We first interviewed Sara Dyson back in December 2020. A Texan by birth, but a Dalmatian in soul, Sara moved to Split, Croatia, in 2012 and set up her website, Expat in Croatia [“EIC”], in 2013. A decade later it’s the go-to place for any expats needing help on anything Croatian.
When we first chatted to Sara, we found out what led her to make the move to Croatia, the joys and challenges of living and working there, how Croatia had changed, and what her future plans were: there’s a link to that interview at the end of this post. This time we’re going to follow up and dive deeper into certain areas, and I think you’ll agree that Sara does not let the grass grow underneath her feet! Her team has gone from three to nine, it seems the Croatian government are finally beginning to realise just what an asset she is to Croatia, and, despite the exponential growth of EIC, there’s been no drop in quality, standards and aspirations. Those are just a few of EIC’s achievements; Sara’s personal growth is equally remarkable – read on to share in a little of the excitement.
1. Back in 2020 we asked you what direction you and your website would be heading in over the next few years. At the time, you were just expanding your team to three people and it looks like you’ve already made substantial progress in a number of the areas you mentioned, for example cultural nuance and helping people assimilate and integrate with their communities. Has that team settled in, are you where you want to be right now, and do you have a bit more time to follow up on your gazillion of other ideas, perhaps a little away from the day to day operation of the business?
Oh, gosh, where do I even start?
Settled? What is settled? [She smiles wryly.] We are doing so many new things and jumping to new levels all the time, it can be challenging to feel settled. We now have a team of nine, are about to hire our 10th and are already interviewing for our 11th. Honestly, we could use double that number of people.
What we do takes a tremendous amount of human work. We’re not making widgets that can be churned out by a machine. There is so much hands-on time needed to research, plan, coordinate, prepare, read, write, and update in addition to the very personalized approach we take to our audience and clients. There are some ways we could automate communication with people, but we choose not to take that shortcut. Just because someone can talk to a robot, doesn’t mean they want to.
To get back to your question of being settled…I think we are all trying to figure out how best to scale what we’ve built in the most efficient way possible while sticking to our values. There are no models for us to look to in Croatia for this niche, possibly even the world, so we are figuring it out on our own. We’ve got lots of it sorted, but still lots more to define so we can continue to improve and grow.
Are we where we want to be right now? From my perspective, no, and I don’t think anybody else on the team feels that way either – for different reasons. We have large pie-in-the-sky goals. We are on the journey, working towards them every day. There is simply no end to the number of avenues I wish to roll down with EIC. As far as the team, they all have their own individual goals for EIC as well for their roles and departments. The temperature is constantly being taken to see where we are at, and if we need to pause, or recalibrate. This year, our theme is all about refining what we do before taking any more big bites.
As far as the “gazillion of ideas” to which you refer, they are still there, and growing daily. I keep track of all of them with diligence, but also longing. Many may never see the light of day by sheer lack of time. I feel lucky that we have no shortage of ideas for our next steps. The only issue is deciding what to do next. Once we have these next two staff members, I’ll be able to officially transition into a more CEO-like role where I can focus on the overall vision and strategy and get out of the day-to-day. I cannot wait to be fully unleashed to properly work on the business.
2. You also planned to maximise the potential of Instagram and you seem to have done that too – can you tell us how you have achieved that, and perhaps give us some insight on how social media as a whole fits into your business, what the benefits and pitfalls are, and which is your favourite social medium?
I’ll say it right up top – Instagram [“IG”] is my favorite platform. It suits our content nicely and allows us to develop strong relationships with our audience. Our most dedicated fans live on IG. When I do my consulting sessions, more than 60% of them follow us on Instagram and watch our videos. We do our best to give Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn time and energy, but those platforms don’t function as well for our audience as IG does these days.
With Instagram, it’s been a mega slow burn. The channel has been built slowly and organically without ads or trendy hooks. Because of this, most of the people who follow us are really jazzed about what we do. They are avid supporters, many of whom feel personally invested in our journey. When we have successes, they share our joy. When we stumble, they commiserate with us. It’s become a tangible community.
