A couple years ago I wrote THIS article about Doing Business in Colombia. Much of the information is still valid, but now I feel the need to add a little bit more to it from the additional years of experience I can now offer.
At the end of the day, Business in Colombia – Is Tricky! Here’s why…
Business in Colombia
I have always said to myself and others, that if I can learn how to navigate the tricky and tormented waters of Colombian business culture, I can compete anywhere in the world. Here are some of the basic skills that you will need to have to do business successfully – particularly in the land of the Paisa.
Rule #1: Shut Up and LISTEN!
Don’t get me wrong, I still have a hard time with this. It is very American to follow the old adage that says: If you can’t Dazzle them with your Brilliance, then Baffle them with your Bullshit. Not so in Colombia.
I have screwed myself on business deals and situations by talking too much. Especially in the land of the Paisa, talking more won’t necessarily help you. Particularly with the old guard business type. This means listening carefully, being extremely reserved in your answers – except when you need to clarify or add necessary information. The rest – stuff it.
Why do I say this? Because everything you say can and will be used against you. This goes back to “No Dar Papaya,” or Don’t Give Advantage. Over time you will understand more of what this means.
Rule #2: Get Everything In Writing
I can’t stress this one enough. The Paisa, is a strange and intelligent creature. Whatever advantage they can take, they will. Whether it relates to a service they are providing, a service they are requesting or a product, business deal or partnership.
Example #1: With my other website, PereiraCityGuide.com – I frequently sold my articles to small businesses who want to market their services to foreign residents and visitors. I lost money several times when the person told me “Go ahead and write the article, get it published, I’ll bring you the money “X day.” This has cost me hundreds of dollars of income. Now, I require 50-100% up-front, and/or 50% PRIOR to delivery. Especially if you DON’T have a written contract, this can cost you a lot. It’s your word against theirs.
Example #2: Use contracts whenever possible. Even if you have to do it in a notebook, get it in writing and get them to sign it. The spoken word in Colombia often means next to nothing. Especially if you are working with translation projects, website design or even a simple exchange of services that are difficult to pay for ahead of time – have something in writing you can show to them to obligate them to hold up their end of the bargain. I did a website translation, they paid half ahead of time – it took me weeks to get the info to translate, it was very poorly written even in the Spanish part, and they never gave me the rest. Will I ever see the other half of the money – probably never because I have nothing in writing outlining the conditions.
Example #3: Sales commissions. This one can be tricky. I have written proof from a woman saying she would pay me 15% for any product I helped to sell. Then I did sell some of her product. First she claimed that she only paid 10% for the “x condition” – and finally, she never did pay me the commission. She was “too busy” to meet with me so we could organize payment. To this day I still have 21,000 COP floating around in the ether that I will never see. People will be “poca seria,” or not very serious.
Rule #3: People Will Lie to You About Almost Everything
It’s a raw fact of life in Colombia. People will say that they own companies and properties which aren’t theirs in order to get investment money, appear wealthy and create noise. If you are getting ready to work with a certain business to combine skills/services/products whatever – make sure you do due diligence. Get a lawyer and have them checked out.
I’m not kidding – people will lie to you about almost everything, so do your homework before you open the checkbook.
Rule #4: Don’t tell ANYONE about impending business deals.
I have heard some pretty crazy stories during my time as an entrepreneur here in Colombia. One of the stories that always gets me, is the willingness of people to steal your idea, pull the carpet out from under you, or simply sabotage whatever you are planning. Bragging to a group of Colombians will have at least one or two plotting against you.
Why? Sheer unadulterated jealousy and hatefulness. Which makes it very difficult to have friendships here. It is so difficult to make money here, that people are bitter and want to see you fail.
Unless you have the cat in the bag, and the ink is dried, don’t talk about it.
Rule #5: Learn and Understand “Malicia Indigena”
The natives here are cannibals. They will eat your lunch and convince you it was theirs all along. This is what we call “Malicia Indigena,” or Indigenous Maliciousness. My hat is off to the sheer intelligence of the Colombian to make business deals. They are truly incredible. They can take a rather benign situation and twist it to their favor. Why? Because most of the time they can and will get away with it.
Legal processes here take years and tons of bureaucracy to get resolved. The Colombian knows this, and he/she will use it to his advantage. I had some pictures stolen from me by a well-known local entrepreneur in Pereira. She is a narcissistic media darling who knows how to wrap almost anyone around her finger. She pushed me to print and display my photography in an expo which she set up to add visibility to her Womens Empowerment group. I did it.
One day after the end of the month I called the hotel where my pictures were on display and asked for them. She had already picked them up. To this day I never did find out what happened. When I spoke to a lawyer friend of mine about taking her ass to court, there were two factors going against me:
#1: The difference between “dar” (give) and “entregar” (deliver), which are debatable in the context of the situation.
#2: The value of the pictures wasn’t worth the cost of taking her to court over it. And being a lawyer, she knows that.
Why? Malicia Indigena, no written agreement, so on and so forth. Don’t be like me kids. Even your best friend will screw you over for $100 USD.
Summing It All Up
It isn’t impossible to do Business in Colombia. But, it isn’t easy. These people are smart and the legal system is broken. Why do large corporations in Colombia have their own paramilitary groups? That question is too disturbing for even I to answer at this time, but I’ll leave it to your imagination.
There ARE opportunities here. But it will take you several years to learn what they are, how to exploit them, and finally how to ensure you get paid. Don’t cut corners. Don’t take peoples word for it. Do find yourself a good lawyer who you can trust to some extent. Do due diligence always. And, make sure your brand is registered.
If you are looking to create a business in Colombia but you want the help of someone who has seen it all, feel free to contact me. I can recommend to you a good lawyer who has been very honest and loyal to my interests. For a consulting fee, we can navigate the waters of your own desires and help you ensure that you don’t lose your investment.
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