16 Culture & Business Lessons I learned in the USA

A picture of Petar Bogdan, a partner at the Kontra agency, on a business trip in NYC. More specifically, the picture is looking at the Williamsburg Bridge.

My “American dream” began in 2012 when we developed our startup FenixApps within the then-agency Akcija (now Kontra). A significant inspiration for me was the team at Five and an article on the subject published on Netokracija. I can say that since then, I’ve been “thinking globally.” My first visit to the USA was in 2018 with colleagues from a friendly agency who had been visiting Boston for years. Inspired by the opportunities in the American economy, I ventured across the pond in 2019, and I’ve been visiting the USA every year since. I stayed the longest for a month while living in New Jersey and commuting daily to Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island City, etc. The most recent time was this year in May when I visited Austin (TX) for the first time, along with the usual NYC visit.

A picture of Petar Bogdan, a partner at the Kontra agency, on a business trip in NYC. More specifically, the picture is looking at the Williamsburg Bridge.

In this article, I want to share my experiences regarding doing business in that market. 

1. What is the American Dream today?

Things have changed significantly since the pre-pandemic period, but I still believe in the American dream and economy. People living there have explained to me that the “American dream” is the belief that you can achieve your dreams through hard work, no matter how disadvantaged your starting point may be. The environment is conducive because many successful individuals started from scratch (especially immigrants who built it).

One might wonder if there is a “Croatian dream.” As a country, we’ve made much progress in the last 30 years, and things are improving, but people expect a different pace. We need to promote the successes of individuals more, which can inspire those who are just starting. The hope that hard work and effort will lead to achieving your goals keeps an American going. In our case, hopelessness is evident in the number of emigrants and the poor demographic picture.

To summarize, hope is the foundation of the American dream.

2. Why go to the USA when you can do everything online?

As much as remote work is excellent, we are still social beings who value human interaction and networking. In business, meeting in person is still essential for closing new deals. That’s why I prefer face-to-face meetings and networking.

I spent much time commuting to and from work in the pre-pandemic period. For example, I used to commute an average of 3 hours a day between New Jersey and Manhattan. After the pandemic, everything changed, and most things are now online.

What disappointed me the most is that, as a member of the global business organization BNI, in May 2023, none of the approximately 20 groups in Manhattan were available for in-person meetings. (Here in Croatia, we’ve returned to weekly in-person gatherings.)

There are fewer live events (meetups, conferences, etc.). That is detrimental and makes it harder to secure new business, especially in the online world where you receive thousands of invites to online meetings via email or LinkedIn.

3. How is it to negotiate with Americans?

That part was quite uncomfortable for me initially because there’s a significant difference between us Europeans and them. They are more direct and get to the point immediately. People tend to beat around the bush in Europe (including the UK, where I also have experience).

4. Meetings up to 30 minutes

Initial meetings last a maximum of 30 minutes. People living and working there can have up to 10 meetings in a working day, which is personally unimaginable to me. 😃

Here’s an interesting situation from Boston, where I had a meeting with the CEO of a company that lasted 30 minutes. In those 30 minutes, we toured the company’s offices, had breakfast off-site, and had coffee, and the CEO sent me a follow-up email towards the end of the meeting.

I prefer the European approach of a two-hour lunch or coffee break. 😊 And statistics say we live longer that way.

5. How do they schedule meetings?

Americans use emails as if they were WhatsApp for quick communication and expect a rapid response. If they’re setting up a meeting with you, they expect a reply on the same day and the possibility of attending the meeting on the same day.

6.”Fake smile.”

I’ve noticed that part of their culture involves forcing a smile (which may appear as a “fake smile” from our perspective), but to them, it’s a cultural norm.

As one American told me: Always smile, get yourself into a state of “ecstasy,” and show energy, enthusiasm, and a genuine desire to win the business. And we must be honest: marketing, sales, and customer service are their inventions. 😊

A picture of Petar Bogdan, a partner at the Kontra agency, on a business trip in NYC. More specifically, the picture is looking at Manhattan.

7. How quickly do Americans enter into collaborations?

It’s a culture that encourages mistakes and experimentation. I’ve noticed that they enter into collaborations and projects much faster than in Europe (including the UK) and are more willing to take risks. On the one hand, I see this as a good thing because there’s no procrastination, but on the other hand, it could be better because they want to start projects too quickly without the detailed analysis that we, as an agency, insist on.

8. How do Americans view specialization?

My biggest challenge occurred when I presented Kontra as a full-service agency. This concept is strange to them, and what they are looking for is an agency specialized in, for example, building WordPress websites or an agency specialized in Google advertising in a specific industry.

I had a case where I had a conversation with a client in the healthcare industry looking for an agency with specialists in Google advertising exclusively in that industry.
The meeting lasted a whole 5 minutes, and this was my record.

9. Why aren’t there large agencies?

The answer is the exorbitant labor market costs and the extremely high employee turnover. This observation is based on my experiences in NYC, Boston, and Austin. In NYC, freelancers are predominant, which is, on the one hand, more cost-effective for clients. Still, I’ve been informed that clients need help with the seriousness and quality of the service provided. So, our agencies offer a better balance of price and quality.

10. How much do European brands and projects matter to them?

Projects completed in our markets hold little weight for them. The best proof is the projects I’ve worked on in the US market for US clients. This is a massive challenge because breaking into the first clients can be tricky.

11. Are clients better there?

Clients are the same everywhere, including America. There are even clients who don’t pay their bills. Similar challenges, problems, and situations occur in that market, but handling them with much higher rates is easier.

12. How do they view our annual vacations?

I received a “sarcastic” question from a client who asked me if I was going on that European month-long vacation. To them, it’s unimaginable, especially when you have a situation where an employee at the agency working on their project is going on vacation.

13. Burnout is a constant threat.

The rhythm of New York is demanding; there’s a lot of work, and it’s only for some. You can feel the energy and pace of the city at every step.

One good piece of advice I received in NYC when I first arrived was, “Don’t react to every stimulus around you because there are too many; you’ll burn out.” And yes, I experienced burnout during those months.

14. How do we behave in society and larger groups of people?

Americans are “sensitive” to various things, and you need to be cautious with jokes because not all of them are well-received. Pay maximum attention and be good at detecting who you’re talking to. I’m saying this from personal experience. 😊

15. America is not just New York (the state).

Every American will tell you this, so remember that everything is written through my experiences in New York, New Jersey, and Boston, where I spent most of my time and conversations with people.

This year, I visited Austin (TX) for the first time, meaning a completely different America, and I’ve only started exploring it. 😊

A picture of Petar Bogdan, a partner at the Kontra agency, on a business trip in NYC. More specifically, the picture is looking at Time Square. And there are some Disney guys.


16. My focus in this article

This article focused more on my business experience and insights. Still, there are many beautiful things to see there that recharge your batteries, from rooftop gatherings, Broadway, and excellent dining places to locations where famous movie scenes were filmed.

Some things I like more and some less, but it’s a country that fully embraces business, and with a lot of discipline and hard work, an individual can achieve a lot! I no longer feel like a stranger there; I’ve met many quality people, and many more years of positive experiences await me!