We wanted to briefly share some of Ben Angel’s interviews prior to the coming Zoom teleconference session on Author Interviewing to be held on Monday, Mar. 30, 2020.
The world has changed a lot since May 6, 2011, when the following interview took place. Internations changed a lot. At one time, the monthly meetings organized by community ambassadors were all that officially happened. Since then, activity groups have emerged, focusing on the specific interests of its members. Among these, according to a survey conducted over the course of a recent night covering every Internations community on the planet, there are some 19 groups specifically targeted to writers, and 20 more that are more or less writer-friendly.
Needless to say, that didn’t exist when this interview was conducted on that distant Friday evening when founder Malte Zeeck came to Santiago. A Munich native, Zeeck was a former TV journalist and world traveler who got together with then partners Christian Leifeld and Philipp von Plato (the latter of whom is still co-CEO of the company), both of whom were one-time consultants for McKinsey & Company, Inc., and created a social network that brought expatriates and others with a “global mindset” together as a mutually-supportive community.
Going back to the original text of the interview…
Zeeck expressed surprise at the size of the Santiago Internations community. “I would have to look up how many members we have in Chile right now,” he said (it numbered 1,612 as of Monday, May 9, 2011). “But I think it’s amazing that there are already like 200 people signed up for events right now. I hadn’t expected that Santiago would be so strong.”
Zeeck lauded the efforts of Chris Emmott and Paola Vega, Internations Ambassadors for Santiago (today, the community operates under a different team, now composed of four persons). The Ambassador role in Internations is highly important, one that involves organizing events in their city of responsibility, fielding questions about the organization from individuals, and overseeing the forums and other activities that are provided by the organization. The popularity of the events in Santiago, Zeeck said, “is really due to the amazing effort particularly of Paola and Chris. You know, the Ambassador model is completely voluntary. They do this because they like the idea, they like bringing people together, they like to help people, and it’s really great.”
Ben Angel sat down with Zeeck at the California Cantina at the Friday night Internations gathering, and interviewed him on behalf of the readers of I Love Chile (this was at one time posted on their website, but following a change of owners, all ILoveChile.com content from this period was deleted – this text was taken from the Word document on which the interview was composed and submitted).
What were your intentions with starting Internations? How did you come up with the idea?
I used to study business, together with a friend of mine, Philipp von Plato, and we both had the desire to start our own organization one day, but we both decided to get some practical work experience. So he went into consulting, used to work for about five years for McKinsey & Company, and I went into television, into journalism. I used to work as a reporter, mainly for German news channels, which brought me to many different countries, like Brazil, Spain, India, and here and there…
This was with n-tv?
Yeah, most of the time I worked for n-tv, but I also used to work for the First German Television (“Erstes Deutsches Fernsehen”) in India, and sometimes for CNN. I always felt in this new situation when you arrive in a country, like in India, in New Delhi, where you feel kind of lost, and you somehow want to meet up with other expats that can tell you (for example) where to find a German-speaking dentist, where to go out to have a beer – just to meet some friends, basically. And at the time I knew that there were many people in the same situation working for embassies, for companies, but it was not so easy to find friends. So that was how the idea was born to create a platform, to use modern technology to make it easier for expats to settle in, to meet other people, and to exchange information, basically.
What year was this that you had come up with the idea?
We started working on Internations at the beginning of 2007, and then we went online with the platform on Sept. 11, 2007. That was a coincidence, actually. We were planning for Sept. 1, but with IT, it always takes a little longer.
The major challenge of course was that we had this beautiful platform, which we liked a lot, but a community without any members is kind of boring. So the big challenge was to attract expats from around the world to come to our website.
There are a lot of other social media networks out there, of course, the most aggressively marketed is Facebook. What sort of a value does Internations have that it can add to the expat community over these other networks, like Facebook or LinkedIn?
These are two good examples – I think everyone nowadays is on Facebook. But Facebook is usually a platform which you use to stay in contact with the friends you already have on a private level. LinkedIn is what people use for finding a job, recruiting, or making business contacts.
