International entrepreneurs: a world map of start-up ambitions

Developed in Kenya, M-Pesa is a system that facilitates money transfers via mobile phone. Operating outside the mainstream banking sector, it provides business opportunities for a range of salespeople, agents, brokers and other mediators, in Kenya and beyond. (Credit: Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

“I am an entrepreneur. ‘Ambitious’ is my middle name,” Kim Kardashian once said.

In fact, his middle name is Noel. But otherwise, she’s right: to start a business (and be successful), you need — in addition to start-up capital, a business plan, organizational skills, a strong work ethic, common sense, a labor market flexibility, a favorable tax climate, and (if that’s not too much to ask) good health and education — to dream big or go home.

So what do budding entrepreneurs dream of when they want to start a business? Earlier this year, start-up facilitator Zen Business studied the keywords people around the world search for online in combination with their local language equivalent of the term “start a business”.

A global survey has determined the most popular industry for business hopefuls in countries around the world. (Credit: Zen Business, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The results are grouped into 11 color-coded categories, including Food and Beverage, Beauty and Cosmetics, and Logistics and Infrastructure. And the winner is: Clothes. But not by far. It’s the most popular option in just 22 countries around the world, closely followed on its Louboutins by Real Estate (19 countries).

The real fun is comparing the real best answers by country – the similarities, but more importantly, the differences. Let’s examine the results continent by continent.

At least one thing that the French share with their rivals across the Channel: young British entrepreneurs also dream of getting into cleaning. (Credit: Zen Business, CC BY-SA 4.0)

If anything has risen reliably in Europe over the past few decades, it’s house prices – hence the popularity of real estate as the first preference of those wanting to start a business (in Germany, but also in Iceland , Estonia, Croatia, Montenegro, Greece, and Cyprus). Clothing and fashion are popular choices across the continent, from Portugal to Finland. Various personal service industries are number one in France, UK and Czechia (all cleaning), Spain (laundry) and Latvia (tailoring).

Notably, yet another thing that Ukraine shares with its western neighbors rather than Russia: its young entrepreneurs prefer opening cafes (like their counterparts in Moldova and Romania) to franchise businesses.

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Tourism is the preferred career choice for start-ups in relatively poor countries like Albania (travel agency), North Macedonia (hotel), Belarus (hostel), Armenia (tour operator) and Georgia (just “general tourism”). On the other side of the spectrum, the Norwegians and Swedes clearly have too much money on their hands. The best idea they can come up with is to invest it – presumably, in someone else’s idea.

Don’t think that aspiring Italian businessmen and women are too refined. Their number one business ambition is not to deal in designer gear, but to deal with scrap metal. However, the prize for Europe’s least ambitious business dream arguably goes to the Maltese. More than anything else, they would love to start a phone case business. Come on, Malta: being small doesn’t mean you can’t dream big!

North America: retail, cleaning, recycling and lip gloss

Lip gloss ? Far, but good. But how will tumbl(e)r enrich Belizeans? (Credit: Zen Business, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Retail and e-commerce are the most popular queries when starting a business – hence the popularity of clothing (Canada, Mexico and elsewhere) and food (Cuba, Costa Rica, etc.). In this sense, the American preference for a service industry (cleaning) is atypical. Two even more notable outliers are found in the Caribbean: Jamaica, where would-be entrepreneurs view lip gloss as the ticket to business success, and Haiti, where it is recycled.

As Zen Business knows: “In Haiti, recycling entrepreneurs earn an average of $3,000 per year by collecting plastic and trading it with the Plastic Bank, an international company that offers cash and other benefits in exchange for waste.

South America: food, clothing, security

South American start-ups want to feed you and clothe you. (Credit: Zen Business, CC BY-SA 4.0)

What South America lacks in diversity, it gains in focus. Local start-ups know what they’re good at — or want to be good at: either in food (from sweets in Brazil and baked goods in Venezuela to fast food in Chile) or in clothes.

Suriname is the odd one out, a position it is well used to, as one of only two non-Latin countries in South America. Here, “security” is the most sought-after start-up activity. It’s probably not a good sign when private security is a country’s most attractive career path. But if it helps feed your family, who are you to complain?

Middle East and Central Asia: food, coffee and just about everything else

Politically, the Middle East is an endless struggle. Economically, it is a business plan awaiting realization. (Credit: Zen Business, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The most discussed start-up in Israel is food, in Palestine it’s software, in Lebanon it’s real estate and in Jordan it’s delivery. Politically, the locals do not get along very well, but economically, this combination of skills (or rather ambitions) looks like a business plan awaiting realization.

Tajiks and Kazakhs would love nothing more than to open a cafe. The Saudis and the Iraqis want to ship and trade. And the Uzbeks? They dream of going into the soap business. As the local saying goes, “An empty hand is no decoy to a hawk”. Neither dirty.

Azerbaijanis have a strangely specific entrepreneurial preference: dropshipping. The term describes the work of a digital intermediary who, in the words of a Wired 2020 article, “selling products they’ve never handled, from countries they’ve never visited, to consumers they’ve never met.”

Africa: photography, advice, interior design and M-Pesa

Sierra Leoneans, Ghanaians, Ethiopians, Rwandans, Malawians and Lesothans share one business dream: real estate. (Credit: Zen Business, CC BY-SA 4.0)

What industry are business hopefuls across Africa looking into online? As you would expect from such a large and diverse continent, a lot of different things. Retail and e-commerce is a popular segment, ranging from enthusiasm for the point-of-sale industry in Nigeria to handicrafts in Angola and garments in Mozambique.

The most popular choice in Kenya is M-Pesa, a local mobile phone money transfer service now also popular in other parts of Africa (and even beyond Afghanistan). M-Pesa is a banking service without a bank. Customers deposit and withdraw money with any type of trusted agent, ranging from phone time resellers to your local convenience store.

Recycling is the most popular option in several countries, from Mali to Mozambique. Amid relatively dominant ambitions (real estate in Lesotho, import/export in Chad, cleanup in Senegal), the continent also has some salient preferences for people with an entrepreneurial itch.

In The Gambia, these are supplements. Somalis are fond of the consulting profession. Namibians, perhaps not so surprisingly given the constant flow of tourists, want to get into photography. In South Africa, the dream job is that of a cooking gas supplier. And in Mauritius, it’s interior design.

Southeast Asia and Oceania: spices, software and pig farming


Entrepreneurial ambitions in Southeast Asia and Oceania are extremely varied. Sri Lanka conforms to the age-old stereotype of preferring the spice trade. In line with a more modern model, business hopes in Taiwan are turning to the software industry.

The most sought-after start-up business in New Zealand is lawn mowing. (I had no idea that Kiwis loved their patches of grass so much – or, alternatively, that their upkeep was so profitable.) Other oddly specific preferences appear in Nepal (the liquor trade), Bhutan (the perfumes), in the Solomon Islands. Islands (pig farming), and Vanuatu and Nauru (t-shirt manufacturing).

However, no one beats the future tycoons of the Philippines for the scale of their business ambitions. Their favorite startup industry? Various. Why choose a company when you can just let companies choose you? Great. Kim Kardashian would be proud.

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