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Flymaryfly - self-employed abroad

For many, the start of a new year brings a host of new opportunities, a fresh beginning, a chance to finally get started with that business you’ve been silently planning, the move you’ve been contemplating, or the gym you’ve been avoiding.

It is inevitably a cliché, but that shouldn’t serve as a deterrent from pursuing the goals that were pushed to the wayside last year. But of course, it’s always difficult to forge a new path, especially if it’s in a direction that falls outside your comfort zone. So, we thought now would be a good time to provide a little inspiration.

This inspiration comes in the form of an interview with a young entrepreneur who followed an unexpected path around the world to find herself living happily as a commercial artist in Berlin, Germany.

Meet Mary Delaney.

photo portrait

You’re an American working as a freelancer in Berlin. Did you find it easy to start your own business in Germany?

Yes, Berlin is very friendly to freelancers. There are a lot of startups growing here so there seems to be plenty of work, lots of opportunities to network, and good energy in general.

As a US-American I didn't have too much trouble - fortunately, Berlin is a super international city so English is widely spoken and I've had no trouble finding clients despite only speaking a little German!

Have you been self-employed before? What kinds of jobs have you held in the past?

This is my first experience being self-employed. I started a business with in mid-2015, doing digital portraits, and that's been very successful and opened the door up to bigger and more interesting projects!

I actually started my business as a side job during a backpacking trip around South America and parts of Europe.

During that time I was doing other odd jobs like working in hostels and English language schools to stretch my money. Before that, I worked at a US-based custom t-shirt company called CustomInk - I had been with them for 6 years before quitting to pursue a life of adventure :)

Southwest Invasion music festival poster by Mary Delaney

You started travelling the world in 2014. Why did you make that decision?

I think other US-Americans who have spent time outside the US will agree with me that it's an isolated country. It's weird because the US looms so large in the affairs of the world in general, but US-Americans don't pay nearly as much attention to international events, so when we travel we often find that we know a lot less about the world than we thought.

I had done a semester abroad in Italy when I was 20, and it always left me with the feeling that my worldview was really limited, and that I had a lot to learn. I wanted make up for what I saw as a deficit in my personal education, learn a new language, and get a better sense of what it's like to live in different parts of the world.

An artist's workspace. Mary Delany's desk and international experience.

Did you plan to start a business abroad from the beginning? Or was it something that kind of happened along the way?

Nope, it wasn't planned. I started running out of money before I was ready to go back to the US, and I wanted to find a way to keep the trip going.

Why did you pick Berlin as your home base? Did you consider any other places?

Berlin was my top choice because of the visa options here. Berlin practically gives away residency permits to freelance artists - something that's not so easy to get in other German or European cities.

If I had the option I might have liked to live in Budapest - it's such a Bohemian city - or possibly Madrid - but I'm happy I landed in Berlin. It's a unique city and it's exciting to be here when so many things are growing and changing.

Would you say that the Berlin startup scene is special compared to other cities, in Germany or other countries? If so, how?

It's hard for me to comment since I don't have firsthand experience with other startup scenes.

I get the sense that Berlin is following a trend that has taken place in San Francisco/Silicon Valley and in London. I think we'll have to wait a few years to see if Berlin's startup scene is distinct from others.

Drawn portrait by Mary Delaney

You’re planning to stay in Berlin for two years. What’s next?

I wish I knew! I'm really at the beginning of my freelancing career, so anything could happen. My plan is to immerse myself in my artwork, my freelancing career, and the life of the city. As those areas develop, I'll gain new insights into where I want to spend my time and energy, and that will dictate where I go from here.

Your 3 dos and don'ts for expats wanting to start a business in Germany:


  1. Your homework. There are lots of online resources like Toytown, facebook groups, and even personal blogs where you can find advice from people who have already done it.
  2. Network! Sure, it's important to have an online presence, but your best connections are always going to come from in-person networking. You can find networking groups on meetup and facebook, and there are always interesting conferences happening - some of them very cheap. If you have the time, I recommend going even if it doesn't seem like an obvious networking opportunity. I met one of my best clients because I happened to be sitting next to him at a tech-related presentation that I went to because a friend invited me.
  3. Learn German. It's easy to get by speaking only English here, but going the extra mile and learning at least a bit of German will open up more opportunities for you and make you a more valuable resource for clients. Plus - you're in Germany! Learning the language of a country is one of the best ways to get an insight into its people and culture. That's why we're here, after all.


  1. Get distracted by Berlin's party scene. The nightlife is amazing here, but it will eat you alive if you let it. Don't be afraid to stay home on a Saturday night once in a while. I know too many people who have been burnt out by the party culture here. Remember what you're really here for.
  2. Get discouraged by the official paperwork. There are a ton of forms to fill out, but we've all been there. Try to bring a bit of humour into the experience and it feel a lot less oppressive.
  3. Stay in your country's bubble. Berlin is an international city and you can meet people from all over the world here. Get out of your comfort zone with a meetup group or Couchsurfing meetup and make friends from other countries. It enriches your life and your work!

Visit Mary’s website:

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