Internations focuses on the expat’s situation related to people. It’s a niche topic. We try to make it easier for people to meet other people when they’re going abroad, when they’re moving somewhere – to meet other people and find expat-relevant information, on the country, on where to look for all these things I just mentioned, that’s our main added value.
Another big differentiating factor is that our members want to meet up in real life, which you don’t have on Facebook and LinkedIn. You might have that once in a while, but not organized the way as we do it. People find it nice to connect online and to exchange information, but with Internations it’s more important to go to these meetings like here tonight and meet others, to make friends, to make business contacts as well, maybe also for dating, whatever the reason might be. That’s the idea. We really will do more in this offline aspect as well.
The member base is also different. Our people have less time than people have on Facebook where they are spending hours in front of their PC. The average age is 35, and our people are working as expats abroad, viz a viz, in positions where they have less time to spend on the Internet. So they want to meet up in real life and make some friends.
What is the breakdown between the expat community and just the general tourist that goes from town to town and attends the different meetings? Is there a breakdown of that somewhere?
About 70 percent of our people are expatriates. The other 30 percent are locals who have a global mindset, who have been living abroad themselves, who speak English, who can feel somehow that they have this international connection. And of these people, as I mentioned, the average age is about 35, most of the members are between 30 and 40, 20 percent are above 40.
People stay for different time periods abroad. It’s the consultant who goes for 2-3 months on a project. It’s the guy that goes for one year. It’s the typical expats that go for 3-5 years as diplomats or being sent from a company. But we also have people living for 10 years or more in another country, and almost feeling like natives in a way, but they want to somehow keep their connections with the international community in their respective cities.
What are some of the network strategies that you would recommend to different members of the community that take part in Internations?
Well, it depends on what people are looking for. I think the best thing to do is to go to our offline events, because when you are in a new country, when you have just arrived, it’s amazing how fast you can build up your network of friends and also business contacts. If you are looking for a job, it’s just the same.
When you just pre-move, when you move to another country and you want to get some information, you can contact people that are living in that particular country, other Germans, other Swiss people, other Americans, whatever you are interested in. You can search for people who enjoy playing golf, who are in the same industry as you are, and you can gather information by contacting them, or share information with people asking in the local forums. Or look for information in the City Guides, where members provide information on where to rent hotels, international schools, all the topics that are relevant when you are going abroad, either with your family or alone.
A lot of the website seems to be in English. Is there any sort of catering for other languages on Internations?
The website is completely in English, and we want to keep it in English because that’s the combining factor that all expats have. We don’t want to exclude anyone by letting people speak other languages, so everything is in English, and we try to monitor that in a way so that it’s in English. However, we have some groups of Spanish-speaking people living in Germany, of Russians living in Turkey, and they meet and they exchange in their native language. That’s fine, but in the overall general forums, it all should be in English.
Was this purely something that came as a professional interest (“ it would be nice to have this if I were going to another country and there were a group of expatriates that was available to network with me”), or was this something that happened a bit earlier (like say in your earlier travels)?
Well, I always love to travel. I used to travel a lot already when I was a child with my parents, and later when I was studying – I studied in Brazil and I studied in Italy and in Switzerland and in different countries – during my studies, I used to work as a flight attendant for Lufthansa, which took me all around the world to the most amazing countries, and I always loved to meet other cultures and go around the world. And certainly this idea enables me to travel and visit other countries and meet other cultures.
Working on a professional level as a journalist also brought me to different countries, and it was the mix of the interest for the Internet and new technology, to facilitate these things through the Internet and make it much easier – to provide a simple solution which makes it easier for so many people around the world.
I think that my true motivation is also to solve real-life problems for people that they have when they are somewhere alone and they don’t know anyone. It’s very nice to get feedback from people that tell me “I have met my very best friends through Internations,” “I have found a job,” “I have met my wife,” – we also had our first “Internations baby” – this is really nice to receive this kind of feedback that you’ve really touched their lives.
Where was the first Internations baby born?
