The challenges and benefits of building an entire startup team in Eastern Europe with Nick Jordan from ContentDistribution
Have you ever wondered what running an entire team in Eastern Europe is like? Nick Jordan from ContentDistribution is running a 25 people team in Serbia and he is speaking about cultural differences, English fluency, and other things that are good to know when considering hiring in Eastern Europe.
Welcome to Product Stories, where we explore how founders build successful software products. This is a podcast about product management development, remote work and anything else non-technical as well as technical founders need to know to launch and scale software products. Today’s guest is Nick Jordan, founder of Content Distribution, and together we’ll dive into the challenges and benefits of building out entire startup team in Eastern Europe. First for his agency, then for his SaaS product. Nick, welcome to the show.
Hey, thanks so much for having me. I’ve been excited all week to be here today.
That’s super great to hear. Well, why don’t you tell us then a little bit of a background about yourself and your companies?
Yeah, for sure. My name is Nick Jordan. I’m originally from Seattle, which means I just grew up in one of the tech capitals and, you know, I’ve been grinding to get where I’m at today for the last 12 years. It didn’t really come together until 2020 when our agency grew from one full-time employee to 25. At the end of 2020, we launched a SaaS product that we’ve been using internally for a couple of years. Now we have 2000 users, 2000 ARR.
That’s very impressive. What is the business about? Who’s the target customer?
contentdistribution.com is a content creation agency. Basically, we distribute content through organic search and we’ve brought four projects from zero to a hundred thousand organics per month. The largest doing over 500,000 organic visitors each month. The product that we made available is basically an automated keyword research tool that we’ve used to power these projects, and we attribute a lot of the success that we’ve had in SEO to this tool.
Essentially what it does is it allows you to identify the entire opportunity to get in front of your target customer. It has a list of every single unique page that you would want to create to reach them across the funnel. You can absolutely saturate, where your customers are searching for today.
Awesome. So you’re saying that this is exactly what you were using within your own agency. You kind of built a tool to make that workflow easier. Then what was the trigger, did you, hey maybe somebody else would be interested in that? Or were people actively asking for a cheaper solution than hiring you guys?
Yeah. You know, so if you look at our organization there are only two people in the org that came in with SEO experience before joining the company. It’s me and our director of SEO. Despite that, we had the best SEO campaign on the internet last year growing from about zero to 500,000 visitors per month. I spent actually my entire career in SaaS, early-stage SaaS companies, and I didn’t recently move in, I only recently moved into services about three years ago when I wanted to re-skill my career from business development and sales into a marketing agency to run sales actually. But I knew that in the process I would learn how to do marketing. Then in services, but you know, products.
Of course, as we do, that’s why we’re on the show. Now the main topic of today is to build teams in Eastern Europe. Now you’re from Seattle. How did you get the idea to start hiring overseas?
I left that agency job that taught me how to do SEO. I felt like I was in a position where I could, do it better on my own and capture more value. I ended up leaving and one of the first projects I picked up, I hired a writer to execute on the content that I needed done. I ended up bringing that person on full-time. She just happened to live in Belgrade Serbia, where I’m taking the podcast from today. It just kind of, the path of least resistance. She reached into her network, she spoke the local language, she understood the culture. It was just easier to just continue to build where my employee number one is. She started off as a writer about 18 months ago, 20 months ago, and now she’s leading our 25 person content team as our director of operations.
That is very impressive and very growth. Did you have any troubles hiring locally in Serbia? How did you go about that? Just within her network? Or did you work with any recruiters or, local job boards or anything like that?
Yeah, definitely. The first place she looked was her network. She has a master’s degree. She had colleagues that she had sat next to, and went to school with for like six years. That’s the first place we looked and then those people ended up bringing their friends. A lot of them were actually former teachers where they got their masters in English and they were teaching Serbians English. We brought them into our content team.
I have a lot to say about recruiting. But we just brought on our first recruiting manager. I mean, coordinator, because we need to grow our team from about 30 today to 60 by the end of the year.
I think you mentioned the very core piece of the entire strategy, right there, is that you find a lot of hesitation when it comes to hiring remotely and abroad also in Eastern Europe is because of fluency in English, the grammar skills. I personally, I’m not a native. I’m not that fluent or flawless in writing or speaking. How has your experience been here? Because it seems like there’s a lot of people with actual English degrees. How much is that worth?
