Welcome to the launch of our newest series ‘Meet Croatia’s Foreign Entrepreneurs’ where, every week, we will bring you a story of a foreign entrepreneur who has successfully managed to set up a business in The Beautiful Croatia. Hopefully, their tales of trials and tribulations will be a beacon of hope for others.
We are starting this series in a bid to shine a light on the potential and possibilities of this country; hopefully, it can act as inspiration or even a guidebook for budding entrepreneurs, local and foreign alike. By writing this series, we hope to debunk two key myths which keep getting recycled:
- EVERYONE is leaving Croatia
- There are NO opportunities here.
We wanted to kick-off this series with a bang, so let us introduce you to Mirela from Romania, whose journey from Bucharest to the Dalmatian coast has been a life changer, to say the least. Mirela has a heart of gold and a resilience of spirit second-to-none; with absolutely no Croatian ties – language, family, ništa, Mirela and her husband Ionut, packed up their life to start afresh here. Their story is nothing short of inspirational and proves that when plan A doesn’t work, plan B could be the beginning of something truly special…
But, that’s enough from me, I will now hand it over to Mirela
- First and foremost, why Croatia?
It was love at first sight for me. I first visited a small village called Vinišće, around 15 years ago (a journalist friend had a summer house there). And I instantly experienced something that I never have before: I felt home. So, I returned almost every summer since and when I met my now-partner (Ionut), I brought him here and told him we will someday move here. He initially thought I was crazy, but then – as I was bringing him back each summer – he realized I was not joking at all. And he started to support my dream and we planned all our life around our future move to my dreamland, which finally happened in October 2015.
- Tell us about some of the differences in your expectations of running a business in Croatia versus the reality.
I think expectations are very much mitigated by the experiences one has in their home country. I am sure that if you come from Germany or UK, Croatia might seem difficult. But we are coming from Romania, a country suffocated by corruption and extreme bureaucracy. To us, opening and running a business in Croatia did not seem complicated.
We have been told Croatia is also corrupt, so we were expecting the kind of corruption we were used to back home. But we have never been asked for a bribe by a public servant, by a policeman, by a doctor or by an inspector (while this is a daily business in Romania). We were amazed at how paperwork that in Romania would have taken a month at best, got solved here in one hour. And everyone was also telling us to take a translator with us everywhere we need to go. But our experience was that 99% of the people we needed to talk to for different documents etc. spoke English and were very much eager to help us, even though we only spoke a couple words in Croatian.
- What (if any) bureaucratical issues have you encountered and how did you overcome them (i.e. any advice to the would-be entrepreneur?)
Not speaking the language was (still is) the biggest obstacle, mainly in the way that we cannot check the laws related to our business ourselves, so we have to rely, most of the time, on advice from other people. We are working with the most professional accounting company and with an amazing business lawyer to make sure all paperwork is in order and that we are compliant with all laws. So, this is the advice I would give any would-be entrepreneur: start by finding a good accountant and a good lawyer.
- What are some of the greatest challenges you have faced in business in Croatia?
We had one big challenge. One that totally changed our initial plans and one that shaped our life as it is now. Our initial plan was to buy land, build apartments and rent those to tourists. And we did buy the land – in our favourite spot, Vinišće (actually right next to my friend who introduced me to Croatia years ago). We bought it one year before our planned move. The plan was to have the design, the building permit and the land ready, so we could start the construction right away once we moved here. We found the land ourselves, but decided to hire the real estate agency we were in contact with for years, and we offered to pay them full commission (as if they found the land for us), and in exchange we asked them to check the paperwork and make sure the land is buildable and that we can have all planning permissions (which we discussed to do through their agency as well) ready by next fall.
Once we purchased the land, we went ahead with the architectural plans and then contacted the local agency to start the procedures for building permits. The problem was that they were not replying. For months. Eventually we had to search for someone else to work with locally, and we found a great local architect, who then gave us some shocking, totally unexpected news: yes, our land was in the yellow building zone, but we actually cannot build on it until the micro-plan (UPU) is made for our village. That was a new law, which came into effect 11 (eleven!) months before we actually purchased the land. Why the real estate agency we hired specifically to check everything for us did not mention this tiny-little detail, still escapes us today. They never really gave us any explanation. The thing was that we could not build in the winter of 2015, as we were planning. And there was no definite deadline for the new UPU, so it could have been a year or three or ten…
But we decided to move to Croatia anyway, even with no immediate plans for the future. I was the one that could not wait any longer; I needed to live by this beautiful sea. So, we sold our apartment in Bucharest, took our cat and all our belongings and moved to Split, where we basically knew about three people in total. And then we “reinvented” ourselves and transformed my partner’s hobby – Ionut was making nautical bracelets as a way to release the stress from the Bucharest construction business – into an actual business!
