So how much does it cost to do a transnational startup?

A breakdown of Proto’s operational costs


At the beginning of last year I wrote about the challenges of setting up a transnational startup. Thankfully, we were able to move past that initial set of challenges, and I wanted to write a follow-up that might help other founders in similar situations — especially considering the ostensible proliferation of tech-nomadism and the coming remote working revolution.

Every startup’s needs differ of course. Here’s our scenario:

  • Most of us are in Amsterdam, but we have a US base in New Jersey — so we do have a 6 hour timezone differential to deal with (and fundamentally, a remote working mentality).
  • Until now, all of our customers have been in the US (come on, Europe!). That means a 9 hour timezone difference with west coast customers. Yowza!
  • We build iOS and web apps with cloud-based backends — be they for e-commerce verticals, social networks, enterprise applications, financial services, etc.

Now that we’ve been in operation for about a year, here’s the core set of tools/services we’ve settled into using, and what they cost:

Operations

Finances

We experimented with a few different options, considering our multi-currency, multi-entity structure, and ended up with the following setup:

  • Accounting: Quickbooks Online. With a bit of expert help, we were able to get both US and NL companies linked to the same Quickbooks parent account. On the NL side, VAT population works well. Invoicing functionality is nice, and though there’s a bit of noise, the UI is generally pretty intuitive. My biggest complaint is the lack of bank integrations on the NL side; manually importing bank statements for reconciliation SUCKS!

Cost (NL): €21 / mo

Cost (US): $26.95 / mo

  • Banking (US): Chase. Truthfully, they’ve been terrible. They put holds on checks we’ve received from our clients on multiple occasions, demanding a contact phone number for them. In these situations, they have actually taken the money from the clients, but held it instead of releasing it to us for multiple days. Their online banking site, while functional, is pretty crappy. When we were getting setup they threw up all kinds of red-tape roadblocks. When a suitable alternative presents itself we will switch.

Cost: $20 / mo

  • Banking (NL): ING. They were the only ones that would give me an account when we were starting up. Recently, @alper suggested checking out Rabobank for both US and NL, so we might give that a look.

Cost: Basically free for the first year or so. After that I think it goes to maybe €5 per month

  • International transfers: USForex. There are a lot of Forex services out there, but it turns out you can’t use very many of them for a business. What we wanted to do was seemingly simple: send money from a US bank account to the NL bank account of its subsidiary. Not so simple. After jumping through a bunch of hoops we did get USForex wired up to both bank accounts. It’s kind of weird the way it works though — when we initiate a transfer, USForex wires the money (in dollars) to a USForex account at BNY, and then a couple of days later completes the transaction by transferring the converted amount (according to the “locked in rate”) from some Barclays account in the UK to our ING account in the Netherlands. We could have sent the money from Chase directly of course — if we wanted to give in to their AWFUL exchange rates. USForex gives us better rates, though it still seems crazy that we have to shell out a bunch to a middle man to pass money from our right hand to our left hand. Would probably be cheaper to just book flights and carry suitcases of cash. And more exciting too.

Cost: Approximately 2% on transfers made thus far.

  • Payroll tax: Don’t forget you have to pay your respective governments for the privilege of their protections! How you setup your employment arrangement with your company impacts how much you have to pay here, but it’s important to recognize that the company is responsible for the “employer” tax aspects. In the Netherlands this covers a mandated employer health insurance component (no, it’s not like Norway), a pension benefit, and general employer tax. In the US I believe it’s similar (don’t ask me, I’m an expat now!).

Cost: In the NL, on the order of 25% of your gross salary. In the US, it’s a bit over 15%.

  • Time tracking + customer invoicing: Harvest. For a while we tried to manage project budgets and client reporting in spreadsheets (and even built a custom in-house tool), but eventually realized our optimal time allocation would minimize the manual aspects of these admin tasks. We gave Harvest a trial run, and while it wasn’t perfect, it worked well enough. Also has a decent integration with Quickbooks Online.

Cost: $49/ mo for our basic package.

Legal

  • US Incorporation. We got some “corporation in a box” package that provided us with all the standard agreements. We used a reputable law firm to make sure we covered all our bases.

Cost: I don’t want to talk about it. Ok fine, I will. It was about $20k by the end of year 1.

  • NL Incorporation. As I wrote in a previous post, the whole process was quite a rigamarole. Suffice it to say things are running relatively smoothly now — the NL firm we use provides both legal support and Dutch tax authority filings. Though, we haven’t had to do a year-end tax return yet, so holding our breath on that one.

Cost: We’re on a fixed-rate, quarterly plan which costs EU628 / quarter, or about €2500 / yr. There were a bunch of preliminary setup costs that I also don’t want to talk about. Call it €5000 including transfer of 30% ruling.

Office

  • For ProtoHQ in Amsterdam, We rent two desks at an awesome co-working space run by @launchdesk called Boven de Balie. When not there, we work wherever our bikes take us ☺

Cost: €400 / mo

Now the fun stuff we use for collaborating!

Collaboration

  • Google Docs / Google Drive — so much better than the MS Office Suite! Every day I don’t have to wrangle with Word or Excel I consider a day added on to my life.

Cost: ~$500 / yr (breakdown: $5 / user / mo)

  • Trello — malleable enough for complex projects, yet simple enough for unfamiliar users to be able to dive right in. You do need to be vigilant about cleaning up after yourself here, but if you do that then it’s a great tool for internal and external collaboration.

Cost: Free! (for the features we use)

  • Slack — in the beginning we tried to use email with periodic update blasts. These updates were time consuming to write, and too informationally dense to be fully absorbed by recipients. We realized there was a communication gap, and decided to experiment with Slack. And it was great! Just when you thought you didn’t need another messaging platform, the folks at @slackhq came in and totally nailed it.

Cost: We’ve still got some early adopter credits, but when those dry up, it will be $8 / user / mo, which in our case is about $600 / yr

  • Github — gold standard source code management service

Cost: $600 / yr (breakdown: $50 / mo for up to 20 private repos)

Conclusion

When this is all summed up, it’s no small amount:

In the ballpark of $45k for year 1, split pretty evenly between the US and the NL; setup costs were on the order of $30k.

You can probably do without some of the above, but the question is — do you really want to? At a certain point, you sacrifice so much productivity by doing your accounting in Google Sheets (or flying back and forth with briefcases of cash) that you might as well eat the service fees. Could we have done without some of the legal or accounting assistance? Maybe, but at what potential future cost / risk?

Sometimes you just have to pay the money to get things done right. Funny that I might close on that sentiment, don’t you think?

But wait…

Don’t forget about worker’s comp, general liability, and a CRM for your sales pipeline. More on that soon! Ok, probably not.