How To Fund Your New Life Overseas As An Entrepreneur
Starting about 32 years ago, I went to work in the publishing industry.
Back then, we made a business of the written word the old-fashioned way—with paper, ink, envelopes, and stamps.
Today my business is virtual.
Today, publishing companies (like mine) may need the services of a copywriter or a particular editor only once or twice a month. They don’t want, therefore, to be liable for a full-time salary and the associated employer taxes, health benefits, vacation time, work space, etc. Easier and cheaper to find a freelance worker with the required skills.
This is one small example. The reality today is that there are opportunities like these awaiting entrepreneurs almost everywhere in the world. You can turn a hobby into an income and become part of the new mobile, global workforce. You can approach this low-key, with nothing more than a laptop, or, more ambitiously, with the idea that you want to build a business, with a base and staff, to generate the income you need to live the life you want where you want to live it.
I had a friend in Poland years ago who learned that Burger King was going to open up shop there and needed warehouse space for its supplies. My friend bought a warehouse. Burger King became his client. In time, he expanded his storage business to include other clients and other products… and he made a nice living for himself.
Another friend noticed how few coffee shops existed in Warsaw. (This was years ago, before Starbucks came to this town.) My friend found a local roaster to roast the coffee beans and then packaged them himself. He set up a combination retail and wholesale operation that was bought by another larger one. That company is still going strong.
Some of the best overseas businesses start like these two—organically. You show up, discover a market niche, and then invent a way to fill it.
Other overseas ventures can be more pre-planned.
About nine years ago, I took early retirement from the company where I’d worked for more than 23 years. Six months later, I realized that retirement didn’t suit me. I liked being in business.
For me, the question wasn’t what business might make sense (I enjoyed the business I’d already spent 23 years learning).
For me, the question was where best should I base the business I want to launch. (Panama stood out as the obvious choice.)
What could you do?
International Business Idea #1: A Franchise
A franchise can be an easy way to hit the ground running with a business model, strategy, branding, marketing, and support already in place. An already proven successful business can give you a leg up.
One franchise business opportunity in Panama crossed my desk recently. The regional manager for the Mailboxes Etc. franchise was looking to expand.
Mailboxes Etc. is well established in Panama already (with 18 stores), and, based on the success to date, was interested last year in growing the group to include a new store to service the Playa Blanca area near Rio Hato. This is the heart of the popular beach area about an hour-and-a-half outside Panama City, where many expats are settling.
You may be interested in neither Panama nor the Mailboxes Etc. business. However, I’d like to walk you through some numbers here, for your general reference.
The total start-up cost for a Mailboxes Etc. is US$60,000 to US$70,000. You don’t have to speak Spanish to open one of these operations, as most of your customers will be expats like you. Several non-Spanish-speaking franchisees already run stores in Panama and Costa Rica. Another plus is that a Mailboxes Etc. does not require much staff. A typical store can be run with three local employees. Your staff overheads are controlled, therefore, both because you don’t need much and also because salaries in this country are very reasonable. The quality and the cost of labor are two of the biggest doing-business appeals for would-be entrepreneurs in Panama.
Mailboxes Etc., like any franchise, provides training and operational support leading up to and during the opening of a new store and then, as well, ongoing support as long as you need it.
What kind of return could you expect? The franchise manager explained to me that stores in this part of the world typically reach a point of monthly profitability after six to eight months of operation. Earnings are typically US$3,500 to US$5,000 per month the second year and US$6,000 per month thereafter.
International Business Idea #2: A Tourism-Based Business
A tourism-based business (a bed and breakfast, dive shop, bar, restaurant, souvenir shop, ice-cream parlor, coffee house, wine store, etc.) can be a good choice depending on your interests (do you like to interact with people day-to-day?) and your location (are you interested in living in an active tourist destination?).
International Business Idea #3: An Expat-Based Business
If the place where you want to launch your new life overseas is home to a decent-sized expat community, the best way to identify an idea for a business to launch can be to think about all the things that you yourself miss from home. What products and services do you wish were available? Chances are good that your fellow expats long for these same things. An American I know in Argentina, for example, has been very successful with the Mexican restaurant he opened because he missed Mexican food. Turns out, other expats in the area did, too.
Other expats I know have opened a fitness center (on Ambergris Caye, Belize), wine shops (on Ambergris, on Roatan, and in the Dominican Republic), and short-term storage facilities (in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua)…in each case because these were services they wanted that didn’t already exist in the places where they wanted to be.
International Business Idea #4: Real Estate
Real estate is an industry that many expat entrepreneurs gravitate toward. In fact, I’ve known more gringo real estate agents in more developing countries than I could shake a stick at (and, often, that’s just what I’ve wanted to do to these guys).
Gringo real estate types in sunny climes tend to get a bum rap, because, often, they approach emerging-market real estate as a get-rich-quick plan. If you’re up for taking a longer-term view of things, this could be a good business to consider. You bring an understanding of the efficient real estate market to places where the real estate markets are typically anything but.
International Business Idea #5: Import/Export
Almost everywhere I travel, I notice something that I think might have a market someplace else. Garden urns and antique furniture from Ireland, for example…hand-carved wooden santos from Ecuador…uniquely woven baskets from Panama…leather jackets from Argentina…sweaters from Peru…hand-painted tiles from Colombia…wood furniture from Indonesia…silk from Hangzhou…
These are all opportunities for the would-be importer-exporter.
A great deal of research and planning is required to pull this off on anything grander than a suitcase-by-suitcase scale, but buying something cheap in one part of the world and selling it for multiples of that price in another is a real and viable opportunity to make money to fund a life of adventure.
International Business Idea #6: A Business Geared Toward The Locals
My friend who started the coffee business in Warsaw really was on to something. He saw an opening in that city’s local market and went for it.
Making a success of a business geared for the local market requires that you first understand the local market–what do they like, what are they already buying, and, critically, what might they buy if it were available?
The best case is when you can import or transplant a business idea you’ve known to be successful somewhere else but that doesn’t yet exist in your new place of residence. This is what my friend did in Warsaw. He didn’t invent the coffee-shop business…but he recognized that, while people in Warsaw like and pay for coffee, at the time, no Starbuck’s-like coffee venue existed. He identified a market niche and, as well, a successful business model he could transplant to fill it..
Other ideas for business:
International Business Idea #7: Farming or Viticulture
International Business Idea #8: Laptop-based business
A laptop-based business (consulting, copywriting, travel writing, photography, programming, teaching, even bookkeeping, for example) is the easiest to launch overseas and allows you to work from anywhere in the world you can get a reliable Internet connection…
International Business Idea #9: Online Publishing
International Business Idea #10: A niche store
One of the big advantages of being someone from the developed world looking to start a business in the undeveloped world is that lots of unfilled niches will occur to you quickly…
Eight-plus years on with my own overseas start-up, I can tell you that it’s not easy, but I don’t regret a single day of the experience. In fact, my only regret is that I didn’t get started at this sooner.
We’ve had the time of our lives building what today is a well-established, fast-growing operation with an eclectic international staff and a big upside.
In the current climate, as good-paying, fulfilling jobs can be harder and harder to come by back in the States, where downsizing has become a cliché and new graduates wonder what in the world they’re going to do with their new degrees…
I offer that the question isn’t what in the world are you going to do to support yourself and the life you want…
But where in the world.