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Ask HN: Questions about running a company from a cheap country
38 points by gringomorcego on Apr 22, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 34 comments
Recently I was thinking about this, and realized that a lot of the money issues I worry about for doing a startup would disappear if I incorporated in Singapore and ran my business (which would be a B2C/B2B hybrid, with possibly handling deposits into customer accounts) from a country which was very cheap to live in (India, Cambodia, Thailand or Vietnam).

What physical things do I have to worry about having to handle? What sort of stuff can I not easily handle with either a telephone call or an internet connection, assuming I'm working alone?

I'm particularly worried about how to read stuff that I'm going to have sent to a PO box and stuff like that. What stupid pitfalls am I optimistically avoiding to think about?




I ran a company in the Philippines for two years. It was a good experience -- good, not great.

Pros:

* Cheap -- You can make it as cheap as you want. You can get down to $100-$200 per month if you're aggressive. But understand that you won't have the western lifestyle that you're used to. If you want a nice western kitchen, bathroom, consistent electricity, consistent bandwidth, then you're going to pay more and more. I found a sweetspot of about $1k/month total expenses.

* Quality of living -- this is related to cost. You can have a full time maid, driver, etc. It's totally normal, totally acceptable, and improves mental health significantly.

* Tropical weather, access to many travel destinations

Cons:

* Far from family and friends

* Lots of business travel -- If you have customers in the U.S. or Europe, inevitably you're going to end up traveling there frequently. This bothers some people more than others. It really wore me down.

* Difficult hiring environment -- It can be really hard to find top tier talent. Either be patient, or be willing to pay above market rates.

* Weak legal system -- As you achieve success, you will unfortunately become target of occasional shady behavior. For example, an accountant who skims petty cash, or a server admin who locks you out of your own servers. In the U.S., those risks are mitigated by a good legal system (and background checks, credit agencies, reliable postal system, etc). In developing countries, you are largely on your own. That can lead to a feeling of helplessness. Toughen up. Hire lawyers.

Non-cons:

* Taxes -- Yes, international taxes are complicated; however, you can easily afford local legal services to handle everything.

* Foreign bank accounts -- Not as scary as FACTA sounds. Hire a good U.S. accountant to do your taxes.

We had a U.S. LLC and local entity in the Philippines. Doing business as a U.S. entity is 1000x easier (think about payments, collections, legal services, etc). Have a local entinty for all local staff and your office.

The Philippines, like many developing countries, has many special government programs to encourage entrepreneurship. For example, we were in a program that granted a 5-year tax holiday and special visas for "job creators".


Maybe a dumb question but I wonder always how the Internet connection in such countries is in general and even if it's great: does the lag to the western world annoys one after a while??


Depends what you are doing. I did quite a bit of work from indonesia, philippines and singapore. Singapore no problems , indonesia & philippines it depends on what you do. If your main data consumption is video then it can get annoying, specially if your looking at more shady sites to get your movies and even non shady ones can be slow, youtube is probably the best out of all of them (mind you this was about 3 years ago so things could have gotten much better now)

For example assume an above average connection, you still cant take watching videos for granted as you do in say AU or US. If you are heavy on the streaming whilst you work then it can be annoying, so there is some wait for a video to load, not long but at times the video is not loading faster then it plays so you get pauses.

However if youre just browsing or working from a terminal screen there really isnt to much issues, its fast enough.

What i found though is the 3G connection was terrible, mainly because the population is so large (specially) in indonesia that at busy times the service providers just can't keep up and the slowdown in 3g data can be felt.


20 mbit/sec in the provincial city in Ukraine, a bit more in the capital. Also, around 20 mbit/sec in the Bratislava, Slovakia. Internet connection not an issue in those countries.


Connection in Ukraine is much better than in Malaysia, for example. Lag is lower (Ukraine is in Europe, obviously), speed in higher in average, price is lower. Speaking from personal experience.


In fact connection in Ukraine is much better than even in US. I have 60 mbs at home and pay 15$/month without any traffic limit (no throttling too). For $20 you can get 100mbs. In most major cities you have an access to several providers so you can choose what works better for you. The ping to SF is 200ms. Upload download speed to SF is 4mbs/6mbs. Upload is faster.

