Croatia's Foreign Entrepreneurs: Meet Didier, from Belgium to Cast Away Hvar

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by Paul Bradbury,

Continuing our series meeting Croatia’s foreign entrepreneurs on November 26, 2017, a truly inspiring story of a Belgian man who gave it all up to fulfil the dream of his late mother. And in some style! Meet Didier and Cast Away, in a remote location on the gorgeous island of Hvar. 

1. First and foremost, why Croatia?

The first and foremost reason is my mother, who was Croatian. Back in 1966, my dad travelled with his parents by car from Belgium to Greece. Once in Yugoslavia as it was then, they stayed with a friendly local man who happened to have 4 daughters. My mom had a crush on my dad, they fell in love, got married a few years later and had a son & daughter. My mom’s dream was to have a small guesthouse on one of the Dalmatian islands with our family and after a long search that went on for years, they finally found an idyllic location on the island of Hvar. They got all the permits and start to build their dream house.

Unfortunately, my mom was diagnosed with cancer in September 1986 and passed away 4 months later. These were really hard times for us. My dad abandoned the idea of the guesthouse and decided to stay and live in Belgium with us. But we spent all our summer holidays on Hvar and believe me, as kids, these were just the best summers ever for my sister & me. We couldn’t wait to be in Hvar again and always counted the months to come back when we were in Belgium.

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Once we grew older, we started to come more often and a few years later I was happy to share our beautiful place with other like-minded travellers through the website Couchsurfing which gives travellers the opportunity to stay with a local and discover a place from a totally different point of view and learn about their culture & traditions. My sister and I always played with the idea of finishing our parent’s lifelong dream.

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(Didier)

After my one-year trip around the world in 2013, it became all clear to me. Was there anything better than to live in the one place where the sun was shining every single day and where I was given the opportunity to do what I love to do… sharing an idyllic location and a wonderful island with like-minded travellers around the world? Since I was a kid, the only place I ever wanted to be was our place in Hvar. I just felt so fantastic once I set foot in Croatia. It was my home.

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(Baby sister Jelena)

So I decided to pursue my dreams… I quit my job after 15 years, sold everything I had in Belgium and started a new life here.

INTRO YOUR BUSINESS, what is it you do?

I run Cast Away, a “Robinson styled” accommodation on the island of Hvar offering 10 ecologic beach huts right on the edge of the Adriatic Sea in a very secluded, idyllic & peaceful area, to resource away from the touristic hustle. Soon we will expand with 7 double rooms with private bathroom & sea view balcony. Cast Away is the main activity of my company Castaway d.o.o., a travel agency that I established in July 2016 and that offers other services & activities as well.

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2. Tell us about some of the differences in your expectations of running a business in Croatia and the reality.

I run an audiovisual production business in Belgium as well. Starting a business in Croatia, I knew it would be more complicated… Not only due to the complicated bureaucracy but also due to the language. I do speak a fair amount of Croatian but I’m lost once we talk about legal writings & with more legal / technical terms.

I’m very lucky to have wonderful friends, colleagues & neighbours, a great lawyer & coach, but more importantly a fantastic accountant! They all helped me big time in this jungle of paperwork. I had huge challenges this past year and I still have some huge challenges ahead but I’m sure we will overcome them all, one at the time.

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3. What (if any) bureaucratical issues have you encountered and how did you overcome them (i.e. any advice to the would-be entrepreneur?)

The most important thing as a foreign entrepreneur is to surround you with the right people (English speaking lawyer & accountant as most important) because you will get nowhere by yourself. This shouldn’t stop you though to always inform yourself, to do some research at the source to be absolutely sure!

One of the most difficult aspects of running a business here is the language. It’s very hard to check all regulations and laws related to your business, to make sure you comply with all regulations and that your paperwork is in order. In my experience, only a handful of officials speak English here on Hvar. That makes it even harder so the importance of a great English speaking lawyer & accountant is high. Learning the basics in Croatian and a good translator (friend) is a very big plus too.

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4. How is your product or business perceived in the Croatian market?

