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A Founder Story in Six Lessons: Managing Your International Team

by Niels on 30 Jul 2018

HousingAnywhere.com is a global accommodation platform and one of the most international companies in the Netherlands. It all began as a student side project operating from a bedroom in Rotterdam inspired by an exchange experience. Founder Niels van Deuren shares what he’s learned on management and growing a company over the years, with practical advice and insights.

Below you find 6 lessons learned while starting and growing a company:

1. Share the same vision, have the same passion

HA-team5 There’s an email I have printed and framed in our office today - it’s from way back in 2009 when I first put the idea that had been fermenting in my mind since my exchange into words. Testing the water, I emailed my own university asking what they thought of a housing platform connecting international students to rooms in their new city. Their reply was: don’t bother, it won’t work, it’s too complicated. Leave it to the big boys.

I wasn’t unsure about whether I would prove them wrong - I could see such clear appetite for my idea that I knew it would work - I just needed to figure out the how. With two years to go before I graduated, I got to work on pulling together a small team and learned the first lesson on management which still rings true today: find people who share your vision and are excited to go on this journey with you.

We built a basic website and were pretty proud to be one of the first using a google maps interface; international students didn’t know the neighbourhood or street name, they needed to know how far it was from the university, and maybe from the nearest bar.

A couple of passionate fellow students working part-time from my student bedroom was enough to get us noticed, and within a year Dutch universities were approaching me to ask how much it would cost to launch HousingAnywhere for their students. We now had a proof of concept, but it was just the beginning.

2. Eat lunch together. Drink a beer together, work together

HA-team

After finishing my bachelors I did an internship at Heineken, first in the Netherlands and then in their team in Ethiopia. It was here that some of HousingAnywhere's most culture-defining traditions would take root in my mind; every Friday at 5pm the gong sounds signalling the end of play, and our “beers and cheers” begins. Over the years, the backdrop of this weekly ritual has changed, but the idea remains the same: you need to cultivate an environment where colleagues can become friends. Also inspired by my Ethiopian colleagues was the decision to have a common lunch hour and space. What I learned from them is that eating together would allow people from different teams to better understand each other, share jokes and have a sense of community. Our sense of togetherness is one of the things that I think defines HousingAnywhere the most.

3. Listen fully, act selectively and stay focussed

HA-team2 I was back from Ethiopia and ready to dedicate all my time to HousingAnywhere , which we were running from my apartment in Rotterdam. As we garnered more attention, I began getting inquiries from students who wanted to move to Rotterdam and intern at HousingAnywhere. Working with people from all corners of Europe, I began to understand both the immeasurable value of a diverse workplace and the cross cultural management challenges which come with it. Not only did everyone have an opinion, they also had different ways of expressing and responding to them.

I learned then that you should always be available to listen to people’s ideas and concerns. My way to keep the feedback loop open was to have group meetings and one-to-one sessions. Your whole team is engaging with the product and your customers on different levels, so you never know where the next great idea might come from. However, you won’t be able to act on every idea you hear, so make sure you have open communication lines so you can manage expectations and maintain transparency.

4. Make a playbook, then break it

HA-team3 Fast forward a few months and we were out of my apartment and into our first dedicated office space, with a budding international team and a very respectable number of deals under our belt. In order to grow even further, we retraced our steps to identify exactly what worked and didn’t work when we launched in our first ten cities. We used this to make a playbook that new team members could use to replicate past successes.

But if you have your sights on international expansion, you’ll soon realise each country and city has its own way of doing thing, and a playbook will only get you so far. Hiring a team with the same vision and passion for the company as I have allowed us to grow while maintaining focus on what is most important: creating a product that is amazing to use by people all over the world. Allow your team to use a playbook as a point of reference in tandem with their own knowledge, cultural understanding and research; give them the freedom to break the rules and experiment.

5. You probably don’t know as much as you think - so take the advice

HA-team4 I remember a pivotal investor meeting in 2014 where in one hour in a room with a whiteboard, a calculator and some mixed emotions, we decidedto shift HousingAnywhere to a consumer-facing marketplace accessible to everyone - not just a university service. This was a major leap forward, but at the time it wasn’t an easy pill to swallow.

My vision was closer than ever to a reality, but the stones paving the road ahead were shifting beneath my feet. The weeks leading to that moment were a lesson in listening. I realised more than ever that this was a team effort - our strategy was up to staff and investors and customers as well as me. Things began speeding up from this point on, and it proved to be a great decision. A new round of investment and a lot of hard work pushed us to more than 300 cities and 100 university partners.

So while you might find yourself asking for advice to all the right people, listen with an open mind. And, with a calculated leap of faith, don’t be afraid to act on it.

6. Sleep eight hours a night. Really

HousingAnywhere team It’s 2018 and we’re going strong. There’s close to 100 people in the office now, with 35 nationalities between us. We recently secured €6 million in investment and we’re active all over the world. To keep up the momentum in a maturing company, it’s important to take care of yourself and your team. We’re still having beers on a Fridays, but to drive growth you need switched-on and forward-looking people - in short, you need a good night’s sleep! It sounds like a cliché but sleep really helps you stay focussed. Remember that Einstein slept 10 hours a day!

Lessons to move forward

Years on, the Erasmus University international office that was initially so skeptical of my idea is now is our biggest partner. We’re housing hundreds of their students every year and innovating together on new pilot projects to work out the best way to serve the international population.

I see a bright future for HousingAnywhere, one where it’s easier than ever to strike out on your own and find a place abroad, no matter where you’re going. We’re working hard every day to make this more simple, living and breathing our international philosophy from our base in Rotterdam. With many lessons learned along the way, there’s sure to be challenges ahead, but it’s in these learning moments that you take a step toward conquering the world.

by Niels on 30 Jul 2018
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