American photographer living in Milan
Milan : My authentic Experience!
Being a foreigner in Milan for over 10 years I’ve made a lot of girlfriends who like me chose to make Milan their home base. It’s reassuring to have people who understand the difficulties and the benefits of making a life in a foreign country. It’s no surprise to me that most of my girlfriends also happen to own their businesses. Born out of a need to fill the city with something it was missing. Or to create the career they wanted in a city that sometimes doesn’t offer what you’re looking for.
Talking to these 7 women there a lot of similarities in their stories. The first being the Italian bureaucracy and taxes! Let’s just say Italy is not the ideal country to open a business. But as I learned, they built most of their businesses out of passion and the drive to be independent so the benefit of doing what you love outweighs the costs.
Here’s a little info on each of them. Make sure to stop by next time you’re in Milan.
Tizzy Beck owner of Tizzy’s Bar & Grill, Milan’s only authentic American burger joint.
Tizzy, a NYC native, has been in Milan for over 10 years. Her restaurant on the Naviglio, has become a Milan staple as American food gains popularity. She says, I had been living in Milan for about 4 years before I had to the idea to open Tizzys.
Owning a restaurant was always something I fantasized about. I saw a real lack of anything resembling and true American restaurant in Milano and so I figure who better than me to open one. The passion was there. The experience not so much. I had never worked in a restaurant before the opening day of Tizzys. It started quite organically. Talking to people, telling everyone I was opening a restaurant, hitting the pavement to look at spaces and from there is snowballed.
The negative side is that Italy is a mess. No other eloquent way to put it. It’s very difficult to navigate the rules and bureaucracy. Financially it has been very difficult. I have had an enormous success with Tizzy’s but maintaining it, has been taxing. No pun intended.
The best part is that I truly love what I do. My restaurant is my life and it happens to be in Italy. I’m not sure I would have seen the amount of success I’ve seen in another city. I was living here, I knew what was missing and I knew who my customer would be. Another pro was that I was able to introduce a real burger to people who have never had one. A different style of eating for Italians.
Realizing your dream is hard hard work physically and mentally. There are a lot of sacrifices. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions daily. But I love rollercoasters so I keep on hustling.
Hilary Walker owner of Bivio & Bivio 2, Milan’s first clothing resale shops
When I started BIVIO almost 5 years ago, I had already been in Italy about 15 years. I had previously been making my living as a freelance copywriter with predominantly fashion-based clients. I had always wondered why a store like BIVIO didn’t exist. As a customer, I was looking for it: where could I find cool second-hand clothes without the “preciousness” that surrounds all the “vintage” shops? And why couldn’t I sell my clothes immediately without resorting to leaving them in consignment somewhere? I knew that if I were looking for that kind of store, than other people probably were too. We opened the first store in May 2013 and the second store in February 2016. My current projection is to open a third store in 2018.
The fact that Italy isn’t a very innovative country makes it quite appealing for entrepreneurs. Being a place that’s slow in making changes and holds traditions in high regard, there are a ton of “gaps” in the market. People are looking for things that don’t yet exist – this is a fact. If you manage to find the right niche and communicate your message with style, humor, consistency and sophistication, people will respond. Especially in a city like Milan.
In terms of positioning, there is also a benefit for an entrepreneur (a foreign one at that), who isn’t necessarily tied to the “Italian way” of doing things. Making the decision to keep my store open 7 days a week (yes, even Sundays!) and to not close during lunch hours – like some shops continue to do – makes it easier to stand out from the competition and immediately gives your customer the feeling that you are offering extra value.
Having an American mentality about many aspects of business is appreciated, but then you need to take the “Italian” parts of being an employer into consideration as well. Even though my staff is young and they work retail, they all enjoy the benefits and securities that having a contract offers you here. It’s more expensive for me, but I’m actually happy to provide them with security because I want them to stick around as long as possible.
I actually love working in the store. When we were just starting out there were three of us working in the first store. I was there all day, every day, doing pretty much everything. Now I have 10 employees and two stores so I do much less buying and selling than I used to do, and I miss it. I actually really like retail, especially in a reality like BIVIO where you buy from the customers so you never know what the day will bring – literally.
I think BIVIO has provided a much-needed “social” experience for Milan. People actually have fun shopping with us, as opposed to just doing it online. I am burned out on screens in general, and I don’t think I am the only one who feels that way.
Laurel Evans, founder of Un’Americana in Cucina and cookbook author
“I have always had a passion for cooking and decided to write a cookbook about American cuisine for Italians. At the time I was working at a fashion magazine, and while that sounds glamorous, it was mostly a boring office job. I wanted more flexibility and creativity in my life. When I published by book and started my blog I decided to leave the magazine and dedicate myself 100% to my food-writing career.
For me, the pros involve being viewed as exotic here, and that Italians tend to love Americans. I have found that business relationships can be more complex here than in the states, but also more rewarding from a personal standpoint.
The cons: TAXES. Of course, health care is included in our taxes so they’re naturally higher than income tax in the states, but still, seeing 50% of your earnings fly out the window is painful and frustrating, especially when compensation is relatively low in the first place (another CON).”
Alice Delcourt, Chef and owner of Erba Brusca
Alice has been living in Milan for over 15 years and worked in some of the top restaurants in the city before opening her own.
“The truth is my business partners approached me who were already friends to start Erba Brusca. But once we all started talking it just made sense, we all had the same idea of what we wanted to say and offer. Also, I was at a point in my career and life where I needed to start deciding for myself, my work style was different from the norm and I didn’t really fit the mold.
