How to Build a Career in Finance and Startups in South America and Spain with Spencer Coon

Spencer Coon

In this episode of the Expat Empire Podcast, we will be hearing from Spencer Coon. Spencer immediately took to the Spanish language when he started taking classes in school in the United States, and his passion for it blossomed during his university study abroad experiences in Spain and Argentina. He knew that he wanted to build a career in South America, so upon graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, he leveraged his Spanish skills and finance background to get his first job as an investment banking analyst in the Latin American M&A group at JP Morgan in New York City. That first job was his launching pad to an exciting entrepreneurial career in Chile, Argentina, and Spain. 

Now as a three-time founder in the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) space, currently serving as CEO of Beamer, and creating a fun and dynamic lifestyle between Europe and the United States, Spencer has a ton of incredible experiences and useful advice to share with us!

LEARN in this episode:

✔ How to get your start in your career with a focus on the country or region you want to go to while still living in your home country

✔ What steps you need to take and considerations to think through when starting a company in South America

✔ The differences between lifestyle, business, and languages in North America, South America and Europe

FIND Spencer at:

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SCHEDULE your free consulting call:

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Welcome to the Expat Empire Podcast, the podcast where you can hear from expats around the world and learn how you can join them.

Hey guys, before we get to the interview, I want to remind you that we’re offering free 30-min consulting calls to anyone interested in moving abroad. 

Whether you’re thinking about retiring somewhere warm, starting an international career, or becoming a digital nomad, we’re ready to help you think through the next steps in your journey. 

Send us a message at to schedule your call today!

With that said, let’s start the conversation.


David McNeill: [0:00:45] Hey Spencer, thanks so much for joining us today on the Expat Empire Podcast.

Spencer Coon: [0:00:49] Yeah. Happy to be here. Thanks for having me, David.

David McNeill: [0:00:50] Yeah, it’s good for us to catch up again. I know it’s been quite a few years since our university days, but I’m excited to dive into everything that you’ve been up to, especially in South America and Latin America. It’d be great if you could just kick it all off by telling us a bit about where you’re from originally, where around the world you’ve lived so far and where you’re living right now.

Spencer Coon: [0:01:09] Sure. I’m happy to dive into that. It’s great to catch up a little bit. I think we always kind of shared this. We already knew we both had the passion for foreign language and living abroad even back then in our university days. I’m kind of glad to see we’ve both been able to pursue that in our own capacity. Yes, I’m actually originally from Dallas, Texas. I went to school at the University of Texas in Austin. From there, I moved to New York city and worked in Investment Banking at JP Morgan for a couple of years. From there, I moved down to Santiago, Chile, worked there for a couple of years for a local Chilean investment bank.

Then from there I actually started my own startup. We’ve worked through a few different SaaS products over the years, for the last eight years at this point. It’s been a while. It’s given me the opportunity to move between, let’s see Argentina, Buenos Aires, then back to Santiago and Chile. I finally went over to Barcelona in Spain for four years, which was an amazing place. I lived actually for a few months in a small town called Cornellà, which is just outside of Barcelona. Then currently I’m living in Boulder, but with the idea of kind of splitting time between Europe, especially Spain and mostly Colorado, but kind of all over the states.

David McNeill: [0:02:22] Excellent. Yeah, you’ve been to a lot of cool places. Some that I’ve been to and many that I haven’t, so I’m excited to be able to hear your stories, but also hopefully see them myself one day. But if you could just take us back to the early days. How did you get this interest in learning Spanish let’s say, and also trying to just generally be in that region? Was there a particular country that caught your eye or a trip or any certain experience that really started at all?

Spencer Coon: [0:02:46] Yeah. An experience for sure, but I would say it all started in high school. In Texas, I mean, everyone’s required to take some basic Spanish classes, I did that. I honestly don’t know why, but for whatever reason I absolutely loved it from day one, from the get go, it was one of my favorite classes.

I think it partially has to do with the fact that I love math and patterns so foreign language kind of made sense to me. I was naturally not amazing, but I think it was naturally relatively good at it, and more importantly just loved it. I had a passion for it, thought it was super cool, but I never even, I don’t think I’d been abroad at all at that point. Then my family, my parents took me on a trip. Our first trip to Europe, I guess I was probably 16. We went to Italy, went all over, went to Positano, went to Sardinia to Rome, Lake Como.

That experience definitely opened my eyes because that’s when I first saw kind of the merge of this is not just theoretical in the classroom, taking tests and doing assignments, but I’m sort of seeing how this thing that I really can apply in the real world in a really cool way. That definitely sparked the interest. I think from that moment, I was like, okay, I definitely want to live abroad. When I went to school, I mean kind of the easiest way to do that was study abroad like most people typically do. I pursued that. Thankfully, at UT there were so many options, it was super easy for us to do it. I think the first place I went was Spain, which was amazing. I went to a town called Santander in Northern Spain. I had an amazing experience and learned a lot, but I felt something a teeny bit was missing from that experience because I went with a group of maybe 50 students from our school. Which was great because I came away with some amazing, honestly at this point, lifelong friends.

I was in the wedding of one of the guys that I went on this trip with so I did come away with some amazing experiences and great friends, but I felt I spent too much time just kind of interacting with people from my country. Not even from just the US from going to my exact same college. I mean, we would have a whole lot of shared experiences and speaking probably more English than I wanted to and it was for a short time. It was for a month and a half.

