Founder & Managing Director at relokate
There are so many companies who don't really know how the relocation processes work, and therefore don't hire internationally. Even in the startup space.
Katharina founded relokate in 2020 after working in HR with several of Germany's biggest startups. After noticing the increasing demand for talent in Europe – and the positive effects of hiring globally – she found her passion: the intersection of global mobility and technology. With almost a decade of experience working with people departments, Katharina has a clear mission for relokate: to make global hiring effortless.
Katharina Hilgers founded her company relokate because she wanted to help people from all over the world to experience an easier and more personal relocation process.
Launching her startup at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 certainly wasn’t easy, but she persevered and can now look back on 2 years and many success stories with relokate.
She joined our host Sandra from her home office in Berlin to talk about her motivation for working with and for people, how she came up with the idea for her company, and what the biggest challenges are when relocating an employee.
With Katharina Hilgers, Founder at relokate
Sandra Redlich 00:03
Hi, Katharina, thanks for joining us today again. Where are you joining from today?
Katharina Hilgers 01:36
Hi, Sandra. Yeah, thanks for having me. I'm joining from sunny Berlin. Actually, spring is coming. And yeah, very excited to be on your podcast.
Sandra Redlich 01:45
Yeah, I'm pretty jealous, to be honest, because it's pretty dark and it was raining and 16 degrees today for me. So I'm a bit jealous, but I can't complain. We've had summer for a while. And winter doesn't get that bad over here. So I'll be fine. I'll survive. Well, I'm pretty excited for our talk today because we're going to fo cus on relokate and relocation of employees, which is something we haven't talked about yet. So very pumped for this. I've introduced you a little bit before talking about relok ate and who you are. But I think it's always best to hear from a founder herself about what the business is about and why she started the business. So what inspired you to start relokate?
Katharina Hilgers 02:27
Yeah. So yeah, I would say it's something which has definitely developed for my whole career. So a little bit about my background, I grew up in like a smaller town close to Düsseldorf in Germany, and started my career about like, 12 years ago, in hospitality when I was kind of still figuring out what exactly to do. And I was always like a very social person. I loved to work with different people from all over the world. And then I was also working in the HR department for half a year, in the hotel I was working at, and I realized I really love working in HR, so close with so many different people every day. And that's definitely what I want to do. But then I also realized that this was not really the right environment for me, because there were a lot of like manual processes, there was not so much room, you know, for innovative technology.
Sandra Redlich 03:27
Very typical German.
Katharina Hilgers 03:29
Exactly, typical German basically, not as bad as an authority, but probably similar. So yeah, just like a quick example would be that an employee needs to... wants to request annual leave and then a lot of paper, you know, handed over to their manager, then the manager has to sign it, they have to bring it to HR, you have to take copies and so on. So, after that I yeah, I was thinking that this is definitely what I want to do. But I want to do it in a more like modern and more agile environment basically. So I joined a startup, a fin tech startup in Düsseldorf, which was pretty small. At that time, I think I was the 23rd employee. And basically had a position in where I was responsible for many different things like team assistant, the front desk, but also HR because this is where I got the opportunity to develop into an HR position. And it was super exciting because I helped starting... helped building up the HR department from scratch. And was able to set up all of the, you know, cool tools and technologies and implement all of the processes. And yeah, it was super exciting. And also the first time when I Yeah, had a relocation candidate coming from Belarus. And went or guided him through the relocation process, which at that time was unbelievable complex for me, it was really hard to figure out even as a German speaking person, what to do what to fill out where to start. And somehow we managed that the candidate received his visa and then arrived to Germany. And then you would think, okay, the biggest step was taken, but then dealing with the authorities in Germany, in Düsseldorf at that time was also really challenging, I have to say, so we have prepared all of his application documents, we had an appointment to receive his resident title. And then we were, I was guiding him to the appointment. And we were waiting for like, more than one and a half hours, even though we had an appointment. And when we saw that there were many people who didn't speak German. And they were in the waiting areas, they were walking around in the authority. And no one was really willing to help them. No one spoke English. And it was quite shocking for me to be honest. So while we were waiting, I started to, you know, translate and try to guide them in the right direction as much as I could. And then people were actually queuing up, and were like, probably thought I was working there.
