Overcoming fear and trusting intuition: CEO Martin Howlings on the Expats.cz journey

Martin Howlings shares his unique story, challenges and path as the founder of Expats.cz

Julie O'Shea

Written by Julie O'Shea Published on 14.06.2024 17:00:00 (updated on 17.06.2024) Reading time: 9 minutes

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

“I asked my father for a 100 pounds – CZK 5,000 in those days – and I built the business from that. No investment. No business angel. Just an idea and meeting as many people as possible inviting them to be a part of it; wearing my heart on my sleeve,” says Martin Howlings, Founder and CEO of Prague-based media platform Expats.cz.

That little project? A website that, in its earliest iteration, started as a bulletin board forum – a place where people could look for jobs, flats, friends, share information, and buy and sell things.

Expats.cz has since evolved into a vital link for the international community, providing a mix of news and resources to help readers navigate life in the Czech Republic.

“The principles of the site did not change. It was built to help people, and it still does,” says Howlings.        

Humble beginnings

Originally from Milton Keynes, UK, Howlings developed a deep-rooted interest in publishing and technology from a young age, creating fanzines and a neighborhood gaming magazine when he was just 14. After studying computer science and communications, he ventured into graphic design, co-founding a successful design firm. For him, the allure of publishing lies in its ability to connect and inform people, and his early experiences crafting content ignited a lifelong passion.

Following a series of events that began with meeting a Czech au pair in the UK, he relocated to the village of Neratovice, 25 km outside of Prague, in 2000 and spent his first months hustling as a teacher. Back then, “the expat community was small and united. Everybody knew everybody. We went to the same events. We stayed up late in the same clubs, and we would all help each other and support one another,” says Howlings. 

Compared with today, the city was grubby, edgy, and rough around the edges, thick with smoke and flowing with cheap alcohol. It felt run-down and abandoned but it was exhilarating. I didn’t know it, but I was at the start of something amazing, and as Prague matured, so did I.

After a year of teaching, Howlings felt a pull to return to a career in publishing, which he had put aside when he left the UK in search of new adventures.   

The spark

When he first arrived in Prague, there were only a few places where expats could go to find information. Cork bulletin boards at places like the Globe Bookstore or Radost FX were jammed with notices of apartments for rent, flatmates wanted, job offers, lost and found, and language exchanges. It was 2001. No social media existed, and smartphones were only developing. There had to be a better way.

“I wanted to create a digital bulletin board where people could post their adverts. A place to buy and sell things. A place to share experiences. A place to chat, where people from all over the city could give advice and help each other,” says Howlings. “It made sense to develop a platform to bring this all together in one place to help newcomers and old-timers alike.”

Howlings exceeded his own expectations. Expats.cz has outlived several other English-language platforms that had initially been dismissed as the young British “kid” hoping to disrupt the market with his “passion project.” They told him it would never work, and the city wasn’t ready for something like this. Turns out, the old guard was wrong. 

“Everybody needs a catalyst to fire them up – this was one of mine,” says Howlings.

The Founder Story

Tell us about the early days of Expats.cz.

I wanted to design a website that everyone knew and could recommend to each other as a “lifeline” of sorts. During my early time in Prague, I found myself asking people for advice – where to find things, how things work, legal questions,  recommendations.

I had an instinctive feeling that it would succeed; I just needed to get it off the ground. It inspired me to talk about it to everyone, to promote it at every event I attended, and to seize every possible opportunity to sell the idea. I think it was my enthusiasm that really sold it, and people responded warmly to my excitement.

Expats.cz was launched in September 2001. It was based on a bulletin board forum system. Within a year, we had 10,000 members and were growing fast. After the first year, I was able to quit teaching and began to live from the revenues of advertising. I recall selling my first adverts to a local hair salon and real estate agency (still an active client today) for a just few crowns.

What hurdles did you encounter early on, and how did you steer around them?

I was learning how to run a business in a foreign country. I had to grapple with bureaucracy and navigate employees, contracts, and responsibilities. I was also learning how to be a leader, innovate, and control the quality of what we were doing. I was staying focused, growing the business, and being with my family. With no previous experience, it was a lot about trial and error.

Initially, our primary challenges revolved around technology – ensuring that the site could effectively manage traffic and meet user needs. Equally important was establishing trust within the expat community. It was essential for us to demonstrate that our platform was not only useful but also reliable and indispensable for their daily lives. Earning this trust took time and consistent effort.

