Four Kitchens

How our Costa Rican expansion opens exciting new avenues for the way we work

4 Min. ReadWork life

As you may already know, Four Kitchens recently acquired the Costa Rica-based digital agency Manatí. Like last year’s merger with Advomatic, this venture marks another exciting expansion of our capabilities. While the size and structure of these two moves differ, they have both positively transformed our business and our culture.

Advomatic enabled us to bring on a number of fantastic team members and clients aligned with our specialization in nonprofits, higher education, and advocacy. And their Continuous Care offering significantly improved our support model. With Manatí, the move is less about new business and more driven by the skilled “Mana-team,” who bolsters our organization with a 50 percent expansion of talent.

What does that mean for how we work? That’s the really exciting part.

Four Kitchens thinks globally — and the world is smaller than you think

I met the founders of Manatí at DrupalCamp Costa Rica in 2014, and we first talked about coming together around 2016. At the time, I thought this could be a way for us to explore expanding our client services to the Latin American market. But that wasn’t really the right approach.

Profit is typically seen as the prime motivation whenever companies expand overseas. Yes, labor is less expensive in some parts of the world, but the value of an international expansion is much more nuanced. Earlier this year, big tech companies were ravenously poaching veteran agency talent with offers of huge pay increases — far more than a small, independent agency like ours could afford. By expanding to Costa Rica, we can bring on highly skilled team members, pay them competitive wages by local standards, and use the profits to do the same in the United States. In other words, we can pay people more and lower total costs, allowing us to improve retention and financial stability.

We learned a lot from our Advomatic experience. Perhaps the most important lesson was: You don’t have to be a massive company to make interesting moves like expanding beyond our borders.

Coming together through a common language

Like us, Manatí is a fully distributed team that uses open-source tools to build websites for mission-driven organizations. In terms of the nature of our work, the technologies we use, and the clients we serve, there’s a lot of overlap.

Although we’re now part of the same agency, we are still working to close the distance between these parts of our team. In October, we hosted a retreat in Palm Springs — our first in more than two-and-a-half years — that included some of the Costa Rican team members. In November, we sent a handful of U.S. team members to a second retreat in Costa Rica. This way, everyone had an opportunity to meet up in person. Our main goal was to break through physical distance and geography, ensure everyone feels that they belong, and integrate the best aspects of all teams.

Thankfully, we share a common language in the tools we use — Drupal, JavaScript, user research methodologies, and more — and our open-source approach to everything from contributing code to training and mentorship.

Expanding the voice of our internal culture

Our tools and philosophy may provide a common foundation, but they don’t help us bridge the obvious communication gap between English speakers in the U.S. and Canada and Spanish speakers in Costa Rica.

Four Kitchens is an English-speaking business, but we’re not taking the approach that the newest members of our team need to sink or swim. We have set the expectation that English adoption could take a year or longer, and we are covering the costs of English classes for all Costa Rican team members.

To foster patience and empathy for those learning English, we are encouraging our U.S. and Canadian team members to learn Spanish. We have expanded our professional development benefits to cover any type of directed language learning. (I’ve been using Duolingo for the past several months.) We’ve also set up a Spanish language channel in Slack for immersion and Q&A. The enthusiasm for learning a new language has been overwhelming. It’s incredibly rewarding to be part of a group practicing a new skill at the same time.

Ultimately, we want to become a multilingual organization — but that’s many years in the future. For now, we are happy to socialize and talk to one another in a new way.

Toward a future of collaboration without borders

The expansion into Costa Rica is already delivering value to our clients. More than half of our new team members have joined our existing projects, and we’re taking on projects that wouldn’t have been possible at our previous capacity.

Acquiring Manatí allows Four Kitchens to not only take on more work, but to also serve our clients’ audiences in new ways. For example, the U.S. and Canada have massive Spanish-speaking populations, and those audiences are crucial to universities, nonprofits, and trade unions. We’re eager to discover ways our expansion empowers us to better serve those populations in terms of technology and user experience.

Ultimately, the greatest benefit of this acquisition is the stability it provides our organization. Expanding in this way creates a better model for the company, and it introduces a welcome new level of diversity. Just as importantly, we’ve gained enhanced possibilities for doing good by bringing in more people through Manatí’s experience with talent recruitment.

We’re looking forward to where this expansion takes us in the months and years ahead. Interested in coming along for the ride? Sign up for our newsletter using the form at the top of this article to see where this path takes us.