In this article, I would like to share (a short version of) my personal story with you. I have done a short interview with myself:
What drew me to this market?
An odd combination of events. Short after the millennium I was working in a publishing company in Amsterdam. They published city maps, sponsored by advertisers from each city. The interesting thing about this organization was the division between their sales office, which was in Amsterdam and their studio, which was in Breda (some 100 km away). The sales office would gather all the materials for the ads from customers (this was the CD ROM pre-fast internet era) and send it by post to Breda. The designers in Breda would create the ad and send a print proof back to Amsterdam. Amsterdam got it confirmed (or gathered changes) and so the process went. So I wondered, if this company makes a process to create designs remotely, why wouldn’t it be possible to do this in another country where everything is cheaper?
Around the year 2000, the IT market hit an all time high, companies couldn’t find programmers in their own country and started searching elsewhere. India started booming as its government had invested in educating loads of engineers since the 90s.
So I left the company and travelled through India for 3 months. And that’s when I decided that I had to found an outsourcing company. The whole country spoke and dreamed about IT and still does. IT is India’s way to become a world power and move staggering amounts of people out of poverty. And there is an abundance of smart, friendly and hard working talent. I wanted to become part of this movement, which in my view contributes to a better balance in the world as it creates jobs in developing countries while bringing growth and profit to both developed and developing countries.
What do you like about it?
First of all, the fact that I could build an interesting business within the offshoring industry. I love working with and meeting up with people from other cultures. I find it incredibly challenging to find ways for people to cooperate remotely: in each cooperation we set up with a client, we have to find the way for them to work with the programmers we hired for them. It is satisfying to make that work out, to see that the cooperation between someone in Western Europe with someone in Eastern Europe or India produces positive experiences.
I also find it inspiring to build our company culture across borders. I had initially built a company that worked as an intermediary between customer and foreign supplier. But that gave me no influence on what was going on inside the ‘black box’ of the supplier. Since 2008 we started setting up our own offices, first in Ukraine, then in India. In our own offices, we’re able to decide who joins us and to deliberately build a culture that stimulates behavior needed to succeed in cross-border cooperation’s.
What do you dislike?
The thing I disliked was having to go through so many mistakes. The first years, I was in the dark as to what one needs to do in order to cooperate with someone in India or Eastern Europe. I made all the mistakes you can imagine: hire the wrong people, work without any process, not using any online project management tools, communicating through chat only, work with suppliers that were not trustworthy, get stuck in the middle between client and supplier, not being able to deliver a project to a customer. And then another bucket of mistakes opening an office in India without any prior experience or Indian contacts.
If somebody had told me upfront that I would have to learn 5 years to figure out a business model that will work and make people happy, it’s likely that I would have chosen another venture. But now it works, and then again, it is better not knowing what lies in front of a new venture as otherwise you wouldn’t start.
What are your greatest achievements and failures?
The biggest achievement is that I have built a company with great people, spread out over many countries, that knows how to make remote collaboration work. I had set out to build an outsourcing company and through trial and error, we have developed a formula that works.
Specifically I am proud of our office in India, where about 30 people work together in a culture that feels like a family. Every time I speak to my colleagues, they tell me that our culture is different from any other company in Kerala, that the company feels like a second home. I didn’t know anything about setting up a business in India, started completely from scratch (took my back and a friend to Cochin and we rented an office and off it went) and went through many hardships. And it worked out.
A more personal achievement was living in India with my wife and 8 months old twins. This gave our family a fantastic experience, made me understand Indian culture on a deeper level and enabled us to lay a strong foundation for the company.
And then failures. First of all, there were many failures on the customer side. I didn’t know a thing about managing remote cooperation’s when I set out with Bridge. So I had to screw up a lot of projects to learn what I should and shouldn’t do.
Another failure (although I see this as a very positive experience overall as written above) was that I moved from the Netherlands too quickly. I had set up Bridge in 2006 and in 2008 I thought I had it all figured out for our Dutch office. We had two well performing sales guys and two project managers, we had been growing steadily for three years and we had just started our Indian office. So I appointed somebody as ‘director’ for Bridge Holland and left for India with my family. My plan was to build and grow our Indian company and then move on. But I had just landed in India when trouble started. First of all, recession started, which didn’t help us. We hired the wrong project manager (he was doing other stuff than what we paid him for to say the least), lost a big account, drove one of our account managers mad along the way (which resulted in his departure few months later) and started losing more clients in the spring of 2009 because of the financial crisis. So one year later, back I was in Holland. And it took me quite some time to rebuild what was destroyed. But ok, I had a great time in India!
How would you advice others on offshoring?
First of all, I sincerely believe that unless you are building a company similar to mine, it is not a good idea to setup your own team in another country. Of course you may be lucky, but I am confident that you’ll face many of the hardships described above. Although I wouldn’t want to have missed them, I think it doesn’t make economic sense for an SME to invest the time and money I did in a captive center.
The most crucial aspect is getting the right people in your newly found company. And you’ll choose the wrong ones invariably (again unless you are lucky), because you don’t know what to pay attention to in another culture. On top of that, you’ll have to learn how to work with remote teams.
I believe it is crucial for European companies to engage in offshoring, because there is no denying that it’s hard to find talented people. And it will go worse now the population gets grey. The safest course of action is to work with a company that knows how to get the right people, that already has a set up and above all, can help you in managing your remote team. If your dream is to own a foreign subsidairy, you could start with a supplier and agree to establish a joint venture that takes over the team after x years.
On a more general level, I recommend everyone to start working with remote developers. It enriches your life, you get to see more than your home country, you learn a lot, better the world and have fun along the way!
It would be great if some readers could share some personal anecdotes as answers to the questions above!