Starting a new business requires a lot of hard work, determination, and a learning curve. Starting a new and doing business in Costa Rica, as a foreigner, can be complicated, and often frustrating.
But most of all, especially if the new business is your own, it takes balls. Big balls.
I know, I started my first new business in Costa Rica in 1980, I was 25 years old and had never before had my own business. Since then, I’ve started 4 new businesses and made lots of mistakes. And I’ve lost lots of money. But I learned from my mistakes, I’m still learning.
When you come from a different culture than the Tico culture, you have a different mindset than the local habitants. Of how the local market reacts to your logic, your product and your way of promoting your business or product.
Adapt and conquer. Don’t allow culture shock to damage your new business. Throughout this blog, I’m also giving you some links that will offer you a more detailed explanation on the issue at hand. Allow me to assist by giving you a few tips:
In Costa Rica, we don’t have normal addresses, we don’t have street names and house numbers. It’s not so easy to find an address such as 400 west and 250 north from Bar el Tapis! Learn more about how addresses function in Costa Rica. So when you start your new business, first find out what your Tico address is, before you print your business cards.
2. How to greet
Often, you don’t know the age of a person you greet on the phone for the first time. If the person you’re calling is, for example, Mr. Alvaro Salas Madrigal, it’s respectful to ask for Don Alvaro Salas. When you’re talking to him in person, you can say don Alvaro. Once you find out that don Alvaro is a young(er) person and you feel comfortable with that person, you could call him Alvaro. When the person is a female, you can call her doña Victoria for example.
Greet people you don’t know in the “usted” form, not in the “vos” form. Vos is used for friends and family, although Millennials tend to use vos for everyone. In my opinion, using vos is a lack of respect.
When you meet the person, a handshake is a normal way of greeting. Next time you meet, if it is a female, you could kiss the person on the cheek, if both feel comfortable with that. The kiss on the cheek is usually just a cheek to cheek, more than a kiss.
When you make a request or place an order from a supplier, a governmental employee or even your own employees, make sure they follow up. Because it’s quite common nothing will happen. You need to insist and send reminders for anything to happen. Don’t assume it will.
Costa Ricans are very clean people. They bathe well, every morning, and use aftershave or perfume. Adjust your personal hygiene to the tropics.
Depending on the type of business you’re in, Costa Ricans dress formally. That means a suit and tie is normal. Check before you show up in shorts and flipflops.
When asking for an appointment with someone, confirm the appointment again in the morning of the appointment day. People tend to forget their appointments easily. Even in business, people tend to have little respect for someone else’s time.
As a rule, for my own sanity, I give those who have an appointment with me, 10 minutes after appointment time. If they arrive 10 minutes past appointment time, I don’t attend. If with the second chance they come late again, I don’t do business with them. I love doing business with someone who is early.
For the same reason as above, people tend to be late. When going to an appointment with a doctor or dentist, bring a book or spend time on Facebook while waiting. For sure, they’ll let you wait for more than necessary. Be patient.
I do tell a lawyer who obliges me to sit in his/her waiting room for 20 minutes that I see this as a lack of respect to my agenda. Their face and reaction will show you if you will need to find another lawyer or not. Stick to this rule in your new business in Costa Rica. It’s the only way to protect your own agenda and sanity.
Few Costa Ricans shut their phone off during a business meeting. It takes a while to get used to being interrupted all the time. But it’s perfectly normal to leave your phone on and answer it while meeting with someone, even though I personally see it as a lack of respect to the person you’re meeting with.
Governmental institutions do NOT answer their phone, or will transfer the call to the wrong person. Or you’ll get cut off. Hire a local person to take care of those calls.
8. Small talk
Don’t go straight to the point about the business you’re there for immediately, that’s being too blunt. It is very common to first have some small talk before you talk about business.
Once you know each other a bit better, the small talk becomes even more important. Then it’s very important to ask how the family is and other things you might not care about. But that turns a business relationship into something more than just business, which is positive for the relationship.
Don’t talk too much about you and your new business when first meeting someone. Listen to what the other person wants to communicate.
Try to speak Spanish. You’ll receive much more respect from the person you’re meeting with if you’d make an effort to speak Spanish. Often, you’ll find that Costa Ricans loves to practice their English. But don’t allow that stop you from practicing your Spanish.
Be aware that though Costa Ricans love jokes, they don’t like black humor. Be careful with telling or making jokes, if you don’t know the person you’re meeting with.
11. Have connections
Costa Rica is a small country and everyone knows everyone. You have to be careful talking about other people, good or bad because they might be family or they have gone to school together. Or worse, they hate each other. You’d be off best if you can get as many local people to connect you with others, so your new business can thrive quickly.
This is also the reason that you have to behave well and be honest. If you don’t, everyone in your business environment will soon know all about you and your behavior.
12. Can’t say no
Costa Ricans always try to be nice. Therefore they can’t say no. They will usually agree with anything presented to them but then not follow up. This is a part of the culture that is really important to learn when starting a new business in Costa Rica.
That’s also the reason they might promise something and never follow up on their promise. Deadlines are rarely made. So if you really need what was promised, the ball is in your court.
Hopefully, these 12 tips will allow you to adjust fast in your new business in Costa Rica and to be a successful business person.
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