Big Thinking, Fast Growth and Collaboration: A Conversation with Globalization Partners

August 23, 2018
In the feature article of this issue of Owner to Owner, we sit down with Nicole Sahin, CEO and founder of Globalization Partners, along with two of the firm’s executives, Debbie Millin and Nancy Cremins, to discuss turning a vision into a reality, instilling and maintaining company culture through rapid growth and coming together to make strategic decisions.

Nicole Sahin does not hold back about her intention for Globalization Partners to take over the world, and based on its performance, the company is on track to do so. Since its founding in 2012, the global employer of record, which helps companies expand into 150-plus countries without setting up branch offices and subsidiaries, has experienced astonishing growth, landing Sahin and the company on some of the most desirable accolade lists, including the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing private companies in America, the Boston Business Journal’s Fast 50 list and the Women Presidents’ Organization’s list of the 50 fastest-growing women-owned/led companies. Building a high-growth, high-profit business is not enough at Globalization Partners, though, which also places a heavy emphasis on its award-winning client service and company culture, key ingredients to its success.

We recently sat down with Sahin and two of the firm’s executives – Debbie Millin, chief operating officer, and Nancy Cremins, chief administrative officer and general counsel – to discuss turning a vision to transform how companies do business globally into a reality, instilling and maintaining company culture through rapid growth and coming together to make strategic decisions.

Brown Brothers Harriman: Nicole, tell us about your personal and professional background and how Globalization Partners came to be.

Nicole Sahin: Prior to Globalization Partners, I helped set up a consulting firm that assisted companies in expanding globally. Traditionally, expanding around the globe requires businesses to understand a country’s laws, register the company and start doing business in the country formally before they can hire an employee. I worked with companies on this for six years, and after setting up about 30 companies in China, 20 in Singapore and at least 10 in Brazil for clients who just wanted to hire one employee, I thought there had to be a better way to help businesses expand globally. My vision was that if I could set up one company with offices in each country and give clients access to it, it would be a more scalable business model and redefine how companies do business worldwide.

BBH: Tell us about the early days of Globalization Partners. How did you get it off the ground?

NS: I funded the entire company with my savings. I quit my job and traveled to 24 countries over the course of 12 months while waiting out my non-compete agreement. In each country, I met with lawyers, tax advisors and business partners to explore how to make the business legally possible. The day after my non-compete expired, I set up the website.

People ask how we accomplished all of this, and it’s the same for any business. On day one, you need a website. On day two, you need a bank account. From there, you’re kind of making it up as you go. There’s no blueprint. It can be overwhelming, so take it day by day, and build as you go. It’s good to have a vision, but breaking it into bite-size chunks is also valuable.

I waited about a year and a half before hiring anyone. I’m an operator, and it was important to me to not pile up. I wanted to get a few clients first and make sure the business worked and there was demand for it, because it was legally complicated and had never existed at the scale and level of compliance I wanted to offer. I knew that in order to go to market fully, we would have to launch with the ability to do business in over 100 countries, so building that out and ensuring all the details would functionally work on the backend took a considerable amount of time. In addition, as an employer in each country, we’re not only legally responsible for guaranteeing the client is compliant, but also for people on the backend of the business. Employing people around the globe is a huge risk, so I was really focused on ensuring that things worked in each country, that we had trustworthy partners and that the banking infrastructure was there.

There's no blueprint. It can be overwhelming, so take it day by day, and build as you go. It's good to have a vision, but breaking it into bite-sized chunks is also valuable.  

BBH: What were some of the early challenges as you were starting the company?

NS: Some of the bigger challenges related to figuring out banking in so many countries. The international banking industry as a whole is antiquated. Many countries have foreign exchange controls, and sending wires there is complicated.

Once we laid the foundation and built out the business, we started to take off and experience rapid growth. Everybody wanted what we were doing. It’s the best and worst problem to have. Making payroll, sending wires around the globe and ensuring compliance while continuing to build out the company became a big challenge, and stemming from that were issues around hiring people fast enough and building scalable systems.

BBH: What would you all say has been your biggest moment of success?

NS: One is hitting No. 6 on the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing private companies in America. That fundamentally changed the business and our lives. The second is when we hit the milestone of having 90% of our infrastructure built out around the globe. We insourced our supply chain and own our model, and we know it stands the test of time.

Debbie Millin: The first moment that came to mind is when we launched our proprietary software. We built it from scratch because no other system could handle what we do, so rolling out that and having our clients utilize it and give us great feedback was a big moment.

