Is Spain a good place for foreign entrepreneurs to launch start-ups?


It’s often been a dream for people from cooler, northern countries, to move to Spain and work and live under the sun, and enjoy a different lifestyle. After doing your day’s work you can relax on the beach, visit the Prado museum or stroll down the Ramblas (depending on location). To be followed by some tasty tapas and cool drinks in a local bar. That’s the dream, and the growing influence of the internet, now makes it so much easier to start afresh in another country, especially if your intended business is web-based and with a world client base. So, the question is asked – Is Spain a good place for foreigners to launch an internet start-up?

Firstly, the good news. Other entrepreneurs have moved to Spain and set up businesses, so you won’t be the first. Martin Varsavsky is perhaps the best example. As an Argentinean he perhaps had a head start with the language, but even so he’s done very well in starting up large successful concerns like Jazztel and Fon (among others). He writes a very interesting blog here martinvarsavsky that can often give insights into the benefits and drawbacks of running a business in Spain, among other issues. Another example is the great Bernhard Niesner (and you can read an interview with him on this site (Busuu Interview) –  the company is now one of the best language learning sites on the world stage.  There are growing numbers of people based in Spain who work for tech or start-up companies, and so it shouldn’t be too difficult to recruit technical staff when you need them. Two good sites for tech recruitment in Spain are infojobs and but of course there is nothing stopping you from using Twitter or other social sites like LinkedIn to bring on board talent. Of course, if you find it hard to source the relevant skilled personnel locally, then Spain may well appeal to other foreigners as a place to work.

Lisa Sadleir, an entrepreneur based on the Costa del Sol, gives her opinion on starting a business in Spain – “I am biased as I love Malaga/Spain and have always been very successful with my business ventures in Spain. However, I am aware that there is not as much support for business start ups as there maybe are in other countries. Provided you seek the right advice and have support (specifically from a Spanish speaker) then there is no reason why any well researched idea should not succeed here as anywhere else.” This brings up an important point – even if your target market is English speaking and you are not buying Spanish merchandise, you should take steps to learn the local language – after all you will be living there, and will have dealings with Spanish speaking employees or service providers eg banks at some point. Remember that if you base yourself in Barcelona you will also need to learn Catalan, and Valenciano in Valencia.

Next question – where should you locate? The answer to this partly depends on the nature of your start-up. Pierre-Alban Waters set up his new concern FlatawayMadrid – to help newcomers to Madrid find good accommodation. Given that aim, it would have been foolhardy to base the business anywhere else. Generally speaking there are 3 main clusters of start-up activity in Spain – Madrid, Barcelona and the Basque Country – and it is there where you will find more tech workers, sector get-togethers etc. Indeed, a recent article on  Wired magazine named Barcelona as one of the major start-up capitals of Europe. Having said that, in an age of Skype and the internet there is normally no overwhelming reason why you can’t base yourself next to the sea, or close to mountains. You do need to investigate internet coverage though (see next paragraph). If your business will be targeting fellow expats, you may wish to live closer to a large proportion of them, so Malaga or Valencia could be your preferred seat of work. On the other hand if you want to live far from large numbers of other expats, you could try the northern coast – perhaps in Asturias, Cantabria or the Basque Country – and you can enjoy great scenery on a daily basis, albeit with less of a sunny climate. I personally would recommend either Madrid or Barcelona, merely because you would find more resources and fellow expats who can help you with day-to-day stuff. Plus, after a long week on the keyboard, it can make all the difference to be able to find a local bar where you can watch the latest Premiership game or NFL match and chew the fat with other expats. Building up a business in Spain does not mean anymore you will lose contact with gossip and sports news from home.

Now, for some of the essential stuff. Most towns and cities in Spain boast good infra-structure, so you will be able to access high-speed internet – although, be warned, it’s not so common if you locate out in the campo (countryside). Finding accommodation for you and your staff should also be relatively cheap (compared say with London or Munich). Rents have fallen in many parts of Spain as a result of the recent recession, so you should be able to nab yourself a bargain.  Even so, in the major cities, finding good accommodation can be a bit more problematical, and agencies have been set up to help the newly landed foreigner – Pierre at FlatawayMadrid gives good advice here on the relevant barrios (neighbourhoods) and their relevant costs FlatAwayMadrid Remember you should also take into account the physical features of the flat – if you will be doing some work at home you don’t want to be struggling in 35 degrees of heat in summer with no air-conditioning. Also, one of the criticisms people make about setting up in Spain, is the amount and difficulty of red-tape involved. No doubt the winner of the next election will aspire to cutting red tape, in order to encourage new enterprises, but having to deal with paperwork (particularly when hiring staff) will always be an issue. Hiring a good gestor or business advisor is the one necessity that most start-ups will encounter in Spain.

