Troy Erstling is a long term expat and CEO of the international recruitment site BrainGain.co. Troy is always happy to hear from people interested in working abroad and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook at Troy Erstling and on twitter at @troyerstling or @teambraingain. This interview has been edited for brevity.
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Troy’s Story of How He Started Working Abroad
The Origin of BrainGain.co
Troy’s Expectations for the Trend of Working Abroad
Troy’s Top Picks for Countries to Work In
People Working Abroad Landing High Impact Positions Than They Would at Home
The Characteristics a Company Looks for in an International Candidate
Troy’s Personal Experience Transitioning to Life Abroad
The Process of Assimilating with Local Colleagues
The Type of Person Who Working Abroad Isn’t For
Tips for Seniors in College Working Abroad
Research Tips for those Interested in Working Abroad
Let’s start with your own journey abroad. You have lived in Argentina, India and Malaysia, how did you manage to get abroad?
My first experience living abroad was a study abroad program at the University of Arizona. I spent six months in Buenos Aires and absolutely loved it. While I was there I met a few people who were teaching English, you know, breaking even, living a good lifestyle, but prior to that I had no idea about the teaching English world and getting paid to teach and travel, and at the time that really appealed to me.
So when I got back to the US I took a TEFL certification course and after graduating I found a job teaching English in South Korea. I chose South Korea because they offered paid round-trip airfare, housing, medical insurance, and a good salary that allowed me to save around 1,000 dollars a month. Obviously, after graduating college the teaching English route isn’t so popular with parents because it isn’t seen as the most professional option, so convincing my parents it was a good idea was easier because of the perks I got with the South Korea position.
Social enterprise, startups, making an impact and good money sounded like something I would be interested in.
So I spent a year in Korea teaching English to 7 year-olds and I loved it but I met a lot of people who struggled to transition out of teaching English. I didn’t want to get stuck in English teaching, so while in Korea I reached out to a friend of mine who I met when I was in Argentina and he said “I am in Bangalore India on a fellowship in Social Enterprise and I am working with startups.” And at the time I didn’t even know what a startup was, but social enterprise, startups, making an impact and good money sounded like something I would be interested in.
I landed a placement in India through the same program my friend was in and while in Bangalore I was doing research for a company on entrepreneurship in Southeast Asia and while I was doing that I met two founders of a company called ZoomCar and they told me they needed someone to do blogging, social marketing, content writing and digital marketing and they offered me a pro bono internship. I agreed and started doing some blogging and content writing and that turned into Google adwords and into digital marketing and community management then they offered me a full-time job. I accepted the position and continued to work with them for a year. So there I was working in Bangalore, India at a fast growing startup.
And how did braingain.co come about?
Once I made that transition to working with a startup, it was shortly after that a few of my friends starting reaching out asking me how I ended up in India and working at a fast growing startup and if I could help them get positions abroad. And they had trouble finding any positions that weren’t English teaching or volunteer work and the number of people asking me started growing really quickly. And that gave me the confidence that there were enough people who were interested in working abroad, not as English teachers, to start BrainGain.
So I quit my job at Zoomcar and started talking to companies in Bangalore and asking them what types of talent they needed, what positions they needed filled, would they be interested in hiring internationally, etc.
Fast forward to today and BrainGain has made over 40 different placements in 20 different countries across India and Malaysia and we are now recruiting in Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, and China in addition to India and Malaysia.
What are you expecting for the trend of people working abroad in the next 5-10 years?
We are starting to see more companies handle all of the transition logistics like work visas for international recruits which is really exciting. And on the flip side, situations where companies aren’t willing to help, we are seeing more candidates saying that they will handle all of the logistics on their own as long as they land the position abroad and as long as the company pays for it.
As far as the trend overall, we have even seen a really recent spike in interest after the election, so our new president is contributing in some ways to people looking to move abroad. That initial shock factor has at least forced people to think about the rest of the world and start to think about what taking an international career path might look like. It seems that people who have never looked outside the US for work opportunities are beginning to explore what is out there. So I expect more people to be doing more Google searches, finding more sites like 12hourdifference.co and BrainGain.co, and that type of stuff continues to build that positive trend of people exploring outside their home country and continuing to work internationally.
It seems that people who have never looked outside the US for work opportunities are beginning to explore what is out there.
