Working Remotely From A Tropical Island in Thailand

     
By on April 8, 2015

2014-11-15 11.07.54

Mobile Jazz is an engineering and design agency. But unlike our peers, when it comes to working at Mobile Jazz we are becoming known for sometimes taking a rather different approach to the work/life balance.

Unlike most companies out there, our main objective is to optimize for happiness, rather than profit. And besides the happiness and satisfaction of our clients, which is important to us, we focus even more on our own happiness.

One of our core philosophies is to give every employee the freedom to work from wherever they want. That can be from our beautiful headquarters in Barcelona, but it can also be from a tropical island or a skiing cabin in the Swiss Alps.

Some of us have been taking heavy advantage of such remote working possibilities over the past three years. Remote working can succeed if you’re disciplined and well organized. But then the office also has its benefits, like very short and direct communication channels, easy collaboration and heavily increased creativity. And of course playing Mario Kart or having a BBQs on our office terrace.

So we asked ourselves why not combine the two. Mixing beautiful and interesting locations with a highly productive and creative office environment. This gave birth to the MJ Remote Office.

Why would you want to work from a tropical island?

“Where to go?” — that was our first question. And for reasons I can’t really explain everyone instantly had this picture of a tropical island in mind: a beautiful beach with white sand and turquoise water. A big wooden table below a palm tree. A laptop, a smartphone and a mango fruit shake. That’s it. We were already sold on the idea.

But we also knew that such a location would probably not look like how we imagined. We needed to do some preparation work.

While Chaweng, the main town on Koh Samui, is packed with tourists the west side of the island is almost deserted.

Why did we decide on Thailand?

Honestly, there are many incredible locations in the world which we could have chosen. But we also didn’t want to make it more difficult for this first experiment than needed.

The key factors we were looking for are:

  • Easy access (flights, visa, etc.)
  • A fast and stable Internet connection (absolutely crucial when working remotely)
  • A time zone that overlaps with our headquarters in Barcelona and with the US where most of our clients are.
  • Good (touristic) infrastructure. We don’t need luxury. But we did want things to work out without having constant problems. And dealing with people that speak English and are already used to Western values and needs simplifies that a lot and reduces your chances of having constant headaches or even desires to kill someone right on the spot.

So we decided on a country which we already knew quite well from our personal travel experiences: Thailand. And in particular a tropical island called Koh Samui.

Some of us had been there before, so we knew our way around and even had some local Thai friends that could help us in setting everything up.

Our favorite spots on Koh Samui

The Setup

Accommodation

This took us much longer than expected. Even though we quickly found a lot of affordable and nice locations through our contacts, we somehow got obsessed with finding the perfect location.

We wanted a house that could support 6-8 people comfortably and allow for both a relaxed personal life and a quiet work zone. Additionally we wanted to be in nature while not being too far away from the main locations for grocery shopping, eating out, yoga and other activities.

We finally found a peaceful place in the hills above Chaweng (the main town on Samui) with several houses that have their own living area, separate bed and bathrooms, kitchens and pools.

  • Two houses with 4 bedrooms
  • Two living spaces. One being used as an office.
  • High-speed Internet (very important!)
  • Terrace, pool and BBQ
  • Initial price 135,000THB (~3,375 €)
  • Negotiated price 80,000THB (~2,000 €)
    • 500 € per room per month
    • Kinda expensive for Thailand, but it was the perfect location for us.
Accommodation
We paid a bit above average, but got a premium location on the island.

Mobile Internet

Being connected is important. Especially when being in a different time zone than the people you’re working with. There’s always something coming up and you might need to respond quickly so that other people are not stuck.

Luckily mobile Internet is fast and cheap in Thailand. We got pre-paid SIM cards with AIS. The regular rate is 400 THB (~10 €) for 1 GB, but they run many promotions so we ended up with 5GB for the same price.

Also most restaurants and bars provide free WiFi, however, the speed is usually much slower compared to using the cell network.

Right. We were also wondering how that was supposed to work.

Getting around

The best way to get around in Thailand is by using a scooter. To rent a nice 150cc scooter we paid 5000 THB / month (~125 €). You can also get a cheaper deal for less powerful scooters.

