Turning a Business Into a One-Way Ticket to Paradise

Photo: Thierry Dehove

Helena Fogarty was like many American beach vacationers returning home from a tropical country, where life is slow and the sand is warm. She was already planning her next trip back.

But not for a vacation. After several glorious holidays in Costa Rica, Fogarty was trying to figure out how she could make her stay more permanent. While some travelers fantasize about starting a little business in an exotic paradise, Fogarty is one of the travelers who actually acted upon that impulse, giving up her New York fashion industry career to invent a work life in Costa Rica.

“You trade in the big bucks initially for living in paradise,’’ said Fogarty, who has started two businesses in her favorite surfing spot since she first visited the country in 2006.

You might also trade in some of your sanity. Fogarty, and others who made the leap, urge U.S. citizens to step cautiously before they invest their life savings to set up shop in a balmy holiday locale overseas. The very things they love about paradise, like its laid-back lifestyle, can turn into their biggest headaches, she said. “Everyone wants to party and watch the sunsets,’’ Fogarty said. “However, that becomes a challenge when you start a company.’’

Two trailblazers who inspired Fogarty are Bob and Melinda Blanchard, who run a thriving upscale restaurant on the Caribbean island of Anguilla. They sold their specialty food business in Vermont and braved a host of obstacles, such as shipping snafus and hiring snags, before Blanchards Restaurant opened in 1994. The story ends well. Still, their memoir of that effort, “A Trip to the Beach,’’ is an instructive catalog of ways that things may not work abroad as they would in the States.

Just before the island restaurant’s scheduled opening, the electricity failed. The couple needed a bigger transformer to help run all their coolers and other equipment. But the power company didn’t expect a new shipment of transformers for at least six months. The Blanchards’ solution? A flight to Puerto Rico to pick up a transformer themselves.

The couple now advises Americans to consider offering services rather than selling food or goods, to avoid the constant hassles of importing supplies and equipment. Even now, they’re lacking a sorely needed new refrigerator. “Our new refrigerator has arrived on the island but we can’t get it without many days of paperwork,’’ the Blanchards said.

A service business was all Casey Halloran could afford to start as a twenty-something, so he and his roommate took advantage of a then-fledgling Internet presence in Costa Rica to create an online travel agency. That was in 1999. Costa Rican Vacations now offers eco-friendly luxury vacations and “adventure honeymoons’’ in Costa Rica, Panama, and Nicaragua, employing 100 people. But like Fogarty and the Blanchards, Halloran had already spent a lot of time in his chosen region before committing significant resources to his business.

Volcano Beach
Photo: Casey Holloran
Volcano Beach

Halloran advises aspiring ex-pat entrepreneurs to rent housing in the spot they like and get an interim job, such as teaching English, before selling their U.S. home, moving overseas, and betting the farm on a business.

“I see people get wild-eyed and make decisions they would never have made in their home country,’’ he said. A temporary move, instead, gives visitors a chance to observe the practical conditions that may make their ideal business plan a costly pipe dream.

As a research short cut on overseas business conditions, entrepreneurs can read the U.S. Department of Commerce’sCountry Commercial Guides, found online in the Market Research Library of the U.S. Commercial Service website.

The agency concentrates on supporting exporters of U.S. goods, but the country-specific guides contain a wealth of information for individuals looking for overseas work or investment opportunities. For example, countries often rope off certain jobs or business sectors for their own citizens. In the Bahamas, foreign entrepreneurs are encouraged to set up joint ventures with local partners — who must hold majority ownership, according to the Commerce Department guide.

"I see people get wild-eyed and make decisions they would never have made in their home country." -Owner, Costa Rican Vacations, Casey Halloran

The guides cover a host of business factors including import tariffs, work permit requirements, legal protections for business, transportation issues, health care facilities, cultural factors, and potential corruption. In addition, they list the largest U.S. companies with a significant presence in the country — possible employers of American citizens. Well-educated Americans may also be able to fill service niches abroad, such as IT support.

The options for U.S. citizens continue to widen beyond establishing a restaurant or even providing local services, Halloran said. Because global web communications are improving, some people now live near the beach and telecommute to the US.

“Panama is a new bohemia for technology hipster workers who have figured out how to run their four-hour work weeks from there,” Halloran said.

Fogarty’s work life has evolved since she started her first business in Costa Rica, a production company helping U.S. clients film commercials. Now married with a baby, she combines work as a travel agent for Halloran with her own start-up venture, Mi Ola Surf. The company makes bikinis designed to stay put while women take on the waves. Fogarty, working with business partners in New York, plans to establish manufacturing in the U.S. and possibly move some production to Costa Rica in the future.

The Blanchards, though they advise entrepreneurs to plan ahead, said they’re lucky they didn’t thoroughly research Anguilla’s business conditions in advance. They might never have made the move.

“Thank goodness we didn’t do more homework than we did or we may have missed what’s turned out to be a wonderful life experience,’’ the couple now says. “We absolutely love Anguilla and have learned to live with the obstacles.’’

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