“El fútbol es popular porque la estupidez es popular,” declares Jorge Luis Borges in crisp white font on a light blue shirt. A shirt like that, you’d think, wouldn’t be found anywhere in Madrid and certainly not on anyone with half a brain in this football-loving capital. Yet it’s just the type of thing Paul Reidy and David Genis think will attract football fanatics to El Balonazo, a website the pair put up a little over a year ago that sells alternative football theme t-shirts.
Paul, a native of Ireland and a resident of Madrid for over 10 years now, explains that the idea of setting up an online shop to sell football related tees is hardly a new one. “We’re both big fans of football and football culture. Both being based in the UK, there’s an advanced market for that type of business and we were both surprised that there was nothing similar in Spain,” he says.“There’s the usual line of replicate shirts by the big sports manufacturers but there was nothing else to cater for those football fans who wanted something a little bit different with an alternative perspective on football and football culture – the culture side of things, the history of football, what football means to them as supporters or a community of people. Not Ronaldo’s latest boots or Messi’s latest haircut,” Paul explains.
David, originally from the south of England and who’s been in Madrid for over 7 years, says that the two look at football a little more holistically. Even though there are themes related to music, hairstyles and beer in El Balonazo’s shirt catalog, everything on the site is fundamentally related to football. “But also to our experience of football,” David adds. “So whether it happens to be beer – I’m still of an age where I can have a couple of beers before and after the game – it’s an integral part of the game for me. Going to a football match isn’t solely about watching a football match otherwise I’d just switch the TV on.”
Paul and David set up El Balonazo in April 2012 as a sociedad limitada but are themselves autónomos, “based on the fact that we need to earn money ourselves on that. We’re autónomos literally autonomous from the company,” David says.
David initially wanted to base the company overseas, either in Ireland or in the UK where setting up a company is simple and cheap. But because of tax issues and other complications, the two decided to set up El Balonazo in Spain.
However, the road ahead for the two was filled with the nightmarish Spanish bureaucracy that plagues many the would-be entrepreneur, both local and foreign. “The process for actually setting up a company seems to be that you can go one step at a time and you need to go 20 steps. You can’t go to step 2 without step 1 and so on and so forth. This is sort of The Matrix that is the bureaucracy in Spain.”
Paul adds, “As David said, there are steps involved and every one needs its stamp and needs to have the bit of paper. There’s not a lot of flexibility. A lot of these things could be done online, potentially. Everything is just slow. You’re full of ideas, you’re full of initiative, you’re full of desire to get things moving and then you’re faced with this glue that holds you back a little. It’s just frustrating.”
In the end, the two hired a gestor to do their tax returns and some of the secondary stage dealings with Hacienda. “I would certainly recommend to foreigners starting up a business in Spain to get an expert. Get somebody that knows the ropes. It just makes life easier. It’s an investment,” says Paul.
Operating for just a few months now, the site and the business are still in the growth stage but David says things are already going well for El Balonazo. They’ve gotten good exposure in both Spanish and international media across print, web, TV and radio. They were even recently featured in FHM and this month’s Esquire magazine.
“A lot people in the media have said, ‘We love what you do. It’s very fresh, it’s very original.’ It’s not original for us. A lot of it is inspired from something we’ve seen elsewhere. But for a lot of Spanish people, this is something innovative and groundbreaking. They’re calling us ‘los chicos de fútbol fashion.’ There’s a limited amount of fashion to what we do but it has certainly caught some resonance with the media here,” Paul laughs.
El Balonazo’s exposure on media isn’t just limited to the more established forms. Creatively pushing the brand on Twitter is one of the factors that has driven them to early success. Rather than just broadcast tweets about their brand, Paul and David tapped into influencers like Kay Murray and Sid Lowe.
— Kay Murray (@KayLMurray) November 29, 2012
Kay Murray, who worked as a presenter for Real Madrid TV up until a few months ago, modelled one of their Real Madrid t-shirts and tweeted the picture of herself wearing the “La quinta de buitre” to over 60,000 followers.
Sid Lowe, a well-known football columnist based in Madrid and shareholder in Real Oviedo, used a photo of an El Balonazo shirt as his avatar for two months. That avatar was seen by over 95,000 followers.
Paul and David say that learning the language and understanding the local culture is top priority if you want to start a business in Spain. “It would be foolhardy if you didn’t speak the language perfectly and if you didn’t understand local economic/politics or bureaucracy or whatever you want to call it. It would be a mistake, I think, just to dive in,” David says.
“Learn the language, first thing. Get your Spanish together. Practice your Spanish. Try not to live in an expat enclave where you’re just surrounded by other English speakers. Try and mingle. Try and savor the local delicacy. Try and move away from your comfort zone,” says Paul.
“It’s not easy to set up a company in Spain. But at the same time, we live here, we’re not from here. The Spanish law is what it is. You may not necessarily like it but you have to accept that we as foreigners have to kind of mold ourselves to the local fabric. It can be frustrating at times and everybody talks about the excess paperwork but it is what it is.
“There are certainly opportunities for people with fresh ideas. We’ve come here, taking a lot of the skills we’ve both got from a different country and realized that there was potential here. We’ve managed to channel them into something.”
I've been living in Madrid since 2007, married to a madrileño since 2008, and mom to our son since 2011. Tech is my thing. I love salmorejo, matrimonios and cazón adobado. I don't watch football.