It’s been a challenge figuring out the right voice for the platform. For sooooo looooooong, it was just me managing the social. And for soooooo looooooong, Expat in Croatia was just a blog. We’ve worked really hard to reprogram so that it’s clear that we are a company with a large team rather than a blog with just me. That transition was challenging – especially for me, since I’m so close to it.
Now that we finally have a proper Social Media Manager on board (shout out to Danielle Schiebel), I feel like we’ve hit our stride. She’s brought in some objectivity and feedback from our audience that has helped us refine our presentation.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Five Question Friday, where I answer Croatia questions submitted by our audience live on IG. I’ve had a few people say “why would anyone want to hear someone answer questions about bureaucracy on a Friday afternoon?” That is feedback I never listened to. I knew it was special and unique – not just in Croatia – but in the world.
For the first 7 years of EIC, I was talking to everybody who contacted us. Thousands of people. Since our team has grown, I speak to far fewer people directly. I had a bit of separation anxiety about this, like I was betraying our audience by not communicating with every single one of them anymore. Five Question Friday gives me a way to still connect with everybody, all at once. On that note, my little baby will hit 100 episodes in May and we’re planning something special for the occasion.
3. In our last interview, you predicted a change in the type of expats heading to Croatia, as a result of the advent of digital nomad permits and other factors. How has that evolved and which countries are leading the surge in expats?
Absolutely! The digital nomad residence permit has opened the door to a lot more people, from a lot more places.
We’re seeing tons of families relocating to Croatia because of this permit, which I’ve found interesting. And they want to stay for more than a year in most cases – even if they haven’t stepped foot on Croatian soil yet.
Americans are number one, for sure. Behind them are Brits, South Africans, Ukrainians, Canadians, Russians, and Australians. Those are the biggest demographics.
However, this permit has introduced Croatia to people from all over the world. Last year, I spoke to people from 89 different countries just on my consulting sessions. I met people doing all different kinds of jobs – not just standard employment. It’s been illuminating.
4. Last time we spoke, you talked about working more with the Croatian government. You seem to have made some big strides on that too, and even represented Croatia internationally. Could you tell us a little more about that?
It’s been a crawl, but there has been movement. We’ve now got a few connections with parliament and have been given opportunities to make proposals. They are open to hearing our ideas on how to make things easier. This is huge. We just need to make the right proposal. There are a couple of items we really want to change, but they are the two things the government really doesn’t want to change. So, we’re still working on that sweet spot that does right by Croatia and alleviates their concerns.
Aside from that, we’ve had a few instances in the last year when the government has looked to us for answers. I got a call from a local government asking about digital nomad rights. MUP in another city gave out our site to foreigners for reference. My favorite was when the caseworker handling my Croatian citizenship application said that all of Split MUP is rooting for me and that they see how much EIC has helped make their jobs easier.
Just like with Instagram, we are also trying to grow our relationship with the government slowly and organically. It can feel like a house of cards sometimes. You can build this relationship over 10 years, but one misstep can make the whole house fall down. We don’t want that to happen. Doing this job has given all of us a deep appreciation for the Croatian government and we do our best to showcase that whenever possible.
Representing Croatia abroad was the biggest moment of my professional life. It was an unbelievable privilege to speak to a room full of diplomats, NGOs, businesses and media about why people should do business in Croatia. When you’re speaking to Croatians about Croatia, you never know how it will be received. They may just think you’re a silly foreigner who doesn’t know what they are talking about. Only, that’s not what happened. Five of the Croatians in the audience said they shed actual tears.
At the end of the day, I love Croatia. Our whole team loves Croatia. And I hope that this love shines through enough that we can continue to tighten our relationship with the government to do some good things.
5. You have to harness so many different skills for Expat in Croatia – what’s the toughest part of running the business.
Networking. Hands down.