As technology evolved, so did we. In the early to mid-2000s, Expats.cz was the leading social media site in English for the Czech Republic. However, with the rise of Facebook, we faced new challenges as social traffic began to divert from our platform. Recognizing the shift, we decided to enhance our editorial capabilities, aiming to become a forefront provider of content, stories, help, and guidance. Our editorial team has since developed and delivered some of the most comprehensive and helpful content about the Czech Republic ever produced.

What was the most challenging time for you?

Managing this business has never been straightforward. I've faced numerous difficult periods that pushed me to almost breaking point. However, I never considered giving up. Especially in the years before the COVID pandemic, I encountered significant challenges in internal business management, leading to personal turmoil and a severe depression that lasted over a year. I suffered from burnout and anxiety, which confined me to bed for months. Yet, this challenging time was pivotal for profound personal growth and recovery. Through navigating these tough conditions, I came to discover my authentic self – voice, character, and resolve. Additionally, I developed resilience and rebuilt my foundation, ultimately emerging as a stronger leader. Just as well, as I would need that strength for what COVID had in store for us all.

The COVID-19 crisis in 2020 was a pivotal moment for us, dramatically impacting our business with falling revenues and an uncertain future. However, this challenge also spurred rapid innovation from our technical and publishing teams. They proposed a radical idea: completely replacing the site’s publishing engine with a custom-built system launched just three months later.

This new platform proved to be the fastest and most flexible we’d ever had, allowing us to serve the millions of visitors during the crisis effectively. We also pivoted to provide comprehensive daily COVID-19 news coverage in English. We suddenly transformed from a place people liked to a service they needed. The challenges we faced together strengthened our resolve and unity, laying a stronger foundation for the future of Expats.cz.

Why has Expats.cz outlived so many other Prague-based English-language news platforms?

We listen to what people want and welcome feedback. While we don’t always get it right, we strive to recognize and improve our mistakes. Our dedicated team ensures our content is high quality and purposeful. Their passion is contagious, bringing out the best in others. Respect is earned through consistency, and we hope our work speaks for itself.

How has Expats.cz benefited individual expats or influenced the community?

Over the years, we’ve helped countless expats find homes, jobs, and essential services. We’ve facilitated cultural integration through our guides and community forums. Our events have also helped forge friendships and networks vital for anyone new to the country. We’ve provided thousands of articles, from news and culture to business to amass the most comprehensive body of work ever made about living in the Czech Republic.

What lies ahead?

We are channeling the invaluable lessons from past years to fuel our growth and ensure our focus is correctly aligned. We've built a project that we are incredibly proud of, and we continue to prioritize our readership at the center of everything we do. Our team has become stronger, and the deep trust we've cultivated among colleagues is paving the way for remarkable achievements.

Looking forward, we are excited to introduce new initiatives such as a podcast and increased video content. We are expanding our presence on platforms like TikTok, offering fresh ways to inform, inspire, and educate readers about life in the Czech Republic. We are also exploring opportunities to expand internationally, aiming to become indispensable to expat life.

Moreover, I want our company to take moments to reflect on our activities. As a mature project, we recognize the need for the strength and time to make a significant impact. My goal is to concentrate on the most meaningful and valuable aspects of our work. Reflection is just as important as action.

After nearly 25 years, Prague has become my true home. I am deeply thankful for the people I've met, the lessons I've learned, and the welcoming Czech community. Many have played a crucial role in bringing Expats.cz to where it is today, and for that, I am profoundly grateful.

7 lessons Martin has learned along the way

Trust your intuition
One of the most profound personal lessons in my career has been not to ignore my intuition. Listen to your inner dialogue and take heed of those warnings and guidance.
Overcome fear
Overcoming fear was a big hurdle. It was a natural response to so much unknown, but it was tough for any entrepreneur when they were starting out and something seldom discussed or acknowledged.
Be flexible and resilient
Living in Prague, learning the language, and integrating into the community taught me the importance of flexibility and resilience. These experiences broadened my perspective, making me more empathetic towards others' experiences and more adaptive overall.
Foster a positive culture
I’ve learned that leadership is about making decisions, listening, adapting, and being willing to admit mistakes. Every team member should feel valued and motivated to contribute their best.
Do things for the rights reasons
If you believe in something, focus on it as much as possible to get to its meat. Examine your motive for doing it, and if you have true conviction for the right reasons, it’s one of the most potent ways for that energy to open doors and inspire other people.
Hire humble people
People are everything to a business – clients, readers, suppliers, or supporters – so ensure you treat them well and have humility and hire people with those traits, too.
Focus on one thing
Maintain conviction and avoid spreading your efforts too thinly. Concentrate on excelling at one thing at a time. If it’s meant to succeed, it will; and if not, it won’t—but either outcome is preferable to uncertainty.

Would you like us to write about your business? Find out more