Founder and managing director UK native Martin Howlings came to Prague in a bit different way than many. He´d made a Czech friend back home and decided to move back with her to her hometown of Neratovice, 25 kilometers from Prague. He recounts it as “the beginning of a very obscure experience for me, moving from a modern city to a small Czech village.” His friend ended up returning to the UK, while he stayed in her flat for about a year; commuting to Prague to teach English. And during that time, he asked a lot of questions.
“Expats.cz had been in my head for a while,” he said. “Thinking about all those questions I had, asking expats and the answers varying depending on the nationality of the person and how long they´d been here.”
The site was launched October 2001, from Martin´s bedroom, using a 100 GBP (about 5,000 CZK in 2001) loan he´d gotten from his father. He bought some free hosting space, bulletin board software and as a self-proclaimed computer geek was able to develop and integrate the first version.
“At the time Jama and Radost FX bulletin boards were about the only places to get information,” he said. “I wanted to find a place to bring together old and new expats to help each other.”
What would now be termed as social media was then a forum with about 50 people exchanging information, selling stuff and swapping stories. These 50 grew and grew and Expats.cz celebrated the 500th member with a party at a pub.
“In those days I didn´t understand what I had in my hands. The first three years it was a project to keep me busy and spread the word about what I was doing,” he said. “Then we began adding business services – a business directory, real estate, and it became clear that the community needed this and they responded.”
While Expats.cz´s official motto is Helping you Adapt; Responding to the Community has to be at least their unofficial one. “The function is to bring people together to communicate and share their experiences; I learned how communities are built and influenced.”
Howlings said he´s been fortunate to come into contact with a lot of people from both the community and the business world. Spending all his time “asking silly questions” about what they want and need has helped him to continually improve the business. What started out as Howlings in his bedroom has grown to a small company with ten employees and 15 additional people working on the site.
“I´ve learned a lot from my team, they´ve helped me to understand the industry, how to improve the business,” he said. “We have a young dynamic team and I´m very privileged to work with them. I´ve gotten to a point where the team I have now is my strongest. I enjoy my job and a lot of it is the ease in which we all work together.” The team is international; most are Czech, but Americans, Canadians, Brits, Danes, Indians and Russians have all passed through the doors at some point.
Howlings finds it difficult sometimes to see the progress; as for him it´s been a gradual shift. The change in social media though, he notes, has been huge.
“The prevalence of social media was significantly lower and not main stream like today, i.e. Facebook,” he said. “Our community portal was popular but not understood well.”
He credits the website´s long-term existence for helping him understand social influence and how it can increase or decrease the value of a brand. He believes that internet advertising will continue to go from strength to strength and Expats.cz foresees more questions from clients that they feel they have the expertise to answer.
“Now I can see opportunity more clearly, can help people and spot patterns of need,” he said. “I have the experience now to help brands present themselves and how to use online media to promote their business.”
Expats.cz isn´t the only website in Prague in English, nor targeting an international clientele. What makes it different?
“Our site has maintained a very tight focus on the expat community, we are not a tourist portal,” Howlings said. “User generated content is very important and over the past nine years we´ve done what we can to facilitate the community.” He adds embracing and working together with other social media like Facebook, (there are more than 2500 members in their group); and focusing on the relevancy of content that is geared and developed specifically for the needs and wants of the community as other features that set them apart.
The success of the site has spawned other projects. The annual free Survival Guide offers the best of the online content in book form; distributed all over the world and at 450 points in Prague.
“In addition we are about to host the largest expat party Prague has ever seen at Prague’s largest club, SaSaZu,” he adds. “We have our second Expat Marketplace coming up in the spring; more physical networking events for both clients and visitors; and some very interesting new online services to make it easier to exchange information.”
“I´m so grateful to the people who have helped me, people who write in with suggestions, friends, colleagues, clients, all help me to provide a better service and system,” he said. “It´s been an effort that´s come about through constant feedback.”
For detractors who claim he got lucky; Howlings does admit that he was in the right place, at the right time, with the right idea; but it also took an enormous amount of time and energy. “Anyone can throw together a site that works the same as ours; the difference is nine years of experience in running an internet business and knowing the value of social media.”
However as all good speakers do; Howlings has a final message: “We couldn’t have made Expats.cz the service it is today without the help of our users who continue to provide us with the feedback we need to continue to make the site the amazing community it is – and for that – we thank you.”
The facts: Expats.cz is a free information portal for expats living in the Czech Republic, those about to move here and English speaking Czechs. Since 2001, we have generated more than 100 active clients, thousands of members and the site welcomes about 1000 new people registering every month. Expats.cz receives 250,000 unique visitors a month.