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How to relocate to Berlin for a marketing job: interview with Maria Baluk, Blinkist

Maria Baluk worked in marketing positions in Ternopil and Lviv, and in 2014 she decided to relocate to Berlin. She is now the Senior Performance Marketing Manager at Blinkist. This is a subscription service that sells access to book summaries.

AIN.UA’s editor talked to Maria about relocation, duties of a marketer, and impressions from life in Germany.

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What is your background and how did you get in Berlin?

I was not going to work in marketing. I taught English literature and language at Ternopil Pedagogical University. At the same time, I studied international economy as a distance learning course.

I found myself a job in online marketing by accident. It was the last year of my master’s degree program. I landed a job at MagneticOne software company. In fact, they were looking for anyone with knowledge of the English language and ability to write. They trained us on site. So I learned the basics of SEO and SMM.

Officially, my position was called ‘marketing manager’. It was 2011, no one knew of other positions in Ternopil. I was juggling all tasks at once, I got the knowledge from books, conferences, and webinars, which were also scarce back then.

Maria Baluk, photo from Facebook page

Then I moved to Lviv and landed a job in outsource, the company focused on the Benelux market.

There I realized that being a marketer in an outsourcing company is pretty boring. In essence, marketer position was there just for show, because real contracts were closed by salespeople.

Outsourcing has leads you have to work for a long time and big contracts. When you find a new customer and bring themin, the main work is performed by sales reps and product managers. Marketing in this area is boring and customers rarely outsource orders.

And it is natural. Customers need those who are fluent in the language and have cool tools at their disposal and only agencies can afford it. So, after working directly with the product, technical support and developers, I found myself out of place. I did a very basic job: I maintained the website, did basic SMM activities, organized events, and conferences. I worked like that for a year and a half until I relocated to Berlin.

Prior to that, a friend of mine moved there to study. I envied him. I thought: “Damn, I had no clue there were such opportunities when I was studying.” I decided that it was the high time to try, so I began looking for a job in Berlin.

Berlin. Photos here and hereafter – Maria Baluk

At first, I was looking for some internships, because I could not possibly think of getting a job in Europe with my experience in Ukraine. I worked forsmall companies and managed small budgets. I did a bit of everything.

The internship concept is popular in Europe – it is a six-month paid internship. First, I got to EyeEm, which is a stock photo community. They had a position related to the Russian-speaking market. I was approved for the position and then I applied for a visa and my application was denied.

It turns out that in addition to the official rules that can be found on the Internet, there are a lot of hiccups. Due to the fact that I was not a student at the time, I could not apply for internships. Neither the company that hired me, nor I knew about it.

I got a ‘denied’ stamp in my passport and a kick up my rear.

I have already packed everything and was ready to leave Ukraine, but everything went downhill. Then I braced myself, created a spreadsheet and started adding there all suitable vacancies. I sent my CV and cover letter tailored to the requirements of each company.

How many companies did you have in your spreadsheet?

There were about 200 positions, although I did not apply to all of them. Some demanded a good knowledge of German, others were irrelevant. Today I open the spreadsheet when I feel down.

I realize now that back then I was overwhelmed and did something strange, incomprehensible and, as it turned out, cool.

It was 2014. Job positions like online marketing manager or growth hacker were popular in Ukraine, whereas the overseas market had already developed a strong need for specialization. They were looking for PPC/SEM/SEA managers. It was hard: my experience, in essence, partially fell under any profile, but in fact, it did not satisfy any.

To be honest, when you are looking for a job in marketing in Europe – it is a bit more complicated than for programmers, because there are more than enough native speakers (English and German). Berlin is a multicultural city and for each vacancy, as I now know, they get 60 applications a week. I’m probably a little lucky. Also, my knowledge of HTML as well as other courses proved to be useful.

How can a marketer land a job? At first I didn’t know where to start. I just browsed through LinkedIn and looked at the vacancies of companies that are located in Berlin. In addition, I found websites and blogs that post vacancies in Berlin. For example, Berlin Startup Jobs. Now I am working for my second company in Berlin and we publish vacancies there as well. And the position which I filled I also found on Berlin Startup Jobs.

