In this new series, we’re interviewing leaders from companies of all sizes, who all face the same challenge: how do you tackle global growth?
Today we caught up with Nikos Moraitakis, CEO and founder of Workable, an online tool for recruitment.
What are the challenges of opening in new countries that people don’t expect?
People underestimate this a lot. To open up a new location and start doing business, usually one of the things that’s most challenging is you have no employer brand — and maybe no brand at all in the market.
Nobody knows you, so you don’t have access to the best people there.
In order to have a viable office, you need critical mass. So in that time where you have a few people, you need to have enough to build a culture there, become known there, to attract good people who attract more.
You might have an outpost, not yet a colony. Inevitably that’s not so easy to build up.In marketing you can spend money to accelerate your reach but with hiring, not so much.
You have to start off with some of your own people. You need the seed of something to work on. But you also have 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.
What helped you attract your first international customers?
In our case, because we started purely online and self-service, we were global from day one. The first ten customers were not from our country.
The saying goes “if you have a small house, you get out a lot” — we never even really looked into our own market at home. Now we have 6,000 customers in 80 countries, but even in early days, there were dozens all over the world. The majority are now in US but, to set up a viable team here, I had to move myself to express the commitment.
Do you think it has to be a founder taking that lead?
I don’t know that it has to be — but for early stage startups, it helps. When you’re really small, all you have to sell is yourself and the vision of the company and its future.
How do you know decide where to go next?
We follow the customers. If you have a good product, you’ll find a few dozen customers in any country happy to work with you in English — because there are enough internationally minded companies everywhere.
But once you have those, the market can open up and become an opportunity. If you then want to capture the meat of the market, you will quickly come across those who want local support. Maybe you also need localisation of the product itself. But, for example in recruiting, the way you do it doesn’t change that much from region to region.
You definitely need the people selling it and supporting it to match the local language and culture.
What has the balance of challenge been between language and culture?
I don’t know that we have found a dramatically different culture in the market yet. It’s a bigger factor with a consumer product but in B2B, businesses tend to use things in a relatively similar way.
Is business an international language of sorts?
You need people who understand how the market works: “What’s good?” or “What are the good local companies in that market that we should be selling to?”If you go to Southeast Asia, you probably don't know. So again, you need to get those first people with good intuition — and to do that, you need to establish yourself as a strong employer brand, and that takes time.
The other situation you get often is, once you scale an operation, you start needing to hire employees that maybe don’t speak great English. Engineers probably speak it everywhere but support professionals? You don’t hire them for their English skills, you hire them for their people skills.
So 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 English language to be a restriction on the talent we go after.
What were the most effective strategies you pursued to scale sooner or faster?
Demonstrating some commitment was crucial. When you see demand in a place, you need to move fast and make a sales commitment. Most of the time people commit too late. This is a very human response — you say “not now, maybe when we have time, when we have money. Next year!”
The number one tactic for us was to say “I’m going to go maybe before I have to go”. The other thing is: sometimes there are external events that trigger an opportunity.
Right now, the EU has enacted a new framework called GDPR. It’s a big unknown at the moment and everyone’s scared of it.
Now, this is a compliance threat. Many companies are going to adopt new solutions because they want something that will be compliant with that.
We’re an EU company so we’re going to do it anyway. But I was thinking that this 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.
In my previous company in marketing automation, we moved into certain markets because there was a World Cup and we could come in, work with those budgets and then they became customers and we grew in those markets.
Has where you came from helped you make that journey?
I think it was an advantage for us. 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.
So we were thinking 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.
Sometimes an American company or a German company might kick that can down the road. Of course that makes your life easier at the beginning. But if you have to solve that when you are already very big, you’re less agile.
For Americans, this means they may not think about it for a very very long time. I understand why but they eventually pay a price for it.
What advice would you give yourself if you could go back?
Move earlier. Do everything sooner.
Everyone understands how this is difficult. But most people underestimate just how much more difficult it’s going to be.
So for example, the separation of culture between offices can create an us vs them dynamic. And very often people don’t realise how hard that will be to maintain. Think about things like:
- How local culture will be very challenging.
- How quickly you have to establish your name, brand, employee brand from scratch.
They are no secrets — but they are even more difficult than people anticipate.
They cost more. “We’re going to localise the product” can become a massive complex task and then it slows down development and everything in that space.
Do it sooner — because inevitably you will have to struggle through it. And give yourself more time.