Katharina Hilgers 06:27
I just realized, you know, how much you are dependent on an authority in a situation like this, where you actually need to get a residence permit. And also realize that it's super hard, if you're on your own, and don't speak the language to go through such a process. So, yeah, in the end for us, when we had the appointment, then he received his residents title, even though this was still like a big challenge. And yet, we were just so glad that we managed to support our candidate. But there were all of these other people who might not have had anyone who, you know, supported them through the process. It was my first experience with the relocation process. And then I moved after having been for three years in this company to Berlin, which was a much more international environment. I also worked for a Fintech startup. And almost the whole team, I would say, like 85%, at least were international people from all over the world, which was super exciting. And which also meant that relocation would become a regular part of my position in HR. So yeah, this is basically how I became an expert, I was responsible for the processes in Germany with my team, we developed actually a super, super solid and good process for candidates, we had really good feedback. So yeah, when you would look at our Kununu and Glassdoor, everyone was like, Oh, my God, the relocation experience was so good. And, yeah, I am a very social person that went to a lot of networking events, spoke to different HR and recruiting managers about their challenges. And in general about like different tools and what their, what they see as, you know, trends in the HR space. And then I figured out that there are so many companies who don't really know how the relocation processes work, and therefore don't hire internationally. Even in the startup space, which I found actually very surprising, I have to say. So yeah, I started kind of just giving, you know, some, like advice on networking events, and then looked more into the topic. And I figured out that there are, I would say some more alternative or established relocation providers on the German market. And then I saw that there are also some software companies who are focusing on digitizing the relocation processes. Yeah, and since I'm coming from, you know, this HR background, and I know that the relocation experience, especially when you move from the other end of the world, is such an important and challenging one, I figured out that there is no solution in the middle where basically, a personal approach is provided. And also a software solution is basically supporting the personal relocation experience. Yeah, and this is basically how I develop the idea for relokate and that's where we are right now.
Sandra Redlich 09:59
Yeah. Yeah, that's awesome. I love hearing how your personal experiences and your passion for the HR world kind of just organically developed into this business idea. And it's amazing to see it growing from there. So where are you at with relokate at the moment? What is it that you offer? And how do you support businesses in the relocation process?
Katharina Hilgers 10:19
So we started 2020, basically two weeks pre-pandemic, which was not the best time. So 2020, honestly, was a very challenging year, I had actually organized the first networking event for the 14th of March with a great guest speaker. And this was actually the day where everyone had to send home their employees, so I had to cancel it last minute. And so yeah, therefore, 2020, all of the, you know, German embassies were closed, most borders were closed for quite a while. So the year has honestly been relatively quiet, even though we had already the first customers who were in the process with the first candidates. And then 2021 started off very well. This is also when we started cooperating with Lano and employer of record providers, because we figured out that all of the companies that are hiring or have hired their employees remotely, and then started also relocating them, again in 2021. So yeah, we focused the whole year, basically on gathering feedback from our business customers on the processes and how we could basically simplify and automate part of the processes. So our aim is to really provide a very personal service to the candidates, but also support HR departments and basically take over the whole processes from an HR perspective. And based on the feedback from both parties, we're now developing a relocation software with relokate, where we will have an overview for our business customers, where they stand in the process with each of the candidates and then like a very, very individual candidate profile for each candidate, and potentially also their family members, where they can see where they are in the process, we will be able to allocate tasks to HR managers for signing documents and so on. And we're currently in the development phase and are launching our first product this summer.