I felt from there, okay, I want to do this again, but I want to go somewhere where I’m going to be forced to interact with more people from other countries that are not the US, speak more Spanish, something that seems a little bit more foreign to me. I don’t want just a big kind of University of Texas party, in another country, which is super cool too, but maybe not totally what I was looking for experience wise. Then I went down to this pretty small town called Cordoba in Argentina. It’s kind of right if you drew a line from one of Buenos Aires to Santiago, Chile, it’s right in the middle. It’s a really cool place and definitely there, it’s not an international tourist destination. I was much more forced to make local friends. I was speaking mostly in Spanish and had friends from Brazil and Germany and Argentina and Columbia and kind of all over. That was super cool.

Just from there, I mean, not to kind of go on and on. From there I knew that was a passion of mine and I pursued it in a variety of ways. I knew I wanted my first job to have something to do with Latin America and with the Spanish language. I got into a Latin American M&A group at JP Morgan, I knew I wanted to live abroad and moved down and so on. It was those initial experiences that told me, Hey, this is something I want to pursue.

David McNeill: [0:06:20] I mean, there’s definitely a lot in there and I’m sure we won’t get to all of that in our conversation today, but there’s so much great stuff. As you said, you were able to visit these different countries and cities and you got an experience with your university and then kind of more on your own. There’s so much in there, but how did you think about trying to take that, especially from your high school days of studying Spanish into your career? How did you know what to study? I know because I know you didn’t just study the Spanish language or the culture. How did you marry that with something else and then ultimately to find those opportunities, even in the US and New York to be able to to leverage those skills?

Spencer Coon: [0:07:02] For sure. I’m sure everyone can of course find their own path, and this is not necessarily something that would even necessarily work for other people, although I think it certainly can work, but for me, I guess I always thought I wanted to study in school. I didn’t want to just study Spanish for example because I wanted to build other skill sets. I knew that being something a translator or something like that, I thought I probably wanted to pursue a career outside of that, specifically in business. I already had a passion for business and entrepreneurship and finance so that’s where I stayed. That was my main major, but what I did is I took extra classes and I had some AP credits so it was a bit easier to do. I knew I wanted to study both. I wanted to have the main focus be the skill set I was trying to build, which is finance, entrepreneurship, business, but I definitely wanted to supplement it with my passion for Spanish.

I thought it could possibly not even end up only being a hobby, just something I was interested in. But also I thought that possibly that could be something that differentiated me later from other candidates or allowed me to pursue some sort of business opportunity, which I would be uniquely positioned to pursue because I had these skills of having lived abroad or having fluency in another language or something like that. It was always like, I wanted to make sure I got that core skill set as a primary goal in college and as a primary goal for my first job.

I knew I wanted to live abroad and work abroad at some point, but I just thought it was going to be so much easier to get a job in the states first; prove myself if you will, and then use that experience to find something abroad. I personally am actually glad I did that. This is kind of what I was getting at earlier. I’m sure that’s not the only way. I’m sure if you’re really psyched on it you could just go directly and make it happen. But for me, that seemed to be a good path, especially since I wanted to pursue investment banking, which already is a relatively competitive hard to find job right out of school. My compromise was, again, I looked at all the investment banks, the top ones I was interested in, I was like, which one of these has a program that has to do with my passion of Spanish or the Latin American region.

That’s where I found I was super lucky. I mean, JP Morgan just happened to have one of the best Latin American focused groups and I was lucky enough to get an offer there and moved to New York, which is also a super international city. I thought it would be a great launch point for going abroad anyway, just in terms of networking and meeting people. That’s how I thought about it. I was like, get the core skillset, get the job first in the states, work a couple of years and then let’s see what doors open.

David McNeill: [0:09:50] Sure. Actually, maybe to get into the weeds a little bit, as far as getting that first job, I can imagine, I mean, did they test your Spanish ability? How did you get the job on the Latin American desk? That’s what I’m wondering. I imagine a lot of listeners are wondering as well.

Spencer Coon: [0:10:07] Yeah, no, for sure. To clarify, my Spanish was very good at the time, but I don’t even think it was necessarily business fluent. I think there’s all sorts of grades of what is fluent? There are so many different levels and shades of gray. For me, at the time I could very fluently talk about my hobbies, what I like to do, traveling, things that, but walking someone through a discounted cash flow model and comps and talking about M&A in Spanish. I don’t think that was totally there. Not I don’t think, it definitely wasn’t there. Looking back, I think at the time I thought I was better than I was because I lived abroad for a year and I really had pursued it quite passionately. I was reading books all the time and movies and just always trying to get better, but I really didn’t have that business fluency.

The only reason I was able to get a job in this Latin American M&A group is because really it’s corporate finance. Most of the work they do is in English; the presentations they do, even the team. Most of the team members are from Argentina or Chile, but there are team members from Brazil. There are a couple of team members from other countries in Europe who weren’t necessarily native Spanish speakers. Even our internal conversations, a lot of them were still in English but a fair amount was in Spanish too. That’s why I could get the job. It was cool because actually a lot of the members of that team were native Spanish speakers and their second language was English. Many of them were completely business fluent and such, but it certainly didn’t hurt them to have another, a native English speaker on the team just for making presentations and stuff like that.

Again, I was super junior. I was a lowly first and second year analyst. It’s not like I was really kind of the spokesperson for JP Morgan, to the CEO; the guys they’re working with on these hundred million or billion dollar deals. Yeah, that’s how it worked. Then from there I kept learning more and I was getting more and more exposure and I was actually getting exposure to the business side of foreign language, if you want to call it that. I think really that’s when, maybe a bit more so, when I went down to South America to Chile and work for that investment bank, because there then the work was in Spanish. I think if I had to give one recommendation getting a job where you’re forced to speak the language, that’s going to take you to true, if you want to call it, true fluency or at least for me, that’s what really made the big difference.

