Working Remotely From A Tropical Island in Thailand

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 »

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.