Although most repats choose to focus their efforts on making a career change in order to facilitate their move, a substantial number look to entrepreneurship as an avenue for their triumphant return. From a bird’s eye view, there are a number of advantages to this route. After essentially being their own boss for many years as freelance English teachers and the like, many feel that going back to work as a small cog in a big machine would be a bigger culture shock than they can handle. It also, theoretically, gives a repat the flexibility to help their families in their adjustments as well without having to worry about making a bad impression in their first week on the job by cutting out early to help a family member deal with the electrician.
Starting a business also allows us to hedge our bets somewhat. As a big fan of the author Nicholas Taleb, I spend a lot of time thinking about risk and antifragility. The right kind of business allows you the benefits of antifragility rather than being entirely dependent on the decisions of your boss, your boss’ boss, etc.
Entrepreneurship is not without risks, but with some foresight and planning, it may be possible to choose a business model with the appropriate risks for your own situation. This post will outline the pros and cons of the most common business models and point to resources for more information (including affiliate links where applicable).
Note: This guide was a substantial time investment and incorporates the essence of everything I’ve learned about businesses (especially online businesses) over the last several years of research. As such, I use affiliate links where possible and your support by purchasing through those links if they seem like a good fit for you is much appreciated.
Starting a ‘bricks and mortar’ business
Any business that is dependent on a physical location is considered a ‘bricks and mortar’ business. Although the term typically refers to a storefront (e.g., a laundromat), it could also refer to a homestay program for visiting foreign students as several repats have set up, or an ambitious marine import/export business. And then there’s Steve MacKinnon, who has done both at the same time:
Pros: When you think of all that time and effort that goes into customizing a resume and cover letter for a job application, and then repeating it all perhaps hundreds of times while remembering to follow up appropriately on any interviews you manage to land… that’s a lot of wasted energy spent jumping through someone else’s hoops, isn’t it? All of that energy can be put into building something for yourself
Cons: High risk. Most repats going this route are ‘all in’ on their biz. Biz failure = repat failure = uprooting family again and returning. It also takes substantial savings to get started. Burning through all your savings means starting from scratch if it doesn’t work out. Still, with careful planning, grit, and choosing your business area judiciously, you can make it work.
Buying an established business
If you have the money saved up, purchasing an already established business is considerably less risky, although certainly more expensive. You are not just paying for the physical location, because most business owners are looking to cash in on their investment of time and money that went into turning the business into a money maker. And justifiably so.
It may be the case that business is not actually turning a consistent profit, but that you are confident in your ability to turn things around. You maybe right, or not. Due diligence is key here. Study up on the principles of running a business and the real estate market for the area before getting yourself involved.
Pros: Same as above but less risky. As part of doing your due diligence you should get an idea of how profitable the biz is. Hopefully you’ll be able to expand on it.
I’m a big advocate of online entrepreneurship because you can often get started for much cheaper than any other model. Also, most online businesses are inherently location independent, so you can get up and running long before making the move. In terms of minimizing risk, online entrepreneurship wins hands down.
I’ve already published a tutorial and a webinar on getting your own website up and running and these lessons mostly apply to websites for an online business as well. Exactly what type of online business you’d like to devote yourself to is a huge topic (and the rest of this article describes several good one), but if you are rearing to jump in, do yourself a huge favor and do these two things right now:
- Sign up now for the free trial month of Fizzle.co, a membership website with a curriculum and community based on helping you learn about your options and make these decisions without getting stalled out.
- Devour as much free content by Pat Flynn as possible, paying particular attention to the three ‘required listening’ podcasts on that link.
That being said, let’s take a look at the main areas where many people have had success in online entrepreneurship without becoming email spammers.
Freelancing is a good option because you can develop skills that will work as either your own business or as an employee of a bigger organization. You can also learn as you go by plowing through a program like The Complete Web Developer Course on Udemy which will get you enough skills to start pulling freelance clients (I took this course myself and loved it), and in the meantime you can continue to develop your skills to a higher level with continued online courses or even a more structured program like Free Code Camp.
If you already have a skill that you have developed (such as teaching English), it’s pretty straightforward to get set up on a service like iTalki that allows you to freelance tutor via Skype or other system. Yes, the pay may be lower than you are accustomed to, but it’s a start. Get some good clients willing to give testimonials, start an email newsletter giving away solid free content, then move over to your own platform when you want to jack your rates up.
Note that building your ‘brand’ is as critical with freelancing as it is with any other business type. You might start out on someone else’s platform such as ITalki, but as the British Council suggests, you’ll want to start up your own blog and have plans to eventually move your business offline if you want to command premium rates. There is also a highly rated course on Udemy called Teach English Online: How to Find Students and What to Teach that could certainly get you going in the right direction.
