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How to Hire Internationally in CEE

From the Perspective of Miroslav Miroslavov (CEO of OfficeRnD)

As a part of our monthly webinar series where members of our portfolio share their experience and insights, Miroslav walked us through the ups and downs of hiring internationally. His startup, OfficeRnD, has hired 9 people in Atlanta, 1 in London, and are looking to hire 2–3 in Melbourne. Through that process they’ve learned a lot about how building an international team can fuel success, or create a mountain of headaches. Below, we’ve broken down everything Miroslav has learned from this experience so you can do even better.

Why hire internationally?

Before we get into the how, you’ve got to understand why. Miroslav sees 6 main reasons to take this approach.

1. Experience

This one is easy, you’re far more likely to find candidates with the kind of experience you need if you broaden the candidate pool.

2. Mindset (growth!)

Americans seem born and raised to focus on growth, it’s very different from Europe and especially CEE where people tend to be far more conservative. In Bulgaria, things can start to progress at a slow pace because locals might not have that same push for growth. That’s why hiring growth-focused team members can help build a growth mindset for the entire company.

3. Diversity

This is important because if you want to create an international business you need a diversity of experience and opinions. You need someone to challenge you and bring that outside perspective on everything from products to sales. Companies are far less likely to thrive when they’re isolated and insular.

4. Global outlook

Having a local presence is often a huge advantage. OfficeRnD often wins deals because they have that local presence and customers can ring someone locally to talk and make a deal. It can make all the difference when they can call and speak to John instead of Miroslav. That familiarity can work as a shortcut to building a strong relationship.

5. Local perspective

Living in a highly globalized society when you can in theory keep track of what’s happening just about anywhere isn’t a substitute for quality local perspectives. From hiring to sales strategies, having employees with a strong sense of how a local business ecosystem works can be invaluable.

6. Broader perspective

The other side to gaining that local perspective is building an international team capable of combining local knowledge into a broader perspective on a market. Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) startups in particular rely on their abilities to reach outside their region, so this kind of knowledge can quickly become indispensable.

What to know before hiring internationally

In Miroslav’s experience, one major challenge you’ll likely face when hiring internationally is demonstrating that you’re legitimate. A San Francisco-based startup is going to get more benefit of the doubt than a Sofia or Bucharest based one, so you need to prepare for that. Ensure you can demonstrate that your company is a legitimate one to work for.

You can do that through your website, setting up profiles on Glassdoor and LinkedIn, and even through pointing to recognizable investors (if possible). Throughout, you need to ensure your English is flawless and everything looks consistent and professional. Most people you want to hire will be very focused on the product and value proposition, to be sure to present both well.

Start by looking at your customers

In Miroslav’s experience, hiring a customer can be a very effective way to begin building a team in a new location. If you don’t have customers you may want to hire, you should focus on selling your product more in that location before you start hiring.

If you have no presence where you want to hire, you’re unlikely to get high quality people because those candidates tend to be very selective. It’s simply very hard to hire somewhere where you have no customers.

Choose the right title

Titles may not be seen as very important in CEE, but internationally they’re extremely important. You need VPs, you may need directors, however, you don’t need managers.

VPs need to have a ton of experience, not be afraid to take risks and fail, and have the vision and capability to build strategy. Directors need to have enough experience, be able to execute hard on strategy, and can manage people well. Managers will have little experience, doubt everything, can’t manage and struggle to execute. It’s a difficult position for a fast growing startup and it’s not a great title or role in that world.

Whether a candidate has actually done the thing you’re hiring them for previously is more important than the number of years of experience. For example, sometimes you can hire a director into a VP role (which can be a good way to poach good candidates). One big distinguishing factor is that VPs usually have a lot more confidence coming from experience, and that confidence is critical for your success.

Have your org chart ready

You can hire from the ground up or from the bottom down depending on your strengths as CEO. It can also depend on the ego of someone like a director who may not appreciate having a boss hired for them. So you can hire a VP, have them work directly with individual contributors, and then hire a director. In this case, you won’t mess up your hierarchy or frustrate a director. However, a director is often much cheaper and easier than a VP so sometimes it has to be done this way.

Another approach can be hiring a VP of sales and then making their first task hiring individual salespeople (which is how you can start with a VP instead of with individual contributors).