Safety first! Pretty much everyone in Thailand uses motorbikes and scooters without a helmet, which is kinda stupid, as you see accidents happen daily. We didn’t want to take that risk and got helmets at the closest supermarket for 450 THB (~11.25 €) each, which we donated to some locals friends before we left. Whether they’re using them is unclear, as riding with a helmet is not that fashionable in Thailand it seems.

The quickest way to get around the island.

Food & Restaurants

Thailand is all about the food and the restaurants. You can get an amazing meal for less than 10 €. Thai curries, ribs, rice & noodle dishes, fish, roasted duck, tiger prawns and squid combined with all sorts of delicious fruit shakes. But beware, let them know that you’re new to Thai food and want a moderate spice level. A few of us have been crying multiple times.

Besides the food itself, the restaurant locations are amazing. Most of them are situated right on the beach and others are on top of a hill with a panoramic view over the island or just above an overhanging cliff. It can’t get much better than that.

There’s also the night market in Lamai, which is basically a street full of food stands, where you can taste exotic food like grasshopper, crocodile and all sorts of bugs.

You can find all kinds of food choices, but the street food is by far the best and cheapest option.

Work Life

Even though we went there to work together and live together, we quickly realized that we’re still different people with sometimes quite opposite interests. For example some of us preferred to go to yoga early in the morning and start working at noon until late at night, while others preferred to start working in the morning and go out partying in the evenings. So it was sometimes actually hard to “hang” out together. However, we always tried to have dinner together and used that time to coordinate trips at the weekend.

The time zone differences are bearable if you don’t need to have a full 8 hours of communication every day. And that’s sometimes even a good thing for developers, who can work on their code without distractions and then sync up later. With our headquarters in Barcelona it was actually quite easy to communicate. Same with San Francisco. The only problem location for us was New York, which was exactly 12 hours behind and there are only a few hours of overlap every day.

It didn’t happen often, but sometimes the Internet or electricity went down. At times it was just for a few minutes, other times several hours. Working in technology, not having electricity or Internet is not an option.

We didn't always work from the beach, but sometimes it was a nice necessity.
We didn’t always work from the beach, but sometimes it was a nice necessity.

Social Life

For us it felt quite easy to make new friends. Be it locals or foreigners. Everyone is very open to meet new people and make new connections.

As we went to yoga class every morning and also had breakfast there we met a lot of foreigners who were on either a short escape from their busy work life or on a longer search for the meaning of life. Either way, all of them were quite unique and added a lot to our Thailand experience.

We also had a great time with the locals in Samui. While they definitely have a very different culture and way of living, they’re generally quite open to connect with foreigners that show respect for them and genuine interest in their lives (i.e. not being a sleazy sex tourist). The best part of knowing locals (regardless of where you are) is that you start to become a part of the local community yourself. You get access to places that you didn’t know existed and can experience things that you’d never be able to do as a tourist. And on top of that it’s always good to have a local friend to help you out when things go wrong.

Working wasn’t the only thing we did.

Learning Experiences

This trip was not only work and fun for us, but also a lot of great learning experiences. Many of those were very personal and partly philosophical. But here are a couple of them that were more of a practical nature and can be applied by anyone who’s considering such an adventure:

  • Jet Lag: it takes about 3 days to get accustomed. Take that into consideration for your planning, especially your work schedule.
  • It takes time to figure out basic things: where to get food, where to do laundry, etc.
    A tropical island is, well, tropical. You want to get a place that has A/C. Otherwise focusing on work will be very difficult
  • We’re used to working together every day. However living together is a whole different thing. Everyone still has their own interests, priorities and rhythm. All those things need to be respected. It’s impossible to do everything with everyone all the time.
  • Thai culture is different.
    • There’s no rush for anything. Everything will take longer than what you’re used to.
    • Different perceptions of what “quality” means. What is good enough for them, is often not good enough for us.
    • Always happy. Always smiling.
  • You need one month to get accustomed. Ideally stay longer in order to really enjoy the experience.
  • Schedule less work, so you can enjoy the life there and go explore.
You only live once
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” – Mae West

Conclusion

We really liked the experience of doing this with our team and can highly recommend trying it out for yourself and your team. It requires a fair bit of preparation and discipline and the experience will most likely be different than what you expect before hand, but it adds a lot of value to your personal growth and team building.

