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Hi, I'm @levelsio. I make Remote | OK, Nomad List, Startup Retreats and Go Fucking Do It. I travel to work from anywhere, bootstrap companies and only own what fits in my backpack. Previously, I founded a music network on YouTube w/ 100+ mln views. Follow my adventures on Twitter or read my posts.

Do the economics of remote work retreats make any sense?

Lots of remote work retreats have popped up lately. They’ve started to attract many people interested in working remotely from exotic locations, not wanting to do it by going to the other side of the world as lone nomads (as we do), but instead doing it as part of a group that’s either in a fixed location or also traveling. They’re called startup retreats, startup holidays or coworkations. It’s a very very young market and an interesting one, because nobody really knows what’s the right product to offer yet.

Without a real product, there’s already a great deal of interest in them: QZ and TechInAsia write about them and they’ve been upvoted to the frontpages of Hacker News and Product Hunt.

So what’s the economics of organising these retreats? If this new market of work tourism is a thing, is there money to make here?

A selection of retreats

Remote work retreats come in different shapes and sizes. Let’s see which are some popular ones. There’s Startup Getaway (or now called Livit Spaces) in Bali which was one of the first retreats for startups ever:

Livit Spaces offers stays for entrepreneurs to work on their startup without any distractions or daily chores. A place where they can immerse themselves in the most productive environment, with a strong network of like-minded, passionate people. We suggest stays of at least 30 days in order to blend with the Livit community, discover the emerging startup scene on this island of Gods and experience the exotic beauty of Bali.

A few months ago, Nomad House launched, also in Bali:

Nomad House is a housing solution that offers flexible living arrangements while bringing together great people; to stimulate ideas, incubate projects, and create the best possible home; in the best locations in the world.

And then there’s one in a less exotic location: Austin, TX, called Nomad Pad:

Austin-Pad-front-copy

Nomad Pad is solving the housing headache 1 pad at a time. Each new pad is a new hub for remote work and play. There are currently 3,300,000 Digital Nomads worldwide. Location independent professionals – web designers, programmers, artists, photographers, marketers and freelancers – all capable of moving around the world, but there still isn’t a housing system that caters to their needs. Relocating causes numerous headaches, usually centered around finding suitable housing.

The Caravanserai announced a few months they want to open premium houses around the world for members to travel through on a worldwide subscription basis. Something like a timeshare, It’s currently looking for investors:


Caravanserai is starting the first global co-living provider. Sign a single lease, and you can roam among magical properties across 3 continents.

And then there’s the retreats without a fixed location like Remote Year:


Remote year is a one year program where you travel around the world with 100 interesting people while working remotely.

…and the most successful Hacker Paradise:

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At Hacker Paradise, people come from all over the world to get away from the hustle and bustle of their daily lives to learn new things, work on side projects, and find some work/life balance. When traveling with our community, you don’t have to worry about housing, workspace, or meeting amazing people – we take care of all that for you.

Pricing

Here’s what they charge:

Name Price Location
Nomad House $525/m Bali
Hacker Paradise $1,050/m Traveling South East Asia
Startup Getaway $1,350/m Bali
The Caravanserai $1,600/m Mexico City, Lisbon, Bali (Planned)
Remote Year $2,000/m Traveling South East Asia + Europe
Nomad Pad $3,000/m Austin

Economics

But do their economics make any sense when we already have AirBnB, hotels and hostels that are good enough for most people? What do remote workers need more than normal tourists really? In that respect, do any of these retreats’ business models make sense? What’s the economics here?

Let’s calculate this

$40/night * 8 people = $360/night
$360/night * 40% discount = $192/night
+ Lunch, dinner, group activity = $7360/m
+ 2 staff * $3000 = $10,360/m
+ 30% profit margin = $13,468
+ 10% sales tax = $14,814/m
= $1,851/m per person
= $61/night per person

Take Bali as an example. A hotel with double bed, swimming pool, internet and breakfast near Ubud (the center of the island) is $40/night. If you put 8 people in there, it’s $360/night. With 8 people, you can probably get a max 40% discount negotiating with the hotel/bungalow, so it’s $192/night. Adding lunch and dinner adds $80/day (2 x $5 x 8 people). In the weekend you probably want to add a group activity or tour at $50 per person, or $400/week total. So now we’re at $7,360/month ($192 x 30 + $400 x 4 weeks). So that’s $920/month per person.

That’s cost though, what about making it a business with a 30% profit margin and salaries for the organizing staff? Organizing 8 people, you probably need at least 2 people on staff. So that’s at least $3000 x 2 people as a normal (minimum) salary. So $10,360/month, add profit margin of 30% at $13,468. Now add sales tax of 10% in Bali, if you want to do things legally and it’s $14,814/m or $1,851/m per person or $61 per night:

So that’s the minimum pricing. If you go below that, you probably won’t be making any money, and the model doesn’t make any sense vs. AirBnb or a standard hotel.

What’s the market here?

