An international community for people who live and work abroad, InterNations connects 1.5 million expats in 390 cities with similar interests and needs - online and offline. Members meet, network, socialize at regular local events and have online discussions and expat guides to provide them with valuable information.
How did you come up with this business idea?
My co-founders and I have lived and worked abroad. As an international news reporter working for German television, I traveled quite a lot and stayed abroad for prolonged periods.
It was a very exciting but equally stressful time because whenever I arrived somewhere new, I had to explore a new city, find new business contacts and make new friends, i.e. starting from scratch - more or less every time.
My co-founders had similar experiences during their careers as international consultants. That’s why we decided to make life easier for expatriates.
We want expats to be able to easily connect with other expats online, get their questions about local life answered - e.g. 'where do I find a German-speaking dentist in Beijing?' - and do activities, attend events with their newly-found friends.
They should feel at home abroad, quickly find the information they need and meet great new people. That’s our aim: making life easier for expats.
What were the initial challenges? How did you overcome them?
One of the first challenges was getting people to join the network after we launched our website. We spent a lot of time reaching out to our personal networks and building a strong, international circle of supporters.
We delivered talks at various embassies as well as companies and organizations with an international focus. Soon, we started to see a slow but steady increase in our number of members, which kept gaining momentum and then really took off.
Then came the next step: figuring out how InterNations could make a profit. This was especially difficult as InterNations was founded in 2007, the year before the global financial crisis.
Nevertheless, in 2009, we introduced our premium membership model. For a small monthly fee, our premium Albatross members can attend monthly InterNations events for free or a reduced fee, join our InterNations groups and enjoy access to many other additional features and benefits.
How has the journey been so far?
Starting our own company has been a great journey so far, full of important learning experiences. One of the first important steps after the network started gaining lots of members was to offer them offline face-to-face meetings.
As an entrepreneur, it’s very important to listen to your customers and we kept getting feedback that our members also wanted to meet up in real life. So, in 2008, we decided to start recruiting volunteers (our ambassadors) to organize and host monthly InterNations events in each city with an InterNations community. Today, regular InterNations events are held in over 300 cities around the world.
In 2010, we also added InterNations groups, where smaller numbers of members get together to enjoy a particular hobby or interest as part of their monthly activities. Our events and activities have proven extremely popular and are the top attraction of InterNations for many of our members.
In October 2013, we were happy to welcome the one millionth member to our international community – this huge milestone was celebrated at InterNations events around the world. And the network has continued to grow quickly since then – we are now fast approaching the 1.5-million-member mark.
How has becoming an entrepreneur changed you, personally?
As an entrepreneur, I learned a lot about the concept of ownership. Of course, I had responsibility in my previous job. But all of a sudden, my co-founders and I were responsible for almost everything. That’s just how it works in a startup.
You need to work out a business strategy, gradually hire the right people to realize it and carry out all the daily tasks that keep the business running smoothly. There’s no pre-defined corporate culture either: You need to decide for yourself what kind of business culture you would like to establish. There are so many things on your plate and you have to be committed and remain on top of them.
Fortunately, I have always had people to support me. I have also learned to appreciate the passion and enthusiasm that my team members bring to the table. Our vision is to make InterNations the place for expats worldwide. An ambitious plan seems far less daunting if you have a team that’s passionate about it.
In brief: I think I have learned that everything is indeed possible if you fully commit yourself to it. Inspiration without hard work won’t come to fruition but hard work without enthusiasm is just drudgery. You must have both as an entrepreneur.
Any other personal reflections and/ or message to budding entrepreneurs?
One thing we learned was that having a good idea is just 10% of the battle. Even though you need a good idea to get you started, it’s the proper execution of that idea that really matters ultimately.
Sparsh Sharma works as a freelance journalist for The Local and blogs about his experiences in Denmark. You can follow him on Twitter at @sparsh_s.