InterNations, the largest social network and event organiser for expats worldwide, opens a brand new office in Porto.

Co-founded in 2007 by German journalist Malte Zeeck, the company now boasts 390 communities worldwide, hosting around 6,000 events every month. Thanks to his own personal experience as an expat, Zeeck teamed up with Co-CEO Philipp von Plato to provide a platform to connect those living and working away from home.

Portugal Startups spoke with Zeeck about the new development site in Porto, what it’s like to grow and manage such a vast worldwide community and future plans for InterNations.

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Founder and Co-CEO Malte Zeeck. Image courtesy of InterNations.

InterNations already has offices in Germany, Spain and Lithuania. What in particular interested you about setting up an office in Portugal?

After founding InterNations in my small student apartment in Cologne in 2007, we — my co-founder and co-CEO Philipp von Plato and I — quickly established our HQ in Munich. Today, more than 120 employees representing around 40 nationalities are working for InterNations. With such strong roots in Germany, it’s easier to establish other offices in Europe and communicate with the respective local teams than being based all across the globe.

Moreover, Porto is a cool European city, right by the sea and with direct flights from Munich, which makes business trips both quick and enjoyable! Looking at our annual Expat Insider survey with close to 13,000 respondents, we can also see that Portugal is among the best-rated destinations that are considered attractive for expats. After ranking in mid-field for the first few years of the survey, the country came in 5th out of 65 destinations in the latest ranking. The quality of life and the ease of settling down in Portugal seem to be outstanding!

Why did you choose a smaller city like Porto and not Lisbon, did it have something to do with Science and Technology Park of University of Porto (UPTEC)?

The decision in favour of opening an office in Porto was based on several factors, but UPTEC was definitely one of them. The connection to the university provides us with great infrastructure, thanks to the other start-ups on site and the events taking place there.

Moreover, there is a large talent pool of potential new employees, making it easier for us to find the engineering and product professionals that we are looking for. In fact, we are planning to recruit more than 50 professionals within the next three years.

Lastly, it also played a role that XING (the leading professional network in the German-speaking countries, which we became part of last year), has opened a production site at UPTEC as well. We were aware that Portugal has a lively strong start-up scene, which is growing stronger and stronger, and that the country subsidizes new ventures. We admire Portugal’s strong initiative in supporting start-ups and feel that we have definitely made the right decision by choosing Porto.

Congratulations on reaching 3 million members this month. How have you found growing and managing an international community of 3 million people?

Thank you! We are very proud of reaching this milestone, which we are currently celebrating with the #1in3million campaign. While the number is obviously impressive, the campaign focuses on the individuals within the community. At InterNations it’s not always about how many people you connect with, but rather the relationships themselves. Don’t we all have that one friend who has made a difference in our lives and whom we’ll never forget, no matter where in the world we live? Therefore, we wanted to give our members the chance to officially thank their “one in three million” InterNations friend and let them know why they are so special.

However, it has been a long way to reach this goal and grow an international community of 3 million people. In the beginning, we spent a lot of time reaching out to our personal networks and getting in touch with various embassies, global companies, and international organizations in order to build an international circle of supporters. Eventually, we managed to have a large group of very well-connected people in our local communities, who would ask their own friends to join.

This is how we came up with the ‘Ambassador’ position and, a while later, the ‘Group Consuls’. Ambassadors are responsible for organizing our official events and act as the contact person for expats in their respective local communities, while Group Consuls create groups based on shared interests and organize activities on a regular basis. Today, they host more than 6,000 official events and activities worldwide every month, and I think they are a major reason for our success.

From the beginning, members attending events have been asking us to open communities in other cities, too. We evaluate these requests and eventually start new communities. Now, we have 390 communities around the world — 155 more than when we started — and are planning to open 30 more in 2018. They will mainly be located in Europe and Asia, but we are also planning to add some in the USA, Canada, South America, and Africa. Of course, we’ve been growing in other ways, too. Potential members find us on Google, and we also advertise online, for example on Facebook. But we do owe a huge part of our growth to our vibrant communities with their official events and activities. 