So yes, I think the economics make sense. There is a market here. But it’s a premium one. If you’re going low-cost ($500/m), you’re competing with hostels and cheap hotels. If you’re going mid-range ($1000/m), you’re competing with AirBnB’s. Premium ($2000/m and up) is where the money is. So who has that money? Funded startups have it. And companies with serious revenue that can afford to spend at least that on a team retreat. Increasingly, the rich and wealthy tech people are the ones who have the money, and they will spend it on services that make their life easier and better, like Uber. And like a remote work retreat.

Also remember that remote work retreats are great perks to attract talent. Think of all the SF/SV companies fighting for talent. Throw an exotic retreat in the mix as a perk and the geeks will flock to your company. Yes I’m talking to you Google, Facebook, Amazon. They already pay $10k/m salary, so another $2k/m sometimes is peanuts for them.

Why am I telling you all this? Obviously sneakily since I’m building StartupRetreats.com, the AirBnB for startup retreats, and I’m still trying to figure out what a retreat really should be and what the price level should be. Tweet me if you have any feedback on this, my calculations might be off :)

Don’t grow up

Don’t grow up

The idea that you need to do anything is stupid. And people always used to tell me that, like “oh you need to grow up”. To do what?! To die? To fall into line? To follow a pattern?

You don’t need to do anything. Nobody needs to do anything. You need to breathe. You need to eat food. The rest of it is just a structure that we invented to give ourselves something to do when we wake up in the morning. “Oh it’s 9 am, time to go to work”. Work is not real! The car is not real. Life’s not real.

This is what’s real: heartbeats. And when they stop, all that shit you created and stockpiled and worked for means nothing! It’s just objects that don’t even exist when you’re dead.

When you’re dead you go to another dimension where you can’t take this stuff with you. Or not. Or the lights just shut off.

—Joe Rogan in JRE #466

Calling people “expat” or “nomad” is just as irrelevant as calling internet users “netizens”

Ruchika Tulshyan argues in WSJ how we still lack the right word to describe people traveling and working in different places:

The word “expat” is under fire. A term initially coined to describe people living outside of their country of origin temporarily or permanently, has recently been criticized by some as racist or hierarchical. (..)

So what are other alternatives to “expat”? Dr. Matanle suggests using “international migrant” instead. For me, “global nomad” works. Ms. Patel Thompson says she prefers “global citizen.” Ultimately, anything beats “alien,” the default equal opportunity offender imposed by U.S. immigration.

The group of people traveling and working used to be a tiny subset of the population. But in the next 5 years it’ll become a reality for hundreds of millions of people and it’ll be pretty normal for them to live and work in at least a few different countries in a year.

Do we still call people who use the internet “netizens”? Or “cybernauts”? Like we did in 1994? No, because everyone uses internet now. You don’t really need a definition for something once everyone is doing it.

Same for nomads.

How I built Remote | OK and launched it to #1 on Product Hunt

Almost a year a go, I set a goal to launch 12 startups in 12 months. The story was covered well by WIRED previously. They’re all MVPs, built to see if they can get market fit in a month. This month I launched Remote | OK. I’d like to share everything that went wrong, and the few things went right in building and launching it.

Backstory

I’ve been passionate about remote work for a while now. I think it’s up there with virtual reality in how radically it will transform societies.

It has big social, political and economic connotations. What does home really mean if your location changes every few months? What’s the point of governments and nation states if nobody feels tied to one country? What is a “local” community if everyone’s moving around? And how will people make money? How will it transform work?

I’ve explored lots of these questions, the problems that people doing this have and tried to come up with solutions in the form of products. I built Nomad List to get people to realize they could move to different places, save money and get a better quality of life. I’ve organized over 25 meetups in the last 6 months to get nomads together and started a chat community called #nomads for remote workers, which is now 2,500+ members strong and obviously I’ve been blogging a lot to spread the message.

Why? Because I think the net benefit of all of this can be positive for people worldwide.

Problem

But it’s not happening fast enough for me. If we want remote lives to become the standard, we need to make it easier for people to get jobs. I still talk to people every few days that would love to work remotely but they can’t find any jobs that allow them too. And that’s weird because I know those jobs are out there. There’s A LOT. The problem is discovery.

Major job boards are not embracing remote work yet. They often don’t have real categories for remote work, and it’s mostly just mentioned in the job posting. So it’s hard to find those jobs:

Then there’s a few dedicated niche remote job boards out there but the amount of jobs posted on each board is still pretty slim:

Solution

What if you can put all those remote jobs from all those standard job boards out there and put them together? That’d solve it. It’d make the point stronger that remote work is an option, and let people actually find jobs.

So, I wanted to build an aggregator. And that sounded a lot simpler then it turned out to be…

Ethics of aggregation

We all hate scraping sites. So how was I going to make this actually add some value? I thought about how Google News indexes articles and then creates traffic for the sites. Without asking them, it just did it, and it added value. I wanted to do that. I can’t just take people’s content and profit from it. So from the base up I wanted to have an extreme amount of accreditation to the sites where I sourced from and linking back to them wherever possible. It should be valuable for them mostly. Which meant, getting them traffic back.