Also, Germany has its own kind of LinkedIn – XING service. But it is in German and if you do not know the language, finding the right vacancy is more difficult. There are descriptions in German and companies are more traditional – with strict requirements for language proficiency.

So, who ultimately took you in?

As a result, I received two offers and decided in favor of Kayak. This is a travel meta-search. The company has been operating for 15 years, initially focused on the American market, but the Berlin office appeared 5-6 years ago to access European market. And my skills and expertise met their expectations.

I was working with paid advertising. As usual for travel companies, you need to provide many destinations for flights, hotels, and so on. Many variables and a very large core of key queries. Advertising campaigns are huge, as are budgets. Therefore, they take a paid search very seriously.

They took me into a small performance marketing team. There were at different times from 5 to 8 people in the team. But besides that a whole cohort of engineers worked on the campaigns – they automated and linked processes, helped generate reports.

I used to consider writing posts on Facebook as marketing, here I was able to see how huge the technical component is and how conveniently everything can be divided into processes.

In essence, I was in charge of several markets. The budgets were so large that recalling them makes me shiver. But outstanding internal tools were developed exactly for that purpose. You could easily maintain a few dozen accounts at a time. We had enough time both to keep them on target and perform other tasks. In Kayak, I learned how to manage large campaigns and structure them. In addition, I learned a great deal about optimization. But the main thing is that during the interview I spoke about the desire to ‘pump up’ technical skills and I got what I wanted.

Before joining Kayak, I had skills in HTML, CSS, and similar technologies. For example, I did not directly work with databases. And here traditional tools like AdWords Editor and Excel files turned out to be useless. It was necessary to work with databases in SQL.

My boss liked the fact that during the interview I was talking about technical skills. They reminded me of it and sent me to the Data analytics team for several months. As a result, besides working on my campaigns, I had a hardcore SQL and basic Python courses.

It was difficult, but awesome. The perception of all processes and the format of working with campaigns have changed.

How long did you work at Kayak?

I stayed there for 2.5 years. I left because I was lured away by a new company – Blinkist. I work there now. But at Kayak, I got a great experience and they had a great office and a lot of corporate perks. It was awesome.

For example, there were yoga classes, a small gym, free lunches, and snacks in the office. A lot of space and a beautiful terrace – this is a rare thing for Berlin, where there aren’t so many large headquarters. Kayak had 150 employees and about 3 floors of working space.

Why did you leave?

After learning all the ropes, an urge for adventure followed. I wanted to do something in my own way, I wanted to influence the strategy. After learning all the basics, a craving for creativity lights up in you.

Since everything was tied to large budgets, a lot was decided from above. Big companies are not very flexible. Accordingly, I was tempted by the offer to work in a smaller, younger company, where processes needed to be set up. I thought that I would apply my new experience to start everything from scratch.

It is all about contrast. Having worked in a very large company, you start to want comfort and greater responsibility. So you move to a smaller company. Then you want to learn from the coolest experts, so you have to go back to a bigger company. Whoever finds the golden mean is a lucky individual. However, usually people hop from one format to another.

What do you do now?

Since September 2017, I have been working at Blinkist. I am a Senior performance marketing manager. That is, I am part of the performance marketing team, and we, in fact, work with all paid channels. For cost-effective budgets on platforms such as Google Ads, Apple Search Ads, Quora Ads, etc. I also work with data.

All in all, we have a bit of a strange approach to the hierarchy – we use the BOS (Blinkist Operating System), which is based on modified principles of holacracy, like in Zappos. This means that everyone is essentially equal and each has its own area of responsibility.

Accordingly, I am fully responsible for my channel. I work on its strategy, I plan budgetsby country, as well as for a year/quarter. Then we bring it together with other employees.

