In the U.S., you cannot do what I have done here in Ecuador…you’d have too much debt to worry about,” says Kevin Sheehy, who bank-rolled his first venture—a Vietnamese restaurant—in the cool-weather capital of Quito with just $14,000.
One business opportunity led to another, and today his success overseas means that Kevin enjoys the flexibility to live in a place he loves (the weather is spring-like year-round) and spend four months every year traveling.
He is just one of many expats who has found that opportunity knocks loudest when our boots are on the ground abroad. Accidental entrepreneurs, like the ones we profile here, embrace opportunities sometimes hard to come by in the States, where start-up costs are higher and competition more developed.
Some expats stumble upon a place they love and just don’t want to leave. But staying often requires an income. And that demands some ingenuity…Josh and Courtney Wilson fell in love with San Marcos, Guatemala, for instance, and, needing to fund their lives there, established a school. Today it has an international reputation and a staff of 16.
Kat and Bruce Bennett were enchanted with life in La Paz, Mexico. To make living there doable, they bought an English-language bookstore—they’d always loved books—and today get to spend their days close to the seafront.
Sometimes expats find themselves turning passions into profits. Liz Cowley turned her interest in the history of her adopted home town, Montevideo, Uruguay, into a viable business offering walking tours of the city.
Once you’re in a new place, entrepreneurial expats report, it’s not hard to spot niches or gaps in the market that you’re perfectly suited to fill. You may end up making money in a way you’d never have predicted back home.
To prove that point, we’ve collected the stories below from expats abroad who happily fund “the good life” through ventures they discovered—or created—overseas.
BOOKSELLER AT THE BEACH IN LA PAZ, MEXICO
Kat and Bruce Bennett were living in Seattle, Washington, working in the high-tech field. But they found themselves disillusioned with politics and disappointed in the direction U.S. culture seemed to be headed.
So they decided to take some time off and try a new place. Their plan was to live abroad for two years. That was seven years ago. They chose La Paz, an authentic Mexican city located in Baja California Sur, on the Sea of Cortez. “It fulfills what we were in search of; we love the culture here,” says Kat. “The people of Mexico are warm and friendly, and their heritage rich and diverse.”
One of the main reasons why the Bennetts chose La Paz is because it’s such a safe place to live. “Seattle is a safe city; La Paz is safer,” Kat says. To fund their life, Kat and Bruce turned to something they both love…books. They bought an existing bookstore downtown.
There isn’t a lot of money in bookstores, but the cost of living is much lower in La Paz than it is up north. Even with their reduced income, they maintain a great lifestyle. Their store, called Allende Books, was started in 2007 by two women the Bennetts met in Spanish class. Kat mentioned to them that she had managed bookstores in the past, and a year later she began working there.
When the owner was ready to sell in 2009, Kat and Bruce jumped at the chance to own their own business in a field they loved. Because Kat was doing the financial reports, she knew the store made enough to pay their bills, with enough left over to buy groceries and enjoy dinners out.
Things like tax registration and getting a business license took time, but after three months, the Bennetts were officially Mexican entrepreneurs! “It hasn’t been a get-rich-quick scheme, but we make ends meet and enjoy a lifestyle in paradise,” says Kat. “And we love our store.”
Allende Book’s customers are one-third expats, one-third tourists, and one-third Mexicans who want to learn, improve, or practice their English. The biggest sellers are field and recreation guides on where to go hiking or cruising in Baja, or how to identify the plants and animals.
Like many businesses in La Paz, Mexico the pace depends on the season. November to March, the high season, can be hectic, but during the heat of summer, it’s much slower. “That’s when we have time to catch up on everything we didn’t have time for during the winter,” says Bruce.
The Bennetts live in downtown La Paz, walking distance to both their bookstore and the malecón—the boardwalk on the beach. They rent their one-bedroom apartment for $300 a month, which includes propane (used for the stove and water heater), off-street parking, water, sewerage, garbage collection, and Internet. Electricity is an additional $10 per month.
“We can have a delicious breakfast at a nice restaurant with an ocean view for about $3.50, which includes coffee, fresh-squeezed juice, two eggs, bacon, potatoes, beans, and tortillas,” beams Bruce. “It’s enormous.”
Naturally, adjusting to a foreign country and running a business there can be a challenge. The biggest one the Bennetts face is getting merchandise from the U.S. to their store. “We cannot control or predict how long it will take to go through customs,” says Kat. “It could take a month or more, so if we have a run on a title, we are simply out of that title until we get another shipment.”