In the city where I live (Donetsk) public areas are covered with free wifi service.


I live in India, I have a 2mbps connection at home and pay about $40/month. Not sure what lag you are referring to. I dont have any problems talking to people on skype wherever in the world they may be.


"ping heroku.com" for example and tell us your ping time


How do you deal with the difficult hiring environment?

I'm living in Canada right now but considering starting a startup in the Caribbean (where I'm originally from) but I know from experience that the talent there is nowhere as good as it is here. I'd probably have to recruit from North America, similar to what the guys at Tropical MBA are doing.


Pitfall if you are a U.S. citizen/green card holder: taxes. Scratch that. Not taxes. Paperwork and the cost to keep it straight.

Your SG corporation will be a controlled foreign corporation.

Unless you are exceptionally well-organized and advised, the income generated by your company would start to look a lot like Subpart F income. Translation: all of the profit of the SG corporation is taxable to you as a human being, every year, on your U.S. individual tax return.

Now. You might say "Meh, profit is profit and if I have to pay tax what does it matter. I will have to pay tax anyway." Well, yes, to a point. But I will gloss over that or what I talk about will look a lot (to you) as snippets of code look to me. Unintelligible.

The real problem is that the U.S. tax paperwork burden is profound. And it is beyond the power of mere mortals to do it properly. You are in the realm of paperwork designed to capture transactions and operations of companies of Google's ilk. Not ordinary small businesses.

And if you screw up the paperwork, the penalties will eat you alive. E.g., Form 5471. This is where you tell the IRS "Hi, I am an American and I own shares of a foreign corporation." File late, and it is $10,000 please as a penalty. Don't fill it in right, and they say it is an incomplete therefore failed filing. $10,000 please.

Things start there and get worse.

The cost of running a SG corporation in SG annually is nontrivial. The cost of people like me is nontrivial. (I'm de-f'ing a SG corporation right now for a guy in precisely this position).

All of that money you save living in Cambodia will go to pay the overhead of your corporation. I don't recommend living cheap just so you can give $10,000 to someone like me. :-)

If you are an American and you want to live in a cheap country, kind of under the radar, and run your business from there, set up your company in the USA. Run it from there.

The probability of making a mess of international tax filings approaches 1.0 in a very few years. The probability of making a mess with domestic corporate or LLC filings is very low.

The cost of talent to keep your international corporate structure straight is extremely high. (I'm $750/hour and I'm not taking on any new clients at the moment). The cost of talent to run a generic domestic corporation -- you can get that anywhere from any random accountant and corporate lawyer.

That's my suggestion. Running away is the best strategy. Said Brave Sir Robin.


So is there any real downside to what you mentioned, just incorporating in the US and living somewhere cheap? That's something I had been wanting to ask about, since I'm surprised I haven't heard anything on here about people doing it. If you're bootstrapping a company, why not live somewhere you can survive on hundreds a month?


No downside that I can think of. If you are living below the radar in another country you are fine. If you are visible you probably need a company there for all sorts of local reasons.


The only potential downside I can see is visa issues. Countries such as India have layers of bureaucracy so it might to awhile to get a visa (even a tourist one) or especially, renew it.

Background - I'm an Indian citizen. I went to graduate school in USA and worked for a year. I moved back to India because I am bootstrapping my startup out of my savings and have a much longer runaway living in India.


What's your startup and where are you guys located?

Your HN profile is blank!


First off: thank you for taking the time to respond. Your answer was incredibly insightful.

Usually I'm pretty good at googling stuff, but when it comes to this I feel like too dumb to know what I don't know. If you know a link or two that answer most of my questions below, it's cool if you just post those. I feel like I can't even tell what info is right when it comes to this stuff.

----

Okay, so I'm a US citizen. If I understand you right, most of my problems stem from wanting to incorporate in Singapore. If I incorporate domestically but run it while traveling, that'll cover most bases and make life much easier, correct?

