left to right)|
Of course, being in America for the first time was fascinating. So I have decided to write down my thoughts and impressions – mostly for myself to remember, but also for others. I chose to write in English so that my American and non-Russian friends can read my notes and compare to their own thoughts.
To me, it is always interesting to learn about how my own country is perceived by others. Here are some notes about Russia by MIT Sloan faculty director, Bill Aulet, that he made after his trip to Moscow. I decided to write my notes in similar fashion with clear points and brief descriptions. Mostly I cover every-day things such as: lifestyle, food, and also my experience learning about entrepreneurship in America. Please, also note, that I was only in Boston and NYC, so I am pretty sure that things may be different in the rest of the US.
1. Everything is organized and well thought-out.
The high level of organization can be seen everywhere in public places. For example, in the airport there are special workers, who manage the passport control queue, making the whole process more efficient and less hectic. When you arrive at a taxi spot, you cannot just get into any random cab, (this is what you can do in Russia) - you must take the first one, typically with the help of a valet. Moreover, you have to wait a little while, until all the people behind you are processed. This is more organized, but takes more time than in Russia. Overall, I found this system good, but quite unusual.
The number of power outlets, and benches is exciting. Public restrooms are always clean and well-maintained. There are a lot of small things that are very efficient, make life much easier. In Russia, we still have a room for improvement. I doubt you can propose any improvement quickly in USA.
2. People are very polite, friendly and always smiling
Of course, I was glad to see it, and was readily responding, but the question “How are you?” from an unknown person, like a shop assistant, was initially getting me into the trouble. In Russia you can only get this question from your friend (although typically they would ask you more personal questions) or from an acquaintance, so I really didn’t know what to answer, sometimes giving no response at all. BTW, later I started answering “fine” without any hesitation.
People are always willing to help – whether you are in a mall or on a street with a map – someone will be sure to offer help, if they see you are in a trouble. That’s truly amazing.
Drivers are very polite too. They always yield to you and each other. Driving in USA is quite calm. I wish we had this culture in Russia.
3. There are no American cars on the street
This was surprising, because almost all American cars are big trucks, and that was a very small percentage of all cars I’ve seen. Japanese models dominate, and I was very glad to see that my favorite Honda is probably the most popular car along with Toyota, Subaru, Nissan, Lexus, and Infinity. BTW, we here in Siberia got used to JDM (Japan Domestic Market) cars with right steering wheel, and they are a little bit different in design. I would say that American Japanese cars are styled as “old look”, even new models. JDM cars are more stylish and aggressive – but this is just my personal opinion.
4. You should be careful when shopping
This includes a lot of things. First, it is the price. You can buy something for a very high price and later notice that you could have gotten the same thing much cheaper at a different store. We had such occasions with some food, cereals, bananas and some other items I don’t remember. In Russia price’ divergence in different shops is very small. In USA you can buy, e.g., bananas for $0.6 per piece and per $0.18 (I have seen it myself in shops of the same size).
Second, it is tax. Frankly speaking, I still don’t understand when tax is included in the price and when it is not. Why not to include or exclude it everywhere?
Third, shops in USA do have discounts. So if you keep track of them, you can lower your expenses significantly. This is actually a very nice thing.
Moreover, shopping is seasonal. I wanted to buy swimming shorts to swim in the hotel’s pool. I asked a shopping assistant of a large sports boutique and he told me that the season has passed and I wouldn’t be able to buy them. And really, I could not find them in the entire mall. It is different in Russia, where you can buy everything regardless of the season.
So the conclusion is that shops in USA have much more commercial sense than in Russia – probably, it is about overall entrepreneurship culture. Maybe we will have the same in the future, but for now I am 100% satisfied with shopping in Russia. BTW, you can buy cheap branded goods in USA.
5. Food culture is different compared to Russia
People eat everywhere. I suspect it is due to people being very busy. People eat on the streets, in universities, during meetings, conferences, walking, sitting and standing, etc.
This seems strange at first glance, however, I quickly got used to it too. Not sure if this is healthy.
A lot of foods have different flavor compared to Russia (e.g., bread, milk). Soups are not popular; fast-food is pretty popular. A lot of dishes are wrapped in a flat tortilla. In Russia you would always eat things like salad from a plate, rather than as a wrap.
6. Myth revealed: Americans are not fat
Most Russians think that all Americans are super-fat. Few friends from Russia even asked me this when I was in USA. This is completely not so. A lot of people are in perfect shape. I have seen a lot of gyms, fitness clubs; we even had one in the hotel. A lot of people go for a jog. In Boston you can see people jogging throughout different times of the day everywhere. It is much more popular than in Russia.
7. Business ethics is somewhat different than in Russia
Of course, I couldn’t completely understand the ethics after only two weeks of business meetings, although I have made a few observations. First, business people in USA seem to be very friendly and willing to have a conversation…. if you speak on an interesting topic. So I found it is easier to reach out to top notch business people in the US than in Russia. They will never send you away if they are not interested. They will just leave you referring to some pressing matter or ignore your email silently in case they don’t want to talk to you.
Sometimes we were characterized by our supervisor as being “too pushy”. However, we didn’t do any aggressive actions, at least from the Russian perspective. Ok, so we should be even more polite in the US. If others are interested, they will propose to collaborate. People in USA will never tell you that you are wrong, never hurt you directly, as could be the case in Russia. You should guess their doubts by such phrases as: “Hmm, it is challenging to implement”, “It is a difficult task and I wish you good luck”, etc.
8. Entrepreneurial community is gigantic
It seems that the entire city of Boston consists of entrepreneurs mixed with scientists and graduate students. You can have a random conversation about some deep subject on the street. This is pretty nice for cultivating entrepreneurship and discussing your ideas.
Every week a lot of startup parties are held, where startupers meet with each other. I participated in one – it was terrific! People, conversations, beverages and startups – that was cool!
It is also amazing to see how the entrepreneurial community is connected to the scientific community. As far as I understand, this is a single alloy. Many successful entrepreneurs teach in universities along with doing their business. Business students are mostly oriented to incorporating a company after graduation to commercialize their own ideas/developments created during their studies in a university. MIT $100K pitch contests are confirmation of this. In Russia, in general, innovation entrepreneurship community is relatively small and most students are oriented to join a good company after graduation rather than create a business. BTW, the Russian innovation entrepreneurship community is growing, so I expect good results from Russian startups in 3-5 years.
I was surprised by the fact that the annual revenue of companies created by living MIT alumni is $2 trillion, which is greater than the GDP of Russia and is in top 10 GDPs worldwide. And this is just the influence of one university. These numbers were presented to us in a presentation by José J. Estabil (presentation is googleable as “Entrepreneurship and Innovation: MIT History and Observations”), you can find a lot of interesting facts about MIT.
In conclusion, USA seems to be a nice place to live and work. Meanwhile I was surprised by increasing collaboration between USA and Russia in innovational and educational projects. I have seen a lot of people working on both sides and together, putting all their effort in RVC and Skolkovo joint ventures. That inspires and gives optimism for establishing a large Russian innovational entrepreneurship community. Now it is just a matter of time.
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