What tech does it take to make a business succeed in the US?

US flag

You're a company that's done rather well over here in the UK. Now, you'd like to try your luck over in the US? Sounds simple enough, however, expanding a business across the Atlantic takes foresight and funding.

The most successful companies use technology to become more efficient. So, then, what kinds of technology can help a business succeed in the US?

Cloud computing has levelled the playing field by reducing the cost and complexity of setting up a technology infrastructure across the pond. You can now spin up virtual operating systems and applications quickly instead of installing physical servers to run stateside operations.

One company that experienced this first hand is fin-tech business PCI Pal. The Payment Card Industry (PCI) Council's PCI-DSS is an industry regulation that governs how companies store credit card information. Businesses that don't comply with its strict rules risk stiff penalties. The 20-year-old company provides payment solutions that online retailers and other businesses can use to process customer credit cards without having to store that sensitive financial data themselves.

PCI compliance is an even bigger business in the UK than in the US, and a quick look at the data breach headlines reveals why: thieves are pilfering credit card details by the thousands. Seeing the opportunity, PCI Pal expanded into North America in 2017, setting up an office in Charlotte, North Carolina, a hotbed for fin-tech. However, it needed a solid technology infrastructure to run both its external services and its internal US sales, marketing, and project delivery operations, explains the company's chief revenue officer Darren Gill.

"Cloud has been instrumental in assisting us in our global expansionm and that's not only in terms of the solutions that we use internally, like email or Office 365 in the cloud," he says. "We were actually delivering a cloud-based service to our customers."

The company opted for Amazon Web Services, installing a presence at Amazon East, the cloud service provider's East coast region that communicates with PCI Pal's central hub located on Amazon's instance in Ireland.

PCI Pal can spin up a computing instance in the cloud in two or three days, explains Gill. He uses session border controllers from IP telephony solutions provider AudioCodes, which provide a link between PCI Pal's own VoIP network and its external telephony provider's network in the US. This also lets it funnel telemetry data about the calls that it's routing back to the Irish AWS instances. It's something that it can replicate in any country it tackles using its AWS set up.

Having a cloud-based instance in multiple regions also allows PCI Pal to meet a pressing customer challenge: data sovereignty. With corporate customers (and their consumer customers) increasingly sensitive about where PCI Pal stores their personal information, data centre location becomes a big factor.

"Particularly with the type of information that we provide and deliver, a US customer doesn't want their data sitting over in Frankfurt or in some other country's data center," Gill explains. Another Amazon instance in the Canadian province of Montréal also gives customers north of the border peace of mind, he says.

To keep up to date with US customer feedback, the company uses the issue and project tracking software Jira. This enables US employees to log issues from users across the Atlantic and feed them back quickly to development staff in the UK. This means US users don't get left out when suggesting new product features and getting fixes for problems.

As the US took cloud computing concepts and ran with them, PCI Pal also learned some new working practices that it exported back home, says Gill. The company began using Dropbox along with Office 365, setting up a dedicated section for the US office so that it could handle localized administrative paperwork, especially legal contracts involved with spinning up the US entity. It also began using DocuSign, which enables it to take its paperwork entirely digital using electronic signatures.

"The tendency was for most of the employees that were office-based in the UK to show up at the office every day and there wasn't a whole lot of flexibility with respect to working at home versus here," he says. The US culture is different, he adds: "We had an office location for convenience, but the reality is there was a lot of flexibility and most everyone works from home three days of the week." Technology enabled the company to replicate that cultural shift back in the UK.

Website development business UENI used the Internet differently during its own US expansion. The company started in late 2014 offering automated website development for UK businesses and expanding into continental Europe in 2017. It pivoted to a freemium model in summer 2018, abandoning a manual sales process in favour of an automated push-button web development system to grow its customer base. With a 100% digital system and a focus on generating customer volume, it began international expansion in 2019, beginning with the US in April.

The company used a content delivery network (CDN) to deliver its automated website building system to US customers, who now make up 500 of its 3500 global daily sign-ups. The CDN caches content from its central servers in over 50 US locations so that when someone visits a customer's website, they are downloading data from a local node.

"The closer the server, the lower the latency and the faster the content delivery," explains CEO Christine Telyan. "This gives us the ability to load our clients' websites as fast as possible on their customers' devices, wherever possible."

UENI also uses cloud-native software development technologies to help manage its software operations across different regions. "To scale the product, we use systems like Kubernetes, the container orchestration system. Originally this was Google technology, but now the community supports it," she says. "Kubernetes helps us a lot to scale our product to different data centres over the world. This gives the ability to have enough resources for the fastest delivery of the pages of our websites to the end-users."

The company has also used technology to help ramp up the marketing necessary to tackle a market ten times the size of the UK 4,000 miles away. "On our marketing stack we use automation tools at every step of the way," Telyan adds. "From automated rules to optimise and scale ads based on Pixel data and derivative metrics, to A/B testing software to achieve the best match between audience and message"

Fortified by their US experience, both companies are continuing their global expansion. The next step for PCI Pal is Australia and New Zealand, assisted by an Amazon instance in Sydney. Gill explains that the company's successful global push has even allowed staff to migrate between countries. One of PCI Pal's lead developers relocated from the UK to the US after his wife got an opportunity to work stateside.

"Just by virtue of opening the office here that kind of broadened our horizons a bit from a cultural point of view," he says. The developer now works remotely with his colleagues back in the UK using the company's cloud infrastructure.

The internet and the cloud infrastructure built atop it, combined with advances in software development and deployment technologies like containers, has lowered the barrier to entry for companies that want to create enterprise-class infrastructures around the world. There's now less of an excuse than ever not to boot up a business arm in the US using tech that can help with the legal, financial, customer support, and marketing aspects too.

Danny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury has been a print journalist specialising in technology since 1989 and a freelance writer since 1994. He has written for national publications on both sides of the Atlantic and has won awards for his investigative cybersecurity journalism work and his arts and culture writing. 

Danny writes about many different technology issues for audiences ranging from consumers through to software developers and CIOs. He also ghostwrites articles for many C-suite business executives in the technology sector and has worked as a presenter for multiple webinars and podcasts.