Award winning entrepreneur, Tia Robinson shares her experiences of setting up in Berlin. Since moving from the US as a freelance language teacher she co-founded Expath, which provides a full range of relocation services for both companies and individuals. Their expansion to our neighborhood allowed us to take a closer look at their journey from two founders to a team of over eighty.
Hey, Tia – when was Expath founded?
It was founded in 2012. We just had our 7th anniversary!
Tell us about the founders – is it just you or are there more founders involved?
There is me and Stephan Brenner, who was my very first boss in Berlin when I moved here twelve years ago. He hired me as a freelance teacher at a language school here, and then we managed it together for around five years.
What inspired you to start Expath?
When we started the company, we were managing this language school Germany-wide, and we saw that all of the freelancers there had no idea what they were doing. They would come to us with questions about, “How do I do my taxes?” I need to get my work permit renewed. I don’t know what GEZ is; do I have to pay it?”
We saw that the root of all those problems and questions was the fact that they didn’t speak German, because they couldn’t really go online and research the answers themselves. We saw a huge need for a German school that will serve people like our freelance teachers. So, we wanted to have a place that would be an excellent quality language school, but affordable. At that time there really weren’t that many options. In the last seven years we saw many other, newer, smaller schools open in Berlin, but I think we still are one of the very best in the city.
Tell us a little bit about your competition and why you think you are better.
We are the only one of our sort that is doing both German language classes and really excellent relocation services for individuals and companies. This is a side of the company I am personally proud of, because it was totally new to us, and we built that knowledge up from scratch. The language school is something Stephan and I knew how to do and were very comfortable with already.
I think that these two components, the language school plus the relocation services, makes us really unique in the city.
What advice would you have for entrepreneurs just starting out in Berlin?
Well, I would like to say that it is possible for a completely normal person to start a company and grow it into something! I started life here as a freelance English teacher. I did not believe that one day I would have a company with eleven employees and eighty freelancers. Starting something small and building it slowly over time is what worked for us. We didn’t start with any venture capital or bank loans or funding of any sort– we had €2,000 in savings. So, I think if I can do it, anybody can do it with the right mentality and planning.
How much of the work are you outsourcing?
Only the tax preparation and payroll. Bookkeeping, financial planning, budgeting, financial reporting and accounting, we are doing here with our employees. HR is also me – we’re very DIY.
What is your favourite spot in the neighbourhood?
There’s this place called Chicken Buzz that has baskets of fried chicken bits that you dip in a sauce. It is so good! Every time I leave, I’m really stuffed and I regret having eaten so much. But it’s delicious.
Where do you see Berlin five years from now?
It could be at, or reaching, the peak of popularity and growth. At some point it’s going to become expensive, tapped out, and not enough talent. I think things will still be open, but maybe more like Paris or London where it’s prohibitively expensive to move here without a job. Berlin is still a place where you can move here with no job and squeeze by for six months, but I could definitely see it in five years becoming harder to get started, becoming a lot more expensive. Yet, I think it will still be a very popular place for people to relocate.
Is there a single group, individual, or project that has been most influential for you during your time as an entrepreneur in Berlin?
Yes, it’s SoundCloud, the company who is one of our very first clients when we started doing German classes. They saw the other things we were doing for individuals in Berlin and said, “Hey, have you ever thought of doing visa, work permit, and relocation stuff for companies?” We didn’t start doing visa and work permit stuff for them right away, but over time they trusted us more and more and turned over all the visa and work permit stuff to us after several years of working together. They have been single handedly the biggest factor in our growth with relocation services. As HR people or other colleagues left SoundCloud and went to other startups in Berlin, they took us with them.
Have other partnerships in Berlin been valuable to you at Expath?
Yes, that is another huge growth area that we see for us as a company. We do German classes at Betahaus, and some other workshops and partnerships there as well. We would love to expand into other coworking spaces in Berlin and in other cities in Germany. This is definitely a win-win kind of partnership that we want to start building out, because it turns out coworking spaces have a lot of capacity in the evenings. These lets us be in other parts of the city where we don’t have an office. We can reach a lot of new people and get rid of our waitlist for evening classes.
Can you name one particular moment that’s been pivotal to your time as an entrepreneur?
One of the points that I’m proudest of is that we started very small with not very much behind us, except a little bit of savings, and we actually only became a GmbH in 2017.
That means we actually were not officially a company until two years ago. I think that was a huge moment for us, the moment where we were really able to take €25,000 and start a company. That was really like, “Wow ok, now we’ve really done something.” We already had employees at that time, but just one or two, and now we have eleven. Expath, the idea and the school, started seven years ago, but on paper the GmbH only started two years ago. Before that it was just a sole partnership officially.
What did that provide you with?
It made us a real company, and not just a project that two of us friends were working on. That point took us five years of hard work to get to, but I think it really helped us get the idea that this experiment had been successful, and now we’re taking it to the next level.
Has Berlin’s informal nature and unique history, urban fabric, demographics, etc. been a positive aspect of your time in the city?
Definitely. Without question. I can’t imagine this company starting in other places in the same way. I think it runs through the feel of the information we give, the employees we have, and how they communicate to people. The style of our teaching has a Berlin feel to it. I expect things would be more formal in another city like Munich, the teachers maybe a little bit more boring. All the people who are attracted to Berlin because of this culture, that’s who we are helping. So, it means that we get to feel it every day.
What considerations do you have when expanding to Munich and Hamburg?
We are a very Berlin company but we’ve recently opened in Hamburg and I expect we can Germanize ourselves to other parts easily and adapt to that region.
We got a request recently from a company who wants us to do visa work permit stuff for Berlin and Munich, and the first thing that our lawyer said, who coaches us on residency and immigration points, was, “You need to hire someone down there with a Bavarian accent.” I hadn’t thought of that, but maybe the authorities in Bavaria won’t like people coming in with a Berlin accent.
Finally, coffee, tea, or Club Mate?
I drink coffee – I’m American!
Thanks to Tia for contributing to our neighborhood interview series.
View the range of services at Expath.
Interview: Andrew Haw
Photography: Rahel Zoebeli