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Newcomers to Czech Republic can find a home and feel at home through Foreigners.cz

Starting a new business always comes with the risk of failure, and starting a new business at the tender age of 22 years old is riskier still. Despite these challenges, 29-year old business man Vojtěch Stehno was able to successfully launch the business Foreigners.cz during his last year of college along with his partner Andrea Tkačuková, and has been charging ahead ever since.


Vojtěch Stehno - Foreigners.cz (Foto: Amanda Morris)


In the seven years since Stehno founded the company with then-girlfriend, now-ex, the company has grown in size and has expanded into five different cities within the Czech Republic. The company has also expanding the services that it offers. Originally offering relocation services for expats moving to the Czech Republic, Foreigners.cz is now building a program called CzechUniversities.com, which brings foreign students to the Czech Republic to study at Czech universities.

“I think the Czech education system is very good, but not so well known,” said Stehno. “For example, Charles University is ranked by the QS ranking system to be within the top two percent of the best universities in the world.”

The idea to expand into this realm was Stehno’s and it occurred to him on a whim while he was visiting Dubai, where a large portion of university students want to study abroad. So far it’s been going well but it is not without its challenges. Foreigners.cz requires students to pay a small fee to take entrance exams for the universities, however, they offer more services in exchange. They offer offices and support in both Dubai in the Czech Republic, preparatory courses, visa assistance and after arrival services, which other companies try to compete with.

“We have a competitor in Dubai who can see that we offer better services, so he reduces his charges in order to try and compete with us,” Stehno said. “We want to bring a high standard of service to individuals for a reasonable price.”

Rather than focusing on profits, Foreigners.cz invests more in people, and this is a philosophy that extends into all areas of the company. It is also what differentiates Foreigners.cz from a regular real estate agency, because as Stehno says, “our job isn’t over when they move in. We help them with any problems that they may have during the whole rental period.”

Sometimes Foreigners.cz gets strange requests, but they are always happy to try and help out. For example, they have had to find a drill for a customer trying to put holes into a saw to make an instrument, they’ve been asked to ship guinea pigs to Prague from the Netherlands, and have even been asked to babysit a fish! Primarily though, they try to focus on finding affordable and good housing for their clients, and ensuring that their clients can transition smoothly.

“In general, for people from non-EU countries the most complicated and stressful part is to get all documents needed to be able to come to Czech Republic and to stay here. Almost every person working at the Ministery of Interior provides different information and this causes foreigners to be confused and so they have no idea what documents to get, how to get them and what to do with them. If they make one mistake, they can be sent back to their country to get the missing documents,” said Gabriela Šilhánová, executive director of Foreigners.cz’s Prague office. “We want to help them avoid any misunderstandings or stressful situations that could happen at the Immigration office.”

Another pitfall for foreigners trying to immigrate into the Czech Republic is that they can often be ripped off. Foreigners.cz prevents this from happening to their clients.  “It happens a lot in Prague where the owners of flats demand higher rent from foreigners than from Czechs,” Šilhánová said. “One of the reasons why Foreigners.cz was founded is that we don’t want foreigners to be abused or cheated by Czech people who might take advantage of them because they don't understand the Czech language.”

If a landlord is caught abusing or cheating their foreign renters, then Foreigners.cz terminates their relationship with that landlord.

One customer, Jerrel Feller, a personal trainer from Holland who has been living in Prague with his Czech girlfriend for about a year now, was very satisfied with his experience at Foreigners.cz. Feller decided to use the agency because he felt that they were offering the best explanations for foreigners. They helped him arrange his bank accounts and set up an apartment before he even moved to Prague, but they also made him feel more comfortable in the Czech Republic once he arrived.

“The best part about their service is that it  is professional but at the same time they make you feel at home,” Feller said. “For example, they invite you to MeetUps.”

On Maslow's hierarchy of needs, one can only be happy when they have satisfied lower basic needs such as security and a sense of belonging. Foreigners.cz believes that they are able to satisfy these needs, and many of them relate to the difficult transition that new immigrants go through. Most of the workers at Foreigners.cz have travelled and lived abroad during their lives. Stehno has lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Scotland, and has travelled to many more countries where he has sometimes felt uncomfortable at first.

“When I spent three weeks in Kenya, I realized how our clients can feel,” he said. “Even though I have many African friends and I am familiar with their culture, everything felt so different right as I got out of the airport. It was scary even though I knew nothing was going to happen to me. I was nervous, but then when I went back to the hotel, I felt more secure, safe and comfortable. Having a safe place to live is necessary to feel happy.”

Another reason why Foreigners.cz was founded was because both Stehno and his partner Andrea Tkačuková loved working with foreigners. They were both involved in the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) in college, which is a European student network that partners local students with students studying abroad in order to try and help foreign exchange students acclimate to the new environment. From volunteering for ESN, both made friends with many students from different countries. Stehno and Tkačuková learned from their friends that the local agency for foreigners was inadequate, causing many complaints. This is when they decided that they could probably create a better service.

Starting off with no money and no office, they created a website, found apartments and shared their information on Facebook. Pretty soon foreigners started coming to them for help, and eventually the business boomed. Stehno hopes to continue to expand the business in the future and open offices in other countries. They look to open an office in Kiev within the next few months. Ostrava and Bratislava are hopefully coming soon.

“I want to play a big game, I want a big business,” Stehno said. “But with this comes bigger challenges and bigger failures.”

One challenge of working at Foreigners.cz is simply the global scope of their clients. “The most challenging parts are, paradoxically, the best parts,” Šilhánová said. “I love meeting new people but, it is a lot about getting out of your comfort zone - to talk to people you have never seen, sell them your ideas, and get their attention so that they are willing to cooperate with you.”

This ability to cooperate with people from all countries and cultures is important to Stehno, and he hopes that more Czechs can learn to cooperate with foreigners.

“I am proud that I am Czech,” he said. “But sometimes I don’t like that Czechs can be too close-minded. They think that the Czech way of thinking is the best standard for the world to follow, and may not look at different ways of thinking.”

He continued, “We like working with people from other countries because it brings in a new culture and a new picture of life.”

For more information, please visit www.foreigners.cz


Author: Amanda Morris, PragueConnect.cz - Prague, 21.03.2016