Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
You’re reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.
At Ogram, our vision is to pioneer “the new workforce” across the globe- fast. After successfully servicing 1,300+ active monthly clients with over US$8 million paid out to over 80,000 flexible workers across the UAE, we are now making our dream a reality. This year, we completed our first international expansion to Greece- and there’s more to come.
Greece is a country that ranks highly on many people’s travel wishlists, and not only as a holiday destination. For Ogram, there were many strong business reasons underpinning our choice. This summer alone, a reported 80,000 jobs went unfulfilled in the Greek hospitality sector, indicating a major untapped opportunity. Also, we see many similarities and familiar challenges between Greece and the UAE, such as how to digitize a nascent, underserved market, and capitalize on first-mover advantages. Reflecting on our journey so far, here are the top six lessons that we learned as a UAE-founded company expanding into Greece:
1. Get Ready To Shake A Lot Of Hands. In the modern world of email, WhatsApp, and Zoom, it may surprise you to know that Greeks love in-person meetings. To do business here, get ready to meet a lot of people in person. Customers and clients want you to go to their offices, and they want to come to yours- and, of course, to schedule these meet-ups by phone! We learned this the hard way.
Our first office was based in a suburb of Athens, a 15-minute drive from the nearest metro station. As a staffing platform offering a technological solution to finding part-time gigs, we had not anticipated that the people signing up for work would also want to come and meet us. But the office was difficult for them to access, which prompted us to relocate to a new location just steps away from a metro station in order to support our goal of building customer trust in a new market.
2. Find A Local Partner You Can Trust. Doing business in Greece is 99% about building relationships. For a business to succeed here, you need a face, someone who understands the ins and outs of the culture, and the Greek way of doing business. We at Ogram were fortunate that fate would bring us Georgios Kalafatis, a Greek native who had built up an impressive career in London, to head up our global expansion plans and Greek operations.
One of the first major hurdles we faced -and this was our first taste of Greek bureaucracy- was getting our license to operate. Here, Georgios was meticulous in working out all the legal details, and chasing up progress relentlessly, in-person- we had discovered that if you don’t call in every day, someone else might get prioritized ahead of you. In addition, the Greek legal landscape is constantly evolving. The Greek government recently passed a groundbreaking new law in support of more flexible work conditions that allows anyone to work for more than one employer at a time. Now, not only will a local partner save you huge amounts of money and time, they’ll also help you navigate our next tip.
3. Embrace Greek Holidays and Traditions. Once you open up your Greek office, with your Greek partner, and employ your first Greek employees, the next step is to embrace the fact that you are in Greece. In addition to phone calls and handshakes, you’ll soon learn that punctuality is a loose concept (everyone is late), most office work comes to a grinding halt for the entire month of August (it’s true), it’s important to add all the Greek public and religious holidays to your calendar, and to pay close attention to the ones that get announced by the government at the very last minute!
When Ogram co-founder and CEO Shafiq Khartabil first heard that most Greek offices close for the month of August, he couldn’t quite believe it. It felt counterintuitive for everyone to shut down for so long in the busy summer season. However, while the total number of client meetings dropped in August, our total revenues more than doubled. How? By switching our focus from new client acquisition, to client satisfaction and retention, this resulted in more orders from our existing client base.
4. Adapt Your Strategy To The Local Market. Both the UAE and Greece have a thriving hospitality sector, but they’re not built the same. Hotels in the UAE are large and mostly corporate-owned, while in Greece they are smaller and dominated by family-owned businesses. When working with family-run shops, you need to adapt your strategy to understand their values, their loyalties, and again, invest in building a more personal style of relationship.
As a technology company coming from abroad, we soon realized that we would first need to earn our clients’ trust. We set about doing so with in-person meetings, test pilot deployments, financial incentives, such as special first-time discounts, very creative problem-solving, and making sure that our customer service professionals understood the importance of checking in with each and every client to ensure their needs are met.
5. Don’t Compromise On Your Team. When it comes to hiring, we did not anticipate the challenges of building a team in Greece. Typically, the best employees are already employed, many of them on a permanent basis, and so, they’re not actively looking for a fresh challenge. From our experience, mostly fired or dissatisfied employees responded to our job ads, where most did not even meet our basic requirements.
But once we tapped into our local network, we discovered that referrals are much more effective than job postings. We have now built a solid team of seven and growing, all through personal recommendations. Everyone went through the same rigorous selection and interview process, but the ones that came referred had solid references, better resumes, and were more enthusiastic about our company mission.
6. Everything Is Possible. Finally, while Greece may seem a bit disorganized at first, you will soon learn that patience and persistence go a very long way. Greeks can be pessimistic by nature, using the word “impossible” all too lightly. Impossible, when said out loud, most often just means that someone doesn’t want to do something, or they simply don’t know how to. When there is an urgent need, exceptions are made, and while the procedures can seem illogical or cumbersome, you just need to follow them. Greece marks the initial phase of our broader, EMEA expansion strategy.
“The Greek market serves as our entry point into the larger European landscape, as Ogram embarks on its expansion journey across EMEA,” Khartabil says. “Greece has a longstanding tradition of embracing flexible work within the hospitality industry, and now, we are committed to elevating it to a more structured and efficient level through our technology-driven platform.”
In the near future, Ogram has major plans to venture into additional markets, prioritizing regions characterized by a robust hospitality sector, a significant reliance on flexible labor, and a competitive average hourly wage. We’ve learnt a lot through our expansion into Greece- and those lessons will certainly come in handy as we head into new markets. Onward and upward!