Conclusion? A picture is worth a thousand words.
Conclusion? A picture is worth a thousand words.

For us at Mobile Jazz we enjoyed this work adventure so much that we’ve already started to plan two additional trips

  • MJ Skiing: we’re renting a hut in the Austrian Alps and will spend the sunny days skiing and snowboarding and work in the evenings and during the days when the weather isn’t that great. (UPDATE: this has already happened by now and we’ll publish a blog post about it very soon)
  • MJ Mauritius: one of our latest employees is from Mauritius. So it’s quite obvious that we need to go there.

Tools for Working Remotely

Additionally, to further support our remote work life we’ve started to develop tools that allow us to stay in touch with the people that were left at our headquarter in Barcelona, but also our customers that come from different places around the world themselves.

One of those tools is Bugfender, a modern remote logger tailor-made for mobile development.

If you’ve ever been involved in the development process of a mobile application, I’m sure you came across a scenario where you or your developers simply weren’t able to reproduce a serious bug that some of your customers were experiencing.

To resolve such issues you usually had to connect the problematic device to your development machine via USB. But what are you going to do if the customer that is experiencing this specific problem happens to live 500 kilometers away?

Bugfender is solving this problem by providing us with real-time access to the device’s debug log console.

While initially considered as an internal tool for Mobile Jazz, we’ve received some interest from other people and decided to make it a publicly accessible service. If you’re interested to learn more about Bugfender check out our website http://bugfender.com/ or you can directly sign up here.

Read about our latest retreat in the Costa Brava »

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Stefan Klumpp

Stefan grew up in a small town in the Black Forest in Germany. After dropping out of high school he started an apprenticeship as a car mechanic. Later on, he studied Electrical Engineering and developed the first self-driving cars at Stanford University.

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  • Andrés Franzoy

    Great post! How much time did you spend in Thailand? How did you manage the working visas (or did you do it with a turist visa)?

    I would really like to try this in the future!

    • We stayed there for one month all together. Some of us stayed longer on an extended tourist visas or traveled to other countries in Asia.

      • Richard

        Did you have any concerns or hassle about conducting business in Thailand on tourist visas? I get a different answer from each person I ask.

        • Honestly I don’t know the right answer to this question. We were there on holidays and happened to respond to some work related emails. However, that has nothing to do with Thailand. We could have done that from anywhere. We didn’t conduct any business in Thailand.

          Our income is all being taxed in Spain. So we’re not evading taxes or anything like that.

          • Richard

            Understood, thanks for the reply.

          • Vjatseslav Gedrovits

            People try to tell you that what you did is Illegal in Thailand right now.
            You are not allowed to work in the country, regardless of is it relates to international business or not. You are lucky to not get caught, but there is a fines and a lot harder to receive visa after this incident.
            You can spend money, travel, etc, but not get involved in any activity which can be considered ‘work’. Be warned about that next time.

          • The difficult part is where to draw the line and what is considered work. Is responding to a business email on your holidays considered work?

          • Vjatseslav Gedrovits

            I am not the one to judge. The thing is the government realised that a lot of people come to ‘paradise island’ to work remotely (works mostly for IT people), so instead of living the paradise legend and go away to provide others to try it out, we have a bunch of people who live there for working conditions. Doing the ‘visa runs’ etc.

            About your question: for them this is work, yes.

            But again it’s hard to catch, but if you say ‘work email’ then you are done. 🙂

          • Matthew Pease

            Hmm, do they actually really care? Are there any instances of the government “busting” such people and sending them home?

          • Guest

            My final post here – the comment thread on HN shows the wildly varying opinion about the legitimacy of remote working in Thailand on tourist visa. Interesting read, IMO.

            https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9347762

          • Richard

            It’s a bit tricky for you to cast this as just happening to respond to the occasional email given the article’s emphasis on moving your working operation to Thailand and working remotely from there daily.

