Meet James Meads, British solopreneur

From turning down a job in South Africa to starting his own business in Bulgaria

Written and photos by James Meads, edited by Scott Green

James Meads hails from Birmingham in the UK, although he hasn’t lived there for over 20 years. He moved to Germany and spent most of his professional career there, he attributes his being in Sofia due to his time in Germany, more so than him being British.

We asked him to share his story with us in the hopes of inspiring more people to believe that one can turn their life around and head in new directions.

I run my own small procurement consultancy business based in Sofia. What’s that, I hear you ask? Well, every company knows what they sell – but not many understand what they buy.

So, I help companies to see where they can save costs and reduce waste through buying better, cheaper, and more compliant. Also by digitizing and automating their administrative processes around how they order, contract, and pay for goods and services.

I’m also in the process of setting up a Negotiation Meetup Group here in Sofia, to help any professionals who want to practice and improve their negotiation skills and business English in a fun, informal setting. Watch this space.

How did you come to choose Bulgaria? 

Choosing Bulgaria ultimately came from a life decision I made to start my own business and become location independent. 

I had a successful career working in strategic procurement for a Fortune 500 FMCG company. Back in 2017, I was in the process of transitioning into a new role, buying all of the logistics and transportation requirements for our operations in Sub-Saharan Africa. The company asked me to relocate to Johannesburg but wanted me to switch to a local South African employment contract. 

I said no – I wasn’t going to accept a 30% pay cut, despite the allure of eternal sunshine, amazing food, and the laid-back lifestyle. In the end, we negotiated that I would perform the role remotely from Germany and travel when needed. But it got me thinking: Why are corporate employers so inflexible? If I save the company a million dollars on a contract, then the difference in salary is kind of peanuts to them.

Most of my fellow teammates were married, with kids, large mortgages, and just on the hamster wheel of corporate life because they had no alternative. I had a plan B. I had a small mortgage and no children, and an appetite to travel and see more of the world. So, I thought, why don’t I take the plunge and try to make it on my own.

After 12 years in Germany, I felt like it was time for a change. I had grown a bit tired of some of the more rigid aspects of life in Germany and yearned for a bit more personal freedom. Business regulations, taxes, social security, and crazy health insurance contributions in Germany also make it difficult for solopreneurs, so it was kind of a no-brainer to leave. The only question was “where?”

I chose Bulgaria after researching where to benefit from lower taxes and living costs, close to nature and with warmer summers. I wanted to be located in Europe but still within easy access to the major European markets where my clients are likely to be located. I also considered Romania but wanted to be in a larger city, and didn’t really like Bucharest. So, I spent a few weeks in Sofia to see if I felt I could live here, and, 6 months later, I moved.

What have you learned since arriving here? Both positive and negative 

The most positive thing about Bulgaria has to be how easy it is to make friends with the locals. They are warm, friendly and curious, and seem to enjoy spending time with an international crowd, at least those who are more educated or have lived abroad. After 12 years in Germany, most of my friends were still expats. Here, after a year and a half, most of my friends are Bulgarian.

Also, I have to say that Sofia is an incredibly safe city. I feel safer here than in any major western European city, except perhaps when I get behind the wheel…Bulgarians are terrible drivers!

The biggest negatives definitely have to be an indifferent attitude to customer service and that it still seems OK to overcharge foreigners. It’s also saddening to see a country with such beautiful nature but so heavily dependent on single-use plastic, and that you so often see litter at popular picnic spots. 

What do you wish you’d known before moving here?

Probably the biggest shock when I moved here, was how difficult it is for foreigners (even as an EU citizen) to open a business bank account. This is something that isn’t really written about much but is definitely a big barrier to newcomers.

Would you consider moving back home, or to another country? Why? 

For now, I don’t have any plans to move anywhere else, although my ideal scenario, if I can make it work with my business, would be to spend winters in warm countries.

I love the lifestyle in Argentina and South Africa. Amazing food, great weather, friendly people and you can live well on very little money, thanks to the rand and the peso being devalued. Sofia can feel pretty bleak and grey in winter, so escaping to somewhere where it’s summer during that time is great!

Moving back to the UK, no way! Although I do sometimes miss the humor and a full English breakfast.

What would be your piece of advice to a newcomer?

My advice to any newcomer would be not to push their perceived superior social values onto Bulgaria as their host country. It’s a different country, and the people have a different worldview in many cases. It doesn’t necessarily translate into one being right and the other wrong. These things are rarely as black-and-white as Twitter or certain news outlets would lead you to believe.

Sofia isn’t Berlin, Stockholm, nor Amsterdam. I personally see this as a positive. There will be many who don’t, and that’s fine. But my advice would be to learn about, understand and accept the different cultural values, even though you may still disagree with them.

Definitely try to learn some Bulgarian too, at least learn to read the alphabet. It goes a long way.

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