Buying a website
You can even skip the part about learning how to build a website from the ground up and just buy one straight out. It will be cheaper than buying an established business with a physical location, but maybe not as cheap as you expect if you want a solid website already getting a lot of web traffic and decent monthly revenues. Due diligence is extremely important though, as there are a lot of scammers out there. Brokerage companies like flippa.com and Sedo help weed out some of the scams, but extreme caution is still advised.
Bootstrapping an online biz
Be very wary of something that can happen once you start learning about how easy it is to set up a website, start a YouTube channel, or publish a book on Kindle. It ALL starts to appear so easy that you start chasing rabbits down every little rabbit hole that you find. Yes, it’s possible to get a website online for surprisingly cheap if you learn how to do it yourself. But that learning part is NOT cheap. Even if you can learn for free, you are going to whittle away HUNDREDS of hours on little tweaks that are frankly not all that important.
It is CRITICAL that if you decide to try and bootstrap your own online business that you LOVE the area you choose and are able to, more than anything else, focus on it with laser-like intensity. Yes, it is easy to start a YouTube channel and shoot a video with your webcam. Doing it consistently, week in and week out, even when the kids are sick and you’re fighting with your wife and your boss at your day job is giving you a hard time is another thing entirely. Fellow repat Brian Cee has been pulling this off. My own YouTube channel, however, barely a week before I got distracted by a different shiny object.
Yeah, I seem to know a lot about all the different ways of making money online, right? That’s because I’m as guilty of diving head first down all those different rabbit holes as anyone myself.
You see, while it may be easy to start a YouTube channel, it is in incredibly difficult and time-consuming to start a good one that draws viewers and makes money.
The benefit to all of this “ease,” however, is that if you publish an ebook, you no longer have a big publisher taking 99.999% of your profits. In fact, that relationship is now turned on it’s head. Publishing on Amazon typically means 70% of a sale goes directly to you. That’s not all though: It also means that YOU have to do the job of the employees of the big publishing house that you have cut out of the process. Cover design, formatting, and editing are all tedious aspects that can’t be shortcutted and you have to figure it all out.
There is a big payoff here though, and that is the “1,000 True Fans concept” coined by Kevin Kelly. In short, to make a living as a professional writer ten years ago required a million or so fans buying your books since you only get pennies out of ever book sale. Now, however, with Createspace and other platforms, you get the bigger cut and you need much fewer fans buying your books in order to make a living. Think about it: People making a living selling ebooks on Amazon put out several books per year. Selling a $5 ebook nets you $3.50. Multiply that by 1,000 = $3,500. Now consider that those “true fans” that automatically buy whatever you publish as soon as it comes out are also your evangelists that talk about your products, post about them on social media, and you see that that initial $3,500 you make directly from them is just the start. Add in the effect of search engine optimization and how Amazon calculates book rankings based on first-day and first-week sales and such, and it becomes feasible that, if the content is quality, your barriers to making a living doing what you love are vanishing.
This is where the aforementioned Fizzle.co membership website truly excels. Their program sticks to the bare essentials and starts out with lessons primarily focused on identifying your passions and weeding out which of them is going to have long-term potential. I highly recommend signing up for the free trial, plowing through their introductory content, and posting a bit in the forums. Set yourself up a calendar reminder before your trial ends so you can cancel your membership before you are charged if need be, but definitely check it out.
More examples of online entrepreneurship
Content marketing is where creating content that draws eyeballs is your first priority. Once you have a following, you can monetize that with advertising. Repat Shawn Roe did this with his website about solar energy. It includes a unique feature that brings people to his website to calculate how installing solar panels on their homes would work out for them based on a number of factors. Anyone can visit the site and go through the steps for free. Along the way they will see relevant advertisements that may point them towards further information and services they need and when they make one of those purchases, Shawn gets a small piece.
Podcasting, blogging, video blogging, all of these are areas involving content marketing.
eCommerce businesses generally break down into two broad types: physical and digital. My sister-in-law sells Dinosaur tshirts for girls via Etsy as a hobby. Etsy is one example of what is call a “platform.” Amazon is another platform through which you can sell your ebooks, but you can also sell physical goods through the ‘fulfilled by Amazon’ service (known as an “Amazon FBA” business– Check out the most popular Udemy course on the topic). If you want to create your own platform rather than rely on someone else’s, Shopify can help you get started quickly and easily if you are not interested in dealing with web hosting and the like, but if you ARE interested in that stuff, WooCommerce is a powerful system that integrates with the WordPress CMS to help you set up your own shop selling whatever you want. Handy with photoshop? Add in a service like Spreadshirt (print-on-demand t-shirts with drop shipping) and once it’s all set up you have an entire business you can run from your smartphone. Could not be easier to set up, but you better have a seriously in-demand design to make money in the t-shirt business. Thankfully, t-shirts are not the only drop shipping business model out there.
