My Swedish Career: How falling ill inspired this Canadian’s start-up in Sweden

For Canadian Denise Fernandes, it was the less-than-happy experience of falling victim to Sweden’s notorious vinterkräksjuka [norovirus] that led to her setting up her own business in Stockholm.

My Swedish Career: How falling ill inspired this Canadian’s start-up in Sweden
Denise Fernandes created her rehydration product after a bout of Vinterkräksjuka. Photo: private

For the Toronto native, despite having lived internationally between homes in Canada, the USA and the UK before moving to Sweden, she was unprepared for the onslaught of the seasonal illness.

“I had absolutely no warning!” she laughs. “My husband – who is Swedish – hadn’t told me about vinterkräksjuka. So, when my whole family became ill, it took me completely by surprise.”

“The illness is famous here. Now that I’ve been here longer, I’ve had people give me their stories unprompted – they’re almost like war stories, with people saying, ‘let me tell you about the Christmas when we all had the bug and we were staying in my parents’ house which only has one toilet.’ And after you’ve experienced it, the stories make perfect sense: it comes violently, everyone in the family gets it, you’re debilitated; no one wants to come and help you because if they do, they’re going to get sick. It’s a challenging thing.”

READ ALSO: Six common illnesses to avoid in Sweden this fall

To combat the bug which had taken hold of her household, with her husband and their two young children also unwell, Fernandes searched for over-the-counter rehydration remedies in Swedish pharmacies. Finding only one option, with what she considered excessive sugar content – and, armed with the benefit of a background in pharmaceuticals – Fernandes set about to create a “cleaner” alternative to the medication on offer.

“I worked with a lab for a year, researching all-natural formulations. And the product we’ve created – Dropp – is now on sale across the country in Apoteket [Sweden’s state-owned pharmacy],” she says.

“We've created it especially for a Swedish market – the label, ingredients, website – everything's in Swedish, so people can have complete control over what they're consuming. It's important here, people have a real understanding that artificial sweeteners aren't good for the body. It's just come onto shelves here, but the response has already been really positive.”

Denise Fernandes tested her rehydration product over 1,000 times before reaching the final formula. Photo: Private

Winter maladies aside, the move to Stockholm in 2015 proved to be a process of transition for Fernandes and her family.

The most difficult adjustment for the seasoned nomad was adapting to Swedish cultural norms. Fernandes describes Swedish people as “reserved” – not a trait she sees as naturally compatible with her Canadian roots: “As a North American, I probably speak ten decibels louder than the average Swede. I’ve even been ‘shushed’ in a yoga studio…”

“As a foreigner, you’re sort of embarrassed by your own loudness versus Swedes’ quietness,” she admits. “I’m much more aware of that now.”

Aside from being married to a Swede, Fernandes notes that she had no real exposure to Swedish language or culture before moving to the country. “Personally, as a Canadian who had lived in central London for around eight years and had studied in the US, I was struck by the fact that there was much less contact here with individuals you didn’t know, Swedes seemed hesitant to speak to people they were unfamiliar with. It took me a bit of time to pull myself back and not engage with strangers so much.”

READ ALSO: My Swedish Career: When you're based in Sweden, people take you seriously

When it comes to the local language, Fernandes receives Swedish tuition in an unusual form – from her own young children, who are both bilingual in English and Swedish.

“I spent a short period studying Swedish, but I started working as soon as we arrived in the country, so I didn’t have any real dedicated time learning it. I’ve learnt the most from my children speaking it to me and around me. I guess you could say that my children are my Swedish teachers! It’s their first language, so it’s natural for them to explain something to me in Swedish that they don’t have the words for in English. They correct my pronunciation all the time!”

Despite feeling she has a way to go before she’s mastered the Swedish language, she’s found making the effort in speaking it has had a huge positive impact, in both her personal and professional life. “Swedes are very tolerant and forgiving of people who don’t speak their language” she says, adding that this has given her the confidence to immerse herself in situations where Swedish is required – and she encourages others to do the same.

“Give it a try” she advises. “I was a bit hesitant because I’m not fluent, but I’ve been surprised by how you can get by. I’ve sat in meetings in Swedish and, through a mixture of hand gestures and words, you can make yourself understood! The reality is in Sweden people really want to see you succeed – and want to help you get there.”

And for those who have a burgeoning business idea in Sweden, Fernandes’ outlook is similarly positive: “If you’ve got a concept that you think could work, share it. In Sweden, there’s really no barrier to success. If it’s an idea that could benefit society, people will be receptive to hearing what you have to say.”

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READER QUESTION: How can I move to Sweden as a self-employed person?

Are you self-employed and thinking about moving to Sweden? Not sure what to do, or what rules apply to you? Here's our guide.

READER QUESTION: How can I move to Sweden as a self-employed person?

The process for moving to Sweden as a self-employed person varies depending on where you come from. Your citizenship will determine whether you apply to the Tax Agency or the Migration Agency, as well as whether you need to apply for a permit (uppehållstillstånd) or whether you have the right of residence under EU law.

Here’s a rundown of the rules for each different group.

Nordic citizens (Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland)

As a Nordic citizen, you don’t need a residence permit (uppehållstillstånd) or right of residence (uppehållsrätt) to live in Sweden. All you need to do is go to the Tax Agency upon arrival in Sweden and register yourself and any family members as resident in Sweden.

