Simon Neal, from Aberdeen to Rijeka
October 7, 2021 – Continuing our look at foreign entrepreneurs trying to succeed in Croatia as so many emigrate, meet Simon Neal who swapped Aberdeen for Rijeka.
My name is Simon Neal, I come from a small town near Aberdeen in Scotland. I studied geology at university and worked for 15 years in the oil and gas industry in many places around the world before moving to Croatia in 2013.
After spending a few years in Croatia and vacationing in the campsites here (and struggling to find the information I wanted to see) and I got the idea to create CampMap (https://campmap.com/A digital interactive map for campsites that makes camping easy for customers and campsite managers is like Google Maps and Booking.com for camping.
First of all, why Croatia and what are you doing?
In 2009, while on vacation in Croatia, I met my wife Jelena who is from Rijeka. After being together for several years and living in Jordan and the UK, we decided to move to Croatia for a new adventure.
At the time, most of my work was done remotely (one of the first digital nomads) with quite a bit of international travel. So being in Croatia also allowed Jelena to be close to my friends and family when I was away, so it quickly became my new home and a place I had planned to stay for good.
Tell us about some of the differences between your expectations of running a business in Croatia and the reality.
Before starting a business in Croatia, I had run a business in the UK for a few years, so I had a good understanding of what is required there. In Croatia the reality was a little different, you depend a lot more on others to get things done, for example a lawyer, an accountant, a notary, a government service. It takes a while to get used to, but eventually you figure out how things should work and just go with it.
When it comes to doing business with people, the culture is very different and something completely new to me. For one thing, I don’t drink coffee, much to my wife’s frustration, and I’m not a very talkative person, so business meetings with potential clients wasn’t something that came naturally to me.
What (if any) bureaucratic issues did you encounter and how did you overcome them (i.e. advice to the potential entrepreneur?)
I opened two businesses in Croatia, the first in 2013 and the second in 2019 and there has been a huge improvement in the process. My last business was set up in less than a week including a working bank account and for minimal costs and paperwork amazing.
However, there are still a lot of obstacles in place that slow down business and make life complicated, it’s like there is no trust in the system which is a real shame. My advice is to find a good accountant who knows the type of business you are doing; you will need it often. And a notary’s office close to your place of work because you will need to visit them more than you think.
How is your product or company perceived in the Croatian market?
We are a start-up with a new product trying to help a well established and successful business community in Croatia, camping. Even though we launched this year, with all the uncertainty, the perception of the product has been amazing. This is a good sign and shows that we are solving real problems for camping companies and customers, but we still have a lot of work to do.
What were the opinions of your friends and community, did they support your idea or…?
It’s always a risk when opening a new business, but I was careful to test the idea and get funding from an investor before committing to CampMap full-time, so overall , support and opinions have been very positive. Most of the people who know me also understand that I love to create or build things, so starting a start-up really fits my character. Our product is also heavily based on my professional experience which gives people confidence which is not a totally crazy idea.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced in doing business in Croatia?
With CampMap there haven’t been any big challenges so far, there is the usual bureaucracy, although as I mentioned it is improving. However, a major challenge in the future is how we can develop this business outside of Croatia, the only solution to this now is to move the legal ownership of the business to another country. It’s a shame, but the framework for having investors and clients in Europe or the world simply does not exist or is too complicated to be practical for a company of our size.
If you knew then, what you know now, would you have come?
The reason for my move to Croatia was not as an entrepreneur, but the opportunities in Croatia brought the entrepreneur in me to the surface, so anyway, yes I definitely would have moved to Croatia knowing what I know now.
What 3 things do you like about Croatia?
The first thing is the physical geography, the sea, the islands, the forests and the mountains which are very familiar to me from my childhood in Scotland. I like spending time outdoors with my family or participating in mountain trail races.
After that is the climate, especially here in Rijeka, where the summer is hot and you can enjoy swimming in the sea and spend a lot of time outdoors. But winter is also cold, wet with snow and rain (which is very familiar to me). This creates a real change of seasons which is sometimes missed in some other countries with a warmer climate.
Finally, this has to be the culture that best boils down to the food and the people, both are amazing. There is nothing better than getting together with family or friends for a big meal or a barbecue in the garden.
What are the 3 things you would like to see improve in the business climate in Croatia?
If I had been asked this question a few years ago, some of my answers would have already been resolved, which is a good sign that things are improving. For what remains to be improved I would say:
Move all possible business services and reports to be online and digital.
Completely delegate responsibility for a business to the manager, removing unnecessary controls and processes.
Copy and implement the simple and flexible investment structure and framework for limited liability companies (doo) in countries like UK and US.
How does this work with Croatians in terms of corporate mentality?
My experience has been very positive, certainly within the travel and tourism industry in which we operate. Almost everyone has been open to talking and looking at our products and luckily a lot of them have been interested in doing other business with us.
Any advice for foreign entrepreneurs planning to come to Croatia?
Do your homework and read some of the online business in Croatia websites, many government websites are now also available in English and some steps can be done online.
Don’t be afraid to come to Croatia, especially from the EU, but make sure you know what it takes to get started. You cannot do this on your own, you will need people to help you, especially a notary and it would be a good idea to find an accountant before opening the business. Be prepared to queue and sign lots of documents.
Apart from this, the work-life balance and lifestyle in Croatia is excellent, health care, schooling and nursery for young children are also excellent. If you’ve got a great idea and want to go on an adventure, there aren’t many better places to be an entrepreneur in Europe than Croatia. There is also a large Zagreb based VC called Fil Rouge Capital. They help develop the start-up ecosystem in Croatia and are always on the lookout for daring entrepreneurs with a big idea.
To learn more about the foreign entrepreneurs trying to be successful in The Beautiful Croatia, check out the heroes we’ve already covered.