Proving This Internet Thing

A blog about running a small digital services company from abroad.

Written by a guy who still works for a living, moved his family from Alexandria, Virginia to shores of Costa Rica and how the heck we get things done and still make a living.

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Shane Larrabee

Shane Larrabee
Founder, FatLab, LLC

Running a U.S. Business from Costa Rica – What Could Go Wrong?

heliport reserva conchal costa rica

Life In Costa Rica

Since moving to Costa Rica I have met a lot of… well… rich people. In fact I like to joke that I am poorest person I know. Of course that is not true but let’s not avoid the issue. Becoming an expat in any country is a hell of a lot easier if you have money.

I know retired people in their 40’s (maybe younger), I know people who seem to work out of pure boredom. Let’s just say “Real-estate Investment” should not be an appropriate answer to the question “What do you do for a living?”

Also, anyone who thinks that Costa Rica is a poor country full of banana plantations and coffee fields should know that $180,000 Range Rovers are not uncommon here (among the expats anyway, not many locals are driving cars like that).

I know very few people who followed the romantic notion of adopting a minimalistic lifestyle, living frugally and who just “make it work.” In fact, I know many more people who regularly visit Costa Rica to stay in one of their many investment properties and to escape the cold winters up North. My daughter goes to a school with kids who fly in on their private jets and leave on their mega yachts.

To put a final point on this. I live in Reserva Conchal (renting) which is a private resort/community that shares property with a Westin resort and has a f***’n helicopter pad for when some of the residents come in for a visit… and that helipad is actually used.

reserva conchal condo view costa rica
The view from our balcony in Reserva Conchal, Brasilito, Guanacaste

My Point on Bashing the Super Rich

My point is that I have none of that. I’m certainly not hurting financially. But the only thing financially I have in common with a lot of people down here is an occasional first class seat on the flight down here. Beyond that, I have to work to support my family. I have to work full time. Just like most people in my income bracket I am only a few bad months away from being in a world of hurt.

I’m sure I will touch on this point in much greater detail later but moving to Costa Rica, unless you adopt a real “local lifestyle”, is not much cheaper than living in the Washington, DC suburbs. Surprise!

I am not among the super rich, I cannot be off the grid and I have to be able to run my business as if I was in Alexandria, Virginia and right across the river from about 80% of my client base. There is little margin for error, especially considering my entire business model is built on responsiveness and connectivity.

reserva conchal balcony
Our balcony and my “morning office”

Moving My Small Business Outside of the United States: Scary

My fear when moving down here was fairly simple: By moving here my business would fail, that I would not be able to support my family (did I mention my wife quit her job and is basically retired?) and we would have sold everything we own to become jobless (and homeless).

Many a restless night full of dreams and half-awake thoughts would spin out of control in my head. These were not dreams of getting in shape, eating healthy, learning a new language and ending the day on a white sand beach. These were nightmares.

Here is what could have gone wrong, or at least the scenarios that kept me from sleeping in the months leading up to our move:

  • My clients would not want to work with someone so far away.
  • Internet and electricity would be unreliable.
  • Communication with clients, vendors and partners would be hard (time zones, phone systems, etc).
  • Clients would feel that the seriousness in my job was fading in favor of sitting on a beach and sipping paper umbrella laden drinks (rest assured, I’m a simple beer guy).

I’m no psychologist but I have done enough research into general anxiety and stress to know that the majority of fears are simply the mind coming up with bullshit scenarios that will probably never happen. However “never” is not something I was mentally prepared to bet on. This had to work.

costa rica small business
My office for when it gets too hot to work outside

A Rosy Outlook Was Not Going to Cut It

I don’t think anyone who knows me would argue that I am glass-half-full type guy or at all optimistic. I have have enough faith (and stubbornness) in myself to run my own business but I am a planner. It drives my family nuts but I typically have a plan A, B and C. If my current situation does not allow for an obvious Plan B then I will drive all those around me nuts trying to come up with one.

I was never a military strategic planner or anything like that but I would wager that I would be good at such a role. I have the amazing ability to come up with 5 to 10 failure points on just about any suggestion or idea that anyone makes in rapid fire succession. I consider it a skill, others I am sure have other not-so-kind adjectives for it.

My wife, Amy, will tell you I am a “major downer”. So of course this move to Costa Rica was no different than anything else… It was gong to fail. However, here is the beauty in my thinking and what keeps me out of great depression: It was going to fail and I was going to be prepared.

