“Cost, Weather, Internet, Fun, Safety” read the categories on Nomad List, a site that helps long-term travelers decide where they’ll go next to live and work. Ah, all the things a freelancer needs. Scrolling over the options, from Ho Chi Minh City ($993 per month, 10 mbps, 83 degrees) to Toluca ($1,155 per month, 25 mbps, 69 degrees), I realize I might never live in a major US city again. Why pay $2,000 for a shoebox in New York or San Francisco when I could have Cartagena, Bucharest or Chiang Mai instead?
Scores of millennials, depressed by corporate jobs and stifled by the economic slump since the 2008 Great Recession, have dropped out of the American rat race to tote their laptops to countries like Vietnam, Mexico and India, drawn by the low cost of living.
Unlike the expats of old looking to retire in cabanas by the beach, millennial expats are still fervently working, they’re just trying to do it smarter. Startup owners founding their companies without venture capital move to a low-cost-of-living country to give their companies the low margins they need.
Trish Roberts, 27, moved to the northern Thai startup oasis of Chiang Mai in October to begin building her home-and-garden e-commerce site. She lived with her parents for two years while working full-time to save up and make her dream come true.
Why pay $2,000 for a shoebox in New York or San Francisco when I could have Cartagena, Bucharest or Chiang Mai instead?
“I have known for years that I wanted to go into business for myself, but the cost of living in the US made it hard for me,” Roberts said. “I knew that if I wanted to provide myself with every opportunity to succeed in business, keeping my overhead cost and personal expenditures low was essential. I knew that if I stayed in America, those savings would be gone fast.”
Thirty-eight percent of millennials identify as freelancers, as opposed to 32 percent of other generations, and freelancers can work from anywhere with an internet connection, from a personal hotspot on a houseboat in Goa to a free Wi-Fi network at a beer hall in Brooklyn.
“I think people generally are now freelancing — as a lifestyle — in one sense or another,” said travel writer and editor Alex Crevar, who works remotely from Croatia. “Work as a concept has changed. Gone are the days when you signed up with one company and stuck around until retirement. Millennials just happen to be the first generation fully integrated into this style of life, but every generation feels this shift.”
Chris Guillebeau, author of “The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future,” pointed out Americans’ long history of creative entrepreneurship.
“This isn’t historically abnormal — lots of great American companies were founded during the Depression and other times of economic uncertainty,” he said. “Whatever hardships we’ve seen in the US have actually produced a ton of opportunities for those who’ve paid attention, so when times are hard, smart millennials should look around and see what else they can do instead of applying for the same limited number of good jobs that hundreds of their peers are looking at.”
“There are a lot of good reasons to consider running a business as an expat,” said Ryan Paugh, co-founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council. “Overhead can be significantly lower. Finding the right talent can be far less competitive. Not to mention, many foreign countries are welcoming foreign startups and entrepreneurs as an economic development opportunity — frankly, something the US could learn from.”
Increasing internet speeds and welcoming co-working and incubator communities in cities from Medellin to Hyderabad offer excellent work environments for bootstrappers and freelancers. Life abroad can be even more modern and connected than in the US; freelancers can afford more Ubers, more networking events and higher-speed internet.
While those who haven’t been to Mexico since the ’90s, for example, might fret about the quality of water and safety for residents, most freelancers working abroad say that they haven’t felt more unsafe in their adopted homes than in America.
Most of these digital hubs rank high on safety, connectivity, transport and social scenes. Saigon-based Mike Swigunski, founder of travel siteand Endangered Apparel, turned down a corporate job with Pepsi to travel and work across the world.
“I have never felt unsafe, most cafes and restaurants offer free and reliable internet, and there are a ton of expats and always something fun going on,” Swigunski said. “The expat entrepreneurial scene is flourishing in Saigon. You can always find something new to do any day of the week — salsa dancing, social meetups and poker nights are just a few. My friends and I gather on a weekly basis to co-work from a rooftop pool.”
Taipei-based W. Michael Hsu, founder of accounting company Deepsky, appreciated his city’s rapid public transport, fast Wi-Fi and night markets. It’s not all about the innovation — the food is great too.
“In Taiwan, you can live large like a millionaire or eat street food for $1 on the side of the street, all in one breath,” Hsu said.
Hsu and others have found sourcing talent easy in their digital hubs abroad.
“While my startup was scraping the bottom of the barrel for talent in the States, we are getting the best people from Big 4 CPA firms in Taiwan,” Hsu said. “These kids are hardworking, willing to learn, and very thankful for the opportunity to learn and grow with a company that cares about them.”
Matt Diggity, founder of SEO company Diggity Marketing, has found talent easy to source in the digital hub of Chiang Mai, where Americans are often eager for jobs that will keep them in a region they enjoy.
Roberts chose to base her company in Chiang Mai not just for the talent, but because she aims “to be in a position to pay [my team] well and encourage a healthy work-life balance.” She hopes to take advantage of beautiful scenery and low prices by funding a tropical company retreat, something that Diggity was able to do for his workers at a five-bedroom villa on the nearby island of Cosa Mui that will cost him only $300 a night.
Both Diggity and Roberts work hard, but appreciate the less stressful culture of work in Chiang Mai, where they can telecommute poolside or squeeze in a massage before a meeting. “My apartment complex has a pool, which is fantastic in the heat,” Roberts said. In Thailand, she can get massages for $7 to $9, while a three-hour beauty treatment at a luxurious Chiang Mai spa, including a six-step facial, body scrub and oil massage, runs less than $50, tip included.
Diggity estimates Chiang Mai’s cost of living at $1,000 a month for a basic lifestyle with occasional nights out, and $2,000 a month for a luxe lifestyle of eating out every night and living in a high-end apartment. Budget $4,000, he said, and “you will not be able to spend it all and will have to be super-creative and rent a yacht or something.” Roberts agreed, saying she eats at least two meals out a day instead of subsisting on rice and beans at home as she did in the States.
Abby Carney, who moved to Berlin after college for a temporary job at a startup, paid $300 a month for rent in 2013. After the temp gig ended, she stayed to launch her copywriting and media consulting business there. “There are co-working spaces and cafes with Wi-Fi literally everywhere,” she said. Though she was frugal, she saw the possibilities of living large on little cash in Berlin. “Friends of mine who worked at places like SoundCloud and made as much as $25K to $30K could treat themselves to all those fun amenities.”
This article was originally published in the NY Post.