            This is an interesting discussion for me because I often consider doing similar, and can get no clear answers about the countries (including Thailand) that I’d like to travel to.

          • Matthew Pease

            Why Spain… Are you all working as part of the spanish entrepreneur visa? Was that difficult or expensive to arrange?

          • Most of us are EU citizens or have an EU visa. Spain is just a beautiful country to live in 🙂

  • Matthew Pease

    Tropical means hot & humid, right? I tried working in Costa Rica & found that it was just too damn hot to get work done. A/C is pretty key, right?

    Any plans to head to Indonesia? I can confirm that 3g is good & cheap.

    Take care on this scooters!

    • Yepp. A/C is key. That’s one of the reasons why we spent so much time finding the right houses with proper A/C.

      No plans for Indonesia yet, but could be an interesting option. Which place in particular do you recommend?

      • Matthew Pease

        Can’t go too wrong with Bali. Easy to get into and lots of variety on the island. I remember that 3g was not so great at times though. In remote Bali we found that 3g was better than in the populated areas. Also there are multiple operators. 3g is super cheap at $1-2 / GB from what I remember. In Bali you can pretty much just pay at stay 6 months, then hop back over to KL or SG and then come straight back for another 6 months. Another tip: if you are ever in the jakarta airport (air asia’s terminal), their wifi is screaming fast. Like 20 megabits and free. So spend a day and download all the movies and Xcode updates and osx updates and google i/o and wwdc vids you are going to need for the next 6 months.

      • Matthew Pease

        Hi Stefan – Can you tell me how good the Internet is there in Thailand? Is it 100%, you can get a quick, Skype quality sort of signal any time of the day? Or does it get clogged up and slow near the end of the day? Or is it unbearably slow sometimes?

        • I can only speak for Koh Samui, but they’ve pretty fast Internet if you get a dedicated line. Working out of a café with shared WiFi is almost impossible. Mobile Internet is also pretty fast on most parts of the island and data is pretty cheap. We had almost always excellent video conferencing quality on Skype and Google Hangout.

          • Matthew Pease

            Thanks for that info Stefan.

            If we didn’t have this dog we’d come to Thailand too, I think. But now we have a furry little beast that keeps us over in Europe. Doing work by motorhome!

  • Awesome post. If you do the tropical island again consider Puerto Rico. Great beaches, rivers, food, internet connections, LTE, great coworking spaces, etc

    • Sounds great! Any place in particular you’d recommend?

      • A few.

        San Juan metro area is always on the list, San Juan being the capital. Old San Juan is a Spanish colonial area city where a number of foreign companies have relocated. I usually work out of Piloto 151, a coworking space in Old San Juan. There’s also Santurce, which is viewed as our “downtown” area, it’s also where most of our tech companies are at or are moving to. It’s also about a 15 mins walk from the beach and Condado. Santurce and Condado have a ton of restaurants and night life.

        Rincon is a great town to visit. It was a huge surfing town in the 1970s and many of the surfers staid, so naturally there’s a coworking space right in front of the beach called the Cube. You can also check out Cabo Rojo, both are in the west coat of the island.

        Culebra and Vieques are island municipalities with awesome beaches. I’ve meet a couple of people that have had “workcations” on both and left if plans for the next one.

        There’s a awesome startup community growing here as well if a number of activities so meeting people is extremely easy. If you guys ever do come look me up 🙂

        • That’s excellent information. Thank you so much 🙂
          I don’t think this is going to happen in 2015 as we have Mauritius on our road map, but sounds like a good option for 2016. What month(s) do you recommend?

          • I would say February to May. It’s not too hot, usually 80s F during the day and 70s F at night. You also avoid hurricane season, we haven’t had one land in a couple of years but it’s always a possibility.

  • okay that was crazy

  • Great post! I run the biggest web and mobile app studio in Bangkok (http://oozou.com) next time you guys are here come and say hi! 🙂

    • Cool! Will do next time 🙂 Same goes for Barcelona if you ever happen to be in Europe.

