In the series “Job Profiles”, various members of the InterNations team talk about their position and the work that they do. In the latest post, our CFO Stephan shares how he started out as an intern in our team, how he has grown into his current role, and why he considers working for a global expat community the “cherry on top” of his career.
Let’s start with the basics! What’s your job title and what are the responsibilities that go along with it?
My current job title is CFO, short for Chief Financial Officer. My direct responsibilities include everything that has to do with numbers. I’m in charge of our Finance & Accounting Team, our Business Intelligence Team, and our Online Marketing Team, which is also very data driven. My actual tasks range from business planning for our yearly budgeting round to a wide variety of topics, such as handling data-protection issues and optimizing marketing budgets.
Your first stint at InterNations was a six-month internship way back in 2010. Can you tell me a bit more about this time?
I found out about the position of Controlling & Business Development Intern through Holtzbrinck Ventures, one of our previous investors, since they advertised it on a career network for students and young professionals. I was looking for an internship in Munich, ideally at a small company, so the ad fit the bill.
I had previously worked as an intern at a huge DAX-listed company in Frankfurt’s banking sector, and I wanted to try out the exact opposite — a start-up with a small team. On top of that, I’d just gotten engaged and wanted to move to Munich to be with my fiancée. And for someone who’d lived and studied abroad himself, the product — a global expat community — was the cherry on top. After my job interview with Philipp, one of the Founders & Co-CEOs, I thought the internship was a good match, and I ended up having a great time.
In my first six months at InterNations, I mostly worked on two topics: online marketing and search engine optimization, as well as reporting and internal KPIs. Our IT Team had already integrated various key performance indicators into the backend of our platform. It was my job to take all those numbers and turn them into nice PDF reports. The KPIs included more or less everything you could think of: the number of registrations, the upgrades to Albatross Membership, the different marketing channels that new members were coming from, and all kinds of on-site activity, for example, event sign-ups and contact requests. I updated the reports every week and continuously expanded on them.
And why did you return to InterNations about two years later?
Actually, I wasn’t planning on coming back. I kept in touch, though, while doing an international MBA. In addition to working part time for a multinational insurance company, I also remained a member of the InterNations team, dealing with the KPI reports for a few hours per week. So, I exchanged a lot of emails and had the occasional phone call with Philipp. But while I was already preparing to apply to other companies, it was Malte who called me out of the blue. He asked me if I would consider coming back for a full-time job in business intelligence. I didn’t have to think about it for very long.
I’d really enjoyed my time as an InterNations intern; knowing the organization and the team definitely played an important part in my decision-making. It’s always nice to know what you’re getting yourself into, especially if you have just finished your degree and are looking for a job. What I also knew from my internship was that my position would be an opportunity to shape the future of InterNations and accomplish something much more tangible than at a huge corporation. What you do there usually won’t have much of an impact on the entire organization for the first 30 years of your career! This is very different at a start-up, such as InterNations at the time. This is what had attracted me to the internship, and it was the reason I accepted Malte’s offer.
How did your role evolve during the next few years?
When returning to InterNations as a Business Intelligence Manager, I was the first full-time employee in charge of reporting and controlling. After a while, my team grew, with interns and then later other full-time employees joining me in Business Intelligence. Since I was already doing the bulk of our business planning, our new internal Accounting Team also became part of my responsibilities. My job title changed from Head of Business Intelligence to Head of Finance & BI in January 2016, and I was promoted to Chief Financial Officer half a year later. And while I was already CFO, we did some restructuring in the Online Marketing Team. Since I’d closely collaborated with them, the team was incorporated into my department too. In addition to these main areas of responsibility, all things connected with legal or data protection issues usually land on my desk. We don’t have any employees specializing in these topics, and I act as the go-between for our organization and external service providers, such as lawyers and consultants.
Which projects are you currently tackling as a CFO?
Well, there probably won’t be another acquisition in the foreseeable future. Back in 2017, when InterNations was bought by New Work SE, this caused quite a bit of excitement and stood out in that regard. But a lot of my tasks are recurring rather than project based. We need to align our financials with our parent company on a monthly basis. And there’s always business planning and forecasting, with our major budget round every year and another forecast every four months to keep the plans aligned with our recent business performance.