Kat and Bruce say their best advice to would-be expat entrepreneurs is to learn and accept the laws and customs of the country. “Remember the reasons why you wanted to live in a foreign country, and then appreciate that country’s bureaucratic and social framework for what it is,” says Kat. “Have patience, keep your sense of humor, and it will all work out.” —Patti Morrow
AN INTERNET CAFÉ IN SOUTHERN BELIZE
Fifty-year-old Juli Puryear had always dreamed of spending a year on the road. She imagined she’d vagabond from place to place and eventually end up back home. But it didn’t turn out that way. “After traveling in Mexico, Europe, and North Africa, I only intended on spending a few weeks in Belize,” says Juli. “But I ended up staying for four months. I just fell in love with the place. I found the locals friendly and welcoming, and the whole country seemed like a small town.”
“When I went home to San Diego, it seemed foreign to me. I had thought that while I traveled I’d figure out what I wanted to do with my life, but I felt kind of lost.” So Juli moved to Hawaii and got a job driving a truck. It paid the bills, and the area was pretty. But it didn’t exactly soothe the soul.
When a friend in Belize emailed, though, to say there was an Internet café for sale in Punta Gorda, a small coastal town in southern Belize, the opportunity spoke to her, Juli says.
In December 2004 she bought the Internet café and moved to Belize. “I had absolutely no prior experience owning a business, but I wanted to move back to Belize and I saw the business as a way to fund my life there,” says Juli. “Basically, I was buying myself a job.”
Once Juli had run the business awhile, she saw an opportunity to expand by serving espresso drinks, smoothies, and pastries. She also opened a gift shop. But after another similar business opened in town, offering lower prices, business became tougher.
Then, as luck would have it, a friend made Juli an offer. “I still had my café, but he was starting a chocolate company and wanted me to run it. There have been challenges, but I finally have a successful, growing business. I make chocolate every day!”
Juli has lived in Punta Gorda for eight years. “I find the weather here preferable to the rest of the country, as I really love the rainforest and the lush green vegetation it provides.”
In the Toledo District in the southernmost part of Belize, Punta Gorda is a small town with around 6,000 residents comprised of a mix of cultures, including Garifuna, Maya, East Indians, Creoles, and Lebanese. “It was easy to slip into life here,” says Juli. “My life in the States seemed kind of mundane at times. Belize still surprises me. Seeing a six-foot boa constrictor in my neighbors’ yard, meeting the prime minister in the grocery store, and Mennonites in a horse-and-buggy filled with watermelons in my front yard all add interest to my daily life,” says Juli.
Juli rents a 1,000-square-foot, three-bedroom house for $150 a month. She admits she is getting a great deal because the house could easily bring $400 a month. “I happened to know the landlord,” says Juli. “It’s important to network when you relocate to an unfamiliar country. Make friends and acquaintances and talk about what you want or need.”
Her utility bill runs $30 each month and cable is $24. “When eating out, a lunch of chicken or beef with rice and beans will cost about $3. A dinner out will cost between $5 and $15,” says Juli. Imported items like wine and some cheeses can be expensive, but if you stick with local produce and traditional meals, eating is cheap.
Even with the inevitable challenges of adjusting to a new home, Juli doesn’t regret the move. “My favorite things about living in Punta Gorda include my verandah, which is shaded by mango trees and overlooks the Caribbean sea, never having to close my windows because it’s cold, and wearing flip-flops every day of my life.”—Terri Marshall
FROM RESTAURANT TO GYM IN QUITO, ECUADOR
For years, Kevin Sheehy imagined retiring at age 40. Today, at age 39, he doesn’t see any reason why he can’t. Of course, it won’t be anything like your rocking-chair-by-the-hearth retirement. Kevin holds part-ownership in four businesses in the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, which he plans to retain. So he’ll “float” among his four business interests for eight months a year, travel the world for three months, and return home to the States to visit family for a few weeks each year.
Sheehy’s Quito business empire began in 2003 when, by chance, he met Patrick Madden at Reilly’s Irish Tavern in Antigua, Guatemala. Sheehy and Madden became fast friends and, four years later, business partners in a bar-restaurant in Quito, Ecuador.
