Your future office?
Are you trying to work abroad and not just travel abroad? Many of the blog posts and books about developing a business you can run from anywhere in the world are all about the big picture. In the early stages, that’s essential. If you can’t get your butt off the couch, if you can’t save up some dough, if you can’t look your boss in the eye and say, “I quit,” then it’s all just a dream.
But just as succeeding in business is as much about execution as it is about the big ideas, it’s those nitty-gritty details that will make or break you when you really make the leap to being location independent. I’m halfway through living in Mexico for a year and running a whole series of websites and blogs from there. I can tell you that you’re sure to run into some obstacles that make you say, “Hey wait a minute, nobody told me about THAT!” Here are a few key questions to answer before you take off.
1) Where and how will you withdraw money?
Wherever you live, you will probably be withdrawing money from an ATM regularly. That means potentially getting hit with lots of fees each month, especially if you use use one of the struggling U.S. banks. Many banks will charge your account $5 every time you take out money abroad. Then you will likely be hit with another fee from the local bank as well. In Mexico the latter is typically $2 or more. Avoiding the local bank charge is tough: I’ve only found one ATM machine (out of about 25) within walking distance in the city where I live that doesn’t levy a fee, so when I have the time I walk the extra 15 minutes to get there.
There are a few ways to get out of that charge on your home account as well though. I use a Fidelity cash account that doesn’t levy a fee on international withdrawals and I know others who use Bank of America in Mexico because it has an agreement with Santender that allows free withdrawals at those branches. In other countries you may be able to use machines from Citicorp, ScotiaBank, or HSBC without fees if you have an account at one of these banks.
Remember that transferring money from one account to another can take extra time: it requires a ridiculous seven days to move cash from my regular bank account to my Fidelity one, for example. So you need to plan ahead. Also assume that your regular bank will ream you in myriad other ways every chance it gets, including after departure. My wife closed her Regions Bank account after they refused to waive a new $5 per month fee because she didn’t have direct deposit now, even though we had four accounts between us with that bank and she has been a customer for more than a decade.
Bankers as a whole have proven they are not bright business people. Always have a back-up plan when dealing with them. Naturally it helps to have a Paypal account to get around them as often as possible, which you’ll probably need for business purposes anyway. You can get a Paypal debit card as well so you can withdraw directly from there in a hurry—again, with no extra ATM fees.
2) Which credit card will you use?
There are very few right answers to this question. For most people, the one right answer is Capital One. They’re the only big company that won’t hit you for two or three percent on every single charge you make in a foreign country, regardless of the currency. (Panama and Ecuador use the U.S. dollar as their currency, but you’ll often still pay a “foreign exchange fee” even in those countries.) If you charge only $500 a month, you’ve handed over $180 extra dollars in fees by the end of a year with most credit cards. No matter where you live, that’s a lot of money you could have spent on yourself instead. If you belong to a credit union, you may be in luck: those accounts usually don’t levy this gotcha fee.
3) Who is your helper at home?
If your answer to this is ambiguous, you are in trouble. You need someone who can get mail, send checks, and sort out any problems that require using the postal service. Sure, it would be great if we were all in a digital world, but we’re not. I asked my local water company how I could pay outstanding charges online for my house after I moved out of the country. Their answer? “You can’t.”
Can I pay with a credit card?
How do I know how much I owe?
“We mail you a bill.”
The other issue is, you need a U.S. address for all kinds of transactions with U.S. companies, so whether you live there or not, you need to have an address back home. This applies to banks, the government, advertising networks, affiliate networks, and on and on. (I imagine it’s a similar problem if you’re from the UK or Canada.)
4) Do you have a web-based e-mail address?
If not, get one now because if you’ve got an address through Comcast, Roadrunner, AT&T, or some other connection provider, your account will be kaput once you move abroad. If you’re a webmaster or blogger who uses lots of Google services, you should probably not use gmail as your main e-mail account. I personally know three people who have had their gmail account hacked in just the past few months and it was a nightmare restoring thier associated accounts for Adsense, Google Analytics, Google Docs, and the rest. All that linkage Google demands means 10X the trouble when something goes wrong.
Get another one from Yahoo, GMX, MSN, Apple, etc. or just route the e-mail from your website/blog server through Thunderbird. As with banking, it pays to have a backup too. Legit e-mails that get blocked by one service may fly through fine on another.
Sure, there are plenty of other things to worry about in terms of language, culture, cashflow, keeping files backed up, and your Skype subscription, but if you get these four nagging aspects of your world back home working smoothly, it’ll be much easier to focus on the reasons you moved abroad in the first place.
Are you living abroad? What did you learn the hard way?