Although I’ve had some success selling my coffee book on Amazon’s platform, many people prefer to sell ebooks on their own platforms. This is more along the lines of something called “information product,” a term that refers to any kind of product like a book or video that can theoretically be sold an unlimited number of times because they are just computer files.
Other types of information products are online courses that can both exist on your own platform (teachable makes this easier), or a big company like Udemy which some people think helps drive more customers than they could capture on their own.
If you enjoy teaching but feel limited by tutoring online and would like to do something more scalable, you should consider setting up an online course. As should be obvious by now, I’m a huge fan of Udemy and have taken many courses there myself, but I also have my own course that I recorded and uploaded to their system. Even if you ultimately want to create your own platform like Rob over at Korean Digital Academy has done (thereby enabling him to move his family to Canada smoothly), the process of setting up your own course on Udemy will teach you a lot about making sure you know the basics about audio and video quality. Even their tutorial about making a good trailer for your course will give you an outline to work from for when you later decide to go your own way.
Have an idea for an amazing mobile app? Congratulations, so does the other 6 billion people on the planet! Ideas are cheap. You get rich by working hard, following through, and, yes, getting lucky. Now, you don’t have to know how to code the whole thing yourself but it’s a good idea to know enough to know exactly what you don’t know and be able to talk intelligently about it with the people you hired to actually make your dream a reality.
Now there are some interesting services out there that can help even a new like you get an app out on the Apple Store. They are a bit limited and provide a cookie cutter-type experience to users.
Once you have your product, a program is just like any other information product. You can use someone else’s platform like the AppleStore, or Google Play to make sales, or with the help of something like JVZoo you can sell it off of your own web presence.
What am I leaving out? Marketing. A big reason to rely on a platform like the Amazon Kindle Store, Apple Store, Google Play, etc., is that those stores are built with discoverability in mind and they have millions of users actively looking to spend money there. If you choose to go your own way rather than rely on one of these platforms, you’re going to have market your products in order to find customers.
Online marketing is a massive topic all it’s own. Basically, whatever area of business you go in, you want to start a quality email newsletter as early on as possible (maybe even BEFORE you start the business via a “landing page”). Facebook groups and fan pages have their role, but it is very difficult to build a sustainable business entirely reliant on Facebook’s platform these days. Later on, once the core of your business is up and running, and you have a business bank account and an LLC formed (which you only really NEED once your business is making over ten grand a year for US citizens), then you can worry about increasing visibility with Google AdWords and some targeted Facebook ads.
- For now, get signed up on MailChimp (it’s not perfect, but it’s the free one most internet entrepreneurs use when they are starting out).
- Get your landing page online with a domain name, website, very short description, and a way for potential customers to sign up to your newsletter (there is a school of thought that says you should actually go ahead and start taking pre-orders to fund the development of the actual product at this point).
- Create some kind of digital product to give away for free when people sign up.
- Choose a publication schedule and stick with it. My personal favorite email newsletter is monthly, and always arrives around the same time. And the content is such that I expect and look forward to its arrival. I read 100% of it and save every single one of them. This is your goal with an email newsletter.
This is an area I haven’t personally explored much, but thankfully Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income website has more in-depth information on pursuing this path. Just as a starting point, check out his top 7 lessons he learned creating a software product.
If you have any kind of entrepreneurial drive you are lucky to be alive right now. Never in the history of humankind has it been easier to make a living off of our creative pursuits. This is something to keep in mind when you hear talking heads sounding alarm bells over technologies that threaten to automate increasingly more jobs. Yes, if you are a truck driver you’ll likely soon be out of work. The good news, though, is that you’ll be free now to create that location-based road trip social networking app that you’ve always been looking for. Or teach the harmonica online since you learned to play it on all of those long hauls. And then you can teach your fellow former truckers how to develop their own passions, figure out a business model that works, and find their own 1,000 true fans.
I believe that in many ways repats are ahead of the curve. We are researching and analyzing these trends right now, a few years out before self-driving cars and 3d printing are adopted en masse. By taking the time to figure out what niche areas we want to work in and start learning everything we can about the technology necessary to build a businesses lifestyles around those areas, we will be ready for the new economy that is swiftly approaching.