Our hours are flexible. I myself decide when to come to work and when to leave. I can work remotely if I remain productive and accessible to my colleagues. The most important is that you achieve your objectives. I also help the marketing team on the technical side — not everyone, for example, knows SQL or can configure ETL.

I am also engaged in the automation of routine processes. There’s no desire to waste time on such tasks as changing rates or creating new ads. It is better to spend this time on more strategic and creative tasks.

Blinkist is an expensive product for which you have to pay regularly. Is it hard to sell it?

Yes, and no. If it was easy, then most probably one of our founders would be still doing this with his hands behind his back. The fact that there are entire teams for this purpose means that it’s probably not that easy.

Yes, the product is quite expensive, but we are available globally. In addition, in some countries that already have a subscription culture where people are used to it, there is no fear of a higher price and we can explain the value of the product.

There is a large niche of people who want to advance and move up the career ladder. I judge from my own experience, I myself don’t finish reading many books (especially non-fiction). This problem is very common. If buyers are willing to pay for Spotify, Netflix, and a handful of other services, then Blinkist is a pretty useful alternative.

What is your audience breakdown?

Our main market is the U.S. Germany is in the top 5. Our project is in English, but there is also a German version. We are interested in markets with mature audience where subscription model is prevalent.

We have office only in Berlin so far; there is no use in expanding anywhere else. There are about 140 full-time employees and a handful of freelancers. After all, the content is written by outsidebook experts. In general, Blinkist is growing very quickly – two years ago we were about 60 people.

What is your professional growth plan for the future?

All that tech stuff is growing on me, I like data analysis. I understand thata data analyst is also a boring job, you just sit and solve other people’s problems. But it fits well with the strategy and gives a better understanding of how to work with marketing channels further. Data analysis is one of the areas in which you want to learn more and you can learn more.

I like this domain, but I understand that marketing is random for me and I’m not sure that I’m in it for good. But it seems to me that the current set of tools is very cool and will be handy in so many areas. So while I’m interested in projects, I’m trying to learn everything I can learn. If I get bored, we’ll see what’s next.

How much do you need to spend to relocate to Berlin? Do companies contribute financially?

In Germany, many companies pay a Relocation bonus (although this is not a mandatory requirement). They gave me the bonus with the first salary, so you still need the money for the first month and a half of work. I had minimal savings after working in Lviv and, fortunately, I had not that many things to move. It was a small relocation. A backpack, a suitcase, and here I am in Berlin.

Finding an accommodation was much more difficult. Firstly, the search for an apartment here is not your choice, but the choice of someone from 80 people who come to watch the same apartment. You need a heap of papers, some of which require you to live in Berlin or Germany for at least three months before looking for an apartment.

For example, you need a certificate from the current landlord that you pay on time and do not cause damage to housing. This is all due to the fact that Germany has strict legislation that strongly protects tenants. A tenant who does not pay or plays dirty tricks is very difficult to evict.

I naively believed that since I just moved there, these formalities did not apply to me. I had the money, after all. It turned out that it was not possible. As a result, I forged a note from a previous landlord and took a letter from work stating that I was on an indefinite contract with such and such salary. By the time I also received my first salary, I had money in my bank account. Thus, I managed to rent not the best, but an okay apartment, almost in the center of the city.

Then, I shared the apartment and paid about 550 euros per month, inclusive of utilities. Now prices have risen – you can rent housing in that area for 700-1,100 euros per person in a two-room apartment.

Summarising the talk, are stories about three-month search of apartment in Berlin true or fake?

They are true. But if you are an IT specialist and you relocated here, you will have a decent salary. With good incomes and all the paperwork, an apartment can be found in 2-3 weeks of active search. One month tops.

What is your level of German? Does your field of work have strict language requirements?

In marketing positions, it is either required or required as a bonus. Accordingly, it is better to know the language or at least know the basics. I studied German a little at school, then I forgot it, then I studied it at the university – and then I forgot it once again. When I was going to Berlin, I again decided to learn some.