Because a lot of the people on my team have less of an accent than I would hear just walking in Seattle.
[inaudible] Microsoft and half the cities in H1B. They could blend in, if they didn’t say on their LinkedIn that they lived in Belgrade, they could very easily live in Seattle or San Francisco or New York or Miami, or many cities within the US.
[inaudible] pretty limited. What we see is that these people started learning English when they were a kid through video games, or Western media. They just kept it up and then they pursued six years of English mastery. Honestly, they know grammar rules that I haven’t heard since sixth grade and, these guys are better writers than I am.
When you’re scaling as fast as we have, the easiest thing for people to do is let things slide. It’s easier for everybody, if you just let things slide because there’s a lot of work to do. I think when you spend six years mastering English, there’s a certain passion for like, content and grammar and like correctness. Especially when you go on to get your advanced master’s degree, there’s a little bit of like an eliteness of like, not on my watch.
The fact that they spent so long in school is a really good indicator that they’re not gonna let it happen on their watch.
Yeah. That makes total sense. I think people are very passionate about that and about anywhere in the world, essentially about what they want to do, what they are doing and that this kind of vibe, especially the startup vibe is really flooding into a lot of these countries and people are very excited to work with international companies.
What I’m kind of like really excited about is like over the next five years, you know, [inaudible] organization are going to go on and they’re going to bring the skill sets that they learned here to the rest of the companies in Belgrade. Right now they’re getting experience that you really can’t get for a local company because we’re operating on San Francisco level scale with like series A startups that literally
[inaudible] world. The things that they learn just aren’t available if you’re working for a local company.
The things that they’re learning can’t be taken from them. I’m excited to see the sophistication in Belgrade, three to five years from now.
A hundred percent, because what we’ve noticed and I’ve been working in and with Eastern Europe for almost 10 years now, in the very beginning, it was literally Microsoft and the likes of the big corporations moving into same as let’s say, India, for example, moving into these countries and building huge offices because they could afford to well, save unemployment cost, of course. Whether that is developers or building call centers or things like that. People obviously went there because it was better pay. It was a more international job. But what happened then is these small agencies started spreading specifically targeted at foreign customers.
This is where the classic outsourcing boom kind of started to work with an agency. Whether it was the dev shop or a marketing agency from Eastern Europe. People started to want to work within those because that’s not a corporation, this is the closest, you could get to a startup, to an international environment and to work on meaningful products where your change would impact it right away. But now, especially last year, that really changed again, where the tolerance of international companies really shifted towards hiring directly.
It’s not that scary anymore. It’s called remote work. Now it has nothing to do with outsourcing. People are again, really excited to work in that environment. The next step obviously is exactly what you’re saying. It’s going to be working for local startups for local founders who have the same tool belt and experience because they come from within this environment that you are creating, for example.
I read an interesting observation and I forgot who it was. It’s probably some comment on hacker news, but they said the reason San Francisco can’t be repeated despite how much money you see poured into the ecosystem of a specific city. Because what happened with SF is, people join companies, they learned best practices. Then they left and they took those best practices with them and it just happened again and again since they started building centers, in like the fifties or sixties or whatever. I think that’s really critical. You need to work at a big scale, you need to learn best practices, and then those people need to have some sort of success in the other companies.
Yeah, absolutely. That’s right actually. Well, now that you’ve built your team in Serbia, did you notice any cultural differences? Any difference in communication or an approach in the work that people do?
Yeah. Actually, we just had a meme contest and I took a lot of shots at Serbian culture. No one’s ever referred to me as hey boss before. I haven’t heard any Americans ever refer to their boss as boss, maybe in a blue-collar, but absolutely not tech. I feel like it’s more common here and it makes me pretty uncomfortable. I’m just Nick. I think the other thing that’s hard for, Eastern Europeans is talking in public slack channels and asking questions, and being seen as someone who doesn’t have all the answers.
We have to do a lot of work to make people feel comfortable typing in public slack channels, instead of DM-ing feeling comfortable asking questions. I feel like that’s a little bit more allowed in US business culture. That’s been a challenge. then I think the last one is around like making mistakes, you know, as a marketer, and as kind of a founder. I know that the best way to get somewhere is to iterate. That means that there’s a lot of things that don’t work and I’m completely comfortable with being wrong because I know that being wrong or getting closer to being right.