David McNeill: [0:12:46] How did you make that transition then to that more local investment bank?

Spencer Coon: [0:12:50] I was super fortunate. One of the members of the JP Morgan’s Latin American M&A team that I was a member of was from Chile and he and I got along really well. A bunch of his friends who were still in Santiago and Chile worked at this local bank called La Rembiale (sp?). They told him, Hey man, we’re looking for someone to add to our team but we want it to be someone who’s a native English speaker because we are working with more and more foreign clients. Some of our presentations are in English now or more and more of them are and so that’s what we’re looking for.

He mentioned that opportunity to me. At the time it honestly was a bit scary because I was not even quite two years into my time at JP Morgan in New York. So it seemed relatively soon to be…I actually probably thought I would work maybe four years or something that. Four or five in the states, really kind of established myself, even though now looking back I’m four or five years is nothing but at the time I thought it significant. It seemed kind of early, but it just seemed such a great opportunity because I was going to be able to…I didn’t have to give up, and this was key for me. I didn’t have to give up what I was pursuing. I didn’t have to leave investment banking and totally start from scratch and go do, I don’t even know, something totally different that wasn’t going to build on that skillset that I really was just getting to the level, I felt, where I could truly contribute and be a valuable member of the team.

I didn’t want to give that up. I wasn’t going to go, let’s say teaching English abroad, I wouldn’t have done it. Maybe eventually if no other opportunity came up, of course I would consider stuff like that. It still would have been worthwhile for me, but the reason why I took this opportunity was just because it seemed so perfect. I could keep doing what I was doing, improve my quality of life a little bit and live abroad in a place that to me, seemed super cool. It didn’t end up being that hard a decision. It was just kind of scary at first.

David McNeill: [0:14:46] Maybe compare and contrast the personal life experiences of living in New York city and then moving to Chile, but also the experience of course changing the bank, I can imagine as you said, you can make it a bit better work-life balance as well.

Spencer Coon: [0:15:00] Yeah, for sure. I mean, my case is pretty unique. The investment banking industry is quite unique I think, in that, you do work a pretty crazy number of hours your first few years. Actually, honestly, beyond that we’re talking 80 to 90 hour weeks, which is kind of unheard of, and I think they may even do a little bit less now, I’m not sure. So anything would have been much better than that. Honestly, that was kind of one of the things that was a little bit of a bummer. I didn’t truly get to experience New York City because I was working so often; even on weekends. I wasn’t really experienced in the city that much, but it’s okay. I do think New York City is incredibly cool and I love the international aspect and the food and everything.

One of my biggest passions outside of foreign language and work is sort of mountain sports; skiing, rock climbing and stuff like that. It wasn’t a great fit for that. When I moved to Santiago, which was also at least a regional financial capital and has all the big city; amenities and things that and culture and food, but it’s an hour and a half from the heart of the Andes. That already was just an awesome, really cool change, loved that. Work culture-wise, yeah, super different. Maybe a lot more informal. I mean, it’s also hard. It’s not an apples to apples comparison at all because JP Morgan is one of the largest banks or corporations in the world. La Rembiale (sp?) is a small-ish, regional investment bank in Chile. Obviously everything’s going to be quite a bit different.

Maybe it wasn’t as different as I was expecting. It’s still a kind of a corporate environment if you were really serious and motivated about advancing their careers and doing a good job. Maybe some processes were a little bit less documented or there’s maybe a little bit more room for improvisation and things like that. I would say it was more similar than I thought it would be. The work-life balance was much better, but again, it was investment banking. They did eat lunch extremely late. That was the one thing I remember where I was like, how do you guys do this? I mean, they wouldn’t take their lunch breaks till like 2 or 2:30 PM. They to get in front load the day, do most everything, and then go take a long lunch and then come back and finish up with like four or five hours. For me, that was super weird because in New York it would be go till 12, run down, grab a sandwich in 10 minutes and be back at the desk. Whereas here, we would go out as a team almost every day, unless you were just running with a project that was super busy, we would do that every day. That was kind of a cool change.

David McNeill: [0:17:41] How long did you work at that regional investment bank and then how did you ultimately become a startup founder in the SaaS space? Why did you do that? What was the process like in terms of starting things maybe just logistically, but even legally as well and just getting everything going?

Spencer Coon: [0:17:58] I probably worked for a year and a half at that bank and again, I would have liked to actually stay longer, but an opportunity came up that I just didn’t think I could pass up. I actually met my co-founder in our business who’s still a co-founder today with me. I met him because his girlfriend at the time was working on a support research group or basically just a Buenos Aires based team of JP Morgan, kind of that same group that I was working for in New York City. I had interacted with her, we’d worked together on a bunch of projects. I thought she was super cool and super smart. I sent out the typical goodbye email that you send when you’re working in that corporate environment and are going to blast it out to a lot of people. I said, I was moving to Chile and she was like, oh, Hey, you should meet up with my boyfriend. He’s there, he works in tech, he’s thinking about starting a new company soon. He’s got some ideas. I just think you guys will jive and have a good time chatting and catching up.