  • If power was out at home, I would make sure I had access to the closest hotel (they have generators).
  • If power was out but internet was still up, backup batteries would keep me online for several hours.
  • If the internet service provider was not reliable, I would have a backup line (at about $80 a month for a 15/5 connection).
  • Escape route number 1: San Jose is only about 4-5 hour drive from here.
  • Escape route number 2: A few thousand dollars will probably get me to Miami, Florida or Houston, Texas from Liberia and is only a few hour flight. American Express business card… Check.
  • All my files are located in the cloud and backed up on a local hard drive. If my computer fails I could grab my wife or daughter’s computer and continue working fairly seamlessly (I actually have not cleared this with them).
  • The company servers are housed in Dallas, Texas and I pay for a fully managed account so in fact have a server team monitoring them 24/7.
  • I brought two VOIP phones down with me and loaded up the iPhone app. I also have Skype with the international dialing option.

I’m sure I am missing a whole bunch of bullet points, but that is not because they don’t exist in my head. I am also sure those points are getting boring and you can see where they are going anyway.

Reality is Very Different Than The Anxious Mind

One of the biggest deals is that the perception of such a move is very different in the year leading up to it than the year after. Reality proved to be different than my midnight freak-outs predicted. However that is not say that none of these scenarios haven’t come true.

I still have some serious worry points but I’ll leave the story about the storm that took out internet, power and cellular for another time. The point: shit does in fact happen.

costa rica condo living room
Our living room, with a ridicules view

A Clash of Cultures

I wouldn’t be writing this story today if every planned and thought of failure came true and I certainly would not still be living here. However there is one point that never made my list of worries until about a month before our move date and has proven to be a frustrating reality a few times over the years.

Anyone planning on making the move outside of the always-on work culture of North America needs to know this: No body is going to understand, care or even sympathize that you can’t get your your work done… no matter how important you think it is.

This has been made apparent to me several times over the last few years. The very first time was right before we made our move. I had arranged with the owner of the condo we were going to rent that year to have the internet speeds maxed (max = 15/5) the month before I arrived. My thought was that this would allow extra time just in case cable companies and ISPs in Costa Rica were as infamous for poor service as those in the United States.

We kept checking to see if the upgrade had been made… nope. Checked again and again and each time the answer was “I don’t think so”. Amy, knowing this was a critical point on my list a possible failures and one that might just result in me not getting on the plane on move day, contacted the owner and asked why the internet speeds had not been upgraded yet.

The response was short and to the point: You are working with Costa Ricans who run a beach side resort and will never comprehend why anyone would spend upwards of $100/month (1/5th of the median monthly income for a local) for internet. They don’t and will not understand the priority, you are just going to have to trust that they will do it before you arrive.

I’m pretty sure the email ended with “Pura Vida”, which is a basically Costa Rica’s equivalent to Aloha plus a bit more. It can be a greeting, it can mean goodbye, it can be a state of being when asked how you are doing. It can mean about anything. Its literal translation is “Pure Life”. However, I personally believe the actual translation is “Tough Shit”. “No the internet was not installed… Pura Vida”, “Electricity will be turned on sometime tomorrow… Pura Vida”, “Water has been shut off… Pura Vida”. You get the idea.

Ultimate Failure

Of course the ultimate failure would not be because the internet was out for a few hours or that power was out over night. Ultimate failure would be if this move simply did not work out. I’m talking complete catastrophic failure. I figured this could come from one of two scenarios:

  1. This move proved simply so disruptive to my job and little company that I would have to high-tail back to the United States just to keep from going completely bust.
  2. A personal failure, such as simply not liking it and wanting to go “home”.

Years ago, Amy and I moved to Boston. For the year and half before the move I had been commuting back and forth for an agency employer. I loved Boston. However what I failed to realize is that I loved Boston when I was flying open-ended shuttle tickets, staying in the W not far from Copley Square and eating fancy meals on a corporate card (it was the dot-com era).

It had been only a day and half since we had rolled into town with a U-Haul and I had just received my third middle finger while trying to navigate Harvard Square. It hit me like a ton a of bricks… “I hate it here”.

I’m not going to apologize for my feelings toward Boston, every New Englander whom I have ever told that story too has only smiled with pride and said “yep”.

Anyway, the point here is that I have experienced failure before and despite what I thought at the time, the stakes were very low. We hadn’t sold a house, pulled a child out of the only school and neighborhood she knew or left the country. The move to Costa Rica was huge.

So what could go wrong? Everything could go wrong. It doesn’t go right for everyone. In the time we have lived here we have seen many people “fail” at Costa Rica. They might argue Costa Rica failed them but the point is that it does happen. Things don’t work out as planned, life can be hard and not everything can be calculated or put into bullet point lists.

Well, it goes without saying but I would not be writing  blog articles on moving a small business abroad if things had ended in absolute failure. In fact they haven’t, we love it here in Costa Rica and I assure you this is nothing like Boston.

Wrapping it Up

Well the truth is that running a business from Costa Rica certainly has it challenges, though the majority of my contingency plans have yet to be executed. I have not lost a single client because of my location and I have yet to experience ultimate failure: not being reachable when the shit hits the fan.

You can also tell by the photos, that life is no where near as rough as my anxious mind would have me believe it could before we left.

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