Tia Robinson is the fairy godmother of expats. Without even waving her magic wand, she can tell you everything you need to know about navigating German bureaucracy and most importantly, how to secure a work visa.
For the last five years, freelancers, artists and startups around Berlin have turned to Expath, a language school which offers coaching and relocation services, for help integrating into the country.
The idea for Expath came from Robinson’s own struggles when moving to Berlin, she says. The US native was denied a visa for part-time employment when she first arrived in 2007 and she had no idea why: Turns out you cannot get a work permit with only a part-time job contract.
What started in 2012 with a small classroom in a remodeled men’s bathroom has grown to 20 coaches providing relocation support and 30 German-language teachers. The startup has long since upgraded to a space in Neukölln, complete with three classrooms and a small kitchen.
The market for Expath’s services also changed from those early days: Robinson’s clients are increasingly coming from startups, including some of Berlin’s biggest, like SoundCloud and another well-known company, which is off the record.
“Even though it wasn’t something we planned to do, we were definitely in the right place at the right time to take advantage of what is going on in startups in Berlin,” she says.
So why are startups turning to Expath? It is more affordable than hiring an accountant or lawyer, she explains, before emphasizing that Expath does not provide legal consultation and that their services are not comparable. Plus the ability to talk to a “real person” about employees’ unique cases makes a difference. “There is no replacement for being able to ask your personal questions,” she says.
Without a marketing or sales team, Expath relies heavily on word of mouth and Facebook to reach clients. One of their big goals for 2017 is hiring a salesperson to target more of Berlin’s startups, Robinson shares.
According to Expath’s calculations the average relocation from abroad to a Berlin startup takes 15 hours of support, which does not include the visa or work permit process. These 15 hours are simply for finding short-term living arrangements, shipping over belongings, opening a bank account, purchasing a sim card and registering at the Bürgeramt.
In her line of work Robinson is privy to many of the coveted job offers and contracts startups offer employees. “We see a lot of companies attracting very highly-skilled talent from around the world. They are looking really internationally.”
Before Berlin’s startup boom it was rare for an international candidate to be sponsored from abroad, Robinson explains. It was a “pipe dream.”
Today, thanks to startups, it happens more often. “Startups are one of the very few kinds of employers in Germany that would consider looking at candidates while they are still abroad without a work permit, and sponsoring the whole visa/work permit process to move that person from another continent,” Robinson says.
This is why Robinson, who now has German citizenship, has every intention of staying in Berlin to work her magic.