I met up and we were just kind of friends at first we’d go catch up, have drinks. We actually did a couple things together, camping trips. We all just said, oh man, we’ve got so many complementary skills and networks. We just kind of enjoyed working together. It seems we would enjoy working together, we should definitely do something someday, but we kind of left it at that. Then he went back to Buenos Aires but then later, he contacted me and he was like, Hey this is the idea I have. I have the beta for this new product I want to build which is a SaaS product. It’s basically an enterprise social network is what it was called, but it’s kind of like having…the concept is a little bit outdated now, but at the time it was pretty innovative. It’s like having an internal social network to kind of replace the sort of static and super hard to use and unfriendly unsocial intranet at the time. An easier way to share messages and files and projects with your team with a more friendly social kind of bottom up as well interface. I just thought that was a great idea.

Why I thought we were complimentary too is I was coming from a finance, business, marketing background with a lot of contacts in the US, especially a lot of financial contacts. He was more like, he’s a programmer, engineering programming, computer programming. In school he had already been managing a team of people doing custom Dev work for a lot of big Argentine clients. He had all the tech skills and a big network of entrepreneurs in Latin America. I was like, well that’s a great mix because you can kind of pair up opportunity and lack of access to capital and knowledge, financial knowledge at least in Latin America with kind of what I can bring to the table business-wise, financial-wise. I mean, yeah, that’s kind of how.

I just thought that was too perfect. He had this idea, I really believed in the thesis. I thought I could help raise some money. I thought I could help contribute as an operator, as a founder on the business side of things. I just thought it was a good opportunity because I guess at that point too. I was kind of a bit I didn’t really want to keep…I didn’t see myself going with a very long, deep career in finance, at least in investment banking. I wanted to create a product. At the end of the day when you’re in financial services, your end product is just kind of like advice. They do many more things than that, and this is a super important service, but I just didn’t connect. It didn’t resonate as much with me as creating a product that sells a real need. It’s super tangible that you can kind of mold and it can be out there in the world and you can see, just seemed cool.

I always wanted to, I knew I didn’t want to stay in the corporate world forever. I think you kind of know, I think everyone should, maybe not everyone, but most people should go try it because I think some people thrive on it and love it. Obviously they can enable you to do a lot of really cool things working at these bigger corporations. But for me, I knew straight away. It’s a feel thing. It didn’t feel right to me. I knew I wanted to work in a smart company. I knew ideally I wanted to be the founder of that company and better kind of control the strategy and the direction, have more freedom and flexibility in terms of where I live, what we’re doing. Obviously the financial upside as well.

David McNeill: [0:22:31] Of course, yeah. Did you just sort of set it up there? I mean, was it just the two of you running it there from Santiago or kind of, how did it evolve from that point?

Spencer Coon: [0:22:40] I ended up going, so he was back in Buenos Aries at this point because he received a really small seed investment from an accelerator called Telefonica. Accelerators are a great way to get started if you do want to start a startup. I mean you do have to give up a pretty sizable chunk of equity. Maybe it’s 8 to 10%, but at that stage that you’re in, I mean, it’s kind of hard to say what the odds are that being worth millions of dollars someday. Odds are actually, it won’t be. Yeah, it’s just a great way to, not only do they give you the capital you need to make your first hires and develop the product and start spending some on your marketing campaigns, but also they give you some direction.

So there’ll be classes and you can go and people will teach you, Hey, here’s the best way to scale your sales team, here’s tips for SEO and improve your organic search traffic. Here’s whatever it might be, kind of all the different areas you might need to improve as a new SaaS founder. Particularly for new founders, that’s where I feel accelerators are great because it gives you the knowledge. Then also networks, we ended up…Telefonica which is, for people who don’t know, it’s the largest telco in South America, they ended up becoming a partner of ours and selling our product. At one point that was more than half of our revenue; is sales through the Telefonica channel. So they can really help you out in a variety of ways in addition to the capital.

He was back in Bueonos Aires doing that and that’s kind of when I joined. I actually moved back to Buenos Aires, but we kind of always had the idea that we were going to leave and go to Santiago, just because at the time and probably still today, it’s definitely way more pro-business. They have a lot of government initiatives around supporting technology companies, startups whether it’s via funding or via networking events or via just having a critical mass of companies you can network with and potentially partner with. Just a little safer I guess in Buenos Aires.

For me Bueonos Aires I love that city. It’s amazing. The people are incredible. The food is insanely good. It’s just so fun and colorful. Obviously parts of it are unsafe, but I really loved it. Just being someone who wants to pursue kind of extreme mountain sports, it’s obviously not ideal, it’s in the middle of nowhere. Santiago, I did not like the city nearly as much, not even close culture-wise, food-wise. I mean, it’s very cool as well, but Argentine always kind of had a special place in my heart with their music and their rock national, that’s what they call it. They have so much good music too. Santiago is a great fit because I mean, it’s so unbelievable to be able to drive an hour and a half and be in the heart of the Andes or be skiing or drive three hours north you could be in the Atacama, in this crazy amazing desert, go South be in Patagonia, go West you’re at the beach. It’s a really, really cool location. Chile is really blessed in that sense.

I just forgot you asked who? So it was just me and him and then another kind of tech person who was our CTO at the time. It’s us three to start for a while. We actually set up an insti in the US kind of straight away because we thought maybe in the next year or two, we would want to raise a funding round from a venture capital firm and there’s just way more access in the US. Then plus also the first kind of bigger round we raised, it was just so more of a family and friends round. I knew it was going to be mostly just kind of my network investing in the round and most of them were based in the US and it’s just people are a lot more comfortable with messing in the US entity versus and certainly than an Argentine SA .

David McNeill: [0:26:28] It sounds you really loved being around all these mountains and these great things over there and Chile near Santiago but of course you also moved to Spain. If you could talk a bit about what the process of that was like, why you decided to do it, how did you decide on Barcelona and everything, that would be great.

