Why starting a business overseas can be less expensive – and let’s face it, more exciting – than launching at home.
While the Internet overflows with tips and advice for making money online, what’s sometimes overlooked is the admittedly-more-daunting task of creating a non-virtual enterprise. Higher risk, greater start-up costs and often lower profit margins make it difficult to launch what we think of as a traditional business.
Yet in the context of travel, a non-virtual business can be an attractive option. Many developing countries offer travelers and expats a high quality of life, a low cost of living and business opportunities they may not find elsewhere. What’s more, the start-up costs for a business are often a fraction of what they would be in the Western world.
Here’s an example. In 2003, Tom and Joanna Miles used their savings and a loan from their parents to buy beachside property in western Ghana. With help from the local community, they built an eco lodge.
Situated on a five-kilometer stretch of palm-lined beach that backs up to a rainforest preserve, quickly became a popular destination for travelers and expats. Guests stay in circular beach bungalows, an open-air kitchen serves up dishes like grilled barracuda with mango salsa, and a large bar fashioned from an old fishing boat draws a crowd throughout the day and into the night.
The cost to start Green Turtle lodge was roughly $20,000, a small amount when you consider that it included the purchase of land, the construction of beach bungalows and a bar, and the installation of solar panels.
But your non-virtual business doesn’t have to be a traditional brick-and-mortar operation. , a perennial nomad and world traveler, created a straightforward but clever business in Thailand.
Rather than apply for a job at a school or language center, Derek went to Chiang Mai University and put up flyers advertising English classes from a native speaker. With a bit of marketing — he offered the first class free — he was able to attract more than 20 students in just a few days. Derek was soon earning a supportive income. If he’d wanted to, he says, he could have grown his English teaching into a profitable, full-time business.
Teaching English is adaptable; you can do it almost anywhere. Many other skills fit this same profile. Have a background in marketing or business? Offer consulting services. Skilled in web or graphic design? As the web penetrates the developing world, there are an increasing number of opportunities in this area. The same could be said with respect to social media. Think about where your talents lie and get creative.
Tips for succeeding in your overseas venture
Research ahead of time. You need to be familiar with your destination, so spend time there before trying to start a business. Make sure it’s somewhere you would enjoy living.
Research work visas, business permits and licenses, and cost of living. (Warning: Not all developing world countries are cheap for an expat.) If you’re starting a more informal business like Derek, your research can be less extensive.
Write a business plan. If you plan on creating a substantial business, this should be your next step. You don’t need a business degree to do this. You also don’t need a plan that’s 20 pages long. To get started, check out these resources from the .
Connect with locals. A local can help you navigate local regulations and access essential resources. I’m starting up a small carry-out restaurant with two friends in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, and since my friends are both Ivorian (they’re actually my former hosts), their local knowledge has been invaluable.
How do you meet locals? Can friends put you in touch with people who might be in a position to help you? Check out sites like and , which both help travelers connect with people internationally. Finally, spend some time in your destination, learn the local language and interact — you may be surprised at how easy it is to make friends.
Expect the unexpected. Starting a business, whether virtual or non-virtual, is not easy — and creating one that’s profitable and sustainable is even harder. Whether your business works out as planned or totally flops, you’ll gain experience that will be valuable for following through on your next idea.
Phil Paoletta (@) is a freelance writer, blogger and camel drawing consultant. He splits his time between the U.S. and West Africa, documenting his wandering on and writing about travel health at .