Wednesday, July 10, 2013

An American in Madrid

Marta Alen in her Madrid nail salon, Escape.
An American in Madrid
by Delia von Neuschatz


Have you ever wanted to make some drastic changes in your life? Have you ever dreamed of just picking up and landing somewhere else for the foreseeable future or possibly for good — perhaps in Paris or the Cotswolds or Seville or Bora Bora? Have you ever thought of maybe even owning your own business along the way — a boutique, a B&B, a cooking school? “Impossible!” you say. “Too many obstacles.” “It’s just a pipe dream.” Well, it doesn’t have to be. Marta Alen is an expatriate New Yorker who not long ago, left her hard-charging Wall Street life lock stock and barrel and put down roots 3,500 miles away in Madrid by opening up a nail salon in Salamanca, the city’s toniest district. To be sure, it wasn’t easy, but, boy has it been worth it!

It all started with Lehman Brothers. We all know the story: 2008, the stock market crashes, thousands of people lose their jobs. And while Marta managed to hang on longer than many, she did end up being laid off a year and a half later. So, in 2010, she found herself without a job and also without a boyfriend as she had ended a long-term relationship not long before. The Wall Street veteran was now at a crossroads. She had always wanted to own her own business, but taking the plunge was a huge gamble. There was no safety net. She was on her own. Plus, she had spent a dozen years trading stocks on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Was it wise to throw her hard-won career away? In any case, what type of business should it be?

At first, Marta acted prudently by interviewing for other finance jobs. But for one reason or another, things didn’t pan out and she just really, really did not want to get back into that corporate life anyway. She was burned out. What to do? She had made frequent trips to Madrid in recent years because her mother, who originally hails from Spain, had decided to move there from New York. It was during her visits to the Spanish capital that Marta had noticed a niche that could be filled. There was a noticeable lack of good places to get manicures and pedicures.
Madrid is an elegant, livable city blessed with wonderful weather. Above is the Plaza de la Independencia.
As I know from my own regular visits to Madrid, there were no American-style salons that offered quick, hygienic, professional manicures and pedicures. It’s not as if these services didn’t exist but, it was a hassle to get them. You had to book them hours if not days in advance. You usually had to seek them out in hair salons or department stores. The choice of colors was typically limited to a tray holding a dozen bottles and sterilization of the equipment was half-hazard. The workmanship was often sloppy with polish ending up on the cuticles. There were also no little luxuries that New Yorkers take for granted like hand massages and hot towels. And customer service could oft be described as a contradiction in terms. After it once took 2 ½ hours for her to get her nails done, Marta had had enough. She thought there was a potential market in Madrid for superior nail services and set about gathering some data.
The large pond with a monument to King Alfonso XII in the Parque del Buen Retiro (or “Park of the Pleasant Retreat”), Madrid’s Central Park.
The well-manicured grounds of the Parque del Buen Retiro.
Madrid’s post office is deservedly named the Palacio de Comunicaciones. You’d be hard pressed to buy stamps in a more impressive spot.
The R&D was unscientific, to be sure, but effective. Marta, who is fluent in Spanish, set about familiarizing herself with the city. She canvassed the various neighborhoods and consulted with friends. She also assessed Madrileñas — how often do they get their nails done? How much do they spend? — and she evaluated the quality of services offered. After sitting through a lot of manicures and pedicures, Marta concluded she could indeed offer something better and had come up with a plan. She would open up a nail salon that offers “manicuras y pedicuras en estilo New York” in the upscale neighborhood of Salamanca. But first, she had to settle her affairs back home.
A few streetscapes in the wealthy neighborhood of Salamanca, located north of the Parque del Buen Retiro.
She returned to New York, and enrolled in an accreditation class in beauty school. She came up with a business plan and set up an LLC. After putting her things in storage and buying a one-way ticket to Spain, this native New Yorker packed up her bags and there you have it — it was Madrid or bust!