Spencer Coon: [0:26:45] Totally. So there are a variety of reasons. We were happy, I think, at a personal level in Chile but I think there is a variety of factors. One, we had tried to raise a couple funding rounds and it was more difficult than we wanted. We thought at the time, I’m not sure this is really true, but at the time, we attributed that a bit more just to being based in South America. It’s just a fact, you do have definitely less access to capital. There’s way fewer VC firms that are there. Their investment mandates, their requirements, their evaluations, it’s all just much tougher than in the US, let’s say or even Europe. The US I’d say is kind of most flexible in terms of high valuations at earlier stages. Getting less sort of traction before investing. Europe is somewhere in the middle and then south America is definitely the most strict.

With much more traction you would actually still get a lower valuation than you would in the states with maybe more restrictive terms. The flip side of that though is that there are far fewer entrepreneurs in South America, so possibly it’s much easier to stand out. Maybe there’s fewer needs being met by efficient, online SaaS solution. Maybe there’s more opportunity. There’s always a flip side. That is something to deal with. I think really though, we didn’t have the right product, so I won’t get too much into it, but we’ve actually pivoted twice. We started with product A; didn’t work as well as we want. Pivoted into product B; didn’t work as well as we want. Pivoted to product C, which is Beamer, which is what we’re working on now. That has ended up taking off and working great. We’re really, really excited about that.

It took a long time. I think looking back hindsight 20/20, I think maybe it was also hard to raise just because it wasn’t quite the right business model, team, opportunity, timing. So anyway, in our minds, that was a thing, and maybe less access to talent. I think that could be a thing as well. Although our Dev team is currently based in Buenos Aires, Argentina is definitely a great spot for amazing engineering Dev talent at, honestly, a fraction of the cost of what you would pay someone in the States or Europe. That aside for maybe other roles it’s a bit harder to find the talent in South America and I think that’s less and less true.

So this is on our minds, I think we’d lived in South America for four years. I at least, I was kind of ready for change, I think. I had an amazing time, but certainly it’s not exactly the same as living in Europe or the States. The level of service is just a bit different. I definitely will go back and, but I think I was just ready for a change. There’s kind of the personal side. There is the business side and then we’re like, okay, well do we move to the States or to Europe?

My co-founder Mariano he’s Argentine. The States was going to be hard, potentially doable, but potentially expensive and potentially expensive with an uncertain outcome as well, which is not ideal. We knew that it was going to be highly competitive. It was going to be much more expensive for us just in terms of cost of living. For me personally, on a personal level, I was like, well, I’m not sure if I’m really ready to move back to the States yet. I kind of would to explore some other places.

Europe kind of seem more and more, a better idea because, okay I’m from the US, I don’t have any sort of European passport or anything like that but Mariano and his wife do. They have Italian passports. Their grandparents were Italian, so they would not have to apply for any. I mean, they could just go and live and work in Spain. I can’t remember the whole bureaucratic process. You probably know a lot more about this than me, but they just have to basically say, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to go live in Barcelona. They’re not going to be denied. They can go do it. Then for me, there was actually a special program for entrepreneurs, which I can send you more details. I don’t know if you have show notes or anything like that in there. Cool because I will look up the exact program name and if it’s still there, but basically at the time, if you were coming over to Spain there’s a special entrepreneurship visa.

So you could go and if you were going to be…no, you just have to create a local entity. We had to create an Insti in Spain. I don’t think there was a dollar requirement, but it was kind of like they would evaluate a lot of criteria, like how many jobs are you going to create? So if you sent a thousand dollars, I guess, it would be hard then to tell them Hey, I can hire five people and grow this thing into this really cool part of your tech ecosystem. I don’t know if there’s a firm requirement on how much money to send, but probably you need to send something.

Okay, so we’re looking…and I guess just to back up a bit we knew Spain, for sure just because of language. I mean, because my business partner’s Argentine, his wife’s Argentine, our whole team’s Spanish speakers and it’s one of the reasons we’re going there and not the States where we possibly have more access to capital, and talent, and more press and stuff that is so it’d be significantly cheaper and we could kind of keep being a really lean startup until we found something that really worked. If we went to Germany that wouldn’t be necessarily so much the case, but Spain definitely is quite a bit cheaper. From a culture, from a cost of living…and because these special visa programs is definitely going to be Spain.

Then why Barcelona? We just love it. I just think it’s such a cool city. It’s a bit more international than…we were considering Madrid and Barcelona. Madrid is super cool as well, but Barcelona is much more international. It’s got much more of a tech focus than Madrid does In terms of networking and events and people you run into and VCs. Madrid just seemed a little more classic corporate, very Spanish, I mean they have everything of course. Then also Barcelona right by the beach, you’re right by all this amazing rock climbing, you’re right by the Pyrenees.

David McNeill: [0:33:35] Easy decision to make.

Spencer Coon: [0:33:36] Definitely the place for us, for sure. Mediterranean climate, too.

David McNeill: [0:33:40] Yeah. On the other hand I have heard that and I mean just visiting there, I don’t know because I haven’t lived there in terms of the rent and so forth, but from what I’ve heard, I mean Barcelona’s fairly expensive. It might not be the same level as San Francisco or somewhere that in the US but did you think about even going to smaller cities or something just to be able to make your burn rate for your company even less?

