An Entrepreneur’s Advice On Starting Your Business Abroad

If you’ve ever dreamed of living and working abroad – perhaps to start your own business and the chance to revel in the excitement that comes with living in a foreign country – you can rest assured that you’re not alone in that dream.

Magdalena's Party
Photos: Ryan Nelson/Magdalena’s Party

According to the US State Department, an estimated 6.8 million Americans live abroad, a figure that seems to rise every year. But starting a business abroad while looking for that home away from home, is always a lot easier said than done. For Ryan Nelson, an American expat living in Argentina, he’s managed to do just that.

What initially began as a simple two-month trip to meet a friend in South America, eventually turned into a five year stay, where—despite having no experience in the restaurant business—he helped co-found Magdalena’s Party, a popular restaurant and bar located in Buenos Aires. We talked to Ryan about how he came to settle in Buenos Aires, the challenges of living as an expat in another country and whether Argentines really do tango in the middle of the street.

Ryan Nelson Magdalena's Party Buenos Aires Argentina bar outside
Photos: Ryan Nelson/Magdalena’s Party

From a few months to 5 years…what made you settle in Buenos Aires?

Well, a number of things made me decide to settle here. I guess I’ll start from the start: When I finished college in 2009, the US job market wasn’t very prime. So, after saving money for 6 months working odd-jobs (captaining a pedicab, substitute teaching, and delivering magazines), I decided to meet a friend in Lima and travel for two months, ending in BA. Our plan was to teach English for 6 months to get by and enjoy the city and local fare. When I found a job with a start-up web development company that offered better pay than teaching and decent room for advancement, I took it.

Shortly after that, four of the people I had become friends with at our office said they were thinking of opening a bar, and asked if I wanted to join. At 24 and having never worked at a bar or restaurant in my life, I naturally said, “Yes”. So, these two opportunities combined with BA being a fantastic city have kept me here. I also married an Argentine lady 4 months ago, so her charm over the last 4 years was a pretty big factor in it as well.

Ryan Nelson Magdalena's Party Buenos Aires Argentina bar
Photos: Ryan Nelson/Magdalena’s Party

What does your normal day in the city look like?

Lucky for me as a late riser, my company is American and we work on US time. Since BA is 2 hours ahead, things get started a bit later. This also helps with the sometimes rough mornings that a night out in BA can foster.

The morning commute isn’t unlike many other places I’ve lived, but the public bus system is actually top notch. After morning work, there are lots of options for late lunch. I don’t generally take the 2-hour lunch that Portenios are famous for, but if I have time, I’ll try to meet up with friends or go out with co-workers.

By about 8pm (6pm on the East Coast) it’s quitting time, and I might head out to meet up with friends for drinks or dinner. Happy hour isn’t as popular as it is stateside, though there are certainly places that throw good specials for their “after office”. After dinner, if we’re feeling adventurous, we may go to a bar or club. The thing about this town is that you can be at a crowded club until 6 am on a Tuesday if you want. Certainly fun, but also something that takes getting used to and a large dose of restraint if you plan to be here long-term.

Most nights though, it isn’t too different from my life in the states. I might try to get some exercise or a soccer game in, usually with a typically late dinner afterwards.

Ryan Nelson Magdalena's Party Buenos Aires Argentina oktoberfest
Photos: Ryan Nelson/Magdalena’s Party

Describe the moment you realized you were head over heels, completely in love with BA.

I don’t know if there was a specific moment. I think there was a collection of things that when strung together made me want to stay: the best piece of $8 steak in the world; the friendly Argentines who welcome you into their homes; a passion for futbol that doesn’t match anything in the US (I’m a big US football fan, but it just doesn’t compare. As I write this, there are multiple fans screaming out their windows when a goal is scored in a random Tuesday, mid-season game); the dance floors filled with beautiful people until the sun comes up; the cafes, the weather (skyping my friends from the pool as it snows in DC!); the Argentine chamuyo; and, of course, the Argentine girl I met one day at work who is now my wife.

Okay, stupid question. But do you need to speak Spanish in order to live there?