Sandra Redlich 12:37
That's awesome. That's after that big of an obstacle and starting in 2020, I guess the worst timing for any travel related or in-person connection related service. So yeah, I can, I can definitely imagine that having been a big struggle, but great to see you coming out on the other side, and persevering. And I mean, at the end of the day, there is a demand for your service out there. Which is great, too. Great to see. So in your experience, how important is relocating an employee compared to maybe choosing a remote work setup or working from home setup for your clients? Because I think working from home and the whole idea of remote work has become even more widely accepted through the pandemic. So how does that compare to relocation?
Katharina Hilgers 13:34
I think, in general, people want to relocate or migration in general happens mostly because of the people who want to relocate and who want to move to different places for various reasons, right? So that's also what we saw in the pandemic, so it works very well, for most, at least, like technology companies that people work remote, but people also often really have the wish to move to another country, then basically set up the home base in another country. And that doesn't mean that they are not able to work remote from that place, right? But they can work from any other place in the similar or same time zone, for instance.
Sandra Redlich 14:21
Yeah, just to make sure that I understand correctly. Is it more companies who have a specific candidate that they're already working with if they want to relocate or is it they want to hire someone who wants to relocate from a different country? Or is it, third option, a candidate who says I really want to move to Germany, and I'm looking for a company that would be willing to take me on. Which one of the option is it?
Katharina Hilgers 14:51
I think it can be either. So the employer basically, a lot of employers offer working remotely and what they usually do, if they have remote options is that they hire the employee, for instance, with an employed of record service for the first couple of months, let's say for the probation period, and then afterwards offer the opportunity to relocate to another country, either where they have an entity, or also where, yeah, wherever they want to move and can be employed via an EOR provider.
Sandra Redlich 15:31
Yeah. And do you mostly offer your service, I guess, in Germany right now? Or are you looking to take that international as well?
Katharina Hilgers 15:39
So at the moment, we're focused on Germany until we've established the platform. We also did already a few test cases in other EU countries, and are looking to expand through Europe once we are basically live with all software and have established relocate software.
Sandra Redlich 16:00
God, I feel like you're taking the hardest part of the hardest country on first, because when you told your story about waiting, even when you have an appointment, sitting there waiting, no one really tells you what to do or helps you. And then not being able to speak the language, I can't even... I speak German, and I would still not really know what to do, because it's hard enough to follow the rules as is if you speak German. So I feel like you've taken on the biggest obstacle first. And starting with the most bureaucratic and paper-based market there is. So it's way overdue to start modernizing and digitizing these processes for sure. I can imagine in the process, and you kind of painted a very good picture of how difficult it can be for various reasons to relocate a person. What are the main pain points for companies when trying to relocate employees? And how do you help them with these pain points?
Katharina Hilgers 16:51
I think the main points are in general, that often, there's a lot of uncertainty about the processes, so companies don't really know how the processes work, and how time consuming they might be. So there's this first hurdle of where they are often not considering relocating people, but once they know how the process work... and that's also what we focus on with relokate. So we offer, for instance, free trainings on what to take into consideration when hiring internationally and really want to educate and in that kind of sense that we basically explain how the process work. And that it's actually relatively easy if you know what you have to take into consideration. So I would say, apart from that, once you have made the decision to relocate an employee, then a big pain point is organizing all of the documents and filling out of the different forms. Also keeping track of everything, know which tasks are outstanding, especially if you have a bigger amount of relocation candidates, and basically having an overview of the whole process. So what also happens is that sometimes you wouldn't receive an answer from the authorities, they would simply not reply, and then you might not be aware of what to do or which higher authority basically to contact. And there are also so many different stakeholders involved, such as the federal employment agency, then the immigration authority, then the embassy in their respective country, and that can be really challenging to know which authority to contact, basically, for the right topic. So I would say apart from the language barrier, it's almost impossible to go through the process on your own. And what we do is, since we have all of the knowledge, and we have gone through the processes for so many times we can, based on the background, and also the location of a candidate, and then whether they're relocating with or without family, we access basically the background of the relocation candidate, and then we can give an estimated time on when the candidate can relocate to Germany in this case, however, obviously, it's nothing we can ever guarantee, especially in uncertain times like this. Then the company at least can plan like a little bit. And that's also the feedback we got from our customers that for the software, they would like to have a potential estimated starting date on site.
