Sujay was born in the U.S. and spent the first 25 years of his life there studying and working in tech. His move to Europe was inspired by his experience the leading global expansion of Hired.com where he served as COO.
Today he is the founder and CEO of Berlin-based Balderton portfolio company Frontier Car Group, a truly global company with operations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Why did you move to Europe from the United States?
I first moved to Europe to join an emerging markets hedge fund, and this is where my interest in emerging markets began. I soon realised that there was an extraordinary amount of opportunity for tech in emerging markets, and that startup tech was a far better match for me than investing. Europe has much more passion in, and interest for, emerging markets than the States, so I knew this was the right place to found my company.
Why Berlin? Well, first expediency. One of my co-founders was a Director of of engineering at Auto1 and helped me see the depth of talent and resources available in that city, as well as access to investors. As he had to build the engineering team, having access to his network here made building our HQ in Berlin the right thing to do.
Secondly, Berlin is, after London, the most diverse city in Europe. Our team at FCG in Berlin covers twenty-seven different ethnicities. That could never happen have happened at Hired.com in the Valley, for example. We believe that diversity to be a tremendous strength of the company.We have people in our head office from every single country in which we do business. It makes working around the world that much easier.
And finally, cost. The only other city we might have chosen is London, and Berlin is less expensive. As a startup, we have to stretch our venture dollars as far as they can go.
What is your experience of the European workplace compared to the Valley?
The main differences I see is one of mindset.
Silicon Valley has something that Europeans may frown upon — little, if any, separation between work and life. But I see that as a positive trait. In the Valley, where you work is where your friends are and all social engagement happens at work. You end up making very close friends, and work is a very collegial place to be. You socialise with work colleagues outside work, and often companies are founded by people who have worked together in previous companies.
Compare that to Berlin. People here tend to keep their work and social life separate, they rarely mingle outside of work with their colleagues. At FCG, we've made a conscious push to change that, because we see the benefits. We want to make work a friendlier place to be, because we see it increases productivity and collaboration.
For example, we recently organised a trip for the whole company to go to South of Spain for three days, just to have fun. The atmosphere in the office was even better afterwards. People are always organizing events together after work, and having fun. I see this as a very 'Silicon Valley' thing to do.
The second way that I see things being different is in the understanding of how equity works. In the Valley, people completely understand the value of equity and what it means. In Europe, they don't. They are more focused on cash compensation. It will be interesting to see how and when that changes.
However, one would think this would result in higher churn, because of the lack of understanding of the concept of 'ownership.' But the opposite is true. There is much less churn here in Berlin that I experienced in the Valley, where good people are continually getting lured away by other companies. Here, employees are very loyal.
What about talent?
I find there to be an equally excellent talent pool here as in the Valley. Getting a work visa here is a lot easier than it is in the States now, and it has been easier to attract talent. However, the one scarcity we can definitely see is access to senior level scale-up talent. At FCG, we have got around this by developing people internally and having a really clear promotion path for the best staff. Our CFO, for example, started out with us as a VP of Finance, then got promoted to SVP, and is now CFO.
What do you think is the biggest advantage that Europe can offer people from the Valley?
Well, let's look at the question of building a company with global impact. Because of where Europe is situated, it's simply far easier to do work with the rest of the world. When it's 2:30 PM in Berlin, it's 5:30 AM in the Valley. However, Latin America is waking up. It's roughly midday in Africa. And in Asia, it's late afternoon or evening. To be honest, the Valley is one of the hardest places in the world for global connectivity during the majority of the workday. That's one of the things I really enjoy about being here — when I'm up and working, the majority of the rest of the world is up and working too!
What has worked out better for you in your move to Europe than you expected?
I've had a great experience as an American here, because there are so many different cultures here, I don't stand out as something different.
Are you optimistic about the future of tech in Europe?
I absolutely am. I am very bullish on Europe.
I find that here people still start and build companies to solve fundamental pressing problem. What has happened in Silicon Valley with the influx of venture capital, is a gold rush. People go there wanting to build a company, then look around for a viable idea. Those companies don't tend to have the same real impact.
But I do see one thing that could improve here, and that's the attitude of venture capital. Venture funds invest more conservatively here. There is way more focus on the economics of the model, which is fine, but striking when compared to the Valley where the focus is much more on the vision. In the Valley, the focus is on the story and what we can build and the impact we can have. That is changing here now, but needs to change more.
Have you noticed other different attitudes to work and tech in Europe than in the US?
The one thing that was surprising to me was the work culture. In the Valley, it's all about open offices. But here, at first, we saw closed offices. People were quiet and just did their work. That surprised me. So we really tried hard to instil the Valley culture of open offices and an open floor plan. We moved to daily stand-ups, and looked out for every opportunity to increase cultural camaraderie.
What would you say to someone considering making the same move to Europe?
Despite what you hear about how efficient Germans are, the process of moving wasn't actually easy. It was harder to navigate than I imagined. So I recommend that they find someone who has done it before and ask for their help and advice. Copy what they've done!
Second, immerse yourself. I mean one of the absolute best things about Berlin, and London too, is how many amazing international events are going on. Finding an international group of friends is actually really easy. Europe is incredibly cross-cultural and has access to everywhere in the world.
Finally, I would say do any move like this with a purpose. Don't just go to Europe because it's a fun place to go, even though it is. Go with the purpose of believing you can do something more global than you ever could in the States. I think that's incredibly important.