Spencer Coon: [0:34:01] That’s a good question. We didn’t really I think for us, yeah, I guess Barcelona is not super cheap, but it’s not, at least when we moved five years ago. Rent I think is the one thing that, yes this may be a bit closer to maybe what you’d pay, but it’s still nothing like the more expensive cities in the States. That’s because you have to compete with other tourists. The thing is, we weren’t just going Hey, let’s go for three months and check it out. Three month Airbnb in a furnished and a really nice spot downtown Barcelona that’s going to be expensive, but we were signing year-long leases. I didn’t, but my business partner was going for an unfurnished place. We were kind of like, we’re staying here for a few years. I think that probably helped make it a little bit cheaper.

Then smaller town, I think we were still in the mindset then, especially then too, nowadays it’s probably even less just how remote everything is, but we wanted to be in a bigger city for the networking, and meeting people, and meeting face-to-face with VCs. We still thought we were going to raise a funding round at some point. I guess we both personally like bigger cities, just in terms of like everything it has in terms of meeting people and the restaurants and the opportunities for going out and bars and stuff. We both like bigger cities, but with great access to nature, that was what we wanted. Barcelona really hits that super well. It’s also not super big. It’s big, but it’s not huge. Dallas is much bigger than Barcelona actually, which is funny. It doesn’t feel that big and you walk in everywhere. I had a little Vespa Moto thing, you can zip around everywhere. It’s not that much traffic. I don’t know. It didn’t feel so big or so expensive probably because of that.

David McNeill: [0:35:56] So of course you’ve been speaking a lot of Spanish over the years, but I can imagine that when you actually moved to Spain the Spanish was quite different. Did it take some adjustment or how did you deal with that?

Spencer Coon: [0:36:07] For sure and the accent I had just because I think it was the first place I lived abroad for a while and because most of our team is from there. My accent was very Argentine when I arrived in Spain. It was funny, the people in Catalonia they would all think, oh, this guy, I guess you’re an Argentine. Some people would just I’m was Argentine straight up and some would think maybe you’re an Argentine who’s lived in the states for 10 years so your accent has just changed a little bit. But I could totally pass as an Argentine basically. It wasn’t so hard to understand.

In Barcelona, there’s a whole other kind of aspect of they speak Catalan they all…in a big city, Barcelona, anyone under the age of 40-50 they’re all going to speak completely fluent, great Spanish. It is different sounding. Now it’s funny, I can actually really easily pick out if someone’s speaking in Spanish from Spain, what region they’re from. If they’re from Catalonia I can recognize it instantly because they do have a little bit of an accent. If they’re from Andalusia, which has a really strong accent. It’s quite different. At first you get there and if your foreign language level is strong, you’re going to understand pretty much everything. You might just miss a few words or a few kind of strange phrases that it’s not like you take the literal meaning of it just because you’ve never heard it, but yeah, by context and stuff you won’t have much of an issue.

When you go to restaurants and stuff there’ll definitely be menus that are in Catalan, you have to kind of learn how to read that, but you definitely don’t need to learn how to speak Catalan to interact and feel you’re part of the local scene. because I actually did have a lot of local friends and many people in Barcelona don’t and that’s totally fine. There’s an amazing ex-pat community there, people from all over and that’s totally fine. I wanted to especially one of my biggest passions, rock climbing, it’s probably a higher percentage of locals that are doing that. I had a ton of friends that were Catalan and I would read climbing topos and stuff and climbing maps, describing routes and stuff in Catalan so I did learn a bit. You definitely don’t need to be fluent in Catalan. They speak perfect Spanish. You speaking Spanish, it’s going to feel like a totally local kind of experienced and then if you want to learn it, that’d be great.

Of course, they’d be super stoked on that and I’m sure it’d be really cool experience. It’s just, for me it was a calculus of how much is that going to add versus the effort that would be required to become as fluent so that really it made sense to speak in Catalana and not in English, that would be hard. For me, I didn’t have time to do that for sure. I guess I just want to say, yeah, you can definitely go there and improve your Spanish. I’ve just heard people say oh, don’t go to Barcelona because they speak Catalan. It’s like well, no, everyone there speaks Spanish. You can totally totally improve your Spanish there. Maybe it’d be slightly easier, I don’t know, somewhere else. You wouldn’t have to, but you’d just maybe be a bit more, even more immersed in it. I think you can easily improve your Spanish.

David McNeill: [0:39:34] Did you find that Barcelona offered the business benefits that you were looking for as one of the main reasons why you moved there with a company in the first place?

Spencer Coon: [0:39:42] I think so. I mean, definitely in one sense. We were able to apply for a few kind of special loans or grants for tech companies. That was something that gave us kind of extra runway to basically survive, as we were pivoting through those different products that I mentioned earlier. That was great and something that we wouldn’t necessarily have gotten in other places because they were special grants where it’s normally you’d need to have more traction, more revenue, more paying customers, more cash in the bank, more assets for me to give you this loan. But because you’re in tech and strategic sector and we want more people here in Barcelona doing that, we will fund your company. That was great. They were both debt instruments, so weren’t even giving up any equity.

So in that sense it was great. In terms of networking definitely it was there, I think we could have done better and getting out and but you know, at some point too we just got so busy and in our own thing we probably didn’t take advantage of that as much as we could have, but definitely there’s a cool area. I think it’s called 22@, which is a new part of Barcelona, I think just east of Poblenou where they’re kind of converting it into a tech zone. They’re trying to build a lot of cool housing for people who work in tech and then have a lot of tech companies with their headquarters there, have a bunch of co-working spaces, have a bunch of VCs.