The cons are massive. Italy had endless bureaucracy to deal with and therefore the cost (both economically and mentally) of opening a business is daunting.
You are also heavily taxed and therefore there is no guarantee that the money you make will actually be the money you take…
The pros are that you decide for yourself who you want to work with and buy from. Obviously I decide what I want to make and propose and can work my schedule around it.
I think Italy allowed me to be a business owner and a mother. I was able to take maternity leave and I can afford this kind of service to my employees as well. My employees have great job security and I feel like it is a win win situation, we offer them this security and for the most part I feel like they appreciate it and they are happy to come to work!”
Kathy Moulton, owner of The MilkBar and founder of Kalila, an online community dedicated to prenatal well being and new moms
As a newcomer to Italy, I was working crazy hours at a law firm. The 12-14 hour days just wasn’t compatible with my life as a new mom (my daughter was only 8 months old when I started). And quite frankly, wasn’t worth it for the super small salary I was earning. So when the opportunity came up to open something of my own, dedicated to women and mothers, it seemed like a great idea as it lined up pretty well with my other passion, Kalila, which I was building at the time.
It was terrifying as I really didn’t speak Italian at the time and I learned the language as I went. Thankfully, everyone has been very wonderful and supportive in the process. Let’s just say, I’ve had a few laughs along the way when it comes to language! While it’s been frustrating at times, it’s never been a barrier to doing business.
For Kalila, the idea came to me while living back in Canada. It just didn’t seem feasible at first given that at the time I was living in Newfoundland which does not have a strong clothing manufacturing sector. When I moved to Milan and started meeting designers and people in the industry, I realized I could actually make it happen. I’ve been designing clothes since I was a little girl. And I am an avid runner so bringing the two together seemed perfect.
I teamed up with Claire and Giovanna and after four long years of behind the scenes work and setbacks, we are finally ready to launch!
Running a business in Italy is a total mixed bag of emotions. It’s extremely complicated in terms of tax laws and hiring employees, especially for a non-Italian. Milan has great potential for inspiring entrepreneurs. Because people are enthusiastic about new and different things. But it’s also a city by neighbourhoods.
Each neighbourhood has it’s own little life or ecosystem. And sometimes it’s harder to get people to trek across town for what you’re offering. That’s great for building community but it makes it harder for expanding and growing your business.
However, Italy is also a great place for small business owners. Italians are very loyal customers and they really spread the word about your business.
Many of our customers keep coming back to us to shop when they could easily turn to online sources because they really believe in the business. That’s extremely important for a small business such as mine.
For me, the fact that we offer some courses as well helps to connect with the moms and dads on a completely other level, which I really love. I’ve been able to grow a small yoga practice out of my interactions with moms through my courses which is a side project that brings me a lot of joy.
I think that almost all small business owners really doubt themselves at times. Especially when opening a business happens by chance or because you’re responding to a need in the community.
I didn’t intend to be a business owner. I did, because I really wanted to create something that I saw as essential for moms (i.e. Kalila). Because I entered the business world this way, there’s lots of opportunity for self-doubt. I think success in business is a lot about really believing in what you’re doing and surrounding yourself with people who not only believe in you too but who can teach you things and show you how you can improve.
I’ve been blessed with a lot of people like that which is why I always try to help other new start-ups or small projects being launched by moms and dads. I’m not afraid of competition as I really think that if build your business on passion and quality, you will always make it in the market.
I’m not saying it will be easy, I’m just saying that people respond positively when they can feel that you’re 100% behind what you’re putting out into the community. Having a clear vision of what your idea is and staying true to that vision are essential. Being open to collaboration and partnerships only helps to grow your business stronger.
Thea Duncan, founder of Doing Italy, bespoke Italian tours
I feel a lot of blessings to have a “day job” that I enjoy. But even so, as long as I’ve been doing it there has always been a voice inside of me that said I need to do more.
Along the way I would encounter American tourists that would tell me that they had eaten badly in Italy. And that they didn’t enjoy the food, which to me is almost sacrilegious.
After a bit of digging, I’d realize that they had eaten at only tourist traps. Also, restaurants with picture menus and translations into four different languages.
Which is why I decided to start my business that would show people another side of Italy. The one that tourists often don’t get to see. Where they can eat great food (because Italy is food) and interact with locals.
I run a boutique online tour operator business. So my business revolves around being a bridge between two worlds. My foreign clients wishes combined with the nuances of taking a group of people around Italy.
For example, many businesses in Italy still don’t have a very good online presence. This makes finding certain vendors very difficult, and I have to rely heavily on word of mouth.
In fact, I found the cooking school I’m using on my next tour through a local friend and chef. The school is STUNNING. It’s in a centuries-old building in a neighborhood that we easily call the Park Ave of Milan. The couple that runs it exude genuine warmth and sophistication, a combination that is very rare to find. Their website looks cheap, and they don’t optimize their SEO.
The right person walked into my life at the right time. That person is a very successful business woman working as a director for a globally recognized company. We hit it off right away, and I started telling her about my project. At that stage I had finished writing the business plan. Also, I knew all I had to do was start working on it. But for some reason I wouldn’t. I was in standby mood.
She asked me “Thea, what I do you have to loose?” In that very moment something clicked inside of me. I knew that I had so much more to lose than money. And I knew that if I didn’t do this, launch Doing Italy, my older self would resent my younger self.
Finally, I had to take the leap of faith.