Move earlier. Do everything sooner: Workable’s CEO on building a business abroad

6 min read
workable-nikos-moraitakis

Where do you see yourself in five years? What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?

These are probably the most dreaded questions in a job interview. Because there really is no right answer. You might have a professional goal in mind, like becoming CEO, or a more personal one. If you own a company, you might want to scale your business and conquer the world. Is that where you see yourself in five years? Well, then you better get down to business.

As soon as he founded Workable, Nikos Moraitakis inevitably had to look at it from a global perspective — and understand where, literally, his business would be in five years. The popular recruiting software started off as a simple online platform in Greece, but their first ten customers were not even within the country. To Workable’s CEO, this was an advantage: “We started off knowing there was a very small market here, so from the very beginning we knew this had to be successful in a few big European countries and the US.”

The saying goes, “If you have a small house, you get out a lot,” and Nikos Moraitakis says he never really looked into the market at home. Now the company has 6,000 customers in 80 countries.

So how exactly did Workable make the move from the Mediterranean coast to, well, just about everywhere?

In an interview with us, Nikos Moraitakis tackles the questions companies need to think about when looking at international expansion: how to plan for it and how to serve your customers, worldwide. Below you’ll find a summary of his remarks.

The number one tactic: plan in advance

For Workable, it was all a matter of always being ahead of the curve. They thought of everything in advance. “Even when the company was full of Greeks, all documents were in English. Because we knew the next wave of employees would be international.” Nikos Moraitakis points out that, “When you see demand in a place, you need to move fast and make a sales commitment.”

Since the majority of Workable’s customers were based in the US, it made sense to set up an office there. Nikos Moraitakis decided to move to the US himself, in order to demonstrate his commitment. He doesn’t think that it’s necessarily the founder’s role to plant a flag, but he does find it helpful. He adds, “When you’re really small, all you have to sell is yourself and the vision of the company and its future.”

What followed was hiring a local team, which was perhaps the most challenging part of going global. Apart from possibly having no brand at all in the market, you also don’t have an employer brand, which means it’s hard to attract people to join your business. “Nobody knows you, so you don’t have access to the best people there,”, explains Nikos Moraitakis. Word-of-mouth goes a long way, but first you need to attract those few people who will help establish the culture and brand of the company in the market, make it known, and, consequently, attract more and more people to your business.

Workable-team

Workable team

Getting culture right: hiring local teams

The other big challenge is to adjust to the local culture. Even though Nikos Moraitakis is a firm believer in setting up new markets with your own people, he also understands how important it is to “have local people, local culture and not just a copy of what you had elsewhere. They need a bit of a life of their own.” You might try to replicate as much of the culture of your headquarters as possible in your local offices, but inevitably the local culture will show its influence. This becomes particularly real when you start hiring people who don’t speak English.

Nikos Moraitakis gives the example of Workable’s presence in Asia. “You start to have a segment of your workforce who probably can’t take advantage of your materials and internal documents at that point. We have loads of customers in Asia and are gradually setting up our presence there, and I know soon enough, we’ll get to the point where we don’t want the English language to be a restriction on the talent we go after.” However, you also don’t want to separate the cultures of your regional teams too much, because you want to avoid “an us versus them dynamic” between headquarters and local offices.

Your customers will expect an adjustment to their culture as well. You will probably start off with “a few dozen customers in any country happy to work with you in English,” but eventually you will come across clients who want native support. “You definitely need the people selling [the product] and supporting it to match the local language and culture.”

On deciding where to expand, Nikos Moraitakis puts it simply: “We follow the customers.” There are also certain external events that can act as an opportunity for companies to grow. He gives the recent example of GDPR compliance. While EU companies need to be compliant in any case, he thinks it “may be an opportunity for American companies — if they can demonstrate they have applied thinking to this challenge they could show themselves to be relevant in a way that might have been difficult otherwise.”

boston-office

July 13, 2017 — The office of Workable, Boston, MA. Photo by Caitlin Cunningham.

Do it all sooner rather than later

“Do it sooner — because inevitably you will have to struggle through it. And give yourself more time.”

As for his number one piece of advice, it’s to move earlier. Having to adjust to local culture and being fast in establishing your brand in a new market are no secrets, but they are more difficult than people anticipate. Nikos Moraitakis believes that “if you have to solve that when you are already very big, you’re less agile.”

So if conquering the world is on your mind, the sooner you take on the challenge, the better. Now you know where to start.

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