The expat entrepreneurs
This is the story of three English-speaking expats, who arrived in Prague during the post-Velvet Revolution “golden-age” and who ended up becoming entrepreneurs, serving the very communities of which they had become a part. Todd Benson, Bryn Perkins and Martin Howlings are the respective heads of Prague.tv, Praguemonitor.com and Expats.cz, three websites that both serve English-speaking Czechs in Prague as well as give English-speakers across the world a window into this small country at the heart of Europe. Today, the expat community in Prague has morphed from the amorphous collection of idealists that first came to the country, often quite literally to “do nothing” - into a bustling mix of media-types, teachers, students, businessmen and women and everything in between, something that is reflected in the evolution of these three websites.
Todd Benson founded Prague.tv in 2001:
“I’m from the US. I actually left in 1997, I hit Prague, thought it was a beautiful city. I got involved in the bar business, and managed the Globe Bookstore, which was actually in Prague 7 back then. In 2000-2001, I figured with a couple of friends of mine that there wasn’t enough information online for people like us, so we launched Prague.tv .”
And how did the website evolve?
“It was in essence an online magazine, with classified listings and real estate postings, and what began as a service for people like us that had just been here for five years or so, soon changed. We realised that we were getting a lot of traffic from overseas, from people who were planning on visiting Prague or relocating here. So we started to cater to those people with more targeted articles, also we launched a business directory. Then we realised that we could actually make money with this, so we started to accept advertising from local businesses here.”
Bryn Perkins is the founder of The Prague Daily Monitor, or simply Praguemonitor.com, a website that makes Czech news accessible to English speakers, sourcing various sites, including our own Radio Prague:
“I moved here in 2001, planning to stay for just a month or two, and was so taken by the city and by the experience of living somewhere other than the United States, that I decided to stay for two or three years. Later, some Czech friends and I started a bookstore called Shakespeare and Sons. The store is still going today, but after a couple of years, I moved on from that and started the Prague Daily Monitor.”
And how did the website come about?
“I saw a need. I was very interested to know what was happening in the Czech Republic. Google News had just appeared and I was visiting that site and searching out stories about the Czech Republic. And I realised that Google News wasn’t doing a very good job of organising those stories. So I thought that it would be very useful to send by email to people who were interested, a list of interesting stories for the day.”
Martin Howlings is the founder of Expats.cz, a website that is designed to both inform and provide an interactive forum for expats living in Prague:
“I was born in Northampton in the United Kingdom. I came to the Czech Republic almost nine years ago. I was I think twenty-two and really had very little to keep me in the UK and had some experiences I needed to have, so I quit my job...”
Martin then moved to Prague, but found a job very different from his background in the print and design business:
“Well, I was teaching English, like most people were in those days. And after about a year or so I realised that this really wasn’t what I wanted to be doing for a living. I needed to get back to doing something more in line with my own interests. I realised that there was a lack of information for people such as myself back then - around eight or nine years ago. How do you find information on visas for English, American, Swedish people – all of my international friends? And where do you go or what do you do when this or that happens, and what are the legal implications? Or how do you start a business, and how do you get the paperwork in order? That was one side, and then the other side was – how do you meet other ex-pats, or find things from back home? There were so many questions.”
In all three cases, these websites have evolved beyond the expectations of merely serving English-speakers in Prague. There is another community too – people abroad wanting to know about the Czech Republic:
The Prague Monitor’s Bryn Perkins explains:
“It is really interesting – at the beginning, I thought our readers would be people living here, but many of our readers are abroad, and there are all different kinds. There are people who are interested for business reasons, or diplomatic reasons – we have a lot of the diplomatic embassy core that read us from all around the world. Then there are people who maybe lived here for a while and feel a connection and want to know what is going on or people that have family members or ancestors from the Czech Republic and they want a better idea of what happens here. And then, of course, there are people who physically live in the Czech Republic and want to know more about the place in which they live.”
“We have a pretty broad spectrum. We are focused on any English speaker, so of course we have the tourists, we have real-estate investment people, we have local businesses and we have English-speaking Czechs. About fifteen percent of our users are actually Czechs, which is quite interesting.”
All three of these businesses started small, growing from modest aims into the more polished operations that they have undoubtedly become. Martin Howlings of expats.cz explains:
“We started off with just myself nine years ago with one computer and an idea. We now have a staff of between eight to ten depending on the time of year. We have four-hundred clients and a great deal of media partners and goodwill that comes our way. I think that the number of English-speaking people that are coming to the Czech Republic is pretty much the same as it was, and the number of English-speaking Czechs has increased dramatically too.”
Another aspect of Prague that has changed beyond measure is the English speaking community that finds its way here today as compared with the post-Velvet Revolution era. Todd Benson has observed this change first hand:
“Oh, for sure. It is no longer the bohemian lifestyle. It has definitely gone more western, more business-oriented, more commercial. On a positive note, it is a good thing, because it has become cleaner in terms of the reconstructed buildings, so it is much prettier. I think that the people that move here now, have it a lot easier, compared to those that moved here back in 1997 and before that – better or worse, I don’t know, it is apples and oranges.”
Martin Howlings also offers some cold water for those who hold on to the romantic notion of Prague during the 1990s:
“My experiences eight or nine years ago are that I was enjoying a beer for eight crowns in the small town that I lived in. And you would meet poetic types, these people that had been lost in this world of Kafka and trying to find themselves by sitting on the Charles Bridge and having a smoke and watching the world go by. All that is fine, but these days, people are here with a purpose; they are better educated and they see the opportunities. I think that they also better appreciate the life that exists here in Prague. The people that come here and take everything from the landscape are gone. It is just too expensive to couch surf.”
“I think that the standard picture that was taken, and has sort of gone out across the world – the early 1990s stereotype – that isn’t the reality anymore. It is still a very interesting place, but I don’t think that we have found as an English-speaking expatriate community, what the story is now. I think that there is a new story to be told, and maybe there is some aspiring novelist out there, who can come here and figure out the way it really is.”
The Havel-era romanticism is sadly gone, but a more clear-eyed pragmatism is also bringing its own rewards as these three entrepreneurs have certainly discovered.