That’s a really cool area and we weren’t exactly right there. I think it’s gotten even bigger now. That would be something I think that’d be worthwhile to check out if you’re in tech and living there. Yeah, they have a lot of publications we followed. Yeah, I think so, but we also thought, I think at the time we had a bit more of an enterprise kind of sales process where we thought we were going to need to meet up with large corporations in person. That would be great to be in Barcelona because there’s a lot of huge companies that are based there. We migrated away from that product, pivoted to something else that’s now it’s way more self-service automated, completely remote sales process. I didn’t end up needing it so much for that. Yeah, it’s a good place for sure. Definitely it was much cheaper than other places we could have been. That certainly helped as well.

David McNeill: [0:42:12] Are there any particular areas around town, the neighborhoods that you would particularly point to and recommend to other folks to maybe check out if they’re moving to the city?

Spencer Coon: [0:42:21] Yeah, for sure. In terms of where to live or kind of like…

David McNeill: [0:42:23 ] Yeah exactly.

Spencer Coon: [0:42:26 ] So for living, I lived in an area called El Born, which is super cool. It’s just east of the Barrio Gotico, which is kind of, I would say the most touristic part of the town. I really liked it because it’s a good mix I think of, yes, there’s plenty of tourists and Airbnb’s there, but there are plenty of people living more long-term like I was doing there as well. I think it would be cool to be in an area like Gràcia, which Gràcia is actually now a little bit more, it’s definitely got a decent amount of tourists as well, but it could be cool to go to a lesser known area that’s super local. I kind of like the mix because when you do have that mix of tourists there, it’s like well, what do they put there? They put really nice and fun restaurants and really cool bars. It just kind of makes it to where the different entertainment options you have are probably a bit more when you have that kind of mix of tourists and locals. I thought EL born was really cool for that. It’s very walkable and yeah, very pretty. That area’s really cool.

The area I mentioned like Poblenou and 22@, definitely that’s a good area to check out as well. It’ll be significantly cheaper than El Born, which is not going to be cheap. If you’re looking for something on, I guess, the cheaper end, that’s probably not the best place to look. Poblenou would be quite a bit cheaper and there’s that cool, tech area and it also kind of goes right along east, along the beach. So you have access to the beach. You could even be five minute walk from the beach and not the part of the beach that’s right next to the Barceloneta, which is a super tourist area of town, which I don’t as much. There’s good restaurants there and I would run there occasionally. If you just go, honestly, if you just walk five minutes east of where all these people are, it’s no one will be there and it’s the same beach, maybe better and local stands that’ll sell you a little beer, some seaside snacks or whatever. So yeah, Poblenou a good spot as well for sure.

Then there’s lots of cool towns. The suburbs of Barcelona are amazing too. If you want to go just a little bit further out, definitely a much more local feel but much cheaper. You can live in the mountains. That’s one thing many people don’t know about Barcelona. There’s lots of little mountains kind of all around the town too. Yeah. There’s lots of cool options.

David McNeill: [0:44:51] So it sounds you had a great set up there. You love the place, you lived there for quite a few years. Why did you leave?

Spencer Coon: [0:44:58] That is a great question. I hope to never kind of not be traveling too and spending time in that area because it’s so special to me and I love it. I have a ton of friends, and I love the climbing there, and I love the food scene and just everything about it. I knew at some point I’d probably want to at least come back and try living in the States again, because it had been eight years for me, a little over, that I’ve been continuously living abroad. I was lucky since I was working for myself most of that time, or a lot of the time. I traveled back frequently and I would spend a few weeks, maybe in a month, in the States at a time and do that two or three times a year. I was coming back often, but yeah, I just felt it would be an interesting experiment to try again what it was like living in the states, especially this new kind of stage of life, because I mean, last time I lived in the States, it was yeah, just a year and a half out of college.

I just wanted to see if I’d it. I thought it’d be fun to come back and be a little closer to family and friends. I had both my brothers living in Denver and I had already had in my mind, that Boulder, Colorado would be an amazing spot to live because it’s that same smaller city, tons of amazing restaurants, but all the great things you’d want in a city entertainment-wise and networking-wise but it’s right next to unbelievable climbing, and trail running, and skiing. That’s kind of what I look for in a city. A proper city with some really cool things to do, but that’s got great access to nature. I was like, since my brother’s still living there, my parents are spending a lot of time also in Colorado, in the small mountain ski town, I just thought why not give it a try?

Then the pandemic hit, that was kind of the catalyst. We were discussing this before we pressed record. The pandemic over there in the early days was really tough. I was there in March and for the first, I think, couple of months you really couldn’t leave your house for anything other than going to get food, going to the hospital, going to the doctor, a family emergency or going to the bank. I think that was it, those four things. If you didn’t go out and have a justified, I think at one point you even had to fill out a form online and have that form on your person of why I’m allowed to be outside, you had to be at home.

I was living by myself at the time. It was just not that great of a situation. Not to even be able to go out and exercise or run on my own just seemed a little. I knew it wasn’t like that in Colorado. It just seemed like why not? I’m just kind of feel like I’m wasting my time by myself not really being able to do much. I might as well go back and kind of see how things are and I was already planning on doing it maybe the next year. My kind of longer term goal is to really, like I mentioned, kind of split time between the two places probably at least for the time being, skewed a bit more towards spending more time in the states.

I left a car and a little kind of van life type set up in Spain. I have all the intentions of spending a bunch of time there because it’s a really cool region. I think that’s one of the cool things that technology and remote work and all this enables us to do. If you want and you can make it happen, you can kind of bounce around and live. You don’t have to live in just one spot.

