I first visited Cuba in the year 2001. At the time, economic conditions on the island were difficult, to say the least. The communist government had a state-owned monopoly on everything from land and housing to business in every sector. Plus, the U.S. trade embargo stifled the Cuban economy even further.
I had the opportunity to return to the island earlier this year and was inspired by some of the changes I was fortunate enough to witness--both the Cuban and U.S. governments have begun relaxing long-standing restrictions in terms of business, trade and travel. Slowly but surely, there has been an increase in entrepreneurial opportunities on the island for both foreign-based businesses and Cubans.
After seeing policy changes and their positive effects on the Cuban "emprendedores" or entrepreneurs, I learned some valuable lessons about resilient entrepreneurship that could inspire the business owner in all of us.
Use what you have to get what you want
Though the average Cuban salary is equivalent to $20 a month, starting a business isn't impossible. The Cuban government recently allowed Cubans to buy and sell homes. Many Cubans have taken advantage of this by selling their property and using the proceeds to capitalize their business ventures.
Gains from these transactions have been used to buy rental properties, start restaurants and acquire vehicles for taxi businesses. This increased access to capital has been a game-changer for Cuban business owners.
Diversify your income streams
Many Cubans we met had several streams of income. An accounting student who ran a successful AirBnb business also provided accounting services for others in the same niche. Because he knew the tax implications of running a rental property business, he successfully parlayed that knowledge into another source of income.
Cross promote your offerings
If you're going to make ends meet with different streams of income, you'd better have a good marketing plan. One of our bicycle cabbies used the five-minute ride he gave us to tell us about all of his businesses. In just a short time, we learned that he was also a massage therapist and exotic dancer! Ultimately, we passed on his other services, but couldn't deny his charming salesmanship was pretty clever.
Don't reinvent the wheel
New opportunities for business in Cuba are creating a growing middle class with more disposable income. They are ready to splurge on everything from designer clothes to faster internet service and exclusive gym memberships.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a gym offering a CrossFit WOD (workout of the day) that I thoroughly enjoyed. CrossFit is a popular workout style with a worldwide, cult-like following. Why not piggyback on something with demonstrated success? Many Cuban business owners are doing just that.
Get ready for change
Though the laws around Cuban business ownership don't quite constitute a full, free-enterprise economy, many Cubans are hopeful that more changes will come. In talking with many people, I found that current and would-be business owners are anticipating additional economic freedoms with concrete plans.
Cubans are diligently taking inventory of their personal assets and networks they'll leverage when the green light comes. The harbingers of capitalism are all around and no one wants to be caught unprepared.
I won't deny that I was pretty encouraged by the new possibilities I see taking shape in Cuba. I'm also excited to see what else we'll learn from Cuban entrepreneurs as the prospects for new business ventures open up on the island.