Starting a Business in the Islands

It’s a new year, and we have much to be thankful for. Toward the end of December, we hauled Clarity out of the water and had some lingering issues fixed, then splashed just in time to sail up to Carriacou, one island north, but still part of Grenada, where our dear friends were waiting for us to ring in the holidays.

It was our first time sailing the boat since the dismasting, aside from delivering it down to Grenada when the repairs were done, and it was not accomplished without much anxiety from both me and Aaron. But it was time – time to get her moving again, time for a change of scenery, time for a much-needed vacation.

Though 2020 brought many challenges, it’s also been a very positive year for us, with the launch and success of Clarity Marine Systems. We are extremely grateful, but there were also countless efforts made on Aaron’s part to finally get the legal work permit in hand. Opening up, and operating, a business in the islands is no small feat. For those who are interested, here’s how it came to fruition for us.

The seed was planted for Clarity Marine years ago, when we still lived in Chicago. Aaron got his American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) certification as a marine electrician and established the business there, working on boats part time on the side for a couple of seasons. As we hatched our dream to cruise, it was a skill Aaron knew would come in handy, both for us on Clarity and for possible work when a steadier income was needed.

We started talking about the potential for Grenada to be our home base during our first hurricane season there. We considered St. Martin, where the process for an American to be cleared to work was much simpler. Antigua was considered, but did not seem favorable or welcoming. But Grenada won out for two very important reasons. First, it was out of the hurricane zone, so our floating home would be insured there year-round – no need to tuck and run for half of the year. Second, because it’s a hub for the cruising community, Aaron would have a customer base year-round.

The ever-important official stamp!

He started having conversations with some of the local business owners and community members, just to get a lay of the land and understand more about the process of obtaining a legal work permit. He also wanted to ensure that enough work would be available, without stepping on the toes of the few other marine electricians on island.

That November, we picked up the hook and went cruising again with the idea that we would have an abbreviated season, planning to be back down in Grenada by early May, for Aaron to start the process of establishing his business. The dismasting, of course, threw a huge wrench in those plans, parking us in Antigua until late August. But while we waited in the States for our final repairs to be completed, Aaron pulled together the necessary paperwork.

High school transcripts. College transcripts. Police reports. Reference letters, and more. The requirements to apply for the permit were extensive, resulting in a sizeable stack of papers. In talking with other ex-pat business owners, we knew that sometimes the authorities would require additional documentation at the last minute – even an elementary school transcript, in one particular case. He wanted to be prepared.

Armed with all notarized documents (and a boat with a new mast), we sailed down to Grenada, where Aaron readied everything for the first step of the submittal. Because he decided to hang his own shingle, rather than become an employee of a pre-existing business, he first had to legally establish Clarity Marine Systems. The second step was filing for the work permit and paying the associated fee – roughly $1,200 U.S. annually.

Incorporating the business in Grenada was fairly straightforward, with the help of the Grenada Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC). Many meetings with government offices, lots of forms and small fees, and a tax system training seminar were all a part.

The final step to establish the business was to have a stamp made. Yep, that’s right – you have to go to a particular building downtown and have a physical stamp of the business name made. Though that may seem archaic, things operate differently in the islands, and many businesses have not gone online, so I imagine the physical stamp is still used. Aaron has used it once – to take a picture after it was made.

Clarity Marine Systems was established within a month, but the next step – the work permit – that was another story. With all of his ducks in a row, Aaron submitted the final paperwork by the end of October, and then we waited.

Wiring up solar panels on a customer’s boat.

And we waited.

And we waited more.

If we had been back in the States, there likely would have been an online portal with updates on the progress of the application. There would be a number you could call to inquire about the permit, likely even a specific representative assigned to your application. You could ask questions.

Here, things operate differently, especially for foreigners. No information is available online. You do not call in. You can try to pop in the office under the pretense of something else, and “happen to check in” on your application while you are there, though how this question is received all depends on who happens to be working that day. Regardless, the answer was always the same, delivered in the same stern manner.