On the ground in the capital is where the real work began and reality hit hard. Her first lesson about doing business in Spain came early. At the beginning, Marta had trouble just finding a broker who was willing to show her available spaces. Why? Because she had started looking during the month of August when everyone is on vacation and the city comes to a virtual standstill. When she did eventually find a space, there was the landlord to deal with. Lease negotiations took two months. And then, there was the architect. His favorite word seemed to be “no” and he spent an awful lot of time telling her what couldn’t be done until one day she had it out with him and told him she never wanted to hear that word come out of his mouth again. They got on just fine after that. Marta may speak the language and may have Spanish ancestry, but she is a New Yorker through and through. That’s a problem in Spain where, as she describes it, everything is still “mañana, mañana.”
This is one of my favorite shops in Madrid — Delitto e Castigo — on the fashionable Calle Claudio Coello in Salamanca. When I took this photo in the middle of a weekday, the shop was closed. It is closed every day between 2:30 and 5:00. This is true of many establishments in Madrid. On one hand, this policy contributes to Madrid’s relaxed charm. On the other hand, it can get frustrating, particularly for tourists. Marta says that this is slowly changing, however, with more shops staying open throughout the day. (The Tommy Hilfiger shop next door, as an example, stays open from morning til evening.)
Now comes the hard part: all the bureaucracy. The lawyers, architects and accountants that Marta spoke to, told her that people often give up after encountering the sea of red tape that has to be waded through in order to open up a small business in Spain. But still, she persisted. She hired an attorney and an accountant and pressed on. Everything has to go through the machinery of City Hall in Madrid and “you just have to be like a pit bull,” she asserts.

A year and half after she made all the requisite payments and filled out all the requisite paperwork, Marta is still waiting for the licensing process to be complete. Her experience in getting her salon off the ground encapsulates all that is wrong with the Spanish economy, according to the entrepreneur. The government, with its endless bureaucracy, makes it very difficult to start a business. The process is long, expensive and frustrating. “Banging your head against a lot of closed doors” is how Marta describes the experience.
The shopfront at Calle Lagasca, 30.
Nonetheless, about seven months after she started looking for a space, Marta was ready to open her doors. She had hired a publicist, but unhappy with the results, or lack thereof, had to let the woman go. At that point, Marta just crossed her fingers and hoped that word of mouth would bring people across her threshold. She had settled on Salamanca partly because many of the women living in that prosperous enclave are generally well traveled and so, more open to trying new things. But they can also be cautious and cliquey. It took over a year for Marta to build a clientele.
The “wall of color” at Escape. It’s unusual for a nail salon in Madrid to offer so many choices of color and polish. Marta uses brands that are “three free.” Essie, Deborah Lippman and Zoya are free of three toxic ingredients — two endocrine disruptors, DBP and toluene, and the carcinogen, formaldehyde — found in most nail lacquers.
For Marta, hygiene takes top priority. Downstairs, the instruments are sterilized in a medical-grade autoclave machine.
The art work in the salon depicts New York.
That first year was marked by stress, frustration and fear. There were a lot of sleepless nights and tears, admits Marta. The venture was financed by some savings, a loan and the sale of a New York property. There was a lot on the line.
Marta sells things in her salon that are popular in New York, but not found elsewhere in Madrid like Hanky Panky undies and Shu Uemura eyelash curlers.
But now, 18 months later, “business is booming,” she says with a smile. That’s pretty impressive especially considering the woeful state of the Spanish economy which is seeing nearly 30% unemployment. With 80% of her revenue coming from a repeat clientele, Marta is justifiably proud of her customers’ loyalty. She attributes their allegiance to several factors: the quality of the services offered, the premium placed on hygiene and the fact that she strives to create a real retreat — a place where women can come and get away from their husbands and kids and the pressures of everyday life and just let their hair down, if only for an hour or so.
Marta’s employees: Vanessa, Manuela, Marta (same name, different person) and Yasmin.
Marta now has four full time nail technicians to keep up with the demand and has added to the roster of products she sells in her salon. Things have gotten to the point where she is considering expanding her services. She would like to begin offering facials, but wants to wait until she finds the right machines and the right aesthetician. Moreover, on the personal front, Marta has started dating a sculptor, the yin to her yang. Personal rewards also include becoming a part of the community, a part of the fabric of life in Madrid. Neighboring shopkeepers regularly drop in for a chat and a cup of coffee and Marta returns their visits. And last but not least, there’s Lily, the Staffordshire bull terrier she adopted from a friend whose dog had unexpectedly given birth to puppies.
Sweet Lily accompanies Marta to work every day.
It’s also worth mentioning that just as Marta has benefitted, so has Madrid. She has stimulated the economy by giving work to numerous taxpayers throughout this process — a lawyer, accountant, architect and real estate agent, not to mention four employees. Governments in depressed economies like those of Spain and Greece should take heed and drastically minimize the administrative roadblocks that crush the job-creating, tax-generating entrepreneurial spirit.

“So, if you knew everything then that you know now,” I asked, “would you do it all over again?” “Absolutely. Being my own boss has been totally worth it,” Marta replied without hesitation. What’s next for this nail maven, then? “Well, I would love to have an excuse to travel back and forth to New York,” she reveals. Gothamites, watch out! Pretty soon you may just see an Escape salon popping up somewhere near you.