Clever Businesses

Written by  //  March 6, 2011  //  biz  //  1 Comment

The financial path of the expat in Portugal:

1. Arrive full of money and beans and embark on investing what you have with the expectation it will grow.

2. Plan turns out to be harder, longer and more expensive than expected and you didn’t predict the market crash.

3. End up broke, or at least a lot less well-off, and battling with the invisible enemy of a languid Portuguese economy.


Could I say that the relationship with capitalism is one of the major cultural differences between Portugal and the rest of the West? The (comparative) lack of materialism and absence of stress in the Portuguese was probably what attracted you to live here in the first place. Aye, there’s the rub. We may no longer wish to be rich, but we didn’t plan on being destitute. We just want to earn a living.

The Great Business Idea is not dead. Portugal is a creative place, although it knows almost nothing about marketing. There are people who have found a niche, or given a tweak to an existing idea which reinvents it altogether.

Anyvan was conceived in 2008 when a removals business had too long a list of potential clients who just had one thing to move, who didn’t want to pay full price and who were prepared to wait until the van was going their way.

The solution to their problem has become an international deliveries business – with a twist – and which has just begun to expand into Portugal. is an auction website. You list your job for free; transport companies compete against each other in a reverse auction to give you the best price. You compare all quotes and all companies using the site’s feedback system and choose your preferred bid.

The clients get a good price for a service that wasn’t available before, except at a premium rate. The transport companies can afford to provide a good price because they are already making that route; and the trucks don’t make the return trip empty. It works for everyone and the environment as well.

Anyvan isn’t designed to interfere with the transporters normal business model or to induce potentially devasting competition. It works as as a supplement to allow them to maintain/improve profitability.

It seems that Ben Goor and Angus Elphinstone had hit upon a solution attractive to many transport companies, as hundreds of companies joined the site spontaneously. Now there are 7000 transporters using the system. And there is no shortage of clients either. Local advertising and word of mouth built the client base.

Some of its success must be due to how well the website works. The site was developed from the ground up with the latest tech available and recognised by internet peers as something special. The site boasts that you can submit your job in less than a minute: and it delivers. The transport companies can receive remote notification when a new job goes live. The speed of the process is impressive: the prices offered by the transport companies is even more so.

Okay, so this is not an indigenous Portuguese idea: it might be based in the UK but this idea knows no borders. It bypasses the economic handicaps of any particular country and works for the individual business and client. Jobs can be placed and won by anyone, anywhere. The growth potential is unlimited. It’s so good an idea don’t you wish you had it first?

International is what the next big idea has going for it as well. Emma Crabtree’s Red Box Virtual Office might be run from a house in a village in Central Portugal, but her clients come from all over the world. Internet makes it so.

While the types of businesses that work with Red Box vary, they all need someone to undertake the day to day administration that is time consuming and/or not profitable for them to do in-house. Emma acts as the customer service department, does research, maintains databases, updates websites and blogs, answers emails and takes phone calls. And more.

Emma explains the start up:

“When we relocated to Portugal, I knew I’d have to work, but at what, or as what? I didn’t speak Portuguese back then. In February 2005 I saw an article in Red magazine, where a woman had started her own Virtual Assistant (VA) business. It suited my lifestyle, drew on the experience and skills I already had and the start-up costs were relatively small.”

Current clients include a non-profit coaching organisation in the UK, a sales and marketing entrepreneur in Ireland and an on-line NYSE-linked trading company based in the USA.

“The first 18 months were the hardest until I had two or three regular clients. At this point I was taking on transcriptions from other VAs as an additional source of income. But in the last 12-18 months we’ve been able to depend on my income to cover all business and personal expenditure.”

So although no overnight success, it nonetheless has always paid lifestyle dividends. Working from home gives you enviable control over your time.

“Working in my pyjamas on cold days, no commuting, taking breaks when I want or need to, setting my own schedule and workload – these things are great. But I do miss having colleagues and those ‘water cooler’ moments, and it’s easy to get distracted when there is work that you don’t want to do.”

The success of Red Box Virtual Office might be due to the networking that Emma did, especially in the beginning. Workshops, seminars and drinks evenings with relevant people and potential clients helped to build Red Box’s profile. Emma also uses Linked In and Facebook to her advantage.

Starting a business in Portugal? “Bring all your contacts with you. You never know who will be useful down the line. Join local and national business associations, such as the British Portuguese Chamber of Commerce. Use sites such as Pitch Engine and Ezine to market your products or knowledge,” says Emma.

“Doing what I do has been a hard sell to the Portuguese. Determination and long-term thinking were key. The cost of living here isn’t as cheap as it once was and it is essential to have funds that you can dip in to while you are establishing yourself.”

Earning a living from tangoNovemberbravo, Hand Made from the Hills of Portugal, was never planned. Born from the need to get by, but also from a pleasant pastime, Tango aka Tanya Burek started knitting gloves and socks that people commented on and wondered where they could buy them. She put her work on Etsy and it took off. Now she can’t keep up with orders.

Etsy is a well-established platform for creative people selling hand-made, (often unique and exceptional) things from clothing, jewellery or toys. The Etsy concept is founded in community, similar to Blogger, where the contributors actively support each other’s work. Etsy has a huge worldwide following, driven by its quality and creativity.

Tango simply found a niche. A lack of other knitted products, Tanya’s outstanding photography and perhaps even the pre-existence of the tango “brand” all helped in pushing tangoNovemberbravo into people’s minds when their hands and feet were cold. The jump from selling on Etsy to creating her own website was spurred on by the number of referrals and repeat business from happy customers. Tango’s new site now allows people to choose from a huge variety of colours and patterns, which means that each hand knit item is 100% custom made based on consumer preference.

tangoNovemberbravo’s products aren’t cheap: they are luxurious and practical. This is an idea grounded in high-quality and individual production. The products are special, as gifts they exude warmth and thoughtfulness. Many other creative ideas don’t come with this cache: with tangoNovemberbravo you are buying a certain emotion, the value of which there is no accounting for.

Too much success can be an obstacle: Tanya has no time to creates stocks, so every item is made-to-order. But there is still room for growth. tNb is now producing DIY kits which include locally grown, completely unique alpaca wools. It’s another characteristic particular to a creative community: once a good product shows up people are stimulated to create something themselves.

Good ideas breed good ideas. Get thinking.

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