I orignally wrote this on RemoteBase. You can now read it here because RemoteBase is not live.
Standing alone in the middle of a nameless road in Thailand, Diego finds himself in a rather familiar pursuit that he so routinely undertakes. He needs to find a place from which to run his software company for the day.
He does not have a luxury of simply walking into an office, because there is none. All 10 of his team members work from wherever they are in Asia, Europe, and South America. Besides, with all the freedom of movement that he enjoys, he would hardly consider having an office as a luxury.
Diego, together with his friend, Mauricio, has been bootstrapping a software startup called Bithive while traveling around the world. All he needs to run his company are wifi connection, and a quiet place to sit down with his laptop.
He has recently been running Bithive out of Shanghai, Xiamen, Ubud, Bangkok, Mandalay, Singapore, Jeju, and is flying to Europe soon. His co-founder, Mauricio has been working from Sydney, Shanghai, Tokyo, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Seoul.
What brings these entrepreneurs on the road, far away from their home country of Argentina? And how are they running a business with a fully remote team while traveling?
I have been talking to Diego recently to learn more about his stories. He shared some of the challenges he has been facing as a nomad entrepreneur running a fully remote software company, as well as his firsthand insights into remote work.
The Reason for Being on the Road
Diego and Mauricio used to work at a financial technology startup in Shanghai. Diego recalls that even with the modern transportation system of Shanghai, commute drained a lot of his time and resulted in a productivity loss.
Additionally, the startup quickly grew and soon turned corporate. The rigid and inflexible culture at the workplace exacerbated his loss of productivity and soon he started losing grasp on the sense of purpose.
In Diego’s words, the daily work reduced to “a toxic environment where innovation was not welcome,” and everyone was “playing office politics rather than focusing on the real problem.”
It was not only the work environment that was toxic. The rampant environmental problems in Shanghai gradually wore out both Diego and Mairicio. They did not feel particularly healthy during their stay in the big city.
After leaving his job, Diego did not have a valid visa to keep staying in China. But by that time, he and Mauricio had already been working on Bithive, which could be operated remotely.
He realized that he needed not lock himself down into a single location. The possibilities of his destinations were wide open.
Going back home to Argentina was an option, but Diego had already fallen in love with South East Asia which he frequently travelled to during his time in Shanghai. So he started wandering the countries in the area while continuing to bootstrap his fully remote company.
He likes the spontaneity he can afford with his flexible lifestyle, and the proximity to the opportunities he and Mauricio saw in the Asian region.
Bootstrapping a Startup in Asia
The two nomads saw opportunities in Asia arising from the growing need for engineering talents that was often mismatched by supply. While working in Shanghai, Diego and Mauricio realized that many local technology startups were struggling to find the right engineers to successfully ship their products.
Startups were proliferating in many industries in the region, and were garnering large attentions as well as the lion’s share of local investments. Yet the problem of acquiring the right talents was preventing many of the local startups from launching.
Diego and Mauricio had already been building up a strong network of talented engineers during the preceding five years, and could connect those engineers to interesting projects in this distant part of the world through remote working.
Their team is faring well nowadays, getting more and more projects. But there have been many hurdles along the way. The road was especially rugged during the very early stage of the company.
Here are some of the problems these nomad duo encountered while bootstrapping in Asia:
1. Company Incorporation
At first, they tried to incorporate the company in China. Yet, the local laws made it very difficult for foreigners to set up a company. The law went so far as to require that they find a local partner to share the ownership of the company.
To escape the red tapes and restrictive business laws for foreigners, he and his co-founder decided to incorporate Bithive on Hong Kong.
The laws of Hong Kong still required a lot of paperwork. So they actually got help from an agency to deal with all the legalities. However, since they were bootstrapping, they tried to take things into their own hands as much as possible in order to save expenses.
Despite the fact that many banks in Hong Kong were flexible enough to open business bank accounts for foreigners, Bithive still had a hard time setting up banking.
Establishing a trusted relationship with big banks was difficult, because Bithive was a small bootstrapped company with a fully remote team.
It often felt as though banks were not taking the company seriously. It may as well have been that their applications were denied even before any meetings took place.
Banks often delayed Bithive’s applications and kept sending Diego and Mauricio to talk to employees who were clearly new and training.
“We saw many other businessmen in their suits getting meetings with higher rank employees,” Diego recollected, “we were just there wearing simple clothes … ready to explain how we work and why we are doing it in this way.”
The banks tended to nitpick on trivial issues, and did not trust his bootstrapped, fully remote company. The delay in setting up banking was distressig to Bithive. It needed to start processing payments, as the clients were already waiting and projects were lined up.
Fortunately, Diego and Mauricio ended up finding a more flexible bank in Europe. During a Skype meeting with the bank, the bank representative clearly understood Bithive’s model and gave an okay sign.
3. Finding A Reliable Place to Work From
Among the challenges facing nomad entrepreneurs in Asia, the most common one is finding a reliable place to work from.
While changing locations frequently, continually having a great work environment is crucial for productivity. Diego tries to secure his working environment before booking an accommodation in a new city. He often tries to find a hotel or a hostel with a good wifi and some desk.
He has been living the past 3 years using AirBnB. He also uses Booking.com, Agoda, Hotels.com, Trivago, and Orbitz. To check out local coffee shops Google Maps or workfrom.co works great for him.
Most of the time, Bithive is run from a coffee shop table. Diego would also book a co-working space if he needs a meeting room, or a rock solid wifi connection for an important work.
