Friday, 8 June 2012

Expat Entrepreneur: Doris Fuellgrabe, founder of Building the life you want

Doris Fuellgrabe is an experienced expat and a skilled trainer and workshop facilitator. In an exclusive interview with Expat Explorer Doris reveals all about her extraordinary life as an expat entrepreneur.

Source: Creative Commons/Mike

Why did you decide to become an expat entrepreneur?

In short, to create a working environment where I have fun and create value at the same time.

To give you a little background, I spent about 10 years working in corporate Germany, UK, and Spain. All jobs have their ups and downs, but the two main negative factors draining my energies at the time were office politics and lack of freedom. When my boyfriend (now-husband) and I moved to the Canary Islands in 2005, I participated in a four-week self-coaching workshop to re-evaluate my options. And let me tell you, there are so many options out there. For all of us! We transferred to Mexico in 2006, and while I didn’t have a work permit, I used the time to obtain a coaching degree. Once we relocated to the USA and my Green Card came through, I started my own coaching and training practice.

Working for myself gives me the freedom to choose how to spend my days, and believe it or not – the politics in a one-woman-operation are bearable.

If you could give one piece of advice to other expats setting up their own businesses, what would it be?

Be mindful of your expectations.

What do I mean by that?

Our expectations have a tremendous effect on our well-being. They influence how we set goals, and how we feel about ourselves when we meet or don’t meet them. Making sure our expectations are on a realistic yet challenging, not-too-boring basis makes a big difference. Allow me to bust three of the most common bubbles:

  1. Running a business often isn’t as easy as you think;
  2. Establishing yourself often isn’t as fast as you project; and
  3. You’ll probably spend the majority of your time working on your business instead of in it.

How can you make sure your expectations are realistic and challenging? Research your chosen profession, and be honest with yourself. Questions to consider: Is there a need for what you’re offering? Who is your audience? Will they pay for your product or service? How much? How many hours a day can you realistically spend on promoting yourself?

Being optimistic and hopeful when starting out is essential, but you want to take off the rose-colored glasses. When starting a business, your vision has to be absolutely crystal clear.

What challenges did you encounter when setting up your business and how did you overcome these?

General top 3, in no particular order…

Challenge: Lack of vision, focus, and/or passion
Solution: Figure out what you want to contribute to the world, declare your niche specialty, and make sure it’s what makes your heart sing!

I started a coaching practice, knowing from personal experience that coaching is such a wonderful method and so versatile, I’d be able to support anyone, anywhere, with any area they’d like to improve upon. I coached a number of acquaintances on relationships and self-esteem issues, and had a few clients for time management and organisational topics. Unfathomably, my practice didn’t really take off, and I spent more and more time watching daytime TV, disillusioned and disappointed.

Eventually, I stripped away the non-descript “anything”-ness of this approach and started focusing on people like me: expats and accompanying spouses without work-permits, who are experiencing unexpected identity and adaptation issues. This is what I live and breathe every day, so I have no trouble staying engaged, reading, learning, and writing about everything to do with it.

Challenge: Unconscious incompetence, a.k.a: You don’t know what you don’t know!
Solution: Find people who do the same and never stop learning

Once I declared my niche as Expat Coaching, I googled the term and called up a handful of colleagues to ask for their advice. One person suggested I attend the FIGT Families in Global Transition Conference, which I did, and then some: I was actually accepted to present a concurrent session on the topic of staring your own business abroad. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and I was invited back to speak again.

At this conference, I learned much more about how the relocation industry works, who the main players are, and what the role division and boundaries are. This helped me in setting more realistic expectations. It explained why all the HR directors I had contacted never called me back! More than that, spending time with other expat aficionados reaffirmed my decision to stay in the field, to serve the community, and fill the need for the much-neglected intangible side of international support.

Challenge: Feeling lost at sea, alone in a little dingy of a boat with no one for company
Solution: Network, join groups, and participate in associations

This is an extension of the previous challenge, which other extroverts will probably resonate with, while people with preferences for introversion may not. As a cog in the machine of corporate anywhere, I always had someone to go to lunch or gossip at the water cooler with. As an entrepreneur, I spend most of my time alone in front of my computer. While online forums are a great invention, they can’t take the place of actual human interaction. In the beginning, I would slowly go stir-crazy and blow up in the face of my husband when he came home at night. Now I plan for excursions and interaction with others, especially those in my field of interest.

What common mistakes do expats, in general, make when setting up their business?

