While a lot of people may think about ditching their desk job and jetting off to set up their own business in warmer climes, very few get round to doing it. Canadian-born Marwa Preston is one of those few—in 2015, she walked away from a successful career in technology in London to pursue her dreams in sunny Barcelona. Needless to say, she has never looked back.
Tell us a bit about who you are and your life before Barcelona.
My parents are from Cairo, Egypt, but I grew up in Canada. My decision to study computer engineering came from the fact that both my parents are engineers and it was also a booming field in the late 1990s, with a great career path. I worked in IT for about 11 years, first in Toronto and later in London. In my last role, I was a London-based business development manager for Microsoft, but I was always traveling, as my role and my time were split between London and Seattle.
What brought you to Barcelona?
I first came to Barcelona in 2009, to visit a friend, and from the moment I set foot in the city I fell in love with it. I remember sitting in a square on that first February day, eating my first tapa and just feeling like I belonged. The city balanced my Mediterranean heritage with my Western way of living, and then there was the sea, the mountains, the beautiful sun, and the stunning architecture on every corner. From that day on, part of my heart has always been in Barcelona.
Fast-forward to 2015, and I had grown tired of London and the frantic pace of life—not to mention all the travel I was doing for work—so I was ready for a change. I thought to myself that there had to be more to life than this. My husband and I quit our jobs to travel the world, with a view to moving to Barcelona.
“I had grown tired of London and the frantic pace of life. I thought to myself that there had to be more to life than this.”
How did you prepare for the relocation?
We put everything in storage and arrived in the city with a bag each and lots of enthusiasm. For the first three months, we stayed at a friend’s flat in the Pedralbes district, not far from the city center, while looking for an apartment and figuring out how to get all the necessary paperwork, such as the Número de Identidad de Extranjero, or NIE, which is the ID number for foreigners living in Spain. I knew I wanted to live in the El Born neighborhood of the old town, which also happens to be where I had my first tapa and where I still live to this day. Last but not least, we saved enough money to live for a year, as we knew it would be tough to earn money at first.
How about your business, Wanderbeak, a food tour company—where did the idea for that come from?
Long before Google Maps existed, I was the kind of person who would travel to a city and mark all the places I ate at on a map. I then created itineraries based on food and soon became the go-to for friends’ travel plans. I didn’t know what I was going to do with all those maps but I really enjoyed exploring culture through food. I ended up starting a business that shows people Barcelona in a new way.
Wanderbeak specializes in boutique gastronomic experiences, ranging from tapas in the old city, to cava trips to the wine country, and sailing and lunching in the fishermen’s quarter. We share stories about culture, politics, history, and tradition, all through food. It’s a lovely way to see and feel the city.
How has your corporate experience helped?
It has helped tremendously! Everything I did in my previous roles I apply to Wanderbeak, from creating our business plan and go-to-market strategy, to understanding where we want to go and how to get there. Working in a corporate environment set me up to be confident in presenting and also made me very professional, which helps shape the brand.
Why is Barcelona a good choice for someone looking for a career or life change?
So many people come to Barcelona and fall head over heels with the city and the quality of life here. Corporate jobs are few and far between, so the city tends to attract creative types—people who want to pursue their dreams and create the life they want, instead of being a product of a society they don’t really like. The city is ideal for freelancers and start-ups. There are coworking spaces on every corner, and most coffee shops and hotels welcome people working with a laptop. I have meetings all over the city, and it beats an office in a business park a hundred times over.
“The city is ideal for start-ups. There are coworking spaces on every corner, and most coffee shops and hotels welcome people working with a laptop.”
What do you wish you’d known before you moved?
The whole process of becoming a freelancer, or autónomo, is more complicated than I’d anticipated. It’s also quite costly and there isn’t much information online in English. Now I have a good accountant who helps me navigate the jungle that is Spanish bureaucracy, and I only wish I’d found him sooner. I also should have joined a coworking space to make interactions with others easier. My advice is always to be patient and always look for other freelancers—there are so many in the city and they give you a sense of community, which is so important.
Would you encourage someone to follow in your footsteps?
Do it! But first, plan for it. Save enough money to allow you to support yourself for a year. This will alleviate the pressure, since most businesses make little or no money at first. Don’t just start a business because “you love it”—do your homework and make sure you know and understand the market. Create a network, talk to people, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Life will be different, so be prepared to give up some of your current lifestyle and spending habits. Be ready to work long hours to get things up and running. That said, it will all be worth it, because you’ll be your own boss.
“Create a network, talk to people, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Life will be different, so be prepared to give up some of your current lifestyle and spending habits.”
I genuinely believe people are happier in Barcelona despite maybe earning less than they did back home. Today, I went to the gym, watched the sun rise over the Mediterranean, and met some friends for lunch. This weekend I’m going hiking in the mountains outside the city, then visiting my friend’s new wine studio. It’s an exciting city—something is always happening and people are open to new friendships.
Copyright: Welcome to the Jungle
Isabelle Kliger is a freelance writer specialising in travel, food and corporate journalism.
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