Challenges Met: Expats Who Succeeded Off The Beaten Path

The United States is a great place to start a company. The World Bank’s ease of doing business index ranks it sixth out of 190 countries. Forbes lists it among the world’s top 25.

Yet some entrepreneurs have chosen to set up shop in other parts of the globe. In countries plagued by bureaucratic traffic jams or in which success often depends on deep-rooted social ties, the inherent risks and challenges for foreign businesses can be legion.

Despite these disadvantages, some energetic souls — armed with skill, business savvy, cultural open-mindedness, an adventurous spirit and, above all, persistence — have carved paths to success. Here are three of their stories.
Shenzhen China

Shenzhen, China – Thriving On The Buzz

As an MIT student, Megan Cox created a product to enhance eyelash and eyebrow growth and sold it online. She had a taste of success, but there was a problem: The product’s dispensers didn’t work right, causing users to lose too much of the valuable liquid.

U.S. packagers required minimum orders of 25,000, so she tried several Chinese companies listed on Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant. But none worked out. “I was losing customers left and right,” she said.

Determined to solve the problem, she moved alone to Shenzhen, China after graduation. She didn’t speak the language and knew no manufacturers.

“I had no clue where to start,” she conceded. Again, she turned to Alibaba as a source for companies that could make her product. This time, she received packaging samples in a day or so instead of weeks, saving her valuable time. She was on the right track. She then tested products, visited factories and identified a company that worked for her.

But instead of signing a contract and booking the next flight back to the States, she decided to stay and run her business, Amalie, from China. The energy of the place fed her entrepreneurial spirit.

“It’s like a giant playground there — everything is moving and buzzing and complex. I felt I was meant to stay for a while,” she explained.

She made business connections; learned to speak, read and write Mandarin; and created more beauty products. Major brands in the U.S began asking her for help with packaging and quality control in China. Out of that came a new business, Genie Supply.

Genie began consuming most of Cox’s time. In March, after three years in China, she sold Amalie and moved back to the U.S., where she opened her own manufacturing facility, working with partners she met in China to produce beauty products for other companies.

For Cox, living in China opened doors to unique opportunities. Learning the language and understanding the culture facilitated business deals that couldn’t have happened a continent away. In her view, the possibilities there are endless.

“If you don’t work well with a manufacturer, keep looking,” she advised. “There are thousands to choose from.”

It’s possible to achieve success armed with skill, cultural open-mindedness, an adventurous spirit and, above all, persistence

 
Manizales Colombia

Manizales, Colombia – Overcoming Fear And Bureaucracy

Daniel Buitrón Jaramillo, who was born and raised in the U.S. to South American parents, had a successful IT career but wanted something different. After his employer Sun Microsystems sold to Oracle in 2010, he used his severance money to move with his wife to Manizales — a town in the heart of Colombia’s coffee-growing region — to start an ecotourism company.

In 2010, no one was selling tour packages to English speakers, he said. “People thought, you come to Colombia and you get robbed or killed.”

But he knew drug cartels and rebel groups had been subdued, and saw an opportunity.

Getting started wasn’t easy. Bureaucracy made obtaining permits a nightmare. In his first year, he had only one sale — to an acquaintance from the States. “Fortunately, Colombia is cheap to live in,” he said.

His company, Colombia Eco Travel, began to attract more customers, but the Colombian government — worried his high-value online transactions were fraudulent — blocked his payment system. Undeterred, he moved his payments system to the United States.

Today, Buitrón Jaramillo has a staff of four. He also employs contractors to take tourists into the wilderness to see crocodiles, giant anteaters and capybaras. His company offers a range of eco-minded options, often including traditional foods and stays in local hotels.

Though it took several years, his income has finally caught up to what it was in the States. This year, revenues will reach $500,000 — double last year’s. He just signed a contract with a U.S. adventure company and is starting an investment fund to create lodges in areas with poor infrastructure.

Though he misses the efficiency and accountability of doing business in the U.S., Buitrón Jaramillo has decided to stay. “My quality of life has significantly increased,” he said. “I have freedom to travel, which is more appealing than a paycheck.”

Weisbaden Germany

Wiesbaden, Germany – Selling Pastries To Europeans

Musician Dale Stinson ended up in the food business in Wiesbaden, Germany, by chance.

He moved to the country after college to play the trumpet with a circus, later playing in ensembles and teaching music. He supplemented his income as a part-time bartender at a restaurant in Wiesbaden, a small city half an hour from Frankfurt. Though successful as a musician, he grew tired of the constant travel the life required.

One day, he baked an American-style carrot cake for friends, who raved about his confection and urged him to try selling it. Working out of his apartment kitchen, he baked the cake for the restaurant where he worked. It was a hit.

He decided to lease a commercial kitchen and began selling to cafes and restaurants, branching out to make other baked goods and bringing in a cake decorator as a partner.

Five years ago, he opened Dale’s Cake Shop, a cafe serving American-style meals (with some Vietnamese dishes) and baked goods. Though Europe is famous for its own cuisines, people drive for hours to come to the cafe — especially for the American carrot cake, which continues to be his best-seller. The cafe was recently written up in a German gourmet magazine as one of the best in Germany.

Sometimes Stinson still sounds surprised at his success. “People come from Munich, hundreds of miles away. To get a piece of cake? It’s crazy,” he said.

One of Stinson’s menu items is German chocolate cake, which despite the name is actually an American concoction. “The Germans say, ‘What the hell is this?’ They love it.”

Apparently, you can never underestimate a country’s appetite for foreign delicacies.

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