Mistake: Disregarding cultural differences
Solution: Educate yourself and practice shifting

If you’ve ever watched TV ads across the world, you know different audiences respond to different cues. Take toothpaste, for example. In some countries, an actor in a white coat, seemingly representing a dentist or a hygienist, praises the product’s effective ingredients. The ad has a very professional and scientific appearance. Other countries show happy couples smiling and kissing, families going on adventures together, or attractive 20-somethings at the beach. The ad appeals to the more personal side of fitting in and being part of a group.

When you go into business in another country, especially when you’re providing services, consider what your own cultural programming is e.g. regarding sales and marketing. How do you make purchasing decisions? Which provider do you tend to trust, the flashy one who has the biggest advertisement, or the quiet one with the long list of achievements on their website?
And then turn the table around: How does business work in your host country? How comfortable are you describing your own strengths or the advantages of your product? Do you state your background and experience and expect people to choose you based on your bio and their needs, or can you talk someone into considering what you have to offer?

Mistake: Ignoring tax and other legal frameworks
Solution: Google, research, and ask others

In the USA, entrepreneurs have various options to incorporate their business, many of them are pretty quick and easy to implement. Every choice of entity comes with different local and federal paperwork, as well as tax implications. Every state has different regulations about how much the legal entities cost and what the maintenance schedule is. Not every country makes going into business that easy, and rules change every year. Make sure you do some thorough research, or work with a professional to guide you through the process.

Wherever you start your business, here are some things to keep in mind: find out if your profession needs a license, where to obtain one, how much it costs to keep it updated, and who the governing bodies are. Find out whether your home is zoned to do business, what the restrictions are for putting up signs, and if the name you intend to use is available. Especially if you’re with a corporate expat, you have to know that there are short-term assignments and prolonged business travel regulations, and that five years tend to be the cut-off point for when an expat is considered local. I recommend working with an accountant specialising in international tax law, to help you keep appropriate records for income from different countries and pay the necessary taxes.

Mistake: Underestimating emotional effects of not working
Solution: Educate yourself and negotiate

I knew I wasn’t going to have a work permit for at least 12 months while we were in Mexico. Blissful in my happy optimism, I didn’t think that was going to be a problem. I was going to study, read novels, watch TV, and work on a tan or something. I had no idea I would get bored out of my brains without a “proper” purpose six weeks in. Again, this may not be the case for everyone, but if you have always been employed and all of a sudden you’re not anymore, planned or unplanned, there’s some adjusting to do.

Many couples relocate on their first assignment not knowing what to ask for. If the company doesn’t sponsor a visa or work permit for the spouse, it’s rarely encouraged to press the matter. I say, do. Ask your HR contact what it would take, how much it would cost, how much support the legal department would provide. Then research your embassy’s website, the other embassy’s website, and familiarise yourself with forms and procedures. If you have the means to pay for a work permit yourself, discuss in your family if having the option to work would help you feel more at home and adapt more easily.

Be honest about what you think you will need. Even if you end up not working throughout your stay, having the option to start your own business helps with peace of mind. 

What resources did you find useful or tapped into to get your business off the ground?

What would you do differently if you could do it again?

Manage my expectations better! Knowing what I know now about marketing and buyer behavior and the way the relocation industry works could have saved me a lot of agony in my first couple of years. Still, I don’t believe in regret so I wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, everything that happened helped shape my understanding today.

About Doris

Doris is an experienced expat (from Germany to Scotland, England, Spain, Canary Islands, Mexico, and now USA), a skilled trainer and workshop facilitator, an accredited Personal Coach; she has a BA in HR Management with Spanish, and holds certifications in MBTI® Step I and II, Neuroscience of Personality, and the Berens CORE™ Method. She currently conducts independent research into the expression of personality type in different cultures at

Building the Life You Want LLC is a coaching and training practice helping first-time expats feel at home abroad, faster. They also work with international teams who want to collaborate more effectively and have greater impact, and returning soldiers and their significant others to support reintegration after international deployment. Visit to find out more. 

Expat Explorer returns for another year – bigger and better than before! If you want to have a say in what it’s really like to live abroad and share your expat experiences with others, then click here to fill in the Expat Explorer survey for 2012.

1 comment:

  1. I've set up two businesses as an expat and these are excellent guidelines. I would emphasize your point about the need to get good legal and financial advice (and to have the reserves to pay for it). I'd add a network of colleagues that you can call on for resource referrals, occasional pep talks, and a forum for swapping tips and contacts is good. And sheer persistence in learning every day and not giving up is essential.


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