Katharina Hilgers 17:17
Yeah, that was just gonna be my next question. Can you give an estimated... I'm guessing it's very individual, and as you just said, it's very highly dependent on the different institutions involved and the different authorities and their response times. But what's kind of like maybe the fastest and the longest time it took to relocate for you?
Katharina Hilgers 20:07
For us, the best case scenario was indeed a candidate from India. We were able to relocate her from basically signing the employment contract - that's when we take over - to her on site starting back in Germany within one and a half months.
Sandra Redlich 20:21
Katharina Hilgers 20:23
We also work with the accelerated or so called fast-track immigration process, which can speed up the process significantly. Longest was obviously during the pandemic, when there was the virus variant area in India. So yeah, basically several months.
Sandra Redlich 20:44
Nothing you can do there with closed borders.
Katharina Hilgers 20:46
Sandra Redlich 20:47
What are you gonna do? And do you keep in contact with people after finalizing the relocation process? Or... I mean, you basically, then I'm guessing, hand them over to their company's HR department, and they treat them as normal German employees. Is that right? Or do you still kind of...
Katharina Hilgers 21:10
Yeah, exactly. As I mentioned, we start supporting once a employment contract is signed with a candidate, then is the point in time when we get hired, usually by our companies we're supporting. And we take over the whole relocation journey, and are always updating HR departments on where we stand in the process, some might want to be more involved, some might want to be less involved in the process. And then once the relocation candidate is here, we make sure that they can be on the payroll from day one. So we take over all of the further administrative topics such as health insurance, bank account, how to get a tax ID, a social security number, etc. And then the candidate starts on site. So obviously, the employer is responsible for the onboarding. But we support further. So we also support them on changing the visa into residence title. And only once the candidate is onboard in the company and has all of these things and also has received the residents title then basically, that's where, yeah, where we stopped supporting the employee individually. But we also have, like an extended partner network in case the employee wants further support, for instance, with finding like a Kita for their children, or school, or need any other like translational services.
Sandra Redlich 22:42
Yeah. A little bit off topic, but it just popped into my head. How important do you think intercultural competency is?Like, so I'm talking, especially when you have candidates that are relocating from countries that have a very different cultural background, and I'm kind of acting as the intermediate maybe between that candidate and the company, and also making sure that the company itself maybe has some sensitivities towards that topic, or has some teachings or trainings in social competence?
Katharina Hilgers 23:16
Definitely very important. Since we don't do the hiring part, this is usually something which is already taken into consideration by the employer upfront, or done by the external provider who does the hiring part. I would say that most of our customers have very, very international teams. And diverse teams with various backgrounds. So yeah, but it's definitely something where internally, the company has to see what they offer in terms of like, intercultural trainings, and so on. So we, for instance, have also a very detailed relocation guide, where we also already state what are the most common things in Germany when it comes to culture and so on? So, yeah, we already start and prepare our customers, our clients basically for what to expect.
Sandra Redlich 24:15
Yeah. Yeah, that's awesome. So if, if anyone listening is trying to or thinking about relocating an employee, what should be their first steps? What would you advise them to do first?
Katharina Hilgers 24:29
So I would say, first of all, before you hire someone, review their background, because it's very important that either they have a recognised degree, you can also get degrees recognised, or that they have enough working experience which works in engineering positions, and in order to be eligible for a work permit for Germany. And what is also very important is that the background basically matches the offered position in Germany. There are always other possibilities, but then the process might become a little bit more tricky. And then once this all fits, you also need to take into consideration that the salary needs to be considered as fair in Germany. So below certain benchmarks, there is a page called Entgeltatlas, where you can see whether the salary based on the title and the location in Germany is considered as sufficient for the offered position. And once this all is basically reviewed, then it's time to look into the status of the respective embassy, see whether you know, there are appointments available, or whether it makes sense to go through the accelerated immigration process.
