Cultural Translation: Understanding Funders, Customers, New Markets

Cultural translation

I’ve started working with the new Immigrant Business Center in Portland Maine. The organization’s founder has identified what I’d call the need for business culture translation, which will be a core offering to help immigrant entrepreneurs.

It strikes me that at a high level, this is not dissimilar to the need of entrepreneurs in general to understand the culture of funders, customers, and others who are essential to their business but think and act different.

Other People Are Different, And The Same

A constant challenge we have as human beings is recognizing that other humans are simultaneously different from us – sometimes very different – as well as the same in many ways.

And one of the many challenges of entrepreneurship is navigating the simultaneous differences and similarities of others.

  • Some customers may have similar problems and tastes to us, but there are plenty of others who have entirely different problems and tastes, some of whom can be clustered in different customer segments according to their problems and tastes;
  • Customer tastes, habits and problems can vary widely by geography, not only across continents but within countries, which is one of the many challenges of geographic market expansion;
  • Bankers, angel investors, venture capitalist, accelerator managers, grant providers and pitch contest judges often have some business culture similarities to entrepreneurs, but the differences are critical to understand;
  • Potential employees vary tremendously in their work culture – their attitude towards work – and building a consistent, strong company culture is a hallmark of successful companies;
  • Suppliers, competitors, trade journalists, regulators, mentors and advisors, lawyers, accountants, bookkeepers, economic developers, landlords… the list is long of others who have business cultures that may be different from those of an entrepreneur.

So Many Wrong Assumptions

One of the memorable memes I learned early in my business career was “Don’t ASSUME – it makes an ASS out of U and ME.” And yet human existence depends on so many assumptions every day.

  • We assume the future will be a lot like the past.
  • We form habits so we don’t have to struggle with regular daily choices.
  • We quickly generalize from a small amount of information to minimize the time spent observing before acting.
  • We infer mountains from a molehill of nonverbal cues.
  • We build trust networks to avoid unhappy surprises from interactions with others in that network.

The entrepreneurial struggle is a mirror of this human struggle. We have to balance forming and acting upon essential assumptions on the one hand, with not acting on inappropriate assumptions on the other hand. We must keep our eyes and minds open to the new and different, to the facts disproving our assumptions, to the totally foreign, to the good and bad unexpected surprises .

Here’s an exercise that might help you with that struggle.

The Eyes Of An Immigrant Entrepreneur

Cultural assumptions are deeply ingrained, and often hard to see when life today is a lot like life last month. But imagine being an entrepreneur in another country – Cambodia, Senegal, Turkey, Croatia. And suddenly you’re here in the U.S., in a specific city or town with a particular business culture, one that is quite different from your home country.

What would you do?

I’d suggest that some of the steps you would need to take are similar, at a high level, to those any entrepreneur must take when looking for funding from unfamiliar sources.

  • Learn the new language – American English, American banker, American venture capitalist…
  • Study the behavior of this new culture, both directly and through other sources (such as blogs, podcasts, courses), including recent history and current trends
  • Think hard about the assumptions you make about motivation, communication, behavior patterns, and then work hard not to let those assumptions color your observations, and work hard to change those assumptions based on unbiased observations (this is difficult!)
  • Learn about different nonverbal communications cues and generalizations formed from little clues, to ensure your own behavior is “culturally appropriate”
  • Start taking small steps to see if you’ve got it figured out, practice those things that feel foreign, then move more confidently as you get validation of your new “assumptions” about the new culture.

Cultural Translation Challenges

Business culture is deeply ingrained, although often entrepreneurs are the ones “breaking the mold.” Here are just a few crossover examples of immigrant and entrepreneur challenges, based on what I’ve learned so far about immigrant entrepreneur challenges, and those I’ve observed over the decades here in the US.

  • “You can’t build a big company in Maine” is a deeply ingrained, self-limiting attitude based on history. “If you create business success in The Congo it will be taken by a local warlord.” While drawn from a completely different culture, the self-limiting impact is the same.
  • “Look customers (or funders) straight in the eye” is equally a challenge for immigrants whose home culture dictates no direct eye contact, and American techie entrepreneurs who are socially challenged.
  • “I’m with an authority and I’m here to help you” can be a cultural disconnect for immigrants from dysfunctional countries, as well as for American entrepreneurs who experienced dysfunctional parents, schools, churches or police forces. Among other things this can keep entrepreneurs from seeking help at SCORE, SBDC and Women’s Business Centers, not to mention banks.
  • Fundraising pitches need lots of practice with lots of feedback. Learning American English requires lots of practice with lots of feedback.
  • Posture, facial expression, vocal expression and clothing have a huge impact on first impressions no matter whether we’re talking about immigrant entrepreneurs selling products and services, or inexperienced entrepreneurs talking to bankers or investors.
  • Translating technical jargon into customer or funder jargon can be hard. Same with translating Cambodian, French or Arabic into American English.

Walk a mile in the shoes of an immigrant entrepreneur. It just might help you translate your own story into something a funder will understand and want to buy.

Don Gooding

1 comment

  • Don, this is very interesting indeed! Keep us informed on this. I wold love to hear about the nature, challenges and progress of these businesses! Helping them succeed seems critical to the long term health of both the economy and diversity in Maine!

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