The other one is ranking No. 1 on the Boston Business Journal’s Fast 50 list. We were experiencing massive growth, and the fact that we were able to handle that, keep our clients happy and maintain a great company culture all at the same time is something we’re all proud of.

Nancy Cremins: What we do is legally complex, so it is immensely satisfying for me every time we go live in a new country. It’s difficult to execute correctly, and to be able to solve the problem and complete the puzzle, especially in a complicated jurisdiction, provides such a feeling of success.

BBH: Nicole, talk about the benefits and challenges of being an owner-operated business.

NS: It’s very personal. I am still excited and honored every time someone joins the company. That they would walk away from their stable, secure job and join my dream and mission is amazing. The flipside of that is that I take it personally when something negative happens. People are people; to them Globalization Partners is just a job, and to me it’s a child. That’s both the upside and the downside.

I can see why companies would want to invest in owner-operated businesses because that level of ownership and oversight is incomparable. Nobody’s going to care as much as the owner does, which isn’t a knock against anyone else’s dedication.

BBH: Tell us about your approach to leadership.

NS: I always set the mission that I wanted a high-growth, high-profit company with happy clients – and that is the triple bottom line by which we define success. This is a high-growth industry, so it would be easy to slack off on the client service side, but I didn’t want to build that. The team is also highly engaged and happy. We have won numerous awards for our company culture, and our clients consistently give feedback that they’re very satisfied with our services.

I always set the mission that I wanted a high-growth, high-profit company with high clients - and that is the triple bottom line by which we define success. This is a high-growth industry, so it would be easy to slack off on the client service side, but I didn't want to build that.  

BBH: Culture is an important point and often overlooked, especially in the early years. How would each of you define the Globalization Partners culture?

NC: It’s a high-performance culture with people who care about each other. They are engaged and invested in the success of their teammates so that everyone feels good about what they do and produces the best product.

DM: It’s also still very entrepreneurial. Every employee needs to be entrepreneurial because they need to figure out something that hasn’t been done before every day. Our culture is still very much about diving in and helping each other figure out the puzzle and come up with solutions.

NS: We foster a community of respect. We have high standards, but we take a coaching mentality rather than a hierarchical one when guiding employees and providing feedback.

DM: This is the best culture I’ve witnessed, and I’m proud to be part of it. There’s an open door to all of management, and it’s genuine. Everyone truly cares about each other, and that starts at the top.

BBH: How do you maintain that culture as you’re growing rapidly and adding employees?

NS: I realized a while ago that it’s not me anymore. I’ve set the tone; now everyone else has to carry it forward. Maintaining company culture is in the company goals, and you have to remind people that this is what they signed up for. Many companies have a high-growth culture, but we’re doing something different, and you’re buying into our mission if you join us.

If people want to be promoted, they need to coach others along and embrace the company’s vision. We use a co-employer that gives us access to coaching services for all employees, so many members of our team are using a management coach, which is helpful.

We also require that everyone use video for meetings. Thirty percent of our workforce is not in the U.S., and we have offices nationwide, so using video helps people communicate better and has been key to maintaining culture as we expand.

NC: It’s also about making the implicit explicit. During onboarding, I tell people we have a “no jerks” policy. If someone sees a co-worker violating it, I want to know because that’s not the kind of place we want to be. We are a service business, and we cannot deliver a good service and have happy clients unless we have engaged people delivering it, so we’re invested in making sure people are happy when they come to work. You don’t have to be best friends with the people you work with, but everybody needs to be treated with respect.

BBH: How does the management team work together to make strategic decisions?

DM: We have the best leaders in every area, so there’s a high level of trust to come together and pull in all of those perspectives. Nicole always has a vision that she is able to articulate. All of us feed off of that and build on it, and at the end it comes out the way she’s envisioned.

NS: I’ll share my vision for where the company needs to go, and Debbie comes up with a master plan to identify all of the projects required to make it happen. Then, we stick to a tight timeline. Part of my job is to always keep my foot on the gas and push everybody a lot harder than they want to go, which ultimately is helpful.

NC: It’s also an extremely collaborative team. Everybody wants to understand and learn about all of the different business areas, and I’m in meetings weekly with all of the groups across the company. Problems typically affect many departments, so the only way to solve them is to gather input across the board. When you have everybody’s buy-in, everyone is incentivized to make it work.