David McNeill: [0:48:24] Yeah, exactly. So now that you’ve been back for a little bit, how has the readjustment been? I mean, of course these are unusual times to say the least, but as you were away for those eight years and now you’re back, what’s it been like ? Do you have any major impressions or takeaways so far?

Spencer Coon: [0:48:44] Totally. Yeah. I think the transition was relatively easy. Maybe it is because I was coming back pretty frequently. I probably spent maybe two months out of the calendar year in the States. I guess yeah, transition-wise nothing was super, super tough. I was doing, again, the exact same job, the exact same thing I was doing over there is what I still do here. Work-wise just the time zone thing. I just start the day earlier here, which most people do anyway. We’re not going to dinner at 9 or 10 PM over here like they are over there. It’s kind of easier to have the earlier schedule anyway.

I think I miss the sort of daily exposure to the foreign language. Like just walking out to a cafe and ordering a cortado, just having that interaction in Spanish every day, I missed that, but I also still kind of get it because all my team are Spanish speakers so actually, I still speak it. I mean, if I’m not speaking, I’m at least on Slack, WhatsApp, writing it and seeing it. I’m glad I still have that exposure. I think it would have been tougher if I didn’t have that.

Yeah, I miss over there just, man it’s so amazing how many places there are to travel to. They’re just unbelievably incredible, within a three hour drive, Barcelona. Whereas I don’t think there’s anywhere in the states really where you have that. It’s definitely less, let’s say. So I kind of miss just being able to be like well, where are we going this weekend? Well, let’s go to this amazing rock climbing crag or let’s go, we’re going to actually just pop over to France and go here. We’re going to go to the Pyrenees. We’re going to go to the beach. We’re going to go to…and all like a 2-3 -hour drive max, maybe less. I miss that aspect for sure.

I’ve gained other things. It’s been fun to come back and reconnect with friends, reconnect with my brothers and family. Not that we were like not, but just being able to see them on a weekly basis versus once every three or four months. It’s been good. I think also it’s been less hard because I knew I have all the intention of spending a bunch of time and I’m actually going in October and I’ll spend a couple of months there and then who knows, this winter we’ll see.

David McNeill: [0:51:18] Nice. Do you have any other advice or thoughts for listeners, viewers out there that are thinking about trying to make a move, whether to south America, Latin America or maybe into Spain as well?

Spencer Coon: [0:51:29] Yeah, that is a really good question. I think the foreign language definitely helps and that’s something you can certainly practice and get better at before you move. I think if it feels like it’s something you’re forcing, then you need to really question whether, because I’ll just say, for me, it just never felt I was forcing myself to do it. I was craving more. I was like, I want to read more books in Spanish. I want to be watching these shows and I think that definitely helps. It’s probably not the only way, but if you feel that, I think definitely embrace it and do it and do it as much as you can before you go. I know that my experience was vastly different than other friends I know who’ve been abroad. Who didn’t go knowing the foreign language and maybe not taking the time there to learn it for whatever reason. Not saying one’s better than the other, but I can definitely say that it’s really cool when you do have that kind of component, the foreign language immersion component to the experience.

I would say don’t rush it. Again, I kind of wanted to go straight away, but I’m really glad I didn’t because I gained a lot of experience and networks. Actually what I did and ended up facilitating me going anyway. I would say be strategic about what you’re picking to do in your home country. Ideally if you can have some link or kind of make some path to where that’s going to lead you to being abroad, maybe that’s better but yeah, don’t force it. Don’t force it and at the same time, when you see the opportunity though, jump on it. Don’t be afraid, do it. Just go, it’s going to be kind of hard, but you’ll figure it out. It’s kind of part of the fun, part of the process.

David McNeill: [0:53:08] Yeah. I think we have arrived ultimately at the sort of same conclusions, which is that it was good to start out in the US with our careers and be able to find a way to leverage those internationally. Of course, as you Said having the passion and really feeling a personal motivation, a personal drive to study the language I think is really important if you want to try to pick it up and it can, of course transform your experience as well. Yeah, I think we come from quite a similar background in that perspective. As far as our listeners being able to follow you and just see what you’re up to, or of course giving more information about your company and how they can get more info on that. That would be great.

Spencer Coon: [0:53:46] Yeah, for sure. Yeah, the company we’re working on, it’s called Beamer. It’s a really cool solution for SaaS companies. If you’re managing a startup or have a website or a blog or something, it’s basically a really cool way for you to notify your users about what’s new, whether that be product updates, new features improvements, or things that, or just new blog posts, new content, whatever it is. It’s kind of a plug and play change law with a bunch of other announcements models, and then a bunch of feedback options so you can really see Hey, what would my users will actually think about my product, what they think about this specific update or what they think about my product or service in general. Track how it changes over time or by user segment, you can tell them what you’re planning on building via roadmap. Just really cool tool for product teams, especially if you have to deal with customer marketing and product marketing. Yeah, that’s I’m sure you can put a link maybe somewhere.

David McNeill: [0:54:34] We will. All right. Well, thank you so much, Spencer, for joining us today. It’s been awesome to hear about your journey in so many different countries, exciting places and learning languages. I look forward to keeping in touch and talk to you soon.

Spencer Coon: [0:54:45] Yeah, I appreciate it, David. Thanks for having me on and I’m really excited about what you guys are doing as well. It’s a really cool service. Good luck and I’ll be excited follow along as well.

David McNeill: [0:54:54] Thanks so much.


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As the founder of Expat Empire, David McNeill is focused on inspiring people to move abroad and showing them how to do it. David started Expat Empire because he has a genuine passion for living abroad. He left the United States in 2014 and has since lived in Tokyo, Berlin, and Porto.