Secondly, I don't doubt your talk about the complexity added on by incorporating in Singapore. But Singapore is really banking on people starting to incorporate there, I mean there must be some sort of national effort to automate/lessen the hurdles, right? I mean your random comment literally saved me from thinking that incorporating in SG/HK would be a good option.

I don't know, just after reading sivers.org I just assumed that the complexity was much more manageable. Maybe I'm just gullible/easily misled? Or does this option only make sense when you have a certain number of people working with you/certain profit? Could you guess as to what those numbers might be?

If I did want to incorporate, is there a big difference between incorporating in HK/SG/better place I don't know of?


Singapore is a very easy place to incorporate (24 hours + $350), but there are enough other downsides (credit card merchant account, banking, foreign reporting) - that it's probably worth doing what the other people advise here, and just set up your US LLC/corp and bank account in the U.S. first, then take off and go hang in Phnom Penh, Nha Trang, Luang Prabang, Chiang Mai, Bali, Kerala, etc. (I can introduce you to interesting techies in any of these places & more. Feel free to email me at derek@sivers.org)

Singapore often wins the “ease of doing business” awards, but those are grading things like imports/exports, foreign employees, and such.

When it comes to doing an internet-based business, U.S. wins hands-down. All those lovely online things like Stripe, easy online banking, online statements, PayPal integration and such are much harder to set up outside the U.S. So set it all up first. Online-only statements for your bank, etc.

Oh and yes, EarthClassMail is awesome. Set it up first before you incorporate, and make your EarthClassMail address the sole address for your LLC/corporation from the start. It's a little expensive but so worth it.

Get a CPA you trust in the U.S. first, and give them some pre-signed blank business checks before you go. There are some things that require paper checks, and it's a drag when you're across the world and need to send one. Usually they're tax-related so have your CPA send one of your pre-signed checks. And when needed, have EarthClassMail forward tax things to your CPA.

On that note, it helps if a family member can sign your name for you, so if some forms insist that they need the "signed original", you don't have to have a f'ing FedEx jet flying a piece of f'ing paper to Asia and back just to get your pen on it.

Hope that helps. I won't be monitoring this HN post for future comments, so anyone please feel free to email me with any questions.

- Derek


Singapore just surpassed Hong Kong as one of the most expensive places to live in Asia.

I think it'd be more rational to discuss more developing countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, South America, etc.


Sivers has an awesome post on how him and his dad screwed up some paperwork when he started CD Baby, IIRC, CD Baby was officially part of his dad's company, it cost him $3.3 million to fix it.

http://sivers.org/mistake

Keep in mind that for sivers it would make sense to do something like pay someone $750/hour to make sure his paperwork gets done right.

Whenever someone talks to me about saving money on taxes I remind them of a man named Al Capone and what he actually went to jail for. It wasn't killing people, it wasn't running guns, booze, gambling or many of the things that people think of him as doing illegally...

It was filing his taxes incorrectly.


You might as well keep a corporation in the US, but move to a cheap country like Thailand. That gives you the best of both worlds: access to all the deals, payment platforms, of a US company, with the low cost of living. As long as it's just you to bootstrap, it's great.

You'll face scaling issues eventually: how do you hire 10 great engineers? But hopefully, once you reach that point, your business generates enough revenue or traffic that you can pay for it.


FYI, unless you're willing to live like a bum Thailand isn't a cheap place to live. My rent is 75% of what I paid for a Nob Hill apartment and my car payment is 100% more expensive (import duties). If you're willing to live like a bum you've got tons of options, including moving out to Nowhere USA. My parents spend part of their year in Tucson, AZ. I've seen ok homes for sale there for under 100k. The used car market is incredible as is the case in most of the US. You'd have to deal with chain restaurants and strip malls but at the fraction of the cost of most urban centers.

I would recommend setting up your company offshore. It's not as complicated as people make it out to be (unless they're selling their services) and I know plenty of long-term expats who have done so without issue. Chances are if you're asking this question here you're not going to be on anyone's radar with your company.

