Björn Jeffery is among the world’s most successful digital toy developers. As CEO and cofounder of Toca Boca, he has helped his company rack up 68 million downloads in Apple’s App Store. He and his team have built 20 successful apps, including Toca Kitchen and Toca Hair Salon-Christmas Gift, which alone has been downloaded 12 million times.
Two years ago Jeffery convinced his media conglomerate bosses at Bonnier that he needed to move the company headquarters from Stockholm to Silicon Valley. Then things got interesting. When Jeffery landed in the Valley, reality rushed up and hit him hard in the face–much harder than expected.
“It was a humbling experience,” says Jeffery. “I thought I knew what the Silicon Valley was about. I didn’t.”
The biggest problem he faced initially: his wrong assumptions. A global citizen, Jeffery was born in London. He spoke English growing up, and he had traveled to the U.S. for business and stayed for months. He thought that would be enough. It wasn’t.
“I think if anything I was overly confident,” says Jeffery. “What was confusing was I’ve been here many times. I’ve grew up listening to American music and indulging in American pop culture. I thought, ‘How hard can it be?’ That’s been a humbling experience, because it’s been completely wrong. The cultural differences in America and in Silicon Valley are massive. That was an interesting insight.”
Jeffery recalls one night, out to dinner in the Mission district with some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. “They were going on and on about themselves in a way that was unfamiliar to me. I was sort of waiting for a question as my cue to speak up and give my perspective. But the questions didn’t come up. So I left without really saying much at all,” Jeffery laments. “Afterwards I realized that the lack of questions isn’t the same as lack of interest. Instead, they were waiting for me to just start talking. This took a while to get used to.”
What would have been easier, in his view? Moving to a country he knew nothing about. Or starting from the “know nothing” mindset. “If I’d moved to Indonesia, say, I would have gone into the whole situation of starting a company knowing that I know absolutely nothing about Indonesia,” he says.
“If I move to another country again, I will go with a more humble approach. I will go there thinking that I know nothing and try and learn everything from scratch. It’s quicker to learn than to unlearn.”
One example of how this manifested in the Valley came during interviews with prospective hires. That is, what’s considered to be acceptable to ask in Europe is frowned upon here. “You can be sued for asking a question like ‘What are you doing in your spare time?’ Which is a completely natural question in Sweden but here is considered completely inappropriate,” Jeffery notes.
Similarly, when he first started asking his employees for their opinion, he was confused by their responses. People here assumed that a CEO asking questions meant that he was putting them on the spot, or looking to test their knowledge. Instead, he says, he was following the Swedish model, which doesn’t include as much hierarchy or titular territory marking as in the States.
“I think it was confusing to people when I would ask questions,” he says. “‘Why is he asking me this?’ What is the real question? When the real question was exactly what I said.”
Jeffery had to learn fresh ways to solicit ideas. And he did that mainly by discussing and acknowledging that there were cultural differences at all. “Just because you can communicate, doesn’t mean you understand each other,” he explains. “Scandinavians are generally good at speaking English, which can be deceiving. Language, however is just the first step to making it work.”
His quick trick for when he needs cultural translation? Talk with Canadian partners. “A great way of getting perspective of what I’m like in the eyes of Americans has been working with our sister studio. They are based in Toronto, Canada, and are this great middle ground between Scandinavia and the U.S. The best of both worlds, really, but also a great cultural mirror to use when understanding the differences.”
When Jeffery arrived in Silicon Valley, he wasn’t used to getting so many emails during lunch–from the people he was lunching with.
“The forthrightness to help each other out and figure out ways to work together is different,” he says. “Sitting in lunches and getting four email introductions before we have even left the table. That was also very, very different. I was almost looking at it with a Swedish cynicism thinking, “What the hell is going on here?” Jeffery says. “Basically it’s because the culture’s just so different here. They’re not necessarily looking for anything. It’s just part of the culture that you help each other out.”