There have recently been some major projects on my agenda, though. For example, we switched our order management system — the software that handles subscriptions on our platform — to a new service provider. This was a massive undertaking, especially for our engineers, but we also had to integrate the new system into the workstreams for Accounting and Business Intelligence. Right now, I’m working on an interesting legal topic as part of our new remote-first policy. To actually hire and employ team members around the world, we need to set up the legal framework in a compliant way, keeping relevant laws, policies, and regulations in mind.
You’ve now been a full-time employee for around nine years. What has made a long-term career at InterNations so attractive to you?
When returning to InterNations full time, I thought it would be an interesting job to keep me busy for a few years. If you had asked me if I’d still be here nearly a decade later, I would not have imagined that. However, there’s always been something new and interesting for me to work on, to challenge me, and to give me the opportunity for personal growth.
First, I needed to build the Business Intelligence and Accounting Teams. Then the acquisition by New Work SE happened, followed by the subsequent integration into the New Work universe. Then, I took on the online marketing topic — and there will always be new tasks waiting for me, I guess. At the moment, it’s all about guiding InterNations safely through the COVID-19 pandemic, while the legal framework for the remote-first policy is just the latest example of something that has come up quite unexpectedly. Right now, I can’t think of any other workplace where my tasks would be as varied and as challenging, and I’m sure there are lots of things to still look forward to.
And while it’s hard to point to just one thing and say, “This is where I made an impact!”, I always felt heard at InterNations, even before I joined the management board. I never had the impression that it was just one or two people deciding what was going to happen and telling everyone else what to do. No matter what has come up over the years, every opinion is taken into consideration. If you have good arguments, you’ll be listened to. You have a voice, and you can use it to influence the course of events.
And what have you learned from growing into a leadership role?
I started out as a regular employee, never having had a leadership role before. So, I gained all my experience as a people manager at InterNations, which was definitely challenging at times. I had to learn how to lead, care for, and motivate a team.
How to motivate your team members depends very much on the individual people. For example, some people always want to try out new and interesting things — so, you need to find a way to let them do that — which still fits in with the tasks at hand and benefits the company. Other people thrive if they can work very independently; and when you know you can trust them, giving them lots of leeway shouldn’t be an issue at all. That’s basically the main thing I’ve taken away from this experience: there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and different people are motivated by very different things.
I would just like to point out here that the very first intern I was ever responsible for is now our Team Lead Business Analytics. And the first full-time employee I hired is still working for InterNations as a Business Intelligence Manager, too, so I must have done something right.
Last but not least: You mentioned that, even as an intern, working for a global expat community was the “cherry on top” for you. Could you elaborate on that a little more?
Traveling is one of my passions, and I have lived and worked in five countries on three different continents. The first foreign country I lived in was the United States, where I spent a year as an exchange student in high school. I had the great fortune that my host family did a lot of traveling, and we visited more than 30 different states. I then got my undergraduate degree and my two master’s degrees abroad, mainly in Switzerland, but I also studied in Mexico City for a semester to improve my Spanish. And, right before moving to Singapore for an international MBA, I spent some time volunteering in Jordan with a non-profit focused on helping local students acquire extracurricular skills. I also added some extra time to explore the country’s cultural heritage, such as the Dead Sea and the city of Petra.
And then there was Singapore, where I lived for about a year. It was also the only destination where I relocated together with my wife. It was our first time living in Southeast Asia, and Singapore was the ideal starting point. I jokingly called it “Asia light” because it’s very Westernized compared to other Asian capitals, such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta. So, it was a great location for easing into the local culture, so to speak, and for visiting other destinations. Both my wife and I could have imagined us staying there longer.
If we hadn’t both received interesting job offers in Munich, I might have started my career there, or we might have relocated to yet another country. During my university years, I was used to being around people from all across the globe. As an international student or expat, you often run into other international people because you hang out at the same places or have the same kind of job. I think I’d be missing this particular “vibe” if I wasn’t working at InterNations, where our team members come from every country imaginable. At the moment, the team includes around 40 different nationalities, but we pretty much got them all covered over the years. Getting to know all these people and their diverse backgrounds is something I wouldn’t have missed for the world.
Image credit: InterNations / iStockphoto