What is your favourite part of being Co-CEO of InterNations?

What I love most about InterNations is that it brings together people with completely different backgrounds and nationalities and really touches their lives; some people meet their best friends and find their husband or wife through InterNations. This is far more touching to me than KPIs related to member growth or event participation, and it’s the one aspect of my work that inspires me most.

I regularly attend events in InterNations Communities all over the world, and I always make sure to listen to what our members have to say about their experience. When they tell me how InterNations has changed their life for the better, that’s been my best experience by far. If you are the CEO of a company of that size, no workday is like the other, though, as there are so many different topics that you have to deal with — from business development (we are currently setting up two new lines of business), to organizational development and recruiting key personnel, to shaping the company’s operative agenda or working, for example, on our branding strategy. This is also something that I enjoy very much, having such a wide variety of responsibilities and challenges.

The average age for InterNations clients is around 37. How do you aim to keep your target market young?

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Founder and Co-CEO Philipp von Plato. Image courtesy of InterNations.

When my co-founder Phillip von Plato and I started InterNations, we originally wanted to address foreign assignees —i.e. employees sent abroad by their employers, who often work in management positions — as well as their family members. This simply reflected our personal experience. We both used to work abroad, as an international business consultant and a news reporter, respectively. But we quickly realised that this strict definition of the term “expat” is more or less a thing of the past.

Of course, there are still plenty of managers sent abroad by international companies for a couple of years, and they are obviously part of our network. But so many more people have now become mobile on an international scale: our member base features all kinds of people who have decided to live and work abroad for a certain amount of time, irrespective of their country of origin or destination.

However, we aren’t planning to target the student market in particular. International students often have an easier time finding a support network abroad, via exchange programs and student welfare offices. Such highly educated, internationally mobile young people are often interested in working abroad after they graduate, though, and they may no longer have the same resources at their disposal. These young professionals then become potential InterNations members.

How do you ensure that the expats who are part of the InterNations community also focus on giving back to the local community?

Having had the opportunity to move abroad, many expats share a desire to give something back to their new home: That’s exactly why we established our Volunteer Program, the InterNations Changemakers. By now, we have various Volunteer Groups in 47 cities around the world, with around 45,000 members who donate their time and talents to people in need. They support local NGOs on a regular basis.

Each Volunteer Group organizes monthly activities such as excursions, fundraisers, or collections to support less privileged people in their local community. For example, they volunteer at a refugee shelter in Munich, prepare a weekly dinner for homeless people in Vienna, or organize fun activities for children from an impoverished neighborhood in São Paulo. In 2017, close to 1,000 Changemaker activities were organized. The vision of the program is to be rolled out to all InterNations Communities worldwide.

InterNations prides itself on being able to provide ‘all the information you need in one place’. Do you plan on expanding your services to cover aspects of living abroad such as accommodation, or is your desire to remain more of a social network/community?

Actually, that is something we are working on right now: our goal is to be every expat’s best friend and trusted companion on every step of their journey. While we’re, as you say, already offering lots of opportunities to build a social network and gather information, we plan to add services that take care of every aspect of international relocation. We want to make sure that moving abroad will be a smooth experience for everyone, including services around finding accommodation or jobs.

What do you hope to get out of your new office in Porto? And what does the future hold for InterNations?

We have been growing in double-digits since 2007 and are planning to offer the services mentioned above in order to be the platform where expats can network, socialize, and find trustworthy information and services. In addition to that, we are currently establishing a new B2B sector. The idea came up because we have been in touch with more and more companies interested in international support for employees they send abroad.

With this new business unit, we aim to help them with this complex task. We add value to their expats packages in order to support their HR departments and save them time and money by reducing expat failures. All that requires us to scale even faster. Our new office will be an important engineering and product development site for us. In Porto we will be building up the InterNations Services platform to make international relocation a great experience.