Colombia: Open for Business?

new-town-685502_960_720Word association time: What’s the first thing you think of when you hear “Colombia”? If you answered, “danger” or “drug cartel,” you are sooo behind the times.

Over the last decade, Colombia has transformed itself into one of the fastest ­growing economies in Latin America.

If you work in the tech sector, and want to enter the Colombian market, here are some quick tips for doing business in the country. Unlike other Spanish ­speaking countries in South America, Colombia is more than just the capital city, in this case, Bogota. Medellin in particular has become a major hub for startups and tech development.

A couple of years ago, I worked for a Canadian company that wanted to open an office in Colombia. But where should they put it? Bogota? Or Medellin? The problem was that half the clients were in one city, and the other half in the other. They wound up opening offices in both cities.

They made the right decision.

You might argue, “It’s only an hour flight. You could put an office in Bogota and fly to Medellin once or twice a week for meetings.” That would be a mistake. Colombians are notoriously regionalist.

Here are some more tips you should consider before doing business in Colombia. The kinds of basic mistakes many foreigners make:

• It’s Colombia, with an ‘o’. Not Columbia, which may be a fine sportswear manufacturer, river in Oregon, or province in Canada.

• Colombia doesn’t have north and south. It has up and down. At the equator, elevation is everything. Dress appropriately. Bogota can be quite chilly, especially at night. Medellin is the “City of Eternal Spring.” And Cali? Cartagena? Whoo, bring an air ­conditioner. Heck, bring two!

• Do not wear shorts. Ever. Guys? Colombians are crazy. Forty ­five degree (Celsius) heat, and the men are still wearing jeans. Anyone wearing shorts in Colombia is obviously a foreigner. Something to consider.

• Most Colombians speak no English. Even a moderate level of Spanish will take you much further than none alone.

• Don’t grab a taxi in the street. Order a “radio taxi.” A small number of criminals make life difficult by painting their cars yellow and slapping taxi numbers on their vehicles. Please. Don’t be a victim.

• Colombians have a saying: “No dar papaya.” (Literally: “Don’t give papaya.”) What does that mean? If you walk around wearing a Rolex with a wad of money sticking out of your back pocket, don’t be surprised if someone, you know, robs you. Colombia is much safer than it used to be ­­but why go looking for trouble? Dress modestly. Don’t flash how rich you are. It’s only asking for trouble.

• Colombian time. Colombians observe tiempo colombiano. Which means? That two o’clock meeting might actually mean three thirty. It’s not insulting. Please don’t take it that way. It’s just a different way of looking at their world. Bring your patience, and leave lots of room between your appointments, just in case.

• Did we mention traffic? Leave lots of room between your appointments. Just in case. 🙂

• Colombians hate saying “no.” They don’t want to offend people. In the past, offending people could result in violent retaliation. That’s no longer the case, but old habits die hard. “Yes” means “yes.” “Maybe” probably means “no” (but not always.) So that you don’t get your hopes up. You know?

Colombia is a country in transformation. And with a population of 44 million, it’s a market worth taking the time to master.

If you’re thinking of entering the Colombian market, we can help. Drop us a line:

3 thoughts on “Colombia: Open for Business?

  1. Pingback: 7 Key Facts about the Pacific Alliance: What Your Business Needs to Know |

  2. Thinking of opening a shoe store in Colombia , I am a Canadian, get by in Spanish, would you recommend getting some local businesss consulting help?

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