Because Madden’s mother was Vietnamese, he knew about Vietnamese cooking and had his mother’s recipes. So the establishment became Uncle Ho’s. A few years ago Patrick returned to the States and his friend Kevin bought out his share of Uncle Ho’s for $14,000. “Opportunities like this simply are not available in the U.S. You would need well into six figures to buy half a bar-restaurant. If the place goes bad, you’re stuck with debt for a long time.”
A basic advantage of doing business in Ecuador is the favorable cost of living. “In the States, if you’re making $2,000 a month, you’re struggling to survive. Here, you can live like a king,” Kevin says. After living and working in many places around the world—from southern France to Israel to Australia—Kevin has lived in Quito longer than anywhere else. He likes the year-round spring temperatures, the mountain views, the pace of life, and the people.
He emphasizes that his business experience in Ecuador is not unique. “People buy a small business here and they can live off the proceeds,” he says. “If they decide they want to sell, they can almost always at least recoup their original investment.”
After operating Uncle Ho’s, buying a share of nearby Finn McCool’s Irish Pub seemed like a natural step. “The owners and I became friends, and they could put my bar-restaurant experience to good use,” Sheehy says.
His next business was not so natural. “I’d never set foot in a gym in my life until I bought into one. A friend had wanted to operate a gym for years but lacked the capital for the expensive workout equipment. I helped him out.” The gym now has 800 members and is the most popular one in Quito. Building on its success, Kevin and his friend opened another gym this past April.
“Doing business in Ecuador is not difficult. Apart from the language difference, there are no special problems.” For $150 a year, a local woman who works with expat business-people handles all the necessary permits.
The expat community is “tight” all over Ecuador, Kevin says. “We don’t compete; we help each other. It’s homey, an easy place to do business.”—Arthur Hoffman
AT SCHOOL IN GUATEMALA
Josh and Courtney Wilson from Falls Church, Virginia, had often wondered what life would be like on an eco-farm in Belize. So when a friend invited them to work at his 10-acre farm, they packed their things and headed south to the Caribbean country.
But after a month or two they felt it was time for a rethink. “Belize’s Cayo district wasn’t for us. We realized we wanted to live by the water and near mountains in a place where we could speak Spanish,” says Josh.
When the local mechanics couldn’t fix their van, the couple headed across the border to Guatemala City to have it repaired, and in the process they found a new dream. “While in Guatemala we spent a weekend on the shores of Lake Atitlán. As we stepped off the boat at the San Marcos dock, everything changed,” says Josh. “Even in the rain, the tiny rural village felt enchanting. Despite its size, San Marcos fulfilled all our requirements.
“We rented a tree house for a month for $200 before taking a house-sitting gig. As our savings dwindled, our passion for the area continued to grow. But we knew if we wanted to stay permanently, we’d have to either find a job or create one,” says Josh.
“Before leaving the U.S., we’d never considered starting a school. Although, as both of us come from families of educators, perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that that’s what we did,” he explains.
Initially it was a question of educating their five-year-old daughter Althea. First they formed a casual playgroup with several expat families. But within five months, the group had morphed into a kindergarten, and Courtney found herself as the lead teacher.
Sometimes local children would pass by and join in. Josh and Courtney wanted the classes to be open to all. To facilitate this, on a trip back to the States, they created a nonprofit organization for the school, under a U.S. fiscal sponsor. They also began researching Waldorf schools, interviewing teachers and gathering information. Both of them were drawn to the Waldorf curriculum, which focuses on fostering creativity in children.
In 2007 a donor contributed funds to help Josh and Courtney build their first classroom. They hosted a six-week summer-school program in it, and Escuela Caracol was born. The Ministry of Education was happy to support the new school, though it still took almost a year to complete the paperwork.
In 2008, Josh and Courtney bought the one-acre lot and home they’d been renting (and where they’d been teaching) for $48,000 so they could build a permanent school on it. “We could never have afforded to do this in the U.S.,” says Courtney. “First-year running costs were only $15,000. Now it’s $100,000, most of which goes to personnel. The school has 16 staff for 60 children. The local children pay a minimal amount and are sponsored by individuals or groups. Fundraising in the U.S. and support from organizations such as the German Friends of Waldorf enable us to keep expanding. Each year we add a new grade.”
It’s important to Josh and Courtney that the school reflects both the indigenous and expatriate communities. The student split is 60:40, local to expat. The international children are a mix of resident families and people living there part time. From 2009, families from all over the States began contacting the school. They wanted to take a sabbatical from hectic U.S. living and give their kids the Waldorf education experience.