One of the main reasons why Cast Away is successful is the fact that we offer something very unique, something that many modern travellers seek nowadays. We focus on a niche market providing a service that focuses on our client group’s needs, which are not addressed in such detail by mainstream providers.

A call from the mainstream booking platform “Booking.com” last year, to ask me where I got this great idea and congratulating me for creating such a unique place in Croatia and an article in one of Croatia’s most popular newspapers “Slobodna Dalmacija” describing the unusual but effective way of creating Cast Away, were one of the things that really gave me the much needed confidence and extra boost to pursue this wonderful project the way I imagine it.

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5. What were the opinions of your friends and community, were they supportive of your idea, or…?

Friends who visited us in Hvar all encouraged us since we were teenagers to finish our parents’ lifelong dream. So did some other travellers but my sister and I had a great life and a successful career back in Belgium. My sister has a great job in the medical field and I worked for the national Belgian television and owned an audiovisual production company. Hvar was our holiday getaway where we would escape from our busy lives and resource for a while. We always talked about finishing the project one day but on the other hand, we came here to relax, not to work. My trip around the world changed that and I decided to go for it! My sister was very supportive but she had a baby boy now, a family and a great job so she decided to stay in Belgium.

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Most of the local community was very supportive too and a couple of friends even helped me to where I am right now and I will always be grateful for that. One of the main reasons I waited so long was also the fact that it was a huge project where I needed to be fully dedicated and till a few years ago, I was simply not ready for it. But thanks to the encouragement and help of a couple of local friends, I jumped into this amazing adventure!

6. What are some of the greatest challenges you have faced in business in Croatia?

Starting up a business in Croatia as a foreigner comes with a lot of challenges. You need to be very dedicated to overcome them. I faced a lot of challenges, unfortunately… and it never stops. One of the main ones is bureaucracy. I remember going with a local friend (for translation) to the city hall of Hvar to inform about the possibilities regarding Cast Away. Instead of explaining how things can be done, they always explain to you why your idea cannot be done. During our conversation, I overheard the local counsellor talking to my friend in Croatian, saying “you know, all these foreigners come here with great ideas but they forget they are establishing a business in Croatia! ” And that says it all… It’s sad that they don’t embrace foreigners that want to invest and create jobs in their beautiful country. We all know Croatia has many laws & regulations that contradict each other sometimes that it’s even incomprehensible for Croatians. Add to it that most of those legal writings only exist in Croatian. A little help would, therefore, be much appreciated.

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Another one are inspections. It’s sad to say but although I have a lot of good neighbours and friends, I also have a couple of neighbours and friends who don’t want to see me succeed. They just can’t believe that I have all the legal papers and that there are no bribes involved. In this first summer season alone, I was honoured by the visits of every single possible inspection while some businesses never saw an inspector for 15 years or more.

Cast Away is way too valuable to me to take any risk and that’s why there were no major incidents with those inspectors, mainly because of the great work of my accountant and my lawyer to make sure we apply to all regulations & laws. But believe me, it’s nerve wrecking. My accountant and the inspectors had huge discussions several times about some regulations or laws. In the end, no regulation is perfectly clear and there will be always room for interpretation and consequently also for fines. And although many believe bribes are common practice here, I never have been asked for one. Thank God.

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The third one is gossip. Many locals on Hvar know about “The Belgian” and not always in a good way. Just because of gossip. “The Belgian” is apparently the cause of a lot of things. I remember a local policeman coming over and after a short discussion, I overheard him on the phone saying “this guy is not so bad as described. He’s actually a very nice dude” I absolutely adore Hvar and it’s people since I was a kid. I love to socialize, be good with everyone and avoid gossip but I guess it’s a one-way street in some cases. So I just try to do my best, be kind to everyone and hope for the best.

