Clarissa Hirst, 25, is refreshingly honest about how she came to work with European startups from her adopted home in the heart of the Swedish countryside.
She moved to Karlstad in 2014, having previously worked in the area as an au pair for a Swedish family, while on a gap year after university. By the time she left, she was in love with a Russian-born Swede doing a PhD in the small student city.
“We were long-distance for year after I went back home to Sydney and it was really tough,” Hirst explains.
“I’d lived in Sweden already and I could speak Swedish and I thought ‘it can’t be that hard, surely, to find a job’, so I moved back to Sweden and then the job hunt began. But it was a lot more difficult than I anticipated,” she adds.
After applying for numerous positions she says she felt she was “overqualified for, really” and facing “a lot of rejection” she decided to set up her own proofreading company, having already helped out several student friends and businesses in the area for free.
Clarissa Hirst back home in Sydney, Australia. Photo: Private
At the same time, she worked on a weekly personal blog, where she shared tips for people learning English and typed up her reflections on life as an immigrant on the other side of the world from home.
“Some of the posts were quite fun I guess (…) Then this local startup here in Karlstad got in touch and said ‘oh we really like your writing, come and do some work with us’ and so I did.”
That startup was Livine, an energy drink company run by Columbian-born entrepreneur Carlos Perdomo. Hirst helped the firm with its marketing and communication material and enjoyed the role so much she decided to target other European startups working in areas that she was passionate about.
“I started to write more about things I was interested in - language and travelling the world - and I came across this company called GoCambio, who are based in Ireland,” explains Hirst.
“It’s a bit like Couchsurfing, in that the idea is that strangers offer their homes to travellers for free for a night or a few weeks. But with GoCambio its based on a two way exchange from the outset. The travellers have to give something back, be that language lessons, teaching someone how to play the guitar or make a meal from their home country…so both the host and the traveller benefit.”
Hirst clearly believes in the concept and so its perhaps little surprise that within a week of emailing the company to offer her services, she was invited to spend two weeks at the firm’s headquarters in Youghal in County Cork.
“I didn’t even send them my CV, I just explained why I was so interested in the company,” the Australian says, with genuine modesty.
The GoCambio team in Ireland. Photo: Private
GoCambio was set up by Deirdre Bounds, a British businesswoman and former stand-up comic who once appeared on UK reality TV show Wife Swap, and her brother Ian O’Sullivan. The pair previously launched i-to-i.com, a company that organises paid volunteering placements, which they sold for the equivalent of 250 million kronor ($30.5 million) in 2007.
With more than 7,000 users largely in Spain, Italy and France as well as growing numbers in Germany, the UK and Taiwan, GoCambio is now actively looking for people in Sweden who are keen to throw open their doors to international visitors. Hirst is set to play a key role for her next freelance assignment.
“At the moment I am working on content for version two of the GoCambio website which is launching at the end of October,” she says.
“So I am (…) writing blogs about Sweden, things to try and encourage people to do a ‘Cambio’ in Sweden and contacting media, independent bloggers, anybody who might want to know more about the concept.”
“We don’t have any users here in Sweden yet - apart from me!” laughs the 25-year-old.
While she accepts that Swedes, known for being at the shy end of the personality spectrum, might not be the obvious hosts for globetrotting travellers, Hirst is confident that the business can thrive in the Nordics.
“There are Swedish families that would like their children to get some practice speaking English and so we can encourage them to sign up as hosts and they could get an English speaker from the UK for example."
Hirst in the house she stayed at as an AuPair. Photo: Private
Her other core market is the startup scene that she has herself become so interested in.
“I know that - especially in Stockholm - there is all this innovation happening (…) It would be really great to connect some of these startup companies with people that have skills that these startups need, you know in graphic design, website development,” she says.
"We could encourage someone say to host for example a university student who is studying graphic design, who'd like to expand their portfolio, get some testimonials from people, get some experience and travel (…) But we’re not about exploiting people, we want it to be an equal exchange.”
Hirst’s own entrepreneurial spirit has recently led her to secure a spot on a paid PhD programme in Karlstad, allowing her to get a regular income for pursuing one of her other passions in life - international politics - while continuing to expand her business.
She argues that while she'll clearly be busy studying, she'll be able to put more focus on the communications projects she’s “most passionate about”, rather than accepting every job in order to pay the bills.
“I love entrepreneurs who have innovative ideas and this passion for what they do. I like to be around people who follow their dreams,” she says with a smile that suggests she is already following her own.