Here we are now, two years later: we have our nautical jewellery shop (Break Time) in Split and one in Dubrovnik, and – more importantly – we are part of an amazing local community, we have many expat and local friends and – even more importantly – we are happy!
- How is your product or business perceived in the Croatian market?
When we opened our first shop, we thought our customers would mainly be tourists. But it turned out that almost half of our customers are actually Croatians. And imagine that in the first 6-7 months, the only people working in the Split shop were me and my partner (neither of us spoke too much Croatian). We are so grateful for the patience, for the love and for the open arms we felt from locals. My favourite memory from the first month after we opened the shop was from the day Slobodna Dalmacija published an interview with us.
I was working in the shop that day and we had over 50 local people coming in just to say hello and welcome to Split (and ask us how come we moved here, while many Croatians want to move away). I vividly remember one ship captain who came in, gave me his business card and told me that if we need any help, any advice or really anything at all, to call him, because he knows how it is to move among strangers. I cried after he left the shop.
- What were the opinions of your friends and community, were they supportive of your idea, or…?
I do not think our friends took us seriously until after we actually moved to Croatia. Most of them were in disbelief that we would simply move and leave behind a flourishing business (my partner was building houses and apartment buildings and all our projects were sold out before completion) and an established career (I was a journalist for 15 years and then I worked as PR for the best Romanian MEP). Especially since we had no family ties with Croatia, plus it is so far away from Romania etc. But once we did it, and family and friends started to visit us in Split, they totally got it. I don’t think one can escape falling in love with Croatia – and for me Croatia actually means Dalmatia. This is my country now, I totally feel Splicanka!
- If you knew then, what you know now, would you have come?
100%, yes! All the struggles were totally worth it. I cannot imagine living anywhere else. Split is so, so special, I even have a hard time leaving it to go somewhere else for a holiday. My only regret is that we did not move even sooner.
- What are 3 things you love about Croatia?
The Adriatic Sea. Split. Dalmatian laidback lifestyle.
- What are 3 things you would like to see improved in the business climate in Croatia?
Better, more organized access to information: I wish the Municipalities or the Chamber of Commerce, for instance, would make a guide for each coastal city, with the local regulations for each main type of tourism-oriented business (tourist accommodation, restaurant, shop). I want to make sure we comply with all the rules, but that is hard when the rules are written in 100 different places.
Smaller VAT: Reducing the VAT is a no-brainer, in my opinion. It would stimulate new business and also it would bring at least some of the “black economy” to the surface. I keep waiting to see this happen, it is a logical thing to do. I have seen it first hand in Romania, the economy flourished, small businesses did better and more money was collected for the state budget, once VAT was reduced several points.
More incentives for the use of green energy, especially for small businesses or homeowners.
- How is it working with Croatians in terms of a business mentality?
We see the business mentality evolving rapidly. In a good way. We keep meeting more and more Croatians who see opportunities instead of challenges, and solutions instead of problems, and we love it.
- Advice for foreign entrepreneurs thinking of coming to Croatia?
Many people here, in Croatia, are disappointed with politicians and the business climate, and they do not see “the light at the end of the tunnel”. They are right, and I get it – as mentioned, we are also coming from a country that does not do very well, and we have lived through tougher times ourselves. And yes, we have quite the VAT burden here in Croatia, and other taxes, and some bureaucracy (but not as much as people say!). That being said, I think Split, Dalmatia in general, is an amazing area to live and open a business. Not only for foreign entrepreneurs, but also for young Croatians, who are thinking of moving abroad. Do not go, no not leave this paradise, you do not know how lucky you are to have been born here. Just try harder, do something different, reinvent yourself, look around and find something that is missing then fill that need. Dalmatia is the perfect place to apply the “work hard, play hard” motto.
Back to me, I cannot imagine setting my entire life around one set of plans, then, to have the rug completely pulled out from underneath me like Mirela and Ionut faced but they persevered with their dream to live in Dalmatia, have created a successful nautical jewellery shop out of a hobby and are still making plans to build on their land once all of the stars finally align.
Two people who didn’t speak the language, had no family or friends here and who had their money tied up in land and a project that couldn’t go ahead… if they can make it work, there really are no excuses and if this isn’t inspiration, I don’t know what is!
Thank you for sharing your story with us Mirela! If you are a foreigner who has your own story of starting a business in Croatia, we would love to hear about it. Email: [email protected].