But most of the time, he prefers working at a coffee shop. Somehow, the ambience and noise of the place help him immerse into the work more deeply. Also, paying for drinks and a lunch is significantly cheaper than one day booking at a co-working space.
Running a Remote Team
In Diego’s mind, running a remote team makes sense because talented people with portable skill sets are distributed everywhere. It would be much harder to build a team, if he only searched for talents in the Asian region.
After all, the belief that talents are distributed worldwide is the foundation of Bithive’s business model. Bithive harnesses the talents they see fit and channels them into the parts of the world where projects are, into the places where problems need to be solved.
Yet, a work is more than just having access to talents. Even though remote organizations have the upper hand of being able to reach out to the global talents, surely there are other aspects of work where remote organizations fall short.
I asked Diego about some of the challenges he faced while running his fully remote team.
1. Payments to Employees and Contractors
Bithive needs to receive and send money internationally frequently, because many team members are working part-time from various countries around the world.
At the beginning, Bithive used Paypal to pay the engineers and designers. It worked better than bank transfers because the fees were lower. They still use bank transfer when there is a need, but usually prefer other methods.
When they reached a bigger scale, even Paypal fees quickly grew out of control and became a burden. Now the team switched to Payoneer to send money to the members with a better fee.
2. Client’s Old Fashioned Mindset
Sometimes, the customers have hard time understanding the concept of remote work. When some potential customers learn that Bithive is a fully remote company without an office, they are rather taken aback.
However, as the team starts delivering the result, the customers are satisfied and often stop caring much about the working arrangement of the team. Sometimes they even go on to support remote working movement.
In this light, when doing business with clients who are dubious about remote work and a concept of distributed teams, it is important to deliver a tangible result in a timely manner. Often, the clients’ top concern is the outcome. Working arrangements are not a make-or-break factor as long as the result is delivered.
Another strategy Diego and Mauricio employs to win over skeptical clients is to actually fly over to the clients’ locations to have face-to-face meetings. Since Diego and Mauricio are both nomads, they do this quite often.
They would stay a few days with the clients, setting goals and explaining processes. Traveling to meet the clients in person builds a deep trust and strong mutual connection. The clients who were once unsure about working with a remote team often feel much more comfortable after spending time with Diego and Mauricio.
I wondered if the inability to trust remote work was a characteristic of rather traditional values observed by Asian business culture. When asked how much Asian culture has to do with the clients’ concern about remote working, Diego said such a concern is not a product of a particular culture.
Based on his experiences of working in China and the United States, Diego tells that companies there showed the similar kind of organizational inertia and resistance to new ideas.
The old fashioned mindset against remote work is not an issue of a particular region, but rather that of an organizational culture. For instance, Bithive clients more easily understand the concept of distributed team, if they have been working with younger people, and multicultural teams.
3. Timezones and Availability
With its team members working from different countries and timezones, Bithive needs to coordinate the working schedules carefully.
About 80% of the Bithive team is based in Asia, and the rest are in Europe and Argentina. On top of that, many are part-time workers and are not always available at the team’s disposal. Also, the clients might be anywhere around the world.
To optimize the workflow as a fully remote team spanning multiple timezones, Bithive focuses on doing two things well.
- Assign tasks in a way that the tasks won’t block or interfere with some other members of the team.
- Adjust working hours in order to have some overlapping hours between team members in different timezones.
By doing these things well, they are able to achieve a somewhat asynchronous collaboration cycle that runs seamlessly without halting.
Let us have a look at one of their projects in Israel as an illustration of this ‘collaboration cycle.’ Diego and Mauricio manage the project from their respective locations in Asia, while making sure their working hours partly overlap with those of the client’s. They also stay up a bit late to collaborate with the team in South America.
While the team in Asia is not working, team in South America takes over, and vice-versa. Overall, there are three timezones involved in this project. With an asynchronous workflow, and non-blocking tasks, the project is going forward successfully.
Of course, no collaboration can be fully asynchronous, and team members need some overlaps in working hours to get some head-to-head interaction with one another. AS a result, team members sometimes need to stay up late or get up early, but everyone is kind of used to doing so at Bithive.
When reading a story about remote teams or traveling entrepreneurs, we are often led to romanticize it. After all, running a fully remote business while traveling the world makes quite a good story. Such stories appeal to our inner bandit that fills us with wanderlust, and allow us to entertain the thoughts of escaping from routines.
However, I think the journey of Diego and Mauricio is something much more than ‘a good story.’ Before we start idealizing the lifestyle and the adventure portrayed in it, we might want to look at the broader picture. To me, the story tells the possibilities of changes in the way we work.
The story tells me that a location is no longer a major factor of getting work done. Indeed, there will be cultural inertia resisting such an idea. Such resistance is well represented by the old fashioned mindset of some of Bithive’s clients.
Yet, when Bithive starts delivering results, those clients often change their attitudes toward remote work. Perhaps, at some point, they all begin to see possible benefits of remote working, even though they initially turn a blind eye out of a habit.
Many of those benefits are nothing new and have been countlessly echoed. So I wanted to hear from the real person who has been building a business on that premise. When asked about benefits of remote work and why remote work is trending, Diego, without much hesitation, told me two things.
“Currently, capitals and opportunities are concentrated in major cities. But talents have always been distributed around the world. More and better infrastructures in developing economies [are allowing] more of their citizens to explore opportunities in other regions without being physically there.”
“Also, people are tired of working in regular 9-5 office jobs. They realize that they can do it from any place where the life is more enjoyable.”
Work is a work is a work is a work. How it is done is becoming less relevant. And this new way of getting work done offers benefits that are increasingly relevant to the social and technological context of today.