You may need to prove that you are planning on living in Sweden for at least a year in order to be registered in the population register and given a personnummer.

EU/EEA citizens

As an EU/EEA citizen, you have the right to work, study or live in Sweden without a residence permit (uppehållstillstånd), and that this includes starting and running your own company.

You do, however, still need to meet certain criteria in order to fulfil the requirements for right of residence under EU rules (uppehållsrätt).

There are different options for fulfilling the right of residence requirement as a self-employed EU/EEA citizen, and both require registering at the Tax Agency rather than the Migration Agency.

The first is as a self-employed person, which means you’ll have to prove that you have a business which either is currently running in Sweden, or is in the planning stages.

You’ll need to provide documents to back this up, which could include things like proof that you have F-tax (the tax status for self-employed people and freelancers), a marketing plan, a registration certificate for your company, and a copy of the lease for any premises you will be using.

You may also need to prove that you have previous experience and skills relevant to your company or the work you’re planning on doing in Sweden, receipts and invoices for any material you’ve purchased, as well as accounting documents showing how much VAT you have paid or are expecting to pay.

You’ll need to take these to the Tax Agency along with your passport and any documents proving your relationship to any family members you’ll be registering at the same time, such as your marriage certificate or registered partnership certificate for your spouse or partner, and a birth certificate for any children.

The second route is as someone “providing or performing services“, which is the route you should use if you’re self-employed abroad but will be providing a service to a recipient in Sweden, such as as a consultant or freelancer, for a limited time.

Under this route, you’ll need to take your passport and any family documents along to the Tax Agency, as well as a certificate describing the service you’ll be providing in Sweden, where you will be working or carrying out the service, and how long for. This needs to be signed by whoever you’ll be carrying out the service for in Sweden.

Note that you can only be registered in the Swedish population register and given a personal number if you can prove that you’ll be in Sweden for more than a year, but you still need to register your stay in Sweden as an EU citizen if you’re planning on being in Sweden for more than three months.

Non-EU or ‘third country’ citizens

If you’re a non-EU/EEA citizen and you want to be self-employed in Sweden you need to apply for a residence permit at the Migration Agency before you come to Sweden, with a few exceptions.

“You can ‘swap’ from studying to work permit and self-employed under certain conditions. And you can swap between work permit to self-employed and self-employed to work permit,” Robert Haecks, press spokesperson at the Migration Agency, told The Local.

So if you’re already in Sweden as an employee or student you don’t need to leave Sweden to apply for a permit to become self-employed.

For students, your permit to be in Sweden as a student must still be valid, and you must have completed at least 30 credits of your studies or a whole term as a research student.

If you’re planning on working in Sweden for less than three months, you do not need a residence permit, but you may need to apply for a visa depending on your citizenship.

Non-EU citizen working in Sweden longer than three months

If you’re planning on working in Sweden for longer than three months, you’ll need to apply for a “residence permit for people who have their own business”, as there is no specific residence permit for self-employed non-EU citizens.

There are quite a few conditions that need to be met in order for the Migration Agency to be satisfied that you can really run a business in Sweden.

First off, you need a valid passport, and it’s a good idea to make sure this has at least a few years of validity left as you can’t get a permit for longer than your passport is valid.

Applicants will need to prove that they have experience in the industry and previous experience of running their own business, as well as relevant knowledge of Swedish or English (if most of their suppliers or customers will be Swedish, the Migration Agency will expect applicants to speak good Swedish).

You’ll need to prove you run the company and have responsibility for it, provide a budget with plausible supporting documentation and show that you have customer contacts or a network which you can use in your business via contracts or similar.

You will also need to provide a slew of financial and legal documents, such as a registration certificate for your company in Sweden, copies of contracts with customers, suppliers and premises, your two most recent financial statements if your company has already been in operation, and a balance sheet for the current financial year up until the month you apply. See a full list of the required documents here.

Finally, you’ll need to prove that you have enough money to provide for yourself and any family members who will be joining you. The Migration Agency states that this corresponds to “the equivalent of SEK 200,000 for you, SEK 100,000 for your accompanying wife/husband and SEK 50,000 for each accompanying child for a permit period of two years”. So, an applicant moving to Sweden with their spouse and two children will need at least 400,000 kronor in savings in order to qualify.

You will also have to pay a fee of 2,000 kronor in most cases.

The Migration Agency will then carry out an analysis of your plans for a business and decide whether it is good enough to grant you a residence permit.

If you get a permit to stay for six months or longer then your spouse and children may also live in Sweden. They can apply for a residence permit at the same time as you, or afterwards.

If you have a permit to be in Sweden as a self-employed person, your family members moving with you also have the right to work (as long as they are aged 16 or older). However you still must show that you can support them.

If you get a residence permit for Sweden as self-employed you will only be allowed to work in your own business.

Talent visa for non-EU citizens

There is another option for highly-qualified applicants who want to move to Sweden to research setting up a new business, which you may also qualify for if you’re interested in moving to Sweden as a self-employed person.

This is the “talent visa”, more specifically referred to as a “resi­dence permit for highly quali­fied persons to look for work or start a busi­ness”.

This permit allows non-EU citizens with a higher-level degree to apply for a visa of between three to nine months, which they can then use to stay in Sweden while they look for work or research setting up a new business.  

You can read more on how to apply for the talent visa here.

By Loukas Christodoulou and Becky Waterton