Ben Comstock: ‘Here in Barcelona, people are more interested in who you are rather than what you do’
OfficeAccord co-founder discusses prioritising values, how Barcelona has helped strengthen his company, how it hasn’t and why he has no regrets about making the move to Spain 10 years ago.
Inspired by a high school trip to Europe, 22 year old Ben Comstock saved the money he needed to buy a flight to Spain, bought the ticket and boarded a plane. With a few stints back in the US to launch his company OfficeAccord, an employee digital bulletin board for large organizations, he finds himself living his 30s out in Barcelona, a vibrant and multifaceted city that he believes truly allows him to focus on what matters to him in life; friendships, experiences and a healthy work-life balance. We meet beach side on a sunny April afternoon in Barcelona for a post-lunch coffee.
What planted the seed of moving to Spain?
After going on my high school Europe trip when I was 15 years old, I always wanted to live in Europe and learn a new language. As an American, learning Spanish made the most sense. At 22 years old, I quit my then cushy desk job to pursue my dream of living abroad. It was the best (and probably riskiest) decision I’ve ever made as I didn’t speak Spanish, didn’t know anyone in Spain, and didn’t know in what city I would end up.
In what ways has Spain and its culture contributed to the shaping of you as a person? Do you think you would be different as a person if you had stayed in the US?
Spanish life forced me rethink how I prioritize my values. They say Americans live to work while the Spanish work to live. I think there is some truth to that. I don’t have as many things as my peers in the states have but Spain taught me I can live just fine without them. If I was in the states still today, I know I would have a good life, but in a different way. Here, people are more interested in who you are rather than what you do. I love the states but I love it here more.
How has living in Barcelona facilitated the creation and progress of OfficeAccord?
When you start a business the most important thing is your financial runway. You need to do everything you can to make that runway as long as possible. Barcelona is a relatively inexpensive city and thus, my runway is longer than it would be if I was in Chicago, NYC, San Francisco, or even Raleigh, North Carolina where I was living before I moved here.
Has living in Spain put any obstacles in the way of the growth of OfficeAccord?
In my experiences, Americans are the best connectors I’ve ever encountered. In the states, I have met people for a few minutes in a coffee shop who took it upon themselves to connect me with someone they knew who they thought could help forward my idea. While that is less common in Spain, the startup ecosystem in Barcelona is growing rapidly and this way of networking and meeting people relevant to your industry is catching on.
Have you had moments in the last 10 years that you have considered moving back to the US?
I feel that Americans are quick to adopt new ideas more so than Europeans who are a bit more conservative. For that reason, once we were ready to launch OfficeAccord, I returned to the states and spent 1.5 years there to find clients before coming back to Spain.
If you could have a chat with the you that was 10 years ago, what would you advice him to do the same or differently throughout the duration of the 10 years to come?
This sounds arrogant but I would do nothing differently 10 years ago; I listened to my heart, believed in my skill set, sold what I had to give myself the best chance, mustered up the courage to buy the ticket, and got on the plane. There have been bumps along the way but I wouldn’t change my course as I have been blessed with amazing friendships, a vocation I love and in a city I enjoy. What I would ask for (more money, newer things, etc.) would dilute an experience I already feel overwhelmingly blessed to have.
What two pieces of advice would you give to anyone thinking of making the move abroad? Let’s go for one professional and one personal piece of advice.
The most useful pieceful advice I can give for anyone thinking of going solo and starting a company from ground up is to know the difference between your buyer and customer. In my case with OfficeAccord, the buyer is the executive of the company who signs the cheque and the customer is the group of employees who work for the company who will be using the platform. Understanding the difference will ensure you don’t waste time speaking to a non-decision maker and will ensure you identify the right language and sales approach to get through to the buyer.
On a more personal note, if there is one ongoing piece of advice that I live by is sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage. All it takes in 20 seconds to book the flight, to make the call that could change the course of your company, 20 seconds to approach someone at an event who can open doors for you; 20 seconds of courage is often all you need.
Ben’s honest answers shed light on both Barcelona’s strengths and its weaknesses in its ability to facilitate the launch of a new company. Barcelona allows money to go further which is absolutely crucial in the beginning stages of a company however the mentality of connecting and networking hasn’t quite got up to speed with that in America, but it is getting there. The Spaniards work to live Ben tells me, it certainly feels true in this city.
What is the advice to take away?
From Ben’s insights and first hand experience of building a life in a new country, starting a company from scratch and building a close network of friends thousands of miles from home arises some invaluable advice. The following is a round-up of the advice to take away:
-Risky decisions are often the best ones. Risky decisions are ones that should be embraced because and the end of them often lies the biggest rewards.
-Not speaking a language and not knowing people are not reasons to not travel or move there. A new language can open doors that would otherwise be closed and not knowing people forces you of your comfort zone to start expanding your social network.
-If starting a company, a useful thing to think about is the cost of the city you live in. Choosing a less expensive city allows you to put more money into your business rather than extortionate rent prices.
-In the interconnected world we now live in you don’t need to be confined to one city or country. Moving betweens places based on your needs can be the surest way to ensure success.
-When starting a company, don’t underestimate clarity. Have clarity on who your customer is and who is buying your product, they may sometimes be different.
-Forget being courageous all the time, often 20 seconds of courage is all you need.