It’s 11am and Australian stem cell scientist Michael Edel is having his mid-morning café con leche on the sunny terrace of one of Poblenou’s cafés. And he’s not alone. Most of the city’s working population takes a break around this time for their esmorzar or second breakfast. An example of the laid-back atmosphere that is one of the many reasons foreign professionals come to live and work in Barcelona.
After a spell in Amsterdam with his Spanish wife Belen, a sustainability consultant and biomedicine scientist, the “Mediterranean lifestyle and coast” helped them decide that Barcelona would be their new port of call. They were also seduced by “the opportunities and culture of a big, but not too big, city”. In that respect, ten years later the Catalan capital is still living up to their expectations.
There is no doubt that Barcelona’s 311 sunny days a year, 7 beaches and 52 Michelin star restaurants, as highlighted by Barcelona Global, the local association with a mission to attract international talent, are all important factors when choosing a destination. And Barcelona has consistently topped the Cushman & Wakefield European ranking in employee quality of life in recent years. But for those thinking of starting a business here, there are many other considerations to be taken into account.
The owner of a software company from the States, but with European partners, Mike Romano re-located to Barcelona with his family. They had considered Berlin but were “fearful of the long grey winters” and coming from California with young children, the climate and lifestyle on offer in Spain seemed more familiar and easy-going. They were also faced with the problem of needing specialized talent as their business grew, but “hiring in the Bay is very expensive and very competitive”. Barcelona, just like Berlin, offered proximity to partners and talented people, and five years ago Barcelona’s economic situation “meant that we could do more with less investment money”.
There are many incentives to move to Barcelona, but most expats agree that things become somewhat less simple when one tries to start a business. “The biggest barrier was the lack of information”, continues Mike Romano. “Very few people knew how to set up a company and get a resident visa for non-Europeans.” Anglo-Argentinean Sandra Szasz goes further: “the worst is the bureaucracy. Paperwork for paperwork’s sake”. Re-located from Britain due to her husband’s research post in Computer Science at the UPF, Sandra opened L’Atelier, a café and decorated cakes business, just over two years ago. “I started a business because here they had never heard of reduced hours for working mothers, let alone job sharing, so I needed a way to combine work and flexibility.”
Time-consuming procedures, a lack of investors tuned to investment in startups, taxation and a high cost of living compared to salaries are some other negatives often mentioned. That said, the new Barcelona Activa Business Advice Office located in the 22@ area is one noteworthy initiative on the part of the city council to help simplify the whole process.
Another issue not to be underestimated is the fact that all public and semi-public schools only teach in Catalan. Clearly, learning another language is an added-value, helping children and grown-ups alike to feel closer to the local culture and easing the whole process of integration. Barcelonians are all completely bilingual in Spanish and Catalan, and as Mike Romano has found, “learning two new languages at the same time is interesting and challenging”. But for international professionals planning on spending only a limited period in Catalonia, the lack of an affordable alternative in schooling is undoubtedly a deterrent. Loïc Tordo, an IT specialist working at Schneider Electric, has found that “the lack of options for the education of their kids” is one of the main reasons people end up leaving.
No city is without its drawbacks and Barcelona is no exception. Maybe more relevant is why so many people stay. Boasting a unique location, just a couple of hours away from both some of the most beautiful stretches of Mediterranean coast and excellent skiing in the Pyrenees,“this is a city which keeps a human size and where car traffic has not yet become a plague, with fantastic food and good weather”, points out Loïc. “Very good flight connections also help for visiting relatives and working internationally.” And for Mike Romano, used to the American city model, “the combination of living in the center of a great city with all the culture and infrastructure but without the danger and crime is an important quality of life issue. The United States has no city that compares.”
There is also a general feeling of optimism following the recent change in government in Barcelona. Although there are many unknowns, a lot of people share Mike Romano’s conviction that “you can have social justice and still maintain a good business environment. It’s just a matter of equitably spreading out the incentives and benefits throughout the system.” If Mayor Ada Colau’s recent comments are anything to go by, there’s a chance that is precisely what may well happen.
“Learning two languages at the same time is interesting and challenging.”