One last thing maybe… It’s hard to explain that it’s actually hard work and a lot of stress. Yes, Cast Away is a piece of paradise, a dream to spend some time in or even to live in and it is indeed very secluded from the modern world but there are regulations here too. I agree it’s an idyllic work environment with beautiful, happy people and amazing views all around but success will only come with passion, hard work and dedication… But I love it. I have an amazing staff and we love to mingle with guests, show them around, chat and give them a fantastic dream holiday. And the winter season gives me the opportunity to unwind, travel myself a bit and prepare for another amazing season. I can’t think of any better job!

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7. If you knew then, what you know now, would you have come?

I wouldn’t hesitate for a second! Croatia is my home and Cast Away is an incredible piece of paradise! No business comes without challenges but they’re all worth it. I just love to be here, share this amazing place with like-minded travellers and let them discover the true beauty of Hvar from a totally different point of view.

8. What are 3 things you love about Croatia?

The sunny weather, the laid-back lifestyle and the natural beauty

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9. What are 3 things you would like to see improved in the business climate in Croatia?

An international language

It’s hard to comply with all the rules when they’re only written in Croatian. I believe that would be a great improvement to offer all legal writings, laws & regulations in both languages, Croatian & English. Especially in tourism. I do believe that we as foreigners need to learn the language as well but it has to come from both sides to improve communication & avoid misunderstandings & complications. I come from a country where we have 3 official languages and I speak 6 but when I don’t understand an official quite well and ask for clarification, and they tell me that I need to learn Croatian if I come to live here kind of upsets me, especially when Croatian is their only language. But I must admit that there are improvements in the past couple of years and I can’t tell you how happy I’m about it.

Embrace foreign investors

The country needs to embrace foreign investors. Information & communication is key and needs to be more accessible. Croatia also needs to increase the financing of small businesses which are important contributors to the country’s economic performance and a major employer. The country needs a flourishing private sector, which mostly consists of small businesses. Compared to Belgium and other Western European countries, Croatia has a disastrous interest rate and other financial conditions. A business loan or mortgage in Croatia, for example, is not the smartest option. There’s a lot at stake here but I heard improvements are about to be done in a not so distant future.

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A better winter season

Although the Ministry of Tourism made quite some progress in promoting Croatia as an all -year round destination, there still a lot to do, especially on the islands. After closing the season in November, I visited some islands around Hvar and it was sad to see the unexploited potential of some amazing places like the wonderful National Park of Mljet for example. But I believe we will get there as I see small initiatives both from the private sector and the Ministries surge up to secure a more bright future.

10. How is it working with Croatians in terms of a business mentality?

There’s an incredible evolution going on in Croatia where a couple of young entrepreneurs see all kinds of new opportunities. I work with some great Croatians and it’s a pleasure to put our efforts together and create a new business environment where we can offer more and better services to our clients.

Working with great staff is very important too. They need to share my vision, understand the importance of business-related matters, contribute to the global aspects of the place and I must admit that so far, I was pretty lucky.

11. Advice for foreign entrepreneurs thinking of coming to Croatia?

First of all, Croatia is one of the most beautiful places in the world and the laid-back lifestyle in some places will contribute a lot to your quality of life. Ok, the bureaucracy is not the best but if you do it right, it’s not that bad actually. I saw a lot of improvements the past year in all kinds of fields and I strongly believe it will still improve.

One of the most important things, not only in Croatia actually, is to find a gap in the market which will give you opportunities to establish a successful business. Be unique, resourceful and find your own magic formula!

Get a great accountant & lawyer. Learn the basics of Croatian and you will see them open up to you. And off you go… the sky is the limit!

Visit Didier’s slice of paradise at Cast Away on Hvar here.

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There is a nice postscript to this story, which Didier has not heard and will read here. I was telling my wife about the story over lunch, and she suddenly stopped me.

“Do you know the name of the father? It must be the same family. They were so nice, and she was such a beautiful woman. We always wondered what happened, as the father sent us a picture of his wife with the kids after she died. She was a beautiful woman in a blue dress. My Mum looks at it from time to time, and she always wonders what happened.”

And yes, it was the same photo of Didier’s Mum in the blue dress, above. I think she would be very proud of you realising her dream. 

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