NS: Our executive team is an exceptional group of operators – people who roll up their sleeves and get things done. I think that sometimes when people get to the C-suite, they’re used to being in the C-suite and are just delegating. If anything, our executives are much better at operationalizing and building a company than they are at taking credit for what we’ve built.

BBH: What were you looking for when you built your executive team?

NS: I always want the best people I can find, even if it seems a bit out of the realm. When Debbie started working here, we were very small, and I was throwing a help line at someone who had been the COO of multiple companies.

When Nancy came in as outside counsel, I had been writing, editing and negotiating my own client contracts for a long time because the other lawyers I had engaged didn’t really understand the business. She understood the business from day one, though, and ran with it. It eventually came time to hire in-house counsel, and she was the obvious person.

I think they both bought into the idea that we could build something amazing.

NC: I was excited about the opportunity to work with people I respected tremendously and also liked. I was leaving the world of typically male-dominated law firms and going to an entrepreneurial company led by women building something that is intellectually exciting – but hard! It was an opportunity I couldn’t resist. It’s an amazing feeling today to look at what we’ve built.

DM: We’re still figuring out new things every day, which I love. Before I joined full-time, Nicole was one of my clients, and as Globalization Partners grew, I wanted to spend more and more time there. I felt the excitement of what was going on, and that pulled me in.

BBH: As you were growing the company, was building a diverse team something you thought about?

NS: We were not a diverse company at the outset because I hired primarily white women – that is a lack of diversity. I hired the most competent people I knew in my network, which happens to be full of women. When we reached 15 or 20 people, our team was about 75% women, and we acknowledged that we needed to have actual diversity instead of recruiting out of our network.

Since then, we have made a conscious effort to recruit people of all racial and gender diversity. That takes a lot of concentrated effort. Two outside C-suite executives have walked into the office recently and commented on our diverse team. I don’t necessarily see it because we still aren’t fully in line with the breakdown in Boston’s community, but we’re much more diverse than your average tech company.

NC: Again, you have to make the implicit explicit and tell people when they’re hiring that they should be screening a diverse candidate pool. You have to make an intentional effort to diversify where the applicants are coming from.

NS: Right, and in cases where one leader has a team with no diversity, you need to ask that person if he or she has an implicit bias and be direct that he or she needs to be very careful about recruiting a diverse team. It would be easy to recruit and hire people we have worked with, but if everybody just hires from their network, it doesn’t work.

BBH: Do you have a favorite story from the journey?

NS: We had a near-death experience as a company a few years ago. We were growing like crazy, and I was trying to recruit people. Debbie and Nancy were coming on board. The woman who ran our finance team was having a baby, so in the months leading up to that, I was trying to build a team to cover for her. When she went on maternity leave, we thought we would be OK, but we weren’t. For four nights, I had the classic entrepreneurial experience of staying up all night, stressing and trying to hold together the company. After the fourth night, I said to my husband, “It’s going to go one way or the other. I’m not going to let down all of these people around the globe who I owe payroll.” There was a solution, but it would have meant the end of the business – a fast sale to our partners.

I called Nancy because she is good in a crisis and told her what was going on. She asked, “Do you want to build this thing, or do you want to sell it?” I said I wanted to scale it. She told me that I needed to call the woman who had just had a baby. Having to call her and say that I really needed her, and knowing that our future rested on her answer, was the worst phone call I have ever had to make. She agreed to modify her planned time away from the office to instead work for an extended part-time period, and we gave her the resources to help make it possible to survive working a modified schedule with a new baby at home.

NC: My point was, don’t assume for someone what they want. Don’t decide for other people; let them decide for themselves.

NS: Obviously, we survived. We stopped taking new clients for three months so we could build out the infrastructure to withstand everything that we knew could come. A couple weeks after we started accepting new clients again, we were named No. 6 on the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing private companies in America and the No. 1 fastest-growing women-led company.

DM: There are so many little stories around that. At that same time, we knew we needed to do something different with our internal systems in order to function and survive, and we built a complete system from scratch in three weeks and started using it immediately. A lot of people pulled together to make that work.

BBH: Last question – what is your advice for entrepreneurs who are starting out?

NS: Think big and grow fast, but take one step at a time. And recruit the best people you can find.

BBH: Nicole, Debbie and Nancy, thank you so much for your time and insight.


Interview conducted by Jake Turner and Adrienne Penta, and article written by Kaitlin Barbour.

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