Lisa Sadleir set up a company on Spain’s Costa del Sol that can help new businesses cope with the red-tape. She told me “If I were to disagree with this statement [that red-tape is an obstacle] then I would be losing half of my business! However, I believe that people think that Spanish red tape is more of a problem than it really is. Like in any country there are regulations and procedures. In Spain, this is translated into the need for a copious amount of paperwork and all in the right place at the right time. If not, you are simply sent to the back of the queue.” Put it in that way and it does sound tiresome. Luckily Lisa’s company is one of several who can resolve this issue for you; their website is also good for giving a good overview in English of various licenses required if you decide to go it alone. However the common advice (and particularly with a lean start-up) is, it makes financial and time sense to outsource difficult tasks to the professionals like CCB. If you really insist on doing it all then perhaps the “bootstrapping” book WorkinSpain or visiting relevant websites like expatica or BritishExpats should be your first port of call.

Another thing you should take note of, is that contrary to the myth, the sun doesn’t always shine in Spain, and in fact it can be cold in winter, especially inland and at altitude. Having said that, even in a wet year you should see plenty of sunny days in most of Spain to keep you happy. Just don’t forget a pullover or two for cold snaps in winter, and don’t think you won’t need an umbrella or raincoat. It’s a common sight in the cities when the rains come (and they do eventually even if you have to wait 6 months) to see street sellers at entrances to Metro stations selling umbrellas. Noise can also be an issue in cities, so choose your location carefully. Pierre at FlatawayMadrid makes an additional point about the noise issue: “However, the key thing here about finding a quiet place is not the neighbourhood, but the very street you live on. You can live in the very centre of Malasaña with 20 bars 100 yards away and never hear a thing, if you live around the corner in a little street. On the contrary, you can live in the poshest part of Madrid, in Calle Goya for instance, in front of the Corte Inglés mall,and may encounter some noise issues.”

Is there a downside to starting up your business in Spain? Certainly, if your client base is local you’re going to find it very difficult to attract new customers – and it could well be very seasonal. Spain has suffered badly from the recession, and many people don’t have a lot of money to spend. Remember also to look into health insurance, pension provision etc. People based in Spain sometimes complain about bank charges, so they should be taken into account. The links given in the previous paragraph have a wealth of material on these subjects, and they should be considered by anyone moving to another country to live and work. Also, if you have a weakness for socialising and alcohol, you may find the temptations of partying detract from the serious issue of building up your business. Lastly, remember that if your business fails, you won’t have a safety net to bail you out. People coming from somewhere like the UK , where there is a welfare state that has more comprehensive coverage, should consider what the risk of failure would be. This last factor can work both ways, and you may find yourself working more diligently and carefully if you know that your lifestyle is totally dependent on the success of your enterprise.

But assuming your market is international, Spain is surely a great place to be located if your business idea is viable – so long as you enjoy a sunny climate, lively night-life, great public transport  and a good place to bring up a family too. I’ll let Lisa from CCB have the last word on this: “As in any country, the first step is to conduct research before launching a new business. I think too many people move to Spain with a new business idea thinking that it will be easier as they have seen the country when on holiday, in busy periods. They are not always aware of the legalities and their responsibilities. People often use their lack of language knowledge as an excuse to ignore/overlook things that they would never consider overlooking in their own country. I would not live anywhere else other than Southern Spain. It is a fantastic place to live and to bring up children. As to whether it is the right place for your business remains to be see. However, I would be more than happy to give you my opinion before you take your first step.”

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  1. Great article Mark, and thanks for mentionning FlatAway ! As I said, I will answer to your questions this week to put more interesting content on this great blog.