Now my level of German is B2. That means that I can explain myself clearly and understand others. But since I work in English-speaking field and with English-speaking people, there is no better motivation to learn it. In addition, without the German language in Berlin, there are still a lot of vacancies – this is an English-speaking city. There are even places where people will restlessly answer your questions only in English. They annoy the locals, but it is very convenient for visitors.

How much did you earn in Ukraine on the eve of relocation?

Before I relocated, I earned about $1,500 per month. I moved here, as it seemed to me, for an extremely high salary. But after deducting taxes and comparing housing prices and purchasing power, it turned out that this was just a normal salary. At first, it was able to save up approximately the same amount as I did in Ukraine.

But there was a transition from the fact that in Lviv I could afford anything I want while here I get an average salary. At first it is difficult to get used to this and then, you realize how cool it is to be on equal terms with others, if this is enough for sustenance. There is no such thing like in “Silpo” when someone buys salmon, while others simply buy buckwheat. Life is more pleasant here.

How much do you need to feel comfortable in Berlin?

Let’s build on housing prices. We are talking about 700-1,000 euros for a normal-sized apartment (one or two-room). Usually, the following rule applies – housing will be rented to you, if your income exceeds the rent three times. That is, you need to demonstrate that you can easily pay for housing and still be able to provide yourself with everything you need.

You can find yourself a room with almost any income. Prices are different.

Your impressions from livingin Berlin for a long time.What surprised you and what you like?

I like that nobody owes anything to anyone. This makes you feel freer. You can sit in the subway and not be afraid that some grandmother will yell at you, or the driver in a minibus. I got used to it, so I find myself uncomfortable at home.

Berlin is a city where nobody cares what you are and how you express yourself. For me it was a contrast when relocating from a country where everything is done so that the neighbors would envy you or others would appreciate you.

Feeling yourself absolutely free in self-expression is very valuable, as it turns out.

In addition, despite the fact that Berlin is not very attractive in appearance, somewhat dirty attimes, somewhat with dubious reputation – living here is very cozy and comfortable.

There is a lot going on here and there is always an event to everyone’s taste: jazz and techno festivals, cinema and food, parks and lakes everywhere, very different districts in terms of ambience. You can go to the forest by bike, because the forest is in the middle of the city. Or you can go to a nightclub.

How often do you visit Ukraine?

I visit home often, especially since direct flights have been established. I come for 2-3 days about 5-6 times a year. I miss home a lot, so coming back gives me joy.

But my family is not in Lviv, but in the Ternopil region. To get there, I use 4-6 types of transport – depending on luck. The atmosphere in the shuttles, evil conductors, drunks on the trains – all this is somewhat depressing.

It seems to me that when you live in Ukraine, you are always in a self-defense mode – you need to be ready to shield yourself from the negative vibes and stand up for yourself.

In Germany, I relax. Therefore, it is unusual to come back home and be exposed to the local atmosphere.

I never wanted to stay in Berlin or Europe forever. But the level of comfort and communications they offer is amazing, as expected. It seems to me that I am not here yet, but I am no longer there – I am stuck between two worlds. When I come to Ukraine, I feel a little alien.

What most do you miss in Ukraine from Germany?

In addition to such trivial things as comfort, safety and the like, there is just not enough good and interesting projects that I would like to work on.

I am sure that such project will come up. But I somehow lost touch and haven’t looked for a long time, to be honest. In work, you want opportunities to grow, learn and create something really outstanding.

If you decide to leave Berlin, what will be your next stop?

As a matter of fact, I thought that I would crash in Berlin for a couple of months, get a cool line or two on my resume and return to Ukraine. And now I understand how the ease with which people relocate here lights them up. We have, in a company of 140 people, about 30 nationalities. People move from London to Berlin, from Berlin to Paris, from Paris to Barcelona. And I would like to have a chance to live somewhere else too.

Now I understand how interesting and challenging the experience is to adapt to a different environment, learn new things, meet new atmosphere. It nurtures and teaches more than changing 4 jobs in the same city.

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