If people are unhappy with new VPs or directors being hired could be a good reason to clean house because the team should be excited about experienced people coming in. This is an important aspect of the culture and mindset of your company to consider. Often, if you go with the “we’re a family” approach, you can experience this. On the other hand, if you build a culture around growth, it’s easier to bring in that valuable experience and get to work.

Choose your base

Obviously you need to select where you’d like to build your international teams. If you’re looking at the UK, London is the easy choice. However, for the US, Miroslav highly recommends looking at second tier cities where it’s cheaper and easier to attract talent. Places like Atlanta, Denver, Austin, or Miami are going to get you a lot more bang for your buck compared to NYC or San Francisco.

Of course wherever you decide to establish a base, be sure to sign up for a nice coworking space from the start. Your hires (and yourself when you’re in town) will appreciate it.

What you need to know about the hiring process

Once you’ve laid the groundwork it’s time to start hiring.

Choose your first hire carefully

Miroslav emphasized that. if possible, you should try and hire your first person directly and not through a typical hiring process (another reason why making your first hire a customer makes sense). Other times that first hire might be a friend, so use your personal networks to find the right person.

If none of these options is available, it would be better to go there and be on-site for a while. Of course you can always choose to rely on recruiters, but in his experience there’s been far more success sourcing candidates himself rather than going through recruiters.

Write a great description and promote it

Another difference between hiring locally in CEE and hiring internationally is the increased importance of a great job description. It needs to be specific with clear goals and OKRs along with transparent lines of management and communication. This is especially important when someone is going to be hired and working remotely.

Once you’ve got that description you need to promote it. In Miroslav’s experience, paid ads on LinkedIn have brought in many high quality folks despite their higher cost. Also consider a paid Recruiter account for LinkedIn (it’s quite expensive but can be worth it if you’re hiring enough people). Glassdoor paid ads are also worth trying.

How to manage the hiring process like a pro

Once you’ve got the ads and job description set up, you’ll soon have candidates coming in and need a structured way to evaluate them. What’s worked best for Miroslav is establishing 7–10 key traits of a perfect candidate. Then, have a panel access each candidate independently, asking the same questions for each candidate and giving them a 1–10 rating on each trait.

Then, simply sum up the results and hire the winner with the highest points. This process is based on Thinking Fast and Slow and is designed to kill biases and gut feelings in hiring (something I experienced a lot in the early days when I hired more haphazardly.)

A few more technical tips

Hiring internationally also comes with its own set of bureaucratic headaches. Remember that you can always open up a sub-company in a foreign country if that simplifies the process. Also be sure to standardize or template your employment contracts instead of writing each one fresh and trying to remember what’s in them as you go.

Lastly, try and automate payroll and benefits as much as possible. We’ve outsourced this at OfficeRnD and it’s saved us a lot of time and stress to simply bring in some experts for this.

Common mistakes Miroslav has seen (and made)

  • Do not inflate positions (for example, hiring a manager as a VP or director).

Too many candidates assume that joining a startup is a great chance to up their title. Run, do not walk, away from these people.

You may even want to consider deflating positions, offering managers positions as individual contributors. This is to avoid the problems associated with the Peter Principle.

  • Hire for what you’ll need in three years. So if someone has managed 10 people and will now manage 5, focus on the abilities they’ll need in 3 years instead of what they’ll be doing on day 1.
  • Don’t hire someone with no experience working in international teams.
  • Don’t overpay because you’re a startup. Many startups overpay because they’re unknowns, but you can use Indeed for references and offer what’s fair instead of what they think is fair because you’re a CEE startup. They’re not taking more risks, it’s a job and there are benchmarks.
  • If possible (IE, not in Covid times) have everyone meet together 1–2 times a year. Also be sure to travel to their offices as well.
  • Have clear official lines of communication. When communication is done through many unofficial channels it creates a lot of confusion for remote and international teams.

How to support an international team after you’ve hired them

No big surprise, this begins with great onboarding. Be very specific about your goals and lines of management. But just as importantly, be nice. A kind and supportive team makes all the difference when onboarding and managing international hires.

Note: Part of “being nice” is being ruthless about cutting improper jokes and comments. A single sexist, homophobic, or similar comment from one team member can undo years of careful work building an effective team. On Miroslav’s teams, making these kinds of comments is not just forbidden but has real consequences which are immediately acted upon. This kind of zero tolerance policy has been critical in his experience.

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We partner with ambitious Central and Southeastern European founders and support them to reach their full potential.