The US does want you to: 1) File taxes regardless of residence. If you're declaring personal income you're exempt up to 95k or so but even if you make under that you're expected to file. Having said that I don't know anyone who does or anyone who has ever had an issue. I talked to the IRS once about it (I was young and wasn't making over the limit and hadn't filed taxes for years) and they suggested to get up to speed to just file back reports and ask for the exemption as normal. 2) I guess now you're supposed to declare any foreign bank account with more than 10k in it. I've never heard of this being enforced in any way.

As far as I know probably your easiest route it to move to HK. They seem to have the most lax immigration policies and it's easy to set up a company there. Rent is like central SF (same size/price ratio). If you're not selling products in HK you're not liable for taxes (standard tax haven stuff).

Or just setup your company there and live somewhere else. If you do that though you're going to have to deal with immigration somehow because you'll permanently be a tourist. If you're a tourist in most of these destinations you're looking at moving in and out of the country 3 - 4 times a year or more. Between my first and second company I was living here and fell into a sort of immigration limbo, having to live as a tourist for quite a while. I assure you that going in and out of the country to keep your paperwork current gets old really fast.

This was assuming you're a US citizen. If not ignore the US-specific info.


"FYI, unless you're willing to live like a bum Thailand isn't a cheap place to live."

This is only if you live in Bangkok or maybe Hua Hin. Most other places will have you live exceedingly well for 1000 USD pr. Month all included. Cars though are indeed extremely expensive, better to get a motor bike / scooter or a motor cycle.


I can't agree with you there. Outside of Bangkok I don't think you could live exceedingly well for any amount. I know people who have built homes in Chiang Mai that are impressive, but they're still living in Chiang Mai. There's just not a lot going on up there. Maybe if you had something nice on the water in Phuket you could have a good life. But that's not something most non-wealthy or non-retired people will be looking at.

I like living here because although my condo costs a significant percentage of what I paid in SF, it's also 3x bigger. Cars are a lot more expensive but they also hold their resale value much better than in the US. I also never have to cook a meal, wash my car or clean my place. That means I can spend 100% of my time working if I choose to. The value of that can't be stressed enough if you're an obsessive workaholic (like I would imagine a lot of people here are).

Compared to the US, having access to good, low cost health and dental is also great. My wife needed major surgery a while ago and even with her generic coverage-as-a-perk corporate health plan I think we paid 500$ out of pocket for the procedure. This was for a minimally invasive procedure at a private hospital. I can't imagine what it would have cost in the US without additional coverage.


What about incorporating in the US but running it from Asia?

Check out the guys at Tropical MBA: http://www.tropicalmba.com They're running a profitable startup from Bali.

For mail, a lot of traveling entrepreneurs recommend Earth Class Mail (http://www.earthclassmail.com).


If you are just looking for a cheap place to live, you're actually better off staying in the US. Medium size American cities (think Portland, Richmond, etc) are essentially free compared to SF, NYC, DC, etc. While they aren't as cheap as some other countries, you don't have to buy a plane ticket, and you have all the convenience(ish) of home.


Def check out the TropicalMBA. They also have an awesome podcast and an online community full of expat entrepreneurs.

http://lifestylebusinesspodcast.com

http://tropicalmba.com/innercircle


Hey thanks for that, appreciate you'd bring it up.


I'd say stay in the US... but then again I'm coming from a pretty extreme case right now (Bangladesh where I'm living for the year). It's amazing how much we take for granted in the states... things that add up to make you efficient in your work. Little things like not having reliable commuting options (transport), reliable electricity and internet, and having automatic laundry and dishwashing machines make life in the states so easy so you can focus on other things. It's fun to live in the moment as South Asia forces you to do, but it's tough to be anywhere near as productive.

Here there are moments of uninterrupted efficiency but so many things are unreliable

- internet: slow during peak hours, not unlimited, western prices

- electricity: cuts out for about 2 hours a day randomly...HUGE productivity killer and makes it really hard to plan, stay cool, etc

- weather: extreme heat and humidity, always fighting elements, dust, drying clothes outside in moments between rain downpours etc

- transportation: getting across town can take an hour in choking smog

- politics: shut down the city's commerce once a month

Now you can get around most of the challenges above by paying enough, hiring service, living where you work, etc, but then you're spending almost as much as you would in the states.

