The rewards and challenges of foreign entrepreneurship in NYC

7 min read
08 Feb 2019

ven though NYC is one of the top cities in the world for its startup ecosystem, there’s room for improvement, according to one passionate New Yorker and influential figure. For Gianluca Galletto, there are pros as well as cons about starting a business in New York to be aware of.

Photo: Gianluca Galletto

Competitive yet welcoming

“Even though the city offers a huge amount of opportunity, it’s very competitive and very difficult to thrive in,” Gianluca Galletto tells Startup Guide. In light of this, you need to be really outstanding if you want to make it in NYC, he says. For instance, you’ll have to be superior in what you aim to offer clients, potential investors and strategic partners.

Currently an advisor at the mayor’s office for international affairs on foreign direct investment strategies, an advisor to the Smart Cities New York conference as well as a senior advisor at Global Futures Group, Gianluca is firmly embedded in New York’s startup community. Advisory firm Global Futures Group aids international companies looking to scale up in the USA. It also advises governments on building innovative ecosystems through smart cities strategies.

One of the reasons why Gianluca is so deeply involved in the city he calls home, especially when it comes to diversity and immigrant entrepreneurship, is that he thinks NYC could be even stronger from a business perspective with people from other cultures and countries. Now a US citizen, he immigrated to New York from Europe in the 1990s.

“New York has one of the biggest and most dynamic local economies you can find,” he says. “You have a combination of a great appetite for risk, capital, and a lot of skills and talents. But it’s also very open and welcoming.”

The next Silicon Valley?

The Big Apple came in second place across the world for its startup ecosystem - valued at $71 billion - in the 2018 Global Startup Ecosystem Report. But while NYC often ranks as one of the top ten startup ecosystems in the world, it still trails behind Silicon Valley and Gianluca thinks it’s time his city took the lead.

Wall Street sign. Photo: Unsplash/Roberto Junior

One of New York’s major advantages over Silicon Valley is that its end markets are much larger, according to Gianluca. “There are massive markets in a very concentrated area here. So it’s rather diversified with lots of industries, for instance in media, finance, design, business services and even food manufacturing,” he says.

But even with its diverse ecosystem, he believes NYC still has lots more growing to do. “There are a lot of international startups here, but I think there aren’t enough,” he says, explaining that foreign businesses help make NYC’s ecosystem more open and encourage purpose-driven innovation when it comes to the society and environment.

Even though the city offers a huge amount of opportunity, it’s very competitive and very difficult to thrive in.

Moreover, if B2B is what you’re after, NYC could be a mecca for you because there are so many potential clients here, according to Gianluca, including large fortune 500 companies and medium sized firms that are either headquartered in New York or have major offices in the city.

Beyond Manhattan

Gianluca has been actively encouraging entrepreneurs to consider setting up anywhere in New York other than Manhattan, where the majority of international startups base themselves. While Manhattan will remain the core of the economy, he says, something to keep in mind is that prospective clients are starting to sprawl into the other boroughs.

A lot of the opportunities that the tech ecosystem provides New Yorkers could be much better distributed across the city’s five boroughs, he says, explaining that Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx have a huge amount of potential.

Queens, NYC. Photo: Unsplash/Luca Bravo

Currently engaged in projects to bolster the city’s five boroughs and make NYC attractive for tech and innovative businesses especially in Europe, one of Gianluca’s main aims is to boost employment in New York’s local communities, especially those with lower development levels and less exposure to opportunities.

“I’m driven by social justice and more equal societies and I see tech as a tool for that,” Gianluca says. He believes tech startups from abroad can be helpful for New York as they can expose locals to international opportunities and create more skills for them to be better employed.

In his role as an advisor for the City of New York, he’s currently conducting research into how New York is perceived as a tech hub abroad and how it could make other boroughs more attractive to foreigners.

Gianluca feels it’s a shame that findings from a recent study show some boroughs like the Bronx are still perceived as unsafe to foreign businesspeople. “It’s really not as it used to be,” he says. “The Bronx is thriving and a completely different world now.”

Immigration challenges

Foreign entrepreneurs looking to set up in New York should keep in mind that there may be hurdles to leap over in terms of immigration, Gianluca notes. “Since the new US administration has been in place, especially in the last two years, what’s changed is that it might take a little longer to get approval for certain types of visas,” he says.

Much like everywhere else across the States, a specific visa for those seeking to set up a business is difficult to obtain in NYC, what with the American startup visa enacted by former US President Barack Obama on its way to being axed. Work visas moreover can take as long as six months to process.

Worth noting is that it’s not possible to come to NYC on a temporary visa and transition to a work visa. There are various visa options, many of which come with long processing times or the requirement that you have a great deal of capital.

“But it’s not impossible if you follow the rules,” Gianluca says, adding that you should not be discouraged by the length of time it might take to get your visa approved. In spite of the rhetoric around foreigners in some parts of the US at the moment, “New York is a place where foreigners are embraced.”

Programs such as the IN2NYC initiative, which is a city-wide program geared at helping qualified foreign entrepreneurs gain access to uncapped H-1B visas, have been set up in recent years. The H-1B visa allows American employers to employ workers from abroad in specialty applications. As the former Director of International Investments and Business at NYCEDC, Gianluca helped launch the IN2NYC in partnership with the City University of New York.

Top tips for foreign entrepreneurs

If you really are serious about setting up shop in New York, one thing Gianluca can’t stress enough is communication skills. “Communication is really underplayed sometimes by non-New Yorkers and non-Americans. But it's really important as a way to tell the story about your company. The way you present your material has got to be fast, as well as friendly, but also extremely effective,” he says.

Some newcomers from other countries who are not used to American business culture struggle with this, Gianluca says. One way to overcome it though is to enrol onto one of the many programs in the city like an acceleration program in which you can sharpen your skills. “Take advantage of that, try it out, digest it a bit and then make the leap,” he says.

I’m driven by social justice and more equal societies and I see tech as a tool for that.

Another particularity about the work culture in New York is that time is a precious commodity, meaning that you’ll have to grab the attention of the person you seek to connect with quickly and effectively. “It’s crowded and the pace is quick and you’re competing with so many other people,” Gianluca says. This is why you need to really grab their attention right off the bat.

Beware as well that if you base yourself in Manhattan, it is extremely expensive. This reinforces Gianluca’s suggestion about basing your startup in a borough other than Manhattan in an area which is comparatively cheaper. This would mean you’d also possibly have the chance to live closer to where you work since the residential areas tend to be more developed in the outer borough areas.

It would also be wise to come here with a proof of concept which you’ve already established in your country, Gianluca says. In doing so, “you come with a stronger proposition and it makes things easier.”

And while all of the above might seem daunting, Gianluca insists not to let it scare you off. “If you manage to overcome the high stakes and the competition, your business can grow really fast. It could seem overwhelming, but don't be afraid as there is room for everyone here,” he says.

Main photo: Unsplash/Oliver Cole

*This article was originally published on October 17th, 2018 and updated on February 8th, 2019.