With more than 2.5 million members in 390 cities around the globe, the Munich-based company InterNations is the world’s largest social network and information platform for everyone working and living abroad. We were able to talk with the founders about how they made their way from being a young Munich startup to a major player in the expat market.
Please tell us about yourselves!
We founded the expat platform InterNations in Munich and are now active globally. With forums, country guides from experts and regular articles from visiting writers, our website provides information about living abroad. In addition to our online presence, we organize approximately 5,000 events and activities around the world each month.
Our company founders, Malte Zeeck and Philipp von Plato, got to know each other while studying economics in Switzerland where they had already toyed with the idea of founding their own company someday. Yet after completing their studies, the two headed in different directions: Philipp started working as a management consultant, while Malte was a foreign correspondent for various news channels. During that time, the two learned quite a bit about living abroad – Malte Zeeck lived in countries such as Brazil and India, while Philipp von Plato spent time in the UK and Croatia – and both discovered how difficult it is to orient yourself in a different country if you do not know anyone and are not fluent in the native language. Based on this personal experience, the idea was born to create a network where people in a similar situation can support each other.
Our small startup has grown up over the last few years. Since its founding exactly ten years ago, our team has expanded to include more than 100 employees from 30 different countries. We are also supported by more than 900 voluntary ambassadors who organize local events and are the first to welcome new expats to their city. In addition, nearly 5,000 consuls offer our members a broad range of events, from language exchange to yoga or even mountain climbing. You might say that we are living our own mission to turn every stay abroad into an amazing experience, including working life!
“A flourishing tech and startup scene”
You are represented in several hundred cities around the world. What makes Munich so special to you, and why did you choose it as your main location?
Munich is a city with international flair where many large companies and startups are located, yet it still has its own easy-going charm. People from throughout the world live here – so many expats fall in love with the “cosmopolitan city with a heart” and then decide to stay here for good. In addition to the excellent quality of life it offers, Munich also has a flourishing tech and startup scene, which is why we feel so at home here. The Munich labor market also offers so many highly-qualified professionals with international résumés: nearly one third of Munich residents have foreign roots. That has helped us build a motivated, international team that cares just as much about the success of InterNations as we do.
We are now represented in a total of 390 cities, but we have our company headquarters and home here, of course. It is worth mentioning that Munich is our third largest community with 50,000 InterNations members, and we test all of our new event formats here. Our Munich members are also usually the first to try out new features, and they help us to continuously improve our international range of services.
Flat organization: how things like karaoke lead to success
What kind of work atmosphere do you have? Have things changed over the last ten years?
From the very beginning, flat organization has been very important to us. Although our founders are no longer able to work with every employee personally or to participate in every meeting due to the size of our company, we still make sure that every employee feels that they are heard. After all, the entire company benefits from an innovative and harmonious team that works passionately! That is why we organize trips and team events every year where we have a great time singing karaoke, curling, or playing soccer.
InterNations has also become more professional over the last ten years. We used to sit with three people at one table while planning a new feature. Now there are several teams involved along the way. For example, our Product Team checks to see if new ideas are even feasible, our Engineering Team actually implements the idea and our Communications Department makes sure everyone is informed about the new feature. Many additional employees are also often involved depending on the kind of project. This is where our “Guiding Principles” help – these are our practical guidelines, which we would like all of our employees to also follow, such as to listen and say what you mean or to embrace differences. They form the foundation of our corporate culture.
Payment models and the right investors
How do you approach the issue of financing, and how did you approach it at the beginning? How do you earn money? What kind of business model do you have?
In the very beginning, we of course looked for the right investors to implement our idea. Holtzbrinck Ventures in Munich and the European Founders Fund really helped us out. After our offer became established among expats, we introduced various advertising formats for our corporate partners and a premium membership for our members.
Basic membership is free and offers a wide range of features. However, premium access gives our members unlimited use of all of the features offered on the platform. For example, they have access to all local country and city guides and more than 5,000 activities that are organized by InterNations each month. An exceptionally broad selection is offered in Munich, so the only difficult part is having to choose what you would like to do most with your time off!
The right timing
To be successful, a startup needs to…
… the first step is to identify a significant problem, and to then offer an innovative and straightforward solution. If the timing of a business idea is right, meaning it somehow improves customers’ lives, then you can be successful very quickly.
When dealing with markets that are already saturated or short-lived trends, you first need to honestly ask yourself if you will actually be able to offer something new – or a much better solution – and whether or not a need exists. To be able to answer this question, you have to really understand your target group and competition. After all, it does not make sense to throw a product onto the market that does not offer any added value, or is only of interest to a very small target group. Consumer needs can also change unexpectedly or simply turn out differently than you had expected. That means you always have to listen to your customers and remain flexible.
In the beginning, for example, regularly offering events in our communities was not part of the plan at all. The events have become extremely popular now and attract both current and new members. In our larger communities, events have drawn several hundred participants. That is something we would have never expected in the beginning! Small setbacks can also come up, but that should not discourage you. A lot of situations can quickly be turned into something positive if you are ready to roll up your sleeves. A strong team is irreplaceable in these kinds of change processes! Thanks to our employees, we have been able to overcome a number of challenges safe and sound.
You need a “proof of concept”
What is the biggest mistake a startup can make?
Thinking you know exactly what the customer wants and launching on the market without getting your “proof of concept.” Sometimes ideas come up that you think will be really successful, but then they can turn out to be no good at all. Then the approach you had only considered to be a makeshift solution can turn out to be your high-flyer! To avoid costly flops during the founding stage, every startup should test their concept on a small group of customers first. We still do the same thing when tapping into new business segments or developing new features. For example, we regularly invite members from the Munich community to user tests to find out if a new app or modified payment method is logical and intuitive. We also only release our new services to a small group of users – our beta testers – in the beginning. Their feedback helps us fine-tune every new introduction before rolling it out to our more than 2.5 million members across the world.
Startups are noticeably taking on more social responsibility
The trend of the year is…
Corporate social responsibility! Startups that focus on healthy nutrition or fair trade products have been around for a while – but a lot of new companies are now turning their attention to social topics, especially those that are local. As an example, some startups help refugees find a home in a shared apartment. Others have developed apps to let you know which material donations are needed where, or that give refugees information about their legal situation and local contact persons. Thanks to these new services, it is possible to quickly and easily help fellow human beings in a difficult situation.
Our Changemakers Program takes a similar approach. The InterNations members are able to participate in Changemakers activities in their city, while also supporting a good cause. The activities are organized by our consuls and are incredibly diverse: we collect monetary and material donations, cook for the homeless and help refugee children with homework, to name just a few.
Giving back to your new hometown
To be able to go abroad on your own accord is linked with a certain economic status that makes it quite a privilege. That is something our members are aware of, which is why they appreciate the opportunity to give back to their new hometown – and they are able to do so regardless of language barriers or cultural differences! We currently offer Changemaker activities in 45 cities, and that number is growing from year to year! Each of the local groups works together with one or more charities – Caritas, the Red Cross, Handicap International or Make-A-Wish are just a few of the organizations we support. This gives our members the opportunity to offer help exactly where it is most needed in their city.
Here in Munich, we help a lot at the Bayern Kaserne where refugees are housed, and we also support people living with a disability. We are living in turbulent times, and that also has an impact on startup trends: in their own special way, a large number of young entrepreneurs are trying to bring people together and make the world just a little bit better.