“People hear about us or they see our website,” says Courtney. In the U.S. a Waldorf school can cost as much as $20,000 a year. This compares to a fee of $240 a month at Escuela Caracol, or $120 for kindergarten. Many families build close relationships with the school and continue to support it even after leaving the area.
“It’s been hard work,” says Josh. “And we risked everything. But look at what we have. There’s practically a national park in our backyard. Our kids are safe to go and play with friends or visit the store by themselves. And, after six years, it’s easy to forget that we don’t have to be in a car every day. We love it here.”—Kathryn Witts
COFFEE FARM IN PANAMA
Jim Finegan didn’t set out to make Panama his second home. While traveling through Costa Rica with a couple of his bartender employees from his home state, Pennsylvania, Jim went to a Columbus-Day celebration and made a lucky $50 bet that netted him $5,000.
Armed with an unexpected extension to his travel funds, Jim and his buddies decided to head down the coast to Panama. Their plan was to hike the dormant volcano near Boquete, then spend one night in the town. “When I first saw Boquete, my planned 24-hour visit turned into two weeks,” says Jim. “The beauty of the area captured my attention immediately. Add to that the laidback atmosphere and the friendly locals, and I was sold.”
Jim began returning to Boquete frequently, introduced his wife to the area, and eventually bought property to build a home. “My home is on a hillside with views of the Pacific Coast,” says Jim. “I have a million-dollar view without the million-dollar price tag.”
When Jim bought his property 10 years ago, the cost ran about $100 a square meter ($9.29 per square foot). Today’s cost for property like Jim’s would run three times that much. “This area is high-end due to the incredible coastal views, but there are deals right now,” says Jim. “Many expats built spec homes during the real-estate boom. When the market dropped in the U.S., they couldn’t afford to continue their building efforts in Panama, so there are plenty of places for sale.” A 2,000-square-foot home can be found for around $200,000. A two-bedroom rental house will run around $500 a month.
Jim makes his living in the U.S., where he owns two outdoor Tike bars in Pennsylvania. The bars are seasonal. Every October he packs up the bars (literally) and heads south to Panama, where he has started another venture as a coffee farmer.
“Coffee grows like roses here, so I decided to try my hand at farming. I bought 1.2 acres from a local farmer. The front half is on a steep hill and had a few coffee trees. I planted 225 more coffee trees last year,” says Jim. The cost of the trees and labor was just $87.
Jim processes his coffee beans the old-fashioned way. He dries the beans in husks and uses a friend’s machine to remove the shells. “I roast the beans in my front yard,” says Jim. “I’m enjoying the experience and I now have coffee beans to sell.” Jim labels his brand “Bad Ass Coffee Beans.”
“As far as I’m concerned, there is no better place to live than Boquete,” says Jim. “For now I’m here six months of the year, but when I retire the move to Panama will be permanent. I have coffee beans to grow.” —Terri Marshall
A SURFER’S BEACH CAFÉ IN BARBADOS
Born and raised on the beaches of New Jersey, Scott Zimmerman was fond of two things: surfing and playing guitar. What he didn’t care for, however, was the hectic lifestyle. As a restaurant manager, Scott’s 12- to 14-hour work days were stressful and left little time for his pastimes. When friends suggested a trip to Barbados in 2000 to “get away from it all,” Scott jumped at the opportunity.
“All I knew about Barbados at the time was that it was supposed to be a surfer’s heaven,” laughs Scott. Scott spent his vacation exploring the different surfing beaches around the island. He was impressed by the variety available, noting that each beach had its own personality.
At night he ventured out to experience the music scene, and he quickly realized that this country’s laid-back atmosphere was something he craved. “People were so kind and everybody enjoyed each other’s company.
It wasn’t like living in New Jersey, where life was a competition.” Scott canceled his return flight to the States and decided to make this tiny Caribbean country his new home. He landed music jobs in bars and restaurants across the island. While playing in one particular club, Scott met Steve Campbell, who owned Surfer’s Café, located on the southern tip of Barbados in the town and parish of Oistins, Christ Church.
The café had a rustic yet relaxed atmosphere, which appealed to Scott. He became the manager there in 2009. Three years later, he jumped at the opportunity to purchase the 50-seat café and have his own piece of paradise in Barbados.
