The Expat Entrepreneur

An Interview with Amy Brown
Founder/Strategist at
Phoenix

Amy Brown is the founder of burgeoning brand strategy firm, Phoenix, and as an American living in Amsterdam, she’s also building it in a foreign country. Amy shares her experience as an expat entrepreneur, while traveling the world for work and play.

Recently you left the corporate world and launched your own business in Amsterdam.  What inspired the creation of Phoenix?  What has that experience been like as an expat?
I think what inspired me to do it was that I had this itch to try it for a while and I really loved the puzzle of global or regional strategy, and taking a problem and saying okay how does it fit into these different markets and how do you come up with a plan that’s going to flex in the right ways.

Amsterdam specifically is a great city to do it in.  Most everyone speaks English so it’s easy to do international business here. It’s also one of the most collaborative cities I’ve ever seen. There is just so much going on and it’s on the cutting edge of social impact with brands and companies that want to change to actually do things for the better.

The Phoenix brand positioning is this idea of reinvention. In line with that, I worked with some clients who may not necessarily do something that’s amazing for the world, but they want to change, and my point of view is you can. You need to reinvent what you’re saying and how you’re telling your story all the time. I feel like this city is always changing and it moves so quickly. It was inspiring to take that positioning with the business.

The business itself wasn’t hard (to create). What was hard was managing my own discomfort with uncertainty, and I realized I am way more Type A than I ever wanted to admit to myself! The first couple of months it was like: I’ve always had a job. I’ve never wondered where my next paycheck was going to come from. All of a sudden, I didn’t know anything and the uncertainty of that was scary and somewhere around two months in, something changed, and I turned a corner. I think it’s because I started to see that if I just did the things, went and had meetings and talked to people that stuff starts to happen and opportunities come up. The corner that I turned was that I started to see the uncertainty as a blessing. And once I was able to embrace that the unknown is just a question mark of what exciting thing I’m going to be doing next, that was a lesson.

It took a lot of self-realization to understand just how uncomfortable I was at that in the beginning. If you really think about it and understand where your fears are coming from, just kind of work on the acceptance of that and it goes away. So, it is possible!  Every fourth or fifth day I had an all-out panic attack. But the thing is, you CAN do it, and there’s going to be some time that’s uncomfortable but it’s just a process like everything and your frame of reference starts to change, and you really start to see it differently. But I probably drove my boyfriend crazy! Now I look back and I think I can’t believe I was so stressed about some aspects of it.

What’s the hardest thing about living abroad? What’s the best?  Is there anything you miss most about being home?
It’s people that I miss, it’s not really home itself. It’s people, and then it’s stupid things like ice!  Europeans don’t like ice! Also, in the Netherlands, I really miss mountains. It’s very flat here and when you go somewhere with mountains and you have to hike, you realize how out of shape you get living in a totally flat country.

But the trade-offs just far outweigh the things that you would miss, and they just seem so silly in comparison to what you learn. You are learning different ways of living, different ways of being a family, being a friend, raising kids, just totally different ways that communities work.

One of the coolest things is that I have been taking Dutch lessons for almost a year and all of a sudden I had a moment where I realized I was unintentionally eavesdropping on a lot of people in the tram, and I realized I could understand what they were saying! All of a sudden you just get more under the skin of their humor and what the culture and their people are like in their place. You are always discovering new things relative to what you know.

What have you learned about yourself in the process (of living as an expat)?
The thing that I learned, and I did this twice recently, when you start a new company especially in a place you don’t know very well, finding mentors is really, really helpful.

I found two people that I thought were really interesting and inspiring, way more senior than I was in my career and had spent a lot of time in the Netherlands. It was the kind of situation where I thought they are never going to answer my note, like I will be shocked if they call me back, but both of them did. I went to lunch with both of them and I had 2-hour conversations around what I was doing and what they thought of it, and their advice.  People are so flattered to be sought out for advice like that so don’t be scared of finding mentors.

It’s as simple as going to a meet-up of expat entrepreneurs. I started doing that. I would go to all kinds of random things. And one of my clients now is someone I met through one of those free meet-ups for expat entrepreneurs, so yeah go and see what happens.  You have to put yourself in the path of the things coming up.

What tips would you give to someone who wants to work or live overseas?
The one rule that I had for myself when I moved here, and this was more related to making work a success, was I didn’t know anyone here in Amsterdam and I knew my job was going to be very hard. I thought, when I have a bad day, I need to have life outside of work, so I posted on Facebook that I was new. All of these people just came out of the woodwork. So many messages from my friend’s cousin’s sister’s roommate from college or my friend’s friend’s best friend’s friend. I said yes to a million awkward friend dates and weird invitations — like no, I really don’t want to see that movie, but sure I will. I was so happy that I did that because that’s how I made all of my friends. I mean it’s going to be awkward but it’s going to make for good stories!

Amsterdam is historic and modern at the same time. Is there a quintessential Amsterdam experience you would recommend?
Yes, but it depends on the season. There are three Amsterdam’s. Amsterdam in the summer is totally different than the Amsterdam in the spring versus the Amsterdam in the winter when everything is frozen and dark and hibernating. Each has their own special charm and this past year, the canals froze because it was cold enough and you know you had Katie Couric on the news in the US showing footage and saying look at all the people ice skating to work this is how they commute every day. This is not true at all, but when the ice froze, all the cafes put tables and chairs on the ice and there were businessmen skating by with their briefcases and it was so magical with the snow and all of the twinkly lights.

