'Italy’s probably the worst place for business'

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Linda Martinez and Steve Brenner outside The Beehive in Rome.
15:39 CEST+02:00
Linda Martinez and Steve Brenner, an American couple, own The Beehive, a hostel and café in the heart of Rome. They talk to The Local about running a business here.

So what brought you to Italy?

Steve passed through Italy on a European backpacking trip at 19 and was underwhelmed, but he met a girl while travelling who he chased around and she ended up in Rome, so he followed.

About 30 days later they were broken up and shortly after he ran out of money and had no return ticket home, so he stayed, learned Italian and got some odd jobs - one of which was in a hotel/hostel.

Our on-again, off-again relationship was off during that time, but we had always remained in contact. After a time in Italy, he decided to come to Los Angeles where I was living and to make a long story short, we got back together and eventually got married.

When we were honeymooning in Rome, we decided that we wanted to move there permanently and open a hostel. Less than a year later, we were open for business.

You own/manage The Beehive in Rome. How did you go about setting up the business? 

Guerrilla style: we rented an apartment, threw a bunch of beds in it and declared ourselves open for business. That took a week. A few years later we moved to a larger, permanent location and spent almost a decade in red tape to make it into a licensed hotel.

With there being so many hotels and hostels in Rome, what do you do to stand out and attract customers?

The Beehive is the kind of place where you can come down to the café for breakfast in slippers or bare feet. It's small, it's cute and homey, and although we are committed to all sorts of environmental and ethical practices, it's not crunchy or hippie.

We put a lot of heart and soul into our place and it's very personal. We struggle to make decisions purely based on business. Everything we do is because we believe deeply in it and want the place to be special, and I guess it just shows.

The '3 C's' at The Beehive on a wider scale are connection, collaboration and community. As for attracting people, we've never done anything special in terms of marketing or publicity. We don't have a budget for that! We feel very fortunate and grateful to have a lot of loyal, repeat guests and a lot of great word of mouth. We like to market ourselves organically and thankfully this has been passed on through various outlets - guidebooks, magazines and blogs. 

What are the benefits/pitfalls of running a hotel in Italy?

Even though our lives aren't a constant holiday, our work is surrounded by others who are, so a lot of our guests are happy, enthusiastic and excited to be here, which is a great atmosphere to have in your life. We've met amazing people who we've connected with again, and some have become good friends who we've met up with in other parts of the world.

We've enjoyed a lot of freedom, like living in Bali for two years and running The Beehive remotely. We use our space for fun initiatives that bring together like minded people.

As for the pitfalls - simply put, Italy is probably the worst place to do anything entrepreneurial. We're treated like criminals by the state and yet have to co-exist with blatantly illegal competition. Because of red tape, not only in our industry, but laws regarding the real estate market, banking sector and worker's rights, there is no room for growth or change.

Do you run any other businesses in Italy?

No. We have an online business ( that deals with private accommodation rental around Europe, but it's a virtual company.

How has your business coped with and adapted to the financial crisis? Have you noticed a drop in tourism?

We've noticed a slow, but steady decline since 2009 and it's getting worse, especially with the influx of so much competition who can afford to offer lower prices by skirting the rules and hiding in the shadow economy. We are constantly trying to keep up and have to wear a hundred different hats to make sure there are no missed opportunities and that we keep our name out there. It's a constant struggle and a lot of work.

Matteo Renzi's government is trying to make it easier for people to invest in Italy and run businesses. Have you noticed any signs of this yet? 

None at all. We're not opposed to anything Renzi has proposed, but we also haven't seen any of it executed in a truly useful way.

As for making business easier in general, this is a razor's edge in a place where so many people have struggled hard to have what they have, despite the current over-regulating.

Lowering the barrier to entry can be a great way to stimulate new business, but that's a bit of a slap in the face for someone who just spent ten years fighting with the system and has the fruits of their labour instantly devalued.

We don't think Renzi, or any other politician, has the sense and long-term vision to make the country pro-business without becoming a vacuous, capitalistic mess with a growing income gap and a McDonalized culture.

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There are so many connections to unravel - so many things that make business impossible here, and we need to focus on helping current small business owners grow while enticing new business to be born, without the latter destroying the former.

Politicians like to show results on a macro-scale. Maybe they NEED to show results on a macro scale: a few Eatalys with some big numbers of new hires look great to voters.

But there are consequences later down the road that we don't think anyone is paying much attention to. In a way, Italy has an advantage of lagging behind in many ways - that's an advantage because it can learn from the mistakes of others.

The first generation European versions of broadcast TV and mobile phones were far superior to their American counterparts because they had a delay of several years or so to improve on the originals. Italy, and Europe in general, could learn a lot from capitalism's dysfunction and try to steer us in the direction of a better version of it.

What would you advise foreigners who are considering setting up a business here?

To set up a business here you need 100 percent absolute will and determination. If you're looking for some kind of advice that would sway your decision to do it or not to do it, then you don't have that 100 percent.      

Find out more about The Beehive here:

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