While Scott was wary of returning to a hectic management schedule, running a restaurant in Barbados proved to be much different than in the U.S. “The work days are shorter, a bit easier, and there is no rush or pressure of the industry here. People in Barbados take their time and savor the food, the scenery, and just the whole experience of sharing a meal,” says Scott.
The view was one of the main reasons Scott wanted to buy the restaurant. From the café’s beachfront terrace, customers watch the turquoise waves break onto the shore, and even catch a glimpse of the community’s working fisheries. “I never have to question the quality of the seafood I serve my customers like I did back in the States. I watch it arrive on the boats, and it goes straight to the table fresh.”
A favorite lunch item is aptly titled First Catch; it is a lightly-seasoned and blackened fish of the day, direct from the market. Scott has also added some typical U.S.-style burgers and steaks to round out the Surfer’s Café menu.
While he says owning his own business can be time-consuming, Steve loves the job—and loves living in a country that reflects his personality. “Barbados offers a much slower-paced way of life, and it has been a good environment in which to raise my kids, Kayla and Ethan, both of whom were born in Barbados.
“We’re always on the beach or in the sea. We have bonfires with friends, and we spend our free time surfing, spear-fishing, or playing music.”
He’s found a way to be involved with his community by organizing sports-related activities for the neighborhood kids. He teaches them U.S. football, baseball, soccer, and skateboarding. “I never would have had time for this type of lifestyle in the U.S. Here I have it all: a thriving business, a fulfilling life with my kids, a connection to my community, and I play music in my own café and surf when the waves beckon. I can’t imagine anything better than this.”—Susan Sattan
WALKING-TOUR GUIDE IN MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY
Liz Cowley always enjoyed showing people around her adopted home of Montevideo, Uruguay. She just didn’t expect to turn it into a paying career as a tour guide. Liz first moved to Uruguay when her husband, Richard, was appointed Director-General of the Anglo-Uruguayan Cultural Institute. While Richard worked, Liz enjoyed showing out-of-town guests around.
After the 2002 regional financial crisis, Richard needed to reduce the Institute’s expenses and realized his salary and benefit package was a big expense. So at age 58, he retired.
With the unplanned retirement, the couple began looking for opportunities to stay active and to supplement their income. Richard soon got a job as a destination lecturer aboard cruise ships.
Liz accompanied Richard on several cruises and, while traveling, observed tour operations serving cruise-ship passengers at various ports of call. “The ships would also dock to let passengers off in Montevideo, and I had the idea to give tours,” says Liz.
“I worked on my speaking skills and learned Montevideo’s history inside and out. At first I got most of my business by approaching passengers coming ashore. The hardest part was waiting by the gates of the port, and asking people coming off the cruise ships if they wanted a tour,” says Liz.
But as Liz’s business developed, she became less dependent on winning the business of strangers. Within a few years Liz was up and running as the owner-operator of Real English Tours.
Her specialty is English-language, historic walking tours in Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja (Old City). Anyone who has been on one of Liz’s tours soon realizes that she is not just working from a script—she has a deep knowledge of the city’s history. Ciudad Vieja is the original city of Montevideo, founded in 1730.
It has the city’s oldest plazas, with statues and monuments and historic architecture from the 1700s through the early 1900s. The architecture includes several historic homes converted to museums, the impressive Metropolitan Cathedral on Plaza Matriz, and the Solís Theater, the oldest operating opera house in the Americas.
Liz calls her historic walking tour “The Making of Montevideo.” She carries a flip chart with maps, drawings, period postcards, and old photos to help illustrate the city’s history for her tour customers.
During busy times, she provides two tours a day. The tour lasts two to three hours. Her ideal group size is six to eight people. She charges $120 for a group of up to four people, plus an additional $20 for each extra person over the age of four.
In addition to attracting customers via her website, she gets business from her network of local English-speaking friends, embassy workers, and business-people. When they have visiting family, friends, or associates, they often recommend Liz’s tours.
Liz has since prepared and published two companion guides, which tour customers can buy: The Making of Montevideo and How to Discover Her Treasures.
In addition to her walking tour, Liz now offers customized van tours. These tours are per quote, but generally go for $110 per hour for up to eight people. She charges extra for incidentals such as admission fees or equipment needed for the tour.
“The best part of the business is the work—showing people around Montevideo and sharing the city’s rich history,” says Liz.—David Hammond