Another interesting part of the trend is, when you look at emerging markets, many of them are no longer pushing as hard to get to the US because they can’t get jobs after getting their US education, because companies won’t help them with their visas. You are seeing international students get a US Education, but not being able to stay in the US, but also not wanting to go back to their home country, so they have to ask themselves “where do I want to go?” So we are seeing people make international moves within Asia as well. Moves from India to Malaysia, Vietnam to Thailand, and these emerging markets exchanging talent among themselves. So it is fun to see talent moving around the world at an exciting pace.
What countries do you suggest for ease of entry? Which ones are good just from a likelihood of getting in and openness to an international worker perspective?
I started BrainGain in India because I already worked there and I was familiar with the visa process and I had seen a lot of different visas through my interactions with other expats there. I next went to Malaysia because when I was in India doing research on Southeast Asian startups, I discovered that Malaysia has something known as MSC status companies. MSC is a status granted to a company by the Malaysian government and what they do is provide MSC status companies with capital and if you receive MSC status you also get unlimited foreign visas with no minimum salary, which is pretty much non-existent in any other country that I have seen.
When most people look for international work, people often look for work visas, but work visas have a lot of red type around them. However, if you were to incorporate yourself as a ‘consultant’ and get any company in the world to say that they want you to come to them and consult for them, then you can go there on a business visa, as long as they pay you in your home country, everything kind of works. But that works best in emerging markets and it would be really difficult to do in Europe. Europe is really tough without a European passport. It makes it really difficult to get a company to sponsor your visa. I have seen people do it through teaching English, but largely I have seen a lot of people struggle with work in Europe.
Many of the companies out there, especially start-ups, just want a general hustler who can get shit done.
Places like Europe and US already have too many qualified people in their job markets, so they really have no motivation to bring people from overseas, and also, the economic climate, especially of Europe, doesn’t lend itself well to hiring internationally.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have emerging market countries, similar to what Max Karpinen said about Japan, that have a deficiency in young, tech savvy, educated people. They also understand the limitations of their education systems and that they may not be producing the type of quality workforce needed at scale for the new enterprises that are moving into their markets. They need content writers, bloggers, digital marketers, and strong English skills. So there is more of a demand in developing markets for people with those skills.
And I am curious if you find the people you place landing better, higher positions than they would have in their home country?
100%, absolutely. We have a blog post on this called Work Abroad Get More Responsibility. That was my story, in a nutshell. I started as an English teacher, and found my way into a great position at a fast growing start up with a ton of responsibility. I became a full-stack digital marketer without having any previous experience. And I have seen that exact same trend where these companies give their international staff a ton of responsibilities and really expect them to grow into the role.
Many of the companies out there, especially start-ups, just want a general hustler who can get shit done. And honestly, that is what a lot of them are looking for, they are asking candidates: how do you learn? How do you study and learn on your own? Have you shown initiative? That is a lot more important than whatever “skillset” your college degree says that you have, because as a recent graduate, you probably don’t have many skills yet.
Aside from being a hustler, what are these companies looking for in candidates and what types of professional development benefits have you personally experienced?
Companies are really weary of people who are coming from a travel first, work second mindset. They are weary of people who are looking for positions abroad solely because they want to travel or those who don’t have a clear idea of the skillsets that they want to develope.
Companies are going to fish out your intentions when you interview and your intentions should be that I want this job, I want to build a specific skill, I want more responsibility than I would get at home even if that means I am working 10-12 hour days or working on the weekends sometimes. People who are hiring for a startup company, that is the mindset that they want to see in a candidate, that hustle. But if you are asking about paid time off or how many vacations days you get, those are okay to ask about, but those shouldn’t be the first couple questions coming out of your mouth, because the company you are interviewing for is going to assume that your first intention is getting to travel.
There are a lot of ways to travel, but if you want to work abroad professionally, the work aspect needs to be your number one priority.
How was your personal transition period to living abroad? I know you studied abroad, but study abroad and living abroad are two very different things.
It has been different every time. I have always considered myself a fairly adaptable person, and I can get settled really quickly. I always sort of hit the ground running and figure things out quickly. Argentina and Korea were really easy for getting around and get settled in.
India was…India I got settled pretty quickly but India is a mind-fuck. And you just deal with a lot of frustrations on a day to day basis, and like everyday in the beginning there is something that just makes you want to fucking pull your hair out. And I mean, I am very grateful because it taught me a lot about patience and I got into meditation and into studying and observing my reactions to situations, so it was enlightening in that regard.