Sandra Redlich 25:53
Yeah. And at what point would a company who's trying to relocate a potential employee get in touch with you? Is that even before they found the candidate? Or is it as soon as they have someone and they, yeah, they know that they want to hire them?
Katharina Hilgers 26:10
Yeah, often, when they already have a candidate, and then realize, oh, we might need support with this topic. But ideally, as soon as possible, because then, as I said, we provide these trainings, for HR and hiring managers, on what to take into consideration when hiring globally. And then we can also ensure that the processes are faster and smoother afterwards. That means we can prepare the talent acquisition teams on what they can already ask the candidates through the hiring process. For instance, like translating their documents into English in case they don't have that or getting them legalized, etc. And this allows us to afterwards relocate the candidates much faster. So always as soon as possible if a company, you know, considers hiring globally.
Sandra Redlich 27:06
That's great advice. I think that's really good to hear. If you're considering, it really pays off to get prepared and get in touch and just even have a conversation, and just start have a starting point in mind. So as this podcast is called the state of work, I always like to as a final question, ask my guests where they see the future of work developing. So yeah, where do you see the future of work? Just for like, anything you can think of maybe even something you would want to see? Or you wish to see in the future?
Katharina Hilgers 27:41
I would say definitely super interesting are the models of flex work and workations. So we see a lot of companies moving more to a hybrid working model. And also, a lot of our customers are interested in organizing workations, for instance, so have maybe a remote setup, but then get together with their teams in different locations during the year for a couple of times, instead of you know, forcing everyone to get into an office every day and to commute to offices. So yeah, it's going to develop further in this direction.
Sandra Redlich 28:23
Yeah, that's super interesting, that concept of thinking, well, we've kind of... We're all forced into home office and remote work, a lot of us were in the last two years. And some people just immediate think when they think of work from home or remote work that you can't ever see your colleagues or you can't ever meet in person. But I think now with more borders opening and travel being a little bit back to normal and safe, hopefully, again, I think we'll see a lot of these workations, like you just said, and seeing people maintaining a remote or flexible work environment, but still getting the benefits of seeing each other in person. It's a very interesting concept.
Katharina Hilgers 29:03
Yeah, I think people are really missing the social connections with their colleagues, like live social connections, and are at the same time very much enjoying the flexibility of not having to travel to an office.
Sandra Redlich 29:18
Yes, definitely. So last question, like this time really last question. What's the future for relokate? What's next for you guys?
Katharina Hilgers 29:28
So we're super excited to finalize the development of our current relocation platform. So we have also set up a landing page, which yeah, I believe you guys will post?
Sandra Redlich 29:45
Yes, we'll have those in the show notes for sure.
Katharina Hilgers 29:47
So what we're offering right now is to all of our early adopters and all of our current customers and also those who want to become a customer before we go live with our platform this summer, to have lifelong free access to our relokate platform. And once we've launched, we will continue offering our like very personal services for our clients. So for the HR and people departments, but also for the individuals. But yeah, we are very excited to combine this with technology, which helps us, you know, having an overview for us, but also for our customers and clients and to simplify the processes. And yeah, once we're established further, then with the platform on the German market, we're also really excited to then expand to further EU countries.
Sandra Redlich 30:43
Yeah, that's big plans. Awesome. Now, we'll definitely make sure to link your landing page as well as your social channels in our show notes. So check out our landing page or the page for the podcast, and we'll have these links in there for you. Yeah, I'm excited to see what's going to happen next. We'll definitely keep an eye on you guys and stay in touch. We're collaborating anyway. So we're definitely rooting for you. And I'm very keen to have you on again, maybe next time, next year at some point and see where the year has taken you. And yeah, what the update is, and if your future vision for the current state of work has actually come true.
Katharina Hilgers 31:24
Yeah. Thank you, Sandra. It was very interesting speaking to you. And yeah, looking forward to discussing the next year hopefully.
Sandra Redlich 31:32
Yeah. Awesome. Thank you very much. Take care.
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