“We said we would call you.”

Christmas came and went and we had not received a call, then February and early March. And then Covid hit, and Grenada went into lockdown. All government offices closed, all business aside from essential services halted.

This was a trying time for us, as it was for everyone, but it also allowed us to reevaluate how we were approaching the process, and what we could change. When the restrictions lifted and life on the island resumed, we hired a local lawyer – something, in retrospect, that we should have done from the beginning. Our lawyer then acted as our advocate, as her inquiries about the permit were met more warmly by officials.

Within a week, with our attorney’s repeated inquiries, they dusted off his application. Of course, a new several-hundred-U.S.-dollar fee had to be paid to change his passport status. The change was straightforward, however, so with that handled, Aaron had his work permit in hand two weeks later, roughly eight months after the paperwork was filed.

As hair-pulling as the wait was, we were still able to launch the business in the height of hurricane season, with hundreds of boaters in the southern bays. We did a small amount of marketing to let cruisers know that Clarity Marine Systems was officially open, and that’s all it needed. Work took off immediately, especially thanks to friends who spread the word about Aaron’s services. Word of mouth recommendations are still very much the most important currency down here.

The requests came in multiple forms. Through the Clarity Marine Systems’ Facebook page and Aaron’s WhatsApp number, on the VHF radio, as well as via email. But we also had boaters dinghy over to Clarity, paddleboard by, and even a snorkeler swim by to request a business card.

Aaron also established important relationships with the local chandleries and other marine business owners, and thanks to steady work (and a “little” prodding from me), in November, we pulled the trigger on a second, new-to-us dinghy that is bigger than Coconut and has a faster outboard. This allows Aaron to quickly zip around the bays to customers’ boats, and to deliver solar panels – another exciting venture for CMS. It also means that Claire and I also have our own set of wheels to come and go as we please while he’s working.

Aaron at work on a customer’s inverter/charger at the Clarity Marine Systems workshop/ Clarity nav station.

Though we are fortunate that we don’t have to pay rent or monthly mortgage on an office or workshop, operating CMS from Clarity is not without its limitations – mostly space. Aaron’s desk and workshop are the nav station, which spills into the salon when necessary. And all of the tools, parts, customer works in progress, etc, must be stored in our already confined space. This may change in the future, but for now, we are making it work.

More than that, Aaron has been loving being in the groove of working again, helping people, exercising his brain in new ways, as each boat presents new challenges to troubleshoot. It’s been rewarding, becoming a part of the local business community in a way that you can’t as a transient cruiser. And of course, financial stability for the first time in quite awhile is an incredible relief.

Our holiday in Carriacou was hard-earned and much-needed. Aaron is working part-time (as Carriacou is part of Grenada, his work permit is valid here as well), but we are finally exploring as a family again for the first time in ages, and taking the time to enjoy our time together before heading back down to Grenada in late January.

As we rang in the new year with great friends and a healthy dose of Champagne, I reflected on the events of the previous, and I smiled. Even among the challenges, there was so much to celebrate.

Sunset at Sandy Island, Carriacou, with Union Island in the background.

4 thoughts on “Starting a Business in the Islands

  1. Lovely recap of your latest adventures, endeavors and accomplishments. Cheers and congratulations to the three of you, and, of course, so very much love!

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  2. So very happy for you! It’s delightful to “hear” your upbeat take on the new year after challenges that could have been too much for some folks. Yours and Aaron’s planning begun so long ago is paying off wonderfully, as well as his continued immersion in the technicalities of the business. Thank you again for sharing the island life, too.

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  3. Congratulations on your new business! Very interesting to read how the setup process went for you. We went through a lot of hoops when starting a business years ago in Germany. We also had to have a business stamp in Europe. It seemed to be a very common thing there, while in the USA it’s not common at all. We wish you the best with your business!

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  4. This is a wonderful tribute to all three of you for beating the odds and being successful in business! Love the pics of Aaron in action. You did it! Here’s to many customers and continued good fortune. I can only imagine that he is in high demand!

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