Setting up your own business: honey trap or godsend?

Inger Stokkink is a journalist, expat, geek and a self-proclaimed “professional outsider”. She is also involved The Bridge Project and in this guest post she offers some reflections on the double-edged sword that is self-employment in Denmark.

Nothing is easier than setting up your own business in Denmark. You go to this site: (http://www.virk.dk/cms/render/live/da/sites/virk/home/vejledninger/start-virksomhed/vejviser.html) on http:virk.dk , you log in with your Nem-ID and within a day you have your CVR number. And so you are ready to take on the world, and Denmark in particular. I know, because I did that almost two years ago.

Back then, the Danish organisations that are there to help expats and their partners settle in Denmark started promoting this. Start your own business, make money out of the things you know about your own country and your (high-level) education, and the things you have learned in your previous career. Make, and be, Your Own Unique Selling Point!

But are Danish entrepreneurs so anxious to get to know about your country? Do they appreciate the things you have learned abroad? What does your experience in foreign markets mean to them? You may be unique, but who needs it?

And a cynical thought formed itself. It is hard to get foreigners into the labour market as employees – so let them fend for themselves as entrepreneurs, seemed to be the thought behind this new policy. Trapped in their own little firms, foreign entrepreneurs discover that Danish employers didn’t want them, but Danish customers don’t want them either. And the Danish expat community is too small to make it a profitable niche market.

And, in the same cynical vein: almost two years later, it seems that the organisations have given up that point of view again. The CV-courses and Danish working culture workshops are being promoted with more vigour than ever, and money for a special foreign entrepreneur programme from Startvækst Aarhus has stopped.

So starting a business is the easy part. Getting your business going is harder, and takes longer, much longer. In that, foreigners are not very much different from beginning Danish entrepreneurs. But their time horizon is very often different because of their residence permit, their ‘opholdstilladelse’. Why ask foreigners to invest a lot of time, energy and money in an enterprise that is limited timewise if your permit, or prolongation of it, is uncertain? Even more so if it is dependent on the permit of your spouse, who is the reason you came here in the first place?

Let’s face it: to the Danish labour market expat spouses are ‘bifangst’ – the little fish and other sea creatures that accidentally get caught in the nets that are meant for big fish: the ‘real’ expats. Not their spouses.

The fate of most bifangst is that it is thrown out as waste, because its value is not recognised. So as a little fish in the ‘bifangst’, I have to speak up (in Danish!), and make the fisherman (a.k.a. Denmark) an offer he can’t refuse.  Not so easy if you have to do that flapping on the deck, gasping for air, and not knowing what the fisherman actually likes, or needs. On the other hand: how many fish talk back to a fisherman? It definitely is a way to attract attention, and opens up a lot of possibilities.

Godsend

But back to business again. I still think there is a good reason to start your own business – if only as a thought experiment. And that reason is twofold.

On the one hand, it shows that finding work is a pretty lonely affair and that in the end you and only you are responsible for your business’ and, in the end, your own fate. You are the owner. No one is going to clean your desk, find your clients or do your administration, if you do not make things happen.

On the other hand, it gives you an enormous liberty to define yourself as a working identity and your assets and the way you want to use them. You are not tailoring your assets to the needs and wishes of the company you are making your CV for. No, you can choose for yourself what you want to do.

It is also a fantastic opportunity to reinvent yourself. To take myself as an example: do I want to write in Dutch, in English or in Danish? Do I want to write or to make television – or both, in sequence of course? For a Danish audience, or for a Dutch one, or for an international (Anglophone) audience? Do I want to write a blog for The Bridge Project this morning? Or do I want to repair my boat, since the weather is still fine?

So don’t get trapped in the honey trap of your own business. But don’t throw the suggestion of starting one away as ‘bifangst’ among all the other suggestions International Community, Work in Denmark and all the others have on offer. You may just be sitting on the golden egg that Denmark has been waiting for.

You can find out more about Inger and her work at http://stickelberg.dk/freelance-journalist-inger or at http://inborgerblog.blogspot.dk/

The Bridge Project gets underway

I am happy to say that The Bridge Project is up and running and expats really are doing it for themselves.

From the initial meeting on September 24 it became clear that there were two quite distinct functions that participants wanted from the project. The first of these is to provide support for and input into the challenge of building bridges to the local labour market. The second is to provide a space where we can do broader network activity around the idea of developing this “third way” of being an expat – a kind of positive yet critical space for expats and hosts to meet.

Although the people who are involved in these may sometimes overlap, we decided that it would be best if we ran separate strands or threads of the project so that participants can choose the parts they want to be involved with.

It is less than a month since the initial meeting but we already have lots of ideas for how we might develop, including:

  • Linking with other networks to facilitate links to the Danish work and business environment
  • Taking on and developing the much valued International Entrepeneurs Night Out previously organised by Startvækst Aarhus
  • Developing a stronger identity for The Bridge Project
  • Organising a conference for employers around the issues of expatriate (dis)engagement
  • Producing a book which both valorises the expatriate experience and makes a positive contribution to answering the question, “How can we do it better?”
  • Being recognised as a locus of expertise on the expatriate experience
  • Developing a website to showcase participants’ expertise and competences
  • Develop a series of workshops on topics of relevance to the expat and international community – from the basics, for example, using LinkedIn to boost your business or career, to more focused business development
  • Stimulate debate – the network should be leading debate and raising the issues affecting international and expats and their place in and relationship with our hosts.

We have also created a LinkedIn network group for participants in the project and those who have a real interest in how the project develops.

It is still early days but there seems to be an instinctive understanding among those involved that there is no longer any point in waiting for someone do do this for us – we really do just have to do it for ourselves.