I like that question! Yes and no. Can you survive and get by on just English? Definitely. But it would be a different experience. Despite minoring in it in college, I was terrible when I got here. Lots of conversations just nodding my head and smiling to not make things awkward. I’d consider myself fluent now, and it makes everyday life much easier, and also allows you to communicate with a whole lot of people who you otherwise would be fumbling through sign language with.

Ryan Nelson Magdalena's Party Buenos Aires Argentina bbq
Photos: Ryan Nelson/Magdalena’s Party

What was the biggest culture shock you encountered after moving to BA?

There are a lot of things, but one thing that I’d say is harder to accept is the “laid back” lifestyle. It sounds great when you read about the easy-going culture in a guide book (and don’t get me wrong, it is great sometimes), but having to deal with a plumber, or supplier at your bar who has a “laid back” style of doing his job gets old, fast. You learn how to simply plan for things not to work or to arrive late, but it’s tough at first. In a business and in smaller, everyday things. When people ask what the biggest difference here is, I always say there are less rules. That makes it nice as you have more freedoms to do whatever you want, but the trade-off is things don’t work as well. That, and you just have to be more careful. Crossing the street here is like playing Frogger.

What do you do when you feel homesick?

Having gone to college away from home, I don’t get too homesick anymore. It’s been ten years since I was there. I certainly miss friends and family a lot, but with skype and whatnot it’s so easy to stay in touch. I’m texting or talking to my brother and a few friends multiple times a week. I’m also friends with a lot of other expats, so we often get together to watch NFL games and have wings at an American bar that’s close by. It helps to vent with them about third-world frustrations every so often.

Ryan Nelson Magdalena's Party Buenos Aires Argentina
Photos: Ryan Nelson/Magdalena’s Party

Got a favorite restaurant in BA?

Don Julio’s cooks a great steak, and there’s a small, off-the-beat place called Parrilla Peña that we like to go to. Best steak sandwich I’ve ever had is a place called La Rambla in Recoleta. If someone had one meal in BA, that’s what I’d recommend. As you can tell, the beef here is big. Sotto Voce is also awesome Italian. And the folks at La Fábrica del Taco make some seriously great Mexican. Sorry, deviated from the question there.

How did the idea for Magdalena’s Party come about?

I actually arrived late to joining forces with the other owners. I didn’t have much to do with the original idea, but a few of us realized that we could pull it off because the dollar was strong against the peso. Since there were six of us (2 Argentines, 2 Canadians, myself and another American), between some savings we had and some dollars we knew we could raise, we figured we could pull it off. There honestly wasn’t a ton of thought nor planning, it was more “Look, we have a chance to open our own bar. It could, and by the odds likely will fail tremendously, but we at least we’ll have our own place.” That was the one consistent amongst us all – having a place that was ours. So, we all pitched in and did what we could to get it going.

Facebook Magdalena's Party Buenos Aires
Photos: Ryan Nelson/Magdalena’s Party

What was the biggest challenge/fear you conquered in starting Magdalena’s Party?

I don’t think there was much fear, largely because there were six of us, so we at least were in it together if it all tumbled down. As for challenges, there were of course many. Only one of us had really ever worked in the bar industry, so just learning what’s needed day in, day out to make things run. Who’s talking to the suppliers, who’s keeping the books, who can cover if a new waiter doesn’t show? All of it coupled with the fact that Argentine businesses are run differently.   Sometimes palms need to be greased here and there, and that’s just the way it works.

Could you elaborate on the fusion influence of your ‘California cuisine’ and how did it come about?

Actually, when we first started, the kitchen wasn’t usable—the oven and ventilation were broken. So we just served cold cuts and brunch because we didn’t really have the equipment to cook a full menu, but we wanted people to be able to eat something when they were there. The Cali cuisine definitely was more of an evolution than something in the business plan.

The actual menu we have now all started with Johnny (John Deutsch). He’s the owner of the web design company I work for, and loves to cook. He lived in San Diego for about 5 years before coming here, so he put the menu together once the kitchen was usable. We’ve had a few head chefs over the past 4 years who have come through and put their touches on it and added new things as well.