I’ve been very honest and open about my struggles with social anxiety. Through Expat in Croatia, I’ve been able to deal with a lot of those anxieties. I didn’t even like to have my photo taken just a few short years ago. Doing TV interviews and making videos for social media was not even a possibility.
Now that we are at this stage, I’m having to network more and more – meaning, being in a room full of strangers to whom I need to introduce myself and make interesting conversation. I’m better at it, but I still have to talk myself into it whenever I’m in those positions.
There is an added anxiety because I’m not fluent in Croatian and these networking opportunities are predominantly with Croatians. My worry is that they won’t take me seriously because of my lack of fluency. It’s so easy for people to look at my 11 years in Croatia and think, “well, you should know it by now”. It’s not black and white, and nobody is harder on me about my Croatian than me.
I would love to delegate this task to someone else, anyone else. But, this isn’t just about me. It’s about my whole team, it’s about our audience, it’s about our partners. As the “face” and leader of EIC, it’s gotta be me that networks and makes these high-profile connections so we can grow and do bigger and better things. It’s a constant internal struggle.
6. I have to ask how you are getting along with the language; is our Head Teacher doing her stuff?! And if you had a magic wand, which three elements of the Croatian language would you wave it at so you could absorb and understand them instantly?!
You could not have asked a better question to precede this one. 🙂
I’m making strides all the time in learning the language. I’ve made my latest leaps with Linda. She’s been wonderful. I truly feel supported, no matter what comes out of my mouth, even if it’s something I really should know because we spoke about it last week.
Being comfortable and supported are vital to learning Croatian for me. When I’m in my house, I roleplay conversations in my head and I’m able to compile thoughts easily. But when I get into real situations, I just freeze. It feels so silly.
With Linda, I feel secure, so I can talk Croatian for an hour and it’s okay. I believe that with more and more practice of just speaking, I can translate that to the outside world. So much of it is tied to confidence.
This last year, I’ve been more down in the dumps on my Croatian than any other year. When you’ve been working on something for years and you still can’t quite get to the level that everyone thinks you should be at, it’s really easy to fall into failure mode.
Everyone has different brains, learning abilities and life situations. We can’t put everyone in the same mold. I must constantly remind myself that I’m doing the best I can with the tools I have.
The elements I’d like to understand immediately are dative, adjectives and the overall structure of a sentence. In many cases, you must read an entire Croatian sentence before you can know what is being communicated. How can anyone have a conversation like that? I guess that’s why everybody talks so fast!
7. As you mentioned earlier, you’ve been very open and honest with your readers and followers about your personal journey, not least in respect of your struggle with social anxiety. Seeing some of the things you’ve achieved recently, it’s hard to believe you haven’t conquered that completely. Can you tell us a little more about where are you on that journey, and have you any personal ambitions that you can, or want to, tell us about?
Let’s just say, I hide it really well. 🙂
Just this past week, I was talking with someone about my first proper speech I gave in the fall of 2021 – only about 15 months ago. I was so overwhelmed by anxiety, that I don’t remember the speech at all. My hands went completely numb. When I was done, my vision went out and I couldn’t see anything for maybe 10 minutes. Apparently, nobody had any idea. Everyone said it was great and that there was no indication I was nervous. To this day, I cannot watch the replay of it, which is why it’s not shared on our site with all the other speeches.
It can be hard to communicate exactly what it feels like to be socially anxious. To me, I’ve always felt that everybody went to some class to learn how to be a person and I was out sick that day. It would likely amaze people to hear some of the phrases I’ve googled to try and learn how to be a functional human. I’m like an alien trying to fit in on Planet Earth.
I’m really happy with how far I’ve come. Truly. I am completely comfortable making videos. In just one year, I performed 3 speeches and the last one I referenced above was by far the best. With each one, I get more comfortable.