I tell anyone in my org not to make mistakes, that’s my key, learning strategy. It’s not something that, you know, Eastern Europeans typically hear from their boss.
Yeah. I know that that is true. Although you see that changing up the more people work in an international environment. But another question that I have, and it’s super curious because I know you travel a lot. You were in Thailand for the past 10 plus months.
[inaudible] Awesome. You just came back to Belgrade and how long did you actually stay in Belgrade? Did you live there for a while? How did you organize that?
When I left the agency that I learned marketing. I lived in Rio de Janeiro. I lived in Thailand previously and there’s nothing new for me to discover in Seattle. My life is actually pretty boring. I work and I work out. But if I do that in a foreign country, now my boring life is all of a sudden exciting again, because I’m buying groceries in a language I don’t understand. I’m not sure if drivers here stop for pedestrians and, there’s all this challenge in my day-to-day boring life that I don’t get by doing that same stuff. [distorted audio 15:20] But as an American, I can only stay there for 90 days and I just hired this person in Belgrade. It made sense for me to move to Belgrade. I spent eight months in Belgrade before I ended up getting trapped in Thailand. But in that first six months, I think we only hired one or two people. Really all the growth came in after I left.
Would you say that a team like that can be built even a local team of 25 or now almost 60 people without you being on the ground? Because that’s also one of the biggest worries that remote founders have. Should I be on the ground? How often can I be there? I mean, it’s not easy to fly over from the US to Europe every month let’s say. It’s possible, but certainly not something everybody wants to do all the time.
I think we worked remotely. I worked remotely with Gordano, I’ll just call her Gordano instead of my director of ops or this employee number one. I worked with her for about three months remotely before I ended up moving over to Belgrade and I was there you know, for eight months and I think really important for like the early days of the organization where I was still figuring everything out and building trust and stuff like that. But I don’t think it’s necessary because, you know, it was just me and Gordana when I left and then we have 25 people and actually I was remarking to some people on my team. Like, it doesn’t even feel like we’ve never met before, because I haven’t met 99% of the people on the team, but the communication is so good that like, I actually didn’t feel alone while living in Thailand for 14 months. Even though I didn’t have any friends.
What’s your plan now that you’re back? How long do you want to stay?
I don’t know, we’re talking about moving to like trying to get into EU next year. I’m going to take my directors and my leadership team, and we want to go live in Portugal. We want to try and get in there some. Greece, Spain, somewhere, hot and kind of raining.
Awesome. Yeah, no, that makes total sense. Considering that myself a bit always on and off, you know, it’s a dream. But another question of course is with one person, I suppose you can easily hire them as a freelancer, but people are wondering you have 25 or more members in the team. How does that look like legally? Of course, you’re not a lawyer, this is not legal advice that any of us are giving here, but how does that look like with you? Did you have any challenges with actually getting money across to people and paying them in employment?
Yeah. You know, so I think first off, like as a two-person startup, compliance was not even on my radar at all and it’s just starting to get there. But I think, even though we don’t have a local presence. We’re a company, even though we’re not legally required to do certain things that local companies would be we’ve decided to do those things anyway. I think one of the big ones is our PTO policy. Few of our team members in our organization get 32 days of PTO per year. When I look at my peers, my mom in the US she worked at the same company for 20 years on Brain Institute, a very well-funded progressive non-profit.
She had 15 days. Most people have 10. We decided to voluntarily comply with as many of the things that local companies would have to as possible. In America, it’s termination for convenience at any time we try and give people a heads up if they’re not working out and you’re gonna have to split ways. We do our best to unofficially accommodate as much as we can. What I’ve gone through employment compliances is almost impossible. I think that the reason that I’m considering it is because we have a big team in Serbia, but what if our team grows in Pakistan or the Philippines, or South Africa. Do we have to also create local entities and comply with local employment law and all those other countries? The answer is we’re just not resourced enough.
Yeah, I mean, it’s good you’re saying that because just simply complying with the local law in terms of how much, vacation or public holidays does somebody get, that’s not the hardpoint. It’s a bit of an administrative issue to keep that and sort of keep track of it, but that’s not the hard part. The hard part is, what if I’m required to have these local entities to have lawyers to open up subsidiaries. You can’t even close them measly enough to get taxed, worry about corporate tax, even, don’t even get me started on that one. There’s a lot of issues that people are worrying about. The sad part is that there’s a lot of countries who, especially during the pandemic are starting to realize that they need to get more tax from some industry that is growing and has not been affected by COVID.
