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7 tips for anyone starting a business as an expat

expat life expat mums expat parenting expat parenting abroad Nov 17, 2020

Special guest post by Blanca Melendez del Castillo

I was sitting in this tiny office while we were living in Japan, when I made the decision that would completely change my career and life: I was going to quit my corporate job and start my own business.

I was born and raised in Costa Rica, met my German husband while living and working in the US.  I have lived in Spain, US, Germany and Japan and we have two kids who are what I call “alema-ticos” and we speak three languages at home: Spanish, German and English.

At the time, I was on maternity leave and enjoying a couple of years off from my corporate job (which I hated), trying to desperately reinvent myself, so that I wouldn’t have to go back.

I studied business administration and marketing but working for Nestlé I landed in the “wrong job” due to a reorganization.  

I had loved photography my entire life and at that point I had taken more courses than I can remember.  I was not bad at all and I toyed with the idea of pursuing Photography as my new career, craving the creativity my current job completely lacked.  I was in purchasing if you care to know.

I went to university in Japan and took more courses.  I even flew to the US to attend a masterclass and started working on creating a solid portfolio for my new business.

When we came back to Germany, I swallowed my fear and went all in…  I sent my resignation. 

Weeks later, while sitting in at my desk in our now new office back in Germany, I doubted myself… how in the world was I going to get any clients, if I know no one in the city we were?  Ten years later, it feels like a dream.  I am still here having built a small but profitable business that brings me joy not every single day, but also to many families and small business owners I have worked with.  A business which has given back to the community, by creating jobs and giving purpose to those (expat women) who have worked for me over the years.

Although I speak the language fluently, it wasn’t easy and even if I feel rather integrated and truly love living in Germany, there is always something inside that makes you feel that you don’t fully belong.  I do things a bit different than the locals and I have learned to embrace that as a superpower in my host country.

Here are my 7 tips if you are starting a solopreneur adventure abroad:

  1. Research all the legal requirements to establish your business, make sure to request professional advice right from the get go.  The intricacies of starting a business are already enough, but having to start it in a country where maybe you don’t even understand the language is twice as hard.  I would consider this to be one of the things I did right from the beginning.  I have had since the beginning legal help to set-up my business correctly.  And as I have gone through different transitions on what I do, going from a Photography business to Marketing Mentor and Online Course creator, I have always asked for professional advice to avoid any undesired and EXPENSIVE penalties.
  2. Outsource the tasks that might take too much time away from your core competence.  For me this has been key in developing my business.   There are certain tasks that because you are in a different country require more time to do them yourself, especially in a different language.  For me the perfect example is accounting, it would take too much time to stay on top of the German requirements and regulations, time which I could use to invest in marketing and working with more clients.
  3. IF you are planning on staying in that country for a longer period of time, learn the language, it WILL open so many more doors.  My clientele consists not only of expats who don’t speak German and feel comfortable working with me, but also I do cater to many Germans who have affinity to the international community.  They often connect with me through my business offer in English, but we deepen the connection by conducting business in German language.   They also appreciate the fact that you “integrate” in the country you live in and show respect by learning the language.
  4. Understand the local culture, what is acceptable and what not and how cultural differences will affect the way you do business.  When I first started my business, I wanted to focus exclusively on Family photography, with time I have had to re-focus my business to BRAND PHOTOGRAPHY, as I realized some differences.  For example homes here are much smaller and narrower with a lot less wall space. Therefore, people are unlikely to invest in large wall art.  Another thing I found out was that Germans don’t particularly don’t like “exhibiting” family portraits in their living room, where guests might see them, they reserve family portraits for the more private areas of their home.  I also realized that Germans are much more frugal when it comes to expenditures in photography than let’s say US Americans.  As I understood these cultural differences, I knew I had to adjust my offer accordingly.
  5. Network locally.  This was a life saver for me when I first got here.  I joined a local International’s women group which opened a series of contacts that have led over the years to generate valuable connections and long time clients.
  6. Use online marketing actively to create a broader reach quicker.  This was one of my failures.  As an introvert, it took me too long to realize the power of Online Marketing to grow not only my local market but also my mentorship program beyond my regional reach.
  7. Invest in creating your brand from the start.  This was one of my wins.  I am not talking only about a logo, a website and brand colors, I am talking about your core brand offer, what makes you different in the market you are planning to approach, what are your weaknesses, understanding your niche market and crafting your brand message amongst others.  This will help you craft an offer that really speaks to your ideal customer.  

Over the years I have pivoted my business to the point in which I became a Brand photographer and Marketing Mentor for small entrepreneurs.

If you need some help clarifying those questions, this resource can help bring clarity to your business:

Contact details if you want to connect with Blanca:


Instagram:  @blancamelendezphoto

Facebook: Blanca Melendez Photography

LinkedIn:  Blanca Melendez del Castillo

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