I think it was in Switzerland, actually. A guy from Dubai, and a lady, I think she was from Ecuador or somewhere in South America, and they met there through Internations.
How would you improve the networking overall, are there any sort of plans for technical advances?
We have a few things that we are currently building. One is editorial content. At the moment we have only user-generated content on hospitals, schools, and so on. But we will offer soon – we are already preparing the editorial content for all the information you need when you move abroad. Health systems, education systems, taxation…
A Frequently Asked Questions sort of thing.
Yes, about a country when you move there. This is one very big aspect. We have set up an editorial team in our office that is developing this already.
Second thing is we want to develop even more off-line activities. Right now we have these kind of monthly events, where people get together. We have them in 80 cities, once per month (in 2020, they’ve targeted some 420 cities, most of which have active communities). But we feel the need for people to meet even more in groups that are following special interests. So we are building a new feature that will be called something like “Activity Groups,” where people can meet up to go salsa dancing, to have a wine tasting, to play soccer in the park, to have a family picnic, whatever the interest. In groups of 10-20 people, it is even easier to meet people.
So the idea is that if you move in a year or two to a place like Shanghai, you look in the events calendar and there is something going on every day.
Is there any advice you would give to people who are serving as Ambassadors for Internations, or for individuals to improve their networking?
For the Ambassadors, we have compiled a very long and extensive Ambassador Manual, where we have gathered information from all the events that we’ve been doing all around the world. We have been building up a lot of knowledge on how to organize events well, what makes people come to the events, what makes them come back, how to do it right so that people enjoy it a lot. Things like, changing venues so that people can experience different places in their city, and also how to create a very nice atmosphere by welcoming members and introducing them to each other so that no one is alone, using name tags that serve as ice breakers for people who might be a little bit shy, things like that.
For the individual, I think I can only encourage everyone to use the meetings to talk to everyone, because everyone is there for the same reason, to meet others. This is the big difference from when you go out on Friday night, you may never go to the person standing next to you and go, “Hey! Who are you? What are you doing?”
Here, this is wanted, and that’s what makes it so nice. It’s easy to meet other people. No one will look at you and think, “What do you want from me?” It’s very easy to get in contact, to have a nice conversation. And I find it’s really interesting people you meet, not only from many different countries, but also many different professional backgrounds. You find lawyers and doctors and artists and academics, professors, and whatever.
The last question I wanted to ask was, say that it’s the year 2021, ten years in the future. How do you see Internations functioning at that point?
Of course we have a vision. Ten years is long for an Internet company. I always plan in shorter distances. But we already are the community for expats, the biggest one that there is. We want to be the leading expat organization, community, the platform for international exchange. Whenever someone is saying, “Hey, I’m moving abroad” or “My friend is moving abroad,” people should know about Internations and say “Hey, you have to go to Internations, you will meet nice and interesting people there.” That is our vision.
And we really want to create a very active community, as I’ve described with all these activities and creating big families of global minds.
We also have a charity vision. We have set up a scholarship with AFS Intercultural Programs (formerly American Field Services). They are our partners. They do a high school exchange program, usually between industrialized countries, like Germany to America, Japan, and so on. We set up a scholarship for people from third world countries that cannot afford to go abroad. So we support students from these countries.
But our idea is to support one social project in each of our communities that we will select, based on certain criteria that we will develop, and we want to support it through our community, through the financial support of our members. All of our members live a privileged life, study, have a good background and usually a higher income – the expats. So I think they are willing to share some of that with people who do not live this privileged life by donating on the platform and at meetings.
More important, we have people who have traveling spouses, family partners, who cannot work, who do not want to work, or are not allowed to work when they are abroad, but they want to engage. So the idea is to enable these different people to engage charitably by supporting projects, like supporting street children in Santiago, or another project in Dubai, or whatever there is.
It’s just a vision, but we’ll take it step by step to get there.
Other samples by Ben Angel include an interview with an early ambassador team for the Minsk Internations community, and a series of author interviews conducted on behalf of A Word With You Press, the most recent of which was posted on Friday, Mar. 27. Feel free to review these at your leisure.