My next big milestone is networking with Croatians. We recently joined the American Chamber of Commerce (Croatia chapter), which puts us in rooms with CEOs of giant companies, ministers, politicians, ambassadors, and Croatia’s upper crust. That would be a whole new world for me, even if I were in my native country. Talking to strangers and finding a charming way to joke about why I’m not fluent is my current project.
It’s taking so much work to get to this point I’m at now, and I have such a long way to go – but I’m ready to push through the fear.
8. Now you’ve had more of a chance to travel around the country, are there still some undiscovered places, away from the crowds that you can tell us about. And anywhere that’s tempting you away from Split as your spiritual and actual home?!
There are still so many spots in Croatia I’ve yet to see. I’m hoping I can make it to Slavonia for the first time this year. I’d also like to spend some extended time in Gorski kotar during wintertime when it’s all snowy.
This summer, I’d like to visit Mali Lošinj finally, and if I do, I’ll definitely be doing the CLS school there. I’ve been invited by a fan to island Sisak, which has very intriguing history and landscape.
Last year, the highlight was my first trip to Pag. That island blew my mind. I heard about it, but that was nothing like the real thing. I had many moments when I was completely by myself – in the middle of July. Some thoughts about getting a little house on Pag floated through my mind while I was there.
I nearly got myself stuck in the woods trying to find Lake Krušćica [main photo], but it was absolutely worth it. I drove on roads that clearly nobody had been on in a very long time. I was all by myself. For anybody curious, I filmed a video while I was there and you can find it on Instagram. It was a special moment for me.
9. Do you think you will always feel like an Expat in Croatia? What are the three biggest and/or last hurdles that you and/or other “seasoned” expats have to overcome to become fully integrated?
That’s an interesting question, because it’s been on my mind a lot lately as I await word on my citizenship application.
The word “expat” means someone who lives outside their native country. To consider myself an expat, would mean that my identity is tied to the United States – a country I haven’t lived in for 11 years.
I see it a bit differently. My identity is much more closely tied to Croatia, than America. While I’m not Croatian, and I’ll never be Croatian in blood or ethnicity, Croatia is my home, and it always will be. So, the expat label doesn’t really fit me anymore.
My last hurdles to true integration are becoming a citizen (which hopefully will happen in the next six months) and becoming fluent in the language. I can’t think of a third. I feel like I’ve done everything else now that I bought my apartment in 2021.
Becoming fluent opens a lot of doors, which are currently closed. While it is a single line item in this context, it’s the bridge to a whole new world.
10. As we did last time, could we ask you again to let me have links to a few of your favourite posts, since December 2020?
11. And lastly (and very sorry to be greedy but we have SO much to ask you), where do you see Expat in Croatia heading over the next couple of years?
Ooooof! We’ve got a lot of plans, but I cannot share them all just yet. I’ll provide a few nibbles to chew on.
Our team is going to grow. We’ll be adding at least 3 new people this year. We are launching a new brand later this year that will include merchandise. It’s a project I’ve been marinating on for a while and I cannot wait to see go live.
We’re working on obtaining EU funds for another project, which has been cooking in my brain for more than three years now. Once we have the funds, it will take a year to develop. That’s as much as I can say about that now.
Our content will start evolving and digging deeper under the surface of daily life and culture. Our goal has always been assimilation, so this will feed into that objective.
We are considering diving into a completely new market in 2024 or 2025. It would be a large endeavor, so we are taking the necessary time for consideration to make sure it’s the right course of action for us.
Lastly, I’d love to have a Zagreb office in the next couple of years. I think it’s a possibility, especially as our team grows. Vidjet ćemo!
Sounds ambitious? Maybe, but if you look back to where Sara was, when we last interviewed her in December 2020, and see where she’s got to now, it looks like a stroll in the park for her! As promised, the link to our last interview with Sara is as below. Many thanks to Sara for being so generous with her scarce time and allowing us such a fascinating insight into her dynamic, exciting and, clearly, highly productive world. Also thanks for the images which remail the copyright of EIC.