Being an entrepreneur in Bermuda

Being an entrepreneur can be a harrowing experience.  As an analogy, consider being dropped on a isolated desert island and left to fend for yourself.  Being an entrepreneur in Bermuda is almost like that, except the desert sand is actually quicksand.  It takes a special kind of person to start a business in that kind of an environment, and no, not special in a good way.

Having your own business is a big gamble and an even bigger risk.  As an entrepreneur you expect business to be tough, full of challenges and competitors.  What you don’t expect are the roadblocks unrelated to your product or service.  Roadblocks which prevent you from actually managing your business.

No one tells you that it will take endless months and you still won’t have been able to open a simple bank account.  Sure, if you’re opening a simple local account it may be quick.  Care you take a payment from a client in Mexico or the Caribbean?  Expect 11+ months of back and forth paperwork, forms and bureaucracy.  You want to take credit cards online?  Good luck, expect to provide copies of business agreements, contracts, evidence, you name it.  Even then you’ll still be waiting. You might have a viable business but when you can’t pay anyone or reinvest revenues you’re stuck. Something so simple as not being able to manage money can take a successful business and make it likely to fail.

One lesson learnt is that you have to deliver greater value to the entities you work with than you derive.  Sometimes you just can’t. Bermuda is a tiny market.  Large international banks don’t care about small international businesses.  This isn’t because they’re evil but because there is no incentive.  Regulatory hurdles far outweigh the value they’ll derive from servicing a small business.  Never mind if that business has potential.  Compared to a global market of big players, small business in a small market doesn’t scale well.  Foreign owned banks just don’t derive the same kind of value from investing in Bermuda.  At least not how local banks used to.

Another hard lesson is that flash is a much more effective sales tool than substance. Flashy perceived value at a high level will trump tangible value on the ground.   You have to make sure that if your business isn’t flashy that the value it delivers is well explained and understood.  If not, you’ll be thrown under the bus in favor of someone else who presents something flashier.  Even if the end result is that they provide less actual value which in the end costs your customer more.  Don’t expect your customer to be educated if you aren’t the one educating them.

Consider the attempt to recover Bermuda tourism.  The tourism authority is focused on boosting visitor numbers and creating new experiences. It is easy to understand that more visitors means better tourism.  The perceived value of marketing and creating new experiences is great, it seems like a great idea.  Big flashy ideas like a fancy website offering package deals end up being the focus of funding.  Funding to helping those already established who aren’t new and and aren’t exciting is less appealing.  Investing in what works today and empowering it to be more successful just isn’t flashy.  If the value of what we have now isn’t well understood then flashy wins because new always seems better.

It is worth noting that perceived value of a goal everyone can readily grasp trumps tangible value of a realistic one.  Offering packaged air+hotel+tours on the tourism website is of high perceived value.  Who wouldn’t want packaged tours?  Everyone understands packaged tours but few take a step back to examine what percentage of people actually want to buy a package and haven’t already bought elsewhere.  By contrast, making tours bookable everywhere can be hard to understand.  Distribution to every website, concierge, info booth and mobile phone is an abstract concept.  It is hard to perceive the value of making it easier to sell to people already here.  It isn’t new and exciting.  In many ways it is already done, just not supported well enough.  It contrasts with the larger goal of a focus on attracting new visitors.  We’re so busy chasing “new” that we’re eroding what little tourism support base we have now.

If you’re considering being an entrepreneur in Bermuda, a considerable lesson is that Bermuda is a terrible place to try to found the next AirBnB or the next Uber.  If you’re looking to found a little side business selling some shorts or some jewelry, sure.  If you’re trying to found a global eCommerce company?  Bermuda isn’t the place.  It is small, expensive, over-regulated and slow.  There is no venture capital environment and no support network.  That is, unless you’re starting an insurance company.

Bermuda wants to be entrepreneurial.  It wants to incubate the next great ideas and copy what everyone else is doing to achieve it.  Startup weekends, rocket pitch competitions and attempts to attract global entrepreneurship conferences.  Great.  The problem is that few people understand that starting businesses is the easy part.  Establishing a viable business model is hard.  Scaling a business with no funding, no banking and no mentorship is harder.  Doing so while challenged by subsidized government quangos is near impossible.  Trying to compete on top of all that with well funded global competitors is crazy.  It is wholly unlikely Bermuda will ever produce a world competitive startup.  At least, any outside of reinsurance.

Being an entrepreneur in Bermuda is like fighting quicksand on a remote desert isle.  You become so engulfed trying not to sink that you can’t even come close to actually getting off the island.  Especially if your interest was never to leave but to instead convert it into a paradise that everyone wants to come to. Only a special kind of person would be crazy enough to even attempt it.  Few are that ‘special’.