    All the best,

  2. Great article Mark,

    I agree with everything written here. I would add learning the language is essential and having enough money to last you at least a year, while setting up and finding your feet is also a good idea.
    Research your area and market well if it is a start up you are planning on and think hard about why you want to live and work in Spain and then remember those reasons once youv’e been here for a while. It’s easy to get caught up too much on your work and not live life like the Spanish, enjoy life and relax a little.
    If anybody needs any help on relocating to Cadiz, Jerez or the Costa de la Luz, we are specialists and a lot of information can be found on our site. for general FREE info on moving to Spain

  3. I have lived in Spain for 10 years and helped hundreds of North Europeans set-up/settle here. I know Lisa, Graham and Pierre. They are three who have made it here. Congratulations to them!

    Sadly, the overwhelming majority do not succeed. Reasons? Lack of research, lack of work-ethic, lack of commitment to learn Spanish and integrate and unrealistic expectations all destroy expat businesses. This is a country with 44% youth unemployment, 20% + national unemployment, a government about to be slaughtered at the voting booths, civil unrest throughout the country and an economy in free-fall. It takes a certain type of mentality to prosper in these conditions.

    I have written extensively on this in and as well as chewing the cud have set up exhibitions, employment forums and more to try to assist. On 15th October there is a major networking forum in Málaga. All with an interest of building a business in Spain are welcome.

  4. Nice and comprehensive post. Congratulations. I think the article focuses mainly on the pros and cons of starting a new business in Spain. Raising a startup, meaning a high-risk, high-potential, scalable project, is usually a painful venture when it comes to find funding opportunities. Venture capital is hard to find in Spain, to say the least. Investors in Spain tend to look for safe bets (pelotazos), so they are less receptive to these projects than the average in europe. Anyway, as patterns of chaos are always a variable to take into account in the Spanish social environment, the odds of running into a real angel investor are probably as high in Spain as everywhere in Europe.

  5. Thanks for the comments from everyone. I agree that funding can be an important issue – I believe that there are more and more startup incubators and business angels now in Spain, but I can quite believe they try and focus on the sure bets. I’ve also read that Telefonica is investing in various start-up projects (in Spain and in south America) via its Wayra project, but that is probably not an option for foreign newcomers? Steve, I’m not sure why a change of government is meant to be bad for launching a start-up – isn’t the likely winner Sr Rajoy claiming to be entrepreneur friendly and keen not to raise taxes? Still, he is a politician, so perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much. If the “civil unrest” avoids the looting and burning buildings we’ve just had in London, then it shouldn’t impact on building a web business. After all 40 million tourists (and not a few migrants) seem to cope with Spain each year
    I agree that it doesn’t make much sense trying to attack the home market as a newcomer (my article is really aimed at start-ups that sell either internationally or to the expat community) but it’s not all bad news out there. According to this article in Spanish el-comercio-electronico-sigue-creciendo-en-espana, /e-commerce is currently growing at over 20% in Spain, and firms like Zara and Amazon are at long last entering the Spanish cyber market. But yes, it’s a very tough marketplace, and for technical and marketing reasons probably a non-goer for a migrant to attack. For instance, credit checks, postal codes, even the way numbers are represented in locales (10,00 is ten units I understand) are different. That’s even before you start on promotion and marketing. So launching a dot com as a foreigner in Spain makes a lot of sense, but you’d need to be exceptional to make a go with a Dot Es domain.

    • Thanks for the link Quique! I was interested in listening to Mr Varsavsky – I’d forgotten how different the Argentinean accent was.

  6. There has just been an interesting article in the Washington Post by Vivek Wadhwa, explaining why he thinks the entrepreneurial spirit is discouraged in Spain. Although I wonder if he’s noticed the large number of start-ups being launched in Spain (see or my site to see some of them), his article does raise important points about the high costs of social security taxes and the red tape barriers to starting a company in Spain. Well worth reading, for anyone interested in the start-up scene in Spain.

  7. I’ve finally been able to get round to reading this article in full, given that I’m too busy with my start-up:

    Luckily, living in Madrid, the paperwork wasn’t so bad as I did it all in a couple of days at the Chamber of Commerce (of course, speaking Spanish helped too!).

    What is annoying is paying the full amount of the freelancer (autonomo) social security rate when the first few months you’re struggling to get out any invoices at all – 254€ a month paid over to the state is a lot for a new venture.

    Anyway, after more than 20 years working for others, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • Thanks for your feedback Maxine. I took a look at your site – seems very useful for folk based in Spain. For some reason it takes some time to load on a PC (perhaps it was my browser, Firefox), but it looks very good on my mobile.

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