  • heldrida

    About the Frontend dev role, can that lead to work there in the Island ?

  • kevinmonk

    Really interesting and great to see someone make The Dream happen.
    Do any of your employees have children? What about schools?

  • Oh, we see a bunch of cool photos here! That remind us of the story of Kasia, our front end developer, who is currently working for our mostly-Poland based team from Brazil: https://netguru.co/blog/working-with-people-you-haven-t-seen

  • Emiel Janson

    Great post! I’ve been considering working remotely for a couple of months for a while. I just want to make sure I have a nice workspace. What I’m not getting from the post if you guys arranged the accommodation up front with help of your local friend. Do you have photo of the living room turned into a workspace? Where the bedrooms separated from the workspace? I’m a designer and seriously considering doing this for some months and also considering taking an external screen with me. I know, I’m nuts.

  • Johan Andrews

    Nice Stefan! Super nice post!! Well done to all of you and keep the philosophy truly strong and alive! “Optimise for happiness not for profit!!”

    • Francisco Gonzalez Rull

      Cheers on that Johan! 😉

  • William Jones

    Very nice post! Are you by any chance hiring? I’m a developer and did a lot of traveling last year and dreamed of being able to work and travel.

    • We’re not hiring right now, but we’re always looking for good candidates. Just send us an application via our Jobs API (details on our website) and we’ll look at it once we’re hiring again.

  • My wife & I spent a week on the North Side beaches 2 years ago. We always wondered whether a remote setup would work, for all the reasons you mentioned. Koh Samui is on our short list! (If y’all ever need a product geek….)

  • Ymiquel

    What about disadvantages? Time zone?

  • TiagoBTT

    What about http://www.menorca.es ? You’ll met your expectations at just 30 minutes flight from Barcelona.

  • Claire Knight

    How did this work with partners/families? Did they travel as well?

  • Calvin Low

    http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-32259612. saw this in the news. Hope you all are fine.

  • Michael Lott

    Just some thoughts on motorbike helmets: the ones you can buy in Thailand are of very poor quality. If you can’t bring any over from the USA (or from somewhere else that follows safety codes), your second best option (and one that you will see a lot of foreigners using) is to use a bicycle helmet.

  • hugomesser

    great article! I think the future is remote for a lot of jobs and I think the software engineers are showing the way. There are many tools to make remote work easier than it used to be. With the right process, people and tools, you can work anywhere. I have written some books about this, maybe interesting for people on this blog: http://bridge-staffing.com/ebooks

  • Pat Garcia

    Hi, Stefan! I really enjoyed your overview of your Thai experiences. There’s a kind of old English expression (based on a TV show from the 1950’s) that perfectly describes your life: “You are living the life of Riley!!!” I think my Dad would get a kick out of your travels, as long as it was for WORK!! I prefer the happiness angle, but Ludwig/Luigi was all about work and struggle. . . but we all know he loved a good time and a nice meal, right?! We hope you are well—it looks and sounds like you are!! Don’t forget your Hofman relatives in CA who love you! (BTW, the family is continuing to GROW!! Twin girls were born in Alaska in October— real Hofmans, too! And a boy was born in December :>) Plus, there’s one on the way—due in May. We think that Mom and Dad would be quite pleased!)
    Love you and miss seeing you, Pat and Tom, too “VIVA LA FAMILIA!!” (How do you say it in German???) XXOO

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  • Danny Kirk

    Amazing article! How did you all determine the WIFI was strong enough for your work needs before you got over there? Want to make this trip soon so would love to find out!

    • Hey Danny. Some of us have been on Samui before, so we knew that it was generally good. For the house we went to we asked the landlord to run a speed test.

      • Danny Kirk

        Thanks Stefan! Looking to do a little work/play this winter there so thanks for the inspiration!

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  • Hi Stefan! Exact location of your place in Chaweng?

  • Lucy

    Wow what a great article. This had so much helpful info for us. We are moving to Koh Samui in April for a year or so. Thanks so much for posting this. Wondering if you could put us in touch with your land lord over there? Trying to scope out some good accommodation! Thanks for the post.

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