Facebook Magdalena's Party Argentina Buenos Aires
Photos: Ryan Nelson/Magdalena’s Party

What has surprised you the most about being an entrepreneur in a foreign country?

Well I’ve never truly had my own business, so I don’t even know that I’d consider myself an ‘entrepreneur’. I have been part of some great ventures though, and I would say being in a foreign city you just have to adapt to cultural aspects more so than you might have to domestically.

From the ‘bad surprise’ side, it’s a combination of things: having a target audience that is different culturally; dealing with the regulations that work differently; service providers not being as reliable. It’s more small things that add up rather than one thing. You have to be open and ready to accept how they do things and build how you operate around that – or at least be ready to adjust.

On the positive side, the way the local Argentines have received us is incredible. They are always asking how the bar is going, they want to do birthdays and things there because they want to support the business. You may get that with domestic businesses too, I’m not sure. But the Argentines really appreciate it and are interested in how it’s doing and why we did it more than I imagined. It’s been an incredible surprise in that way.

So many people want to start their own business in a foreign country but think it’s too risky or it should just stay a dream. What are a few tips and tricks you learned to help debunk this myth?

I guess one thing that you should do is be focused on what advantage you may have being in a foreign city. With our bar, as I said, the exchange rate was in our favor at the time, plus we knew a lot of expats (and being expats ourselves, what expats liked and wanted).   So the cost of entry being low and knowing our target market pretty well gave us a leg up.

In other contexts it could be something entirely different, I suppose. Maybe you can bring knowledge of a specific type to an area that doesn’t have much of it. Being bilingual or knowing bilingual people might double or triple the people you can do business with. There are all kinds of businesses that already work in the US that haven’t been brought to foreign cities, simply because no one has the infrastructure there to expand. A business that functions in the US would need some of the local adjusting that I mentioned, but if it’s a proven model in one country, there is probably a good chance it would work in another.

As for the risk part, I think looking at the ultimate worst case scenario helps. Usually it isn’t as bad as it might seem. When I moved here, a lot of people would say, “wow, that’s great you’re taking such a risk to try something different like that.” I never really saw it that way. The worst case real scenario (I say real, because I don’t think an accident/tragedy of any kind is more likely to happen abroad than it is staying at home) would find me back in the US with no money nor job and living with my family. A lot of my friends when I left were basically in that situation anyway, so I saw it as little to lose more than a lot to risk. I think the same mentality can help you get over the risk factor in business.

Facebook Magadalena's Party
Photos: Ryan Nelson/Magdalena’s Party

Where haven’t you gone that you would love to go in Argentina?

Patagonia. I can’t believe I haven’t been yet, and am actually planning a trip to go next month! I like hiking and outdoors, but have been unable to make much time for it the past few years. I’ll (hopefully) be taking a week or two and doing some exploring in Argentine and Chilean Patagonia.

What’s the biggest misconception about Argentine culture and what’s the truth?

That everyone dances tango in the street in their free time. They like to dance, a lot. Don’t get me wrong. But I don’t know if I know an Argentine who actually can dance tango. I only say this because most pictures of Buenos Aires have a tango dancer in them.

One perception that is true is that they are incredibly social people and great conversationalists. They can talk about anything. I have a friend who claims he once heard a group of Argentines talk about rotary phones for an hour straight. Doesn’t surprise me.

What does being a jetsetter mean to you?

I don’t know if I’d consider myself a jetsetter. I certainly have friends who travel a lot more than I do. But I guess a jetsetter at one point had to step on a plane to go somewhere that they had never been, to a culture they had never experienced. That isn’t an easy thing, heading off into the unknown. It means you at some point were able to get past that initial fear, to learn to adapt, and you found that you liked it enough to continue doing it.

Jerry Alonzo Leon


Jerry's favorite country to travel to is Spain. When he's on the road, he keeps it real simple with a pen and a pad. His travel style is spontaneous, easygoing, and always in search of a great adventure.

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