They are getting remote workers on the radars for example, Serbia. Serbia has really started closing down on full-time freelancers, which is I think that a few other countries are doing as well. We’re monitoring very closely. But there’s still ways to go by that, or there’s still a lot of countries where you can hire freelancers, but it is definitely something to watch out for if you’re trying to build a major team anywhere, essentially.
Yeah. The bigger the team gets, the bigger the liability. It’s just tough for everybody. It’s tougher for our team. Speaking from a compliance perspective, Americans, as soon as they have a single dollar in a foreign bank account that has to be reported. Even if you have $2 and you report, $1 that’s a $10,000 fine. It can go back six years. A simple mistake can create a $50,000 liability when the mistake was the difference of $10. I would have to terminate my existing accountant relationship because she’s not qualified to handle the complexities of two different entities in different countries. I have to go find competent representation for tax and legal in both Serbia and the US. I know my own hiring rate, I’ve hired a couple of bad people. I don’t trust myself to find the right vendor the first time. The consequences of picking a bad vendor are extremely high.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s not a joke. International tax compliance is not a joke. We have a bit of experience with that ourselves with different countries and this is the tool belt for bigger organizations. This is not for startups. It may seem easy if you have a team in one country, especially like really just in one country. We’re not speaking about a distributed team in 20 different countries. But really just one, it seems easy to say, why don’t we open up a local entity, but it does get tricky. Even with the first one and really good consultants is necessary, as you said, in your home country, in that country, understanding how to make that work cross border. Probably what you would say as well is to see where you can legally hire freelancers for as long as possible.
Even though we’ve had this incredible growth, I’m focused on like stability and de-risking, and it’s very hard for me to add all this compliance burden onto my plate. Not only are we under-resourced to handle it, but we’re just under time constraints. We’re not that sophisticated. I went from this like guy who’s good at SEO to all of a sudden, I have to be good at all of these other things that I’m not so good at. It’s been a big challenge. I think Serbia, particularly there’s chatter that there’s this new freelance kind of work status that will make it easier. I think it has to happen because I just like, if Serbia wants to be awesome, like working for foreign companies that can bring it like we discussed earlier, and spread that around, is a necessary step.
I also think we can compensate better than local companies because our team creates more value, because we’re not servicing the Serbian market. Every government has to make this kind of trade-off in terms of like, how hard do we want to make it for our workers to be successful in the international, labor force.
A hundred percent. I think that the country that’s gonna make this easy will actually win this. It will have a very healthy labor market, a very healthy labor market of specialists bringing home a decent amount of money. Look at Ukraine for example, it’s very easy to hire Ukrainians at that point. The taxation is very easy as well, for them, and Ukraine currently is the biggest international tech labor market there is in Eastern Europe.
I don’t want to say bigger than Pakistan or India, of course, because these are countries with a totally different magnitude, but in Eastern Europe, definitely. I guess that this is a very successful model. In any way I know that you’ve been writing up all of your experiences with hiring remotely and building remote teams where can people find more about that?
strongerteams.com. We’re going to be sharing all the processes and SLPs and templates we’ve used to grow our remote team. I think that every single remote company ends up reinventing the wheel. They all have to create. Here’s how you set up your email signature and like, here’s how you decide whether you use a public channel or the DMs, and there’s all this stuff. It all has to be reinvented. We kind of want to create like this, like open source, remote work framework that other people can use, take our knowledge bases and, work on their core business and stuff. Their PTO policy.
Victor [ 27:20]
That is awesome. Everybody head to strongerteams.com and where can people find more about you and Continent Distribution?
contentdistribution.com depreciating this brand over the next three to six months and everything is going to be moving to Stronger Teams. But I’m Nick from Seattle on everything, Nick from Seattle on Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook, on LinkedIn, Nick from Seattle.
Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Nick. That’s been a real pleasure and chat soon.
Thank you so much for having me on, I hope your audience learned some of the challenges about, global compliance. Everyone is so focused on like leads and sales and no one’s really talking about operations and what it takes to actually, you have a great product, you have good leads, your marketing is good, your sales is good. What’s next? In over the course of the last six months, I found it [inaudible] to kind of dive into all these things that were previously like, hidden from, my understanding of what it takes to grow a good company. Thank you.