Then if you come during tulip season (late April, early May), literally when you’re in the airplane and you look down you can see the colors of the tulip fields from the sky. These big purple, vibrant yellow, pink and orange sections and then to go biking around the tulip fields during the bloom is amazing and I think that’s very quintessential.

Then in the summer, this city is like the best place on Earth because the sun comes up at 5 a.m. and it stays out until like 10:45/11 p.m. It’s very far north which is why the winter is so dark but the personality changes in summer. Everyone comes alive and there is this exuberance and people are really just going for it. You can finish a work day at 5 or 6 p.m. and you still have five hours of your day to do stuff. You can go on a boat ride and go out to dinner and on a run rather than picking one of those things. Everything also moves outside like yoga outside, movies outside whatever else you can do inside you can do outside. It’s a fun time to be here.

Is there a place you have traveled that you return to again and again? Tell us about it…and why it draws you back.
There are really three places and they’re for different reasons. The first one is Rome and that’s probably kind of cliché but Rome is just so endless to explore and you never do the same thing twice. I don’t think you would ever walk the same route twice even if you tried because you just get lost and you wander. It’s always changing in different seasons and so I love going there. It’s also really different with friends, with your family, with your boyfriend, so it’s cool to just experience it like this.

Lisbon is another city that I fell in love with and it’s a grittier, way cooler, more musical version of San Francisco without all the tech bullshit, which is the way I would describe it. The street art and the tiles are the two amazing art forms there. In the Netherlands they also have tiles but they’re on the inside of homes and in Portugal all of the homes are tiled on the outside to keep the heat out. Because there’s so much tile work and amazing graffiti, you can just create your own tours. All the subway cars going around and around are also just tagged with these incredible murals. I really love Lisbon. I thought we were going to have two days there and we went for six and we didn’t have enough time to make even a scratch. 

The third one is Scotland, and I’ve been there a million times. It sounds like a place you would go to once, but if you like nature and you like mystery…do you know the TV series Outlander? It is like that! It’s very wild and mysterious, and you get there and you’re like wow, okay, I wouldn’t be surprised if a wizard walked out of the trees. I have Irish and Scottish heritage and so it’s cool to see the Highlands. The people are so friendly, maybe the friendliest people I’ve ever met.

Have you ever been surprised by a place or a culture…not at all what you expected? (good or bad)
Bulgaria was also a surprise. Bulgaria itself is fascinating because it’s like a Soviet time capsule to be back in a city that sits right at the East-West crossroads. There are few tourists, so people are always coming up to you and asking what you are doing here and then they’re just really happy to explain anything.

It’s 9,000 years old and where we were in Sofia, there is a section of the subway between two stops where you are walking on Via Diagonalis which is literally the road from Constantinople to Rome, like, in the subway system! Where does that happen?

Sofia also has a really cool drinking scene with a lot of great cocktail bars and a lot of interesting neighborhoods, like boutiques and that was unexpected. I had no idea that there would be anything like so avant-garde to do there.

What is your favorite place in the world? Why?
I don’t have a favorite place but there is one common theme of favorite places that I have. All of them are right on the ocean, not on the calm ocean but the wild ocean, like the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Agulhas in South Africa, Big Sur in California and Scotland in the Outer Hebrides right on the North Sea. Even here, the Frisian Islands up on the north coast of the Netherlands.

What places have you not been yet…but are ‘on your list’?
There are tons! I have never been to South America.  I have never been to Southeast Asia. The rest of Eastern Europe I’m now intrigued about, just because I really liked a taste of it. Jerusalem and Israel. More of the Middle East. So much to do!

If you could host the ‘ultimate dinner party’, what 3 people would you invite to join you? (living or dead)
I like this question, but I also hate it because it changes every day. I have a list of people that I’ve just been thinking about lately that I find interesting, and I think I would have to have a bigger table than just 3.

First, Elizabeth Gilbert because I think she is just like so real and hilarious and it would never be boring. Michael Pollan, the author who just wrote “How to Change your Mind” which is about the history of psychedelics. I really like him, and I think it’s fascinating he’s become this psychedelics guy just because he started trying them out when he was 60. I read this article about Rick Steves in the New York Times because everyone knows and loves Rick Steves, and they think that he’s so wholesome but turns out he’s a pothead and it’s like the source of all his inspiration around travel. The final two people would be Brene Brown and Joseph Campbell. Brene Brown I also love, and Joseph Campbell is the author who wrote “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” He’s the one that basically started to look at archetypes in storytelling like from a brand and advertising perspective. I always loved his book because he goes back into the root of human psychology to talk about a certain set of narratives that are as old as time and they’re really rooted in our DNA and the role of ego. He is the ego guy and all of these other people are about transcending the ego, and then the psychedelics piece weirdly connects them all together, so I think it would be fascinating conversation.

When the night grows long and everyone is really settled in, the travel stories begin to flow. In 1 sentence, what story would you tell?
There was one time when some friends and I on a school break we decided to drive across the Kalahari Desert in Namibia in a really old diesel Mercedes named Frank that had a broken odometer and there were no gas stations.

Images by Amy Brown.

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