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From Tourist to Mogul: How 3 Americans Found Business Success Abroad

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This story appears in the June 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

David Harmatz's story: When I graduated from college, friends went to Manhattan to interview for corporate jobs. I found that terrifying -- as did two of my closest buddies, Daniel Saxe and Daniel Smetana. We wanted adventure. So, in July 2004, we traveled to the archipelago of Bocas del Toro, Panama, and rented a single room in a rustic bungalow balanced on stilts over the water. The roads were made of mud. For a few months, we learned the town, the people and the beaches, and we fell in love with the place. We knew the backpacking scene well, and started thinking: Could we run a business here?

Katherine Wolkoff

We reached out to the owner of the Mondo Taitu hostel -- a ramshackle clapboard house in nearby Isla Colon—and were just in time. He'd decided to leave the island and was looking to sell. Within three weeks, it was ours. The seller promised to give us extensive training, but all we got was a one-hour walk-through. The rest was total trial by fire. Employees, it turned out, were easy to find: Locals mostly worked in the banana industry, a grueling line of work they were happy to leave. But, dealing with customers? When the first guest came to our reception desk, we fumbled the check-in so badly that she turned around and left.

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