Then you need to consider how there are fewer opportunities to sell, share, network here... but that depends. If you're selling something for developing countries then it's a different story. I'm using my time to do something unique to this market while I'm here.


I thnk Bangladesh is far behind Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Vietnam. Most of the issues you raise simply aren't a problem in Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City (except, perhaps, the traffic in Bangkok... my god is it bad...) and as others have mentioned, it's both inexpensive and expected to have a maid to deal with laundry and cleaning.

Having lived in both cities for periods of time, I was amazingly productive because I didn't have to worry about mundane chores and could get healthy and inexpensive food at any hour of the day or night. And it was cheap.


You're going to run into a world of trouble thanks to the new FATCA law [1]. You better have a good lawyer and accountant lined up.

1: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/16/business/global/for-americ...


I've had a company incorporated in Hong Kong (HK) while living in Thailand, and a company incorporated in the British virgin isles (BVI) while living in Russia. These were both very small software development shops around 5 employees.

The cost of incorporation in both HK and BVI is around 2 to 4 thousand USD, if you pay a company to sort out all the paperwork, bank accounts etc. You also have to pay every year (roughly the same amount though a little less), to maintain the company. This again if you pay an agent company to take care of all the paperwork, which I'd highly recommend.

As for internet, both in Thailand and Russia it was absolutely fine for most purposes. You do have the occasional outage, but it's seldom. We did however have a backup 3G mobile internet line we used in these cases.

Whether or not you have to worry about handle physical mail, depends entirely on your business. We didn't have any use for it, but we were doing software so your mileage may vary. In most cases I'd think you'd be fine with a physical mail address in the US (or whereever your customers are), that can forward any mail to you.

As for tax, I wouldn't really know US rules - I formally emigrated from my home country, thereby making me tax exempt (but also non eligible to receive any services). Whether or not you need to pay personal income tax in your new country of residence, depends on the individual tax laws of the country. If you live like most expats do (on some form of a tourist visa), you usually don't pay tax there either. But you really should consult a local lawyer for details on this, as you generally do not want to risk breaking any laws in a country like Thailand or Cambodia.

As for corporate tax, this is zero percent if your company is incorporated in either HK or BVI. Heck, in BVI you don't even have to file annual accounting papers!

If you are curious we used www.ocra.com to incorporate in BVI and www.willsonn.com for incorporation in HK. Both of those companies can get the job done, but neither of them are very good at customer service. If I had to do it again, I'd probably look for a different agent.

Apart from that, there is really not much to it. Again depending on your situation, almost everything can be handled on telephone, email or fax (!).

Main issues are as others have mentioned:

You are far from family and friends.

You may have to do lots of expensive business travel.

It can be really hard to scale the business, unless you are able to work within a distributed team.


Why did you set up a software development shop in the BVI, are the problems they are solving specific to the BVI?

I'm asking because I'm considering starting a startup on a Caribbean island that I'm originally from. If you have any advice you'd like to offer, I'd be glad to read it.


I only had the company incorporated in the BVI. We had a small sales office in London, and I was personally living in Russia at that time.

The reason I setup in BVI, was because it was reasonably easy, and because no annual reporting of accounts is neccessary (no more "accounting preparation panic" every year).

So our customers were not in the BVI, rather they were spread out over Europe.

If you have the option of living and starting a startup on a Carribean island, what's holding you back? :-)


> what's holding you back? :-)

My biggest worry is recruiting. Paraphrasing Valve, I want hires who are not only talented or collaborative but also capable of literally running the company, because they will be. I don't want to lower the hiring bar because of my location.

I would probably have a recruiting strategy similar to TropicalMBA.com. Recruit via internships and offer them the chance to solve challenging problems in paradise.


Recruiting can be a problem in these kinds of destinations, and so can employee retention. It will probably be hard if you need access to a large talent pool of highly talented and self directing people.




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