How To Take Your Business Offshore (The Tax Breaks And Other Perks Can Be Big)
Kathleen and I have set up and operated businesses of one form or another in eight different countries. Why have we done what we’ve done in each place where we’ve chosen to do it?
That is, if you want to launch a new business or move a current business overseas, where should you go?
It depends on what kind of business you’re talking about.
If you have a bricks-and-mortar business in the United States, you’d probably find it difficult and maybe impossible to move that business offshore altogether, but you might be able to benefit by relocating some aspects of it. Customer service, for example, or some processing that happens before your goods come in to the States could be handled in another country where those functions come at a lesser cost, say.
If your idea is to start a bricks-and-mortar business in another country, the best choice for where, again, depends on the specific what. Unless, that is, you have a specific where in mind already. If you know that you want to move to Belize or Argentina or Thailand or the Philippines or wherever, then your challenge isn’t where to locate your new bricks-and-mortar business but what kind of bricks-and-mortar business would make most sense in the place where you want to live.
For our purposes here, let’s assume that the business, not the lifestyle, is the driving agenda. In that case, the question, again, is what kind of bricks-and-mortar operation do you want to invest in—retail, wholesale, franchise, or import-export? Some of these are better suited to some countries than to others, and some kinds of bricks-and-mortar businesses wouldn’t make any sense in some parts of the world. If your plan is to open a retail shop or a franchise, you need population.
Maybe you’ve noticed that there are no foreign franchises, including no fast-food franchises, operating here in Belize City. That’s a remarkable thing in today’s world…until you remember that historically Belize City just hasn’t been home to enough population to support a lot of trade. I understand that McDonald’s is finally planning to open its first restaurant here. I wish them luck.
Some countries restrict foreign investment in retail activities. A non-Panamanian can’t open a shop in Panama, for example, where retail is “protected.” Professions such as doctors and lawyers are also restricted to Panamanian citizens.
One way to choose where to locate your business would be based on incentives. Many countries have free trade zones, for example, where you can bring stuff in, process it, and then export it tax-free. Panama has the Colon Free Trade Zone. Belize has several established zones but also allows you to set up your own free trade zone if you want. If you wanted to start some business that needed to be in a particular part of Belize (because of localized supply of materials or labor, for example), you could apply to establish your own free trade zone in that spot. Same in Nicaragua. In fact, if your interest is export—that is, an operation where you’re not selling locally but would be creating jobs—you’ll find that most countries offer benefits to help.
Another business incentive to consider is residency. Many countries offer residency visas to anyone interested in starting a business, thereby creating jobs, in the country. Colombia, for example, has an attractive and affordable start-a-business, get-a-visa program. The minimum investment requirement is only US$33,300. Panama has a business investor visa, too, but it, by comparison, requires you to invest at least US$160,000 and to employ at least three Panamanians.
Tourism-based businesses are often incentivized, and many countries have government agencies that are specifically focused on developing foreign investment in tourist-related activities—hotels, dive shops, whatever. In Nicaragua, for example, the group is ProNicaragua. The incentives are typically to do with taxes—a ten-year tax exemption, say, giving you a nice window during which you can reinvest proceeds in growing your business without having to skim anything off the top to pay your tax bill.
Kathleen and I left the States years ago to start a business in Waterford, Ireland. Why Waterford? Because that was one of three markets the Irish Development Agency (IDA) was focused on developing. By agreeing to base our business in Waterford, we qualified for both a reduced rate of corporate tax and cash incentives for every Irish employee we hired up to 15.
Those were nice perks, and definitely they were the reasons we chose Waterford. However, we had targeted Ireland based on bigger-picture agendas. We wanted to be in Europe, for personal reasons, and we identified Ireland as a low-cost place to operate the kind of business we intended to operate. Our first years running our publishing business in Ireland, our labor cost was less than half what it would have been in the States.
The easiest kind of business to operate offshore is a one-man (or -woman) virtual show. A consultant or a writer, for example, can run his business from the beach in Panama, the mountains of Argentina, or a country village in France.
If you intend a virtual business that requires staff, then, as with a bricks-and-mortar operation, some places make more sense than others and some places don’t make sense at all. We don’t recommend starting or basing a business in France, period, unless you just really want to live in France. As a doing-business choice, this country belongs at the bottom of any list (thanks to the cost of doing business, the labor laws, the bureaucracy, and the taxes).
Panama is perhaps the best place in the world to base a virtual business that requires staff. That’s why we’re in Panama City right now. When we decided to launch the Live and Invest Overseas business seven years ago, we knew we’d have to move from France. We chose to relocate to Panama because of its affordable English-speaking labor force, its business infrastructure (banking, Internet, etc.), and its jurisdictional approach to taxation. Organize your operation correctly, and you can run a business in Panama tax-free.
Once you’ve decided where to base your offshore business, your next challenge is to develop the infrastructure it will require. Where will you bank? How will you move money around to where it needs to be? How will you process orders? How will you and your staff get paid? The answers to these questions differ depending on what kind of business you want to operate and in what country you decide to base it.
Again, we chose Panama in part because we knew it provides the kind of infrastructure we’d need. Open up a Panama corporation, and you’ll be able to open a Panama bank account to support without much trouble.
One key piece of the infrastructure we require for our business in Panama is a merchant account. When we launched the business, we weren’t able to get one; however, after a couple of years and a track record, we were finally approved.
What did we do in the meantime? We used PayPal. We worried initially that this might limit our ability to sell. Would our customers find it odd that the only way they could purchase from us was through PayPal? Maybe it reduced our trade some; we’ll never know. But it meant we were able to be in business and to build the track record, again, that we needed to be approved eventually for a merchant account.
The other big-picture item you need to address is employees. If I had to name just one reason why we chose to build our business in Panama rather than Europe, it’d be employees. Labor laws around the world favor the employee over the employer much more so than they do in the United States, and nowhere is this truer than in France. In the United States, you can operate on a hire-at-will, fire-at-will basis. As one U.S. attorney we used to work with put it, “You can fire someone because you don’t like the color of his tie.”
Try that in France. You can’t fire a guy in France even if you’ve got video footage of him stealing from you.
Things are a little better for the employer in Panama. We’ve had to fire several people over the past six years, and, in each case, we were able to do it with minimal wear and tear. Bottom line, you pay them off.
The other thing to know about employees in some countries is that you pay them for 13 months of work every year. In Panama, for example, everybody gets one month of vacation each year…and a “13th-month” bonus equal to one month’s pay. You just factor it into your cost of doing business…
Continue reading: How To Qualify For Residency In Belize