How to get a startup job abroad

Matheus Riolfi
Nov 22, 2016 · 6 min read

Although I was born in a small town in Brazil, the idea of exploring the world was as natural as being a soccer fan. As a kid, I loved to go with my dad to the airport to pick up and drop off family members. There was something magical about the airplanes coming and going to places I had never been, as if they were portals to amazing adventures in far away places.

That feeling stuck with me and shaped who I became. I made traveling and working abroad one of the top priorities in my career, living and working in five countries in the past ten years. It’s been a transformational experience.

The good news for me and for other globally-minded professionals is that we live in an globalized world where working experience abroad is critical to professional success. Today, companies need professionals who are comfortable doing business in different countries and can have empathy for customers around the world.

I’ve lived and worked in 5 countries in the past 10 years, which has been a transformational experience for me. I fell in love with the idea of being a global citizen and became a better professional as a result. And moreover, I realized that a role in a fast-paced startup abroad is the fastest way to get you there. I hope my lessons can be useful.

Step by Step

I’ll present a step-by-step plan below.

Step 1: Identify the right location

  • Attractiveness of startup hub: Great hubs, such as Silicon Valley, London or Berlin, tend to have better job options. It’s a virtuous circle: talent-> great startups -> great job opportunities -> talent. There is nothing wrong with exploring other locations, but it will be harder to find promising companies and your experience may be less valued when (if) you come back home.
  • Cost of life: Hot tech hubs are expensive due to high demand. This can be challenging since startups tend to have lower cash compensation.
  • Language: to do well in a country without speaking the local language is very hard. Few exceptions exist in places with high English proficiency, but this rule applies to most other places. You must make an effort to learn the local language before you go.

There are many good free resources to use to help your decision. Here is a list with a few (additional suggestions are welcome!):

Step 2: Find the right company

  • Role: narrow the search to your current industry and function. For example if you work for eBay, Blablacar, or Uber, I would look for rising marketplaces. Your skills are more likely to be transferable there.
  • Potential: prioritize high potential startups, which will provide better growth opportunities. Look for signs of success, like revenue, team growth, total funds raised, investors, expansion strategy, etc. Search on Google, but also on specialized websites such as Crunchbase and AngelList.
  • Culture: reach out to current and former employees to understand how it is to work in that company and if it matches your personal preferences. You should get a warm intro using your existing network to learn from insiders, but also use public information from online tools like Glassdoor.

For now, you should not worry about constraints, like open roles, if the company hires foreigners, etc. In the startup world a good fit can trump all that.

Step 3: Find or create the right role for you

Use a combination of channels to access the available jobs, depending on where you're looking. In addition to the traditional job websites, I recommend these international-focused ones: Jobbatical, BrainGain, Techmeabroad, UK Startup Jobs (UK), and WorkinStartups (Canada).

However, more often than not, you will have to create your spot by convincing the company that they should hire you.

Research the shortlisted companies, get an intro, and think about how you can help them achieve their goals. For example, you are looking for a Business Development role but the companies you’re interested in don’t have an open BD role, or maybe they don’t have BD at all. You could meet the founder or some senior exec and sell your skills/experience — what would the company be able to achieve with you onboard?. If you do a good job they may be interested even if they have not thought about it before.

Take the risk and book a trip to your target locations. Let the companies know that you’ll be in town and use that rationale to line up as many conversations as possible. By being there, you benefit from in-person meetings and it shows you’re committed. Also, it helps speed up the interview process, since the company may want you to meet with as many people as possible during your visit.

Step 4: Prepare and rock the interview

While the basics are the same (be on time, know the dress code, know the interviewer, talk about your background, etc), important differences exist between countries. For instance, in Brazil it’s normal to chit-chat for at least 10–15 minutes before getting to the formal interview, as personal and business relationships are intertwined there. In the US it's the opposite: you should finish the interview as efficiently as possible.

Step 5: Get the offer and get ready to move

  • Contract: aim for a full-time job contract, regardless of the nature of employment in the specific country. Contractor options are less desirable, as they normally come with fewer labor rights and may not give you a visa.
  • Salary: wage levels in different countries/cities may be very different. While it’s helpful, and fair, to have your last compensation package as benchmark, you should compare it to local data points. Be prepared to take a short-term cut if you think the experience is worth it.
  • Stock options: most startups provide stock options, but the number and type of options vary by location. In some ecosystems there is still an owner mentality and employees receive fewer stocks.
  • Others: you may negotiate other compensation items (e.g., relocation bonus, signing bonus, etc) and benefits (e.g., health care plan, pension, etc). As a general rule you should expect startups to offer fewer benefits, but you should try. It’s also variable depending on the country you are.

Finally, be aware the moving process will be a pain in the neck. Most startups don’t offer much support here, as they don’t have neither the experience nor the funds. Don’t get discouraged: the experience of living and working for a startup abroad is still amazing and will be worth it.

Go out explore!

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Matheus Riolfi

Written by

Co-founder & CEO@Tint, HBS MBA’13, #insurtech advocate, entrepreneurship & travel fanatic

The Startup

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