However, he points out that this attitude of abundance also comes with temptations. Constant networking opportunities can easily derail all but the most focused business people.
“It’s easy to come here and be overwhelmed with all the opportunities to meet people who are like you. In certain cases, it is a blessing and making sure you’re utilizing the network of people in this area–access to a lot of people, people with a lot of experience, people who frankly know a lot about what you want to do as an entrepreneur. They’re all here. They’re available here to a much higher degree than say the average European startup city,” he says. “It can be a curse from the standpoint that it’s easy to get lost here and live the entrepreneur life.”
So how to survive this embarrassment of riches?
“Focus is key. Be conscious of your time and don’t get swept away by all these fantastic opportunities.”
Coming in as an outsider–because of geography, culture, or language–can be an impediment. Or, Jeffery explains, it can be used to your advantage.
“The Valley is exceptionally Valley centric.” says Jeffery. “You hear people everywhere pitching ideas. Like, ‘Have you ever been at a party and desired a beer. Wouldn’t it be great if there was an app where you could get beer on a bike sent to you’? That’s not really a problem. It’s a problem for 23-year-old guys. But that’s not a real problem in the world as such and not necessarily a great market.”
“Being able to see what is a viable business in this ecosystem is not a viable business outside–seeing it for what it is. That is a benefit coming from the outside.” he says.
Having arrived from Sweden to work for a Finnish company with global entrepreneurs, Jeffery is in a good position to know cultural nuances.
“It’s important to get your expectations right about how people will perceive you. You could be the market leader in Germany. People don’t talk about Germany as a market. It is a big place. It’s a big deal. In Europe it’s a big deal, but here it’s not. You can use that to your advantage if you want to, and have that sort of global perspective immediately,” says Jeffery.
Of course, making deals on foreign soil comes with its own perils. Jeffery explains that if he meets a Finnish entrepreneur or an Italian entrepreneur, he automatically knows to read them in different ways. “You know with broad generalizations that Finnish people are more reserved and that Italian people are more explicative and outgoing,” he says. “The idea [from each of them] could be the same, but you read these people and you know that you need to ask certain questions because of the subtleties. The Finnish guys might not oversell this product, but their idea could be equally good if not better. It’s just that it’s not presented in the same way.”
He says those nuances are not broadly understood here. While there is a huge opportunity to think beyond the U.S., it doesn’t often happen now. “Don’t expect most people here to know the subtleties of the European market–or any other, for that matter,” Jeffery says by way of observation, not criticism, “It’s always about Silicon Valley first. Then America. Then we’ll see after that.”
Jeffery believes that with a slight shift in mind-set, many entrepreneurs could open themselves up to huge opportunities outside of the U.S.
“People talk about ‘Europe’ as a market. Everyone in Europe knows that it’s not the case,” says Jeffery. “It’s a very different thing going to the U.K., going to Germany, going to Spain, going to Norway. Europe from a market standpoint is an American concept. It’s culturally very diverse.”
“Asia is the same thing. That’s a Western concept. Nobody in Asia talks about ‘this is the Asian market.’ Japan is separate. Korea is separate. China is many markets in one. Indonesia and India are completely different,” Jeffery says. “They’re all technically Asia, but it’s a very Western way of looking at countries that you don’t understand.”
Despite the humbling hurdles he’s faced in the two years he’s worked in Silicon Valley, if he had to do it all again, Jeffery says he certainly would. Especially knowing what he knows now.
“We looked at New York, which had advantages from a European perspective given the time there, also that it’s a direct flight. But what outweighed those advantages was partially the mobile ecosystem which was growing in the Silicon Valley. We thought that would be interesting for finding potential partners to work with. And the primary thing is also that the platforms are here. It’s Google, Amazon is close at least, and the main one is Apple, as our main revenue source. Getting a better relationship with them required physical proximity. I think you can take care of a relationship from a distance, but I think it’s pretty hard to start one.”
So, if he had a time machine and could re-do anything about his expat experience, how would Jeffery think different?
“I would be more humble.”