I am very grateful because it taught me a lot about patience and I got into meditation and into studying and observing my reactions to situations, so it was enlightening in that regard.
So it took me maybe 2-3 months, but in any country you go through some phases. There is the initial honeymoon phase where everything is awesome and you are looking at everything like “wow! look at the food and everything is so different!” and you want to try everything. But that honeymoon phase ends and you start a phase where everything pisses you off. Everything gets on your nerves, rubs you the wrong way. But after that you gain an acceptance and you don’t try to fight it and you just accept that things are done the way they are done. After the frustrating phase you can sort of start to enjoy the experience again. And before you know it, it is time to leave, and that is a mind-fuck in itself. You have finally achieved that feeling of being settled, having a friend circle, it feels like home, and then it is time to go. And that is difficult.
And what about working with local colleagues? What is that assimilation process like?
The biggest difference is in communication styles. From my experience, the biggest aspect of things going wrong, or people not being on the same page and the difficulties of working with other people in different cultures, especially if you are an American, is the differences in how you communicate. Americans are very outspoken, you know, we are very in your face, open to criticism, it is a much more intense approach in how we communicate ideas than in other cultures.
But I think that the communication differences can make other challenges even more challenging. You know? Like, how do you give constructive feedback to someone? How do I entrust someone with a problem? How do I get someone to hold themselves accountable? Doing all that is difficult on its own without adding the language and cultural barrier.
You also have to be flexible with how people want to structure their day and how they want to communicate. For example, India is a phone-call society, so at first I would send emails and never get a response, and it took me some time to learn that you really have to pick up the phone if you want to communicate. In Malaysia, it is all about WhatsApp, and my response rate on WhatsApp compared to email or phone call is much higher. So you just have to adjust to the culture you are in, and definitely don’t try to fight it, because you will lose that battle.
There is an analogy that I have heard used when talking about how different people are of different cultures. Some cultures are peach-cultures and some cultures are coconut-cultures. Peach cultures are like the Americans: they are very easy to be friendly with right away, they have that soft outer layer, but if you want to talk about more personal topics like politics, you get met with that hard-pit center. Other countries, like Eastern Europeans, are more coconut-cultures: they are a little harder on the outside, but when you get through that hard exterior they really open up on a whole new level. Knowing which type of culture you are in is really helpful.
Can you identify the type of person who living abroad isn’t for?
You know, it is the people who resist the culture that they are in, the people who try to create their hometown in another country, those are the people who have the worst time. The people who have a “let it be” mindset, the people who are able to step back when they are frustrated and accept that it might piss them off, but they aren’t going to let it ruin their time, those people seem to last much longer.
I think the biggest thing is start early. Personally, if I want to do something I am starting to work towards it about a year in advance. You need to be proactive.
Any advice for people who might be in college, looking towards graduation, and interested exploring options abroad?
Yeah, I think the biggest thing is start early. Personally, if I want to do something I am starting to work towards it about a year in advance. You need to be proactive. You don’t want to get stuck sitting at home in your parents house after graduation trying to find jobs just having downtime, because those “in-between” transition times really add up. So take advantage of that last year of college to plan early and start exploring your different options. That makes such a big difference for avoiding those six month breaks in-between jobs.
What about tips for researching jobs?
When you are doing your research senior year, first try to figure out for yourself where do you not want to work? I think it is much easier to rule out countries; looking at the entire world can be overwhelming.
Also, be honest with yourself about where you are going to be financially after graduating. Will you have money you can spend on a program that will provide a little more support? Will you have enough money to cover your flight and initial costs of moving? Can you break even for the first year? It is just crucial to be clear with your intentions of what you want out of your experience.
And then, what kind of skills are you interested in cultivating? Or does that not matter and you just want to go the English teaching route, travel and save a little money? Once you can answer all of those questions, you have narrowed the funnel enough that you can really start to focus your research.
The other thing I would suggest, and I have only become obsessed with this for the last few weeks, but using a virtual assistant. For like 100 dollars a month, if you are taking college class or have a full time job, you hire a full-time researcher to look up companies for you. If it is senior year and you want to be spending as much time as possible with friends, you can get a virtual assistant to do the research and provide you with companies to look into to.