Building

In terms of sourcing, most job boards out there have RSS feeds, or JSON accessible APIs. That meant I had to write a little robot for each feed. I made a folder called “sources” and simply started writing a PHP script for each source.

It’d analyze the feed, see which jobs were remote, then normalize the data and then push it into a simple SQLite database (yes, I’m not using JSON text files as a database anymore, thank you :P).

Normalization

Easy right? Well it’d be easy if everyone wrote their feeds in the same way. But they don’t. Some write it like this:

company: Acme, Inc.
position: Backend Developer
remote: yes

But then many write it like this:

company: Acme, Inc. is hiring a Back End Developer – Remote – San Francisco, US

But then often their feed changes up because a human takes over and writes it:

company: We’re hiring! VC-backed startup Acme, Inc. is looking for a Back End Developer (can work remote) – SF US

And sometimes there’s no company tag at all and you have to figure it out from the description:

position: Back End Developer

description: We, at Acme, Inc. are looking for a Back End Developer remotely.

And sometimes it’s not even a remote position but it matches the word “remote”:

description: We, at Acme, Inc. are looking for a Back End Developer, this position is NOT remote.

Haha, good luck with that!

So how do you solve that? Well you write loads of if statements and regular expressions to figure out what the job ad really means. That by far took the most time. Like weeks. And it still doesn’t get it right always:

Screenshot 2015-04-02 19.23.34

Another challenge was detecting what kind of tags to add to a job. Well, the only thing I could do really is just make a humongous list that translated keywords to certain tags:

Design

I wanted to make the design really splashy when you first get there. I thought about what remote work really means for me. And it means we’re all moving around. What better way to show the power of that argument than to show our beautiful earth globe? I remembered there was a video shot from the ISS. And as NASA made it, it was in public domain so I could use it freely. I downloaded it, edited it, cropped the space station out of it and used it as the background of the first page:

On top if it I added a search bar that when not selected auto-types example jobs (yes, just like I did on Go Fucking Do It).

Screenshot 2015-04-02 19.11.50

And to give the whole thing some credibility, I added the logos of the sources:

Screenshot 2015-04-02 19.13.10

Then below it, I added the job list from the database, newest first and on the right a big image to credit the source of the job. If you hover over the job, the logo turns into a button and if you click it you go straight to the job at the source’s site, e.g. (Authentic Jobs)[http://authenticjobs.com].

Screenshot 2015-04-02 19.15.26

Each jobs also shows tags. These are for example the tech stack “JavaScript” or type of job “Full Time”. When you click it, it shows a page with ONLY those jobs.

When I first showed people, a lot expected that when they clicked on a tag it became a filter, and that they could keep clicking more tags to add to the filter. So I changed it into that:

For Google, I made the URLs of each filtered page look like this:

/remote-reactjs+css+python-jobs

My NGINX simply routes that to a PHP file with sees the query reactjs, css and python and shows the page.

Not all job sites show salaries, but some do. So when I have enough data on salaries I showed it on the page too:

Screenshot 2015-04-02 19.19.34

And that made me think it’d be fun to have a chart of most popular and highest paid remote jobs:

Screenshot 2015-04-02 19.20.35

Launch

Product Hunt

In true fashion, I was late for going to a party when I submitted it to Product Hunt (on Sunday 2015-02-22 at 01:44:44.644 PST). I’m in Korea now and this was 6pm Korean time. It was early morning SF time, which is great for submitting to Product Hunt as the page refreshes at midnight SF time.

Tweet

The most important visual part of the branding was the spinning globe. But how do you tweet that? So I made an animated GIF:

Capture mails

While my friend was shouting for me to get out of the house, it hit me. The site wasn’t capturing emails yet. It’s a basic thing to do. If you have emails, you can contact everyone later to tell about updates, new launches. And an email list of people that want a remote job is obviously very useful.

So in about 5 minutes I added this on top of every page:

Screenshot 2015-04-02 19.27.56

Then I left the house and went for some drinks and my friend stopped shouting :)

Hacker News

I submitted it to Hacker News around the same time:

Screenshot 2015-04-02 19.48.21

It was on the front page for a while, but then the HN algorithm pushed it away. The new HN algorithm (or moderator) is quite critical lately of product launches and they prefer to see technical articles. Maybe that’s on purpose since Product Hunt is a YC-company and they’d love to have product launches there? I don’t know…CONSPIRACY! :D

I tried to reply to everyone’s feedback on HN too. In the end it did okay on HN but not amazing.

Reddit

Someone submitted it to the /r/digitalnomad subreddit too. There was lots of feedback, which I replied to and feature requests I implemented immediately:

Screenshot 2015-04-02 19.52.14

It was mostly positive and it reached #1 on the subreddit which was nice:

Screenshot 2015-04-02 20.02.26

The result

xxxgiphy

It reached #1 on Product Hunt and became the #15 highest voted product of all time with 1,000 upvotes.

Screenshot 2015-04-02 14.31.22

The next day I saw I forgot to add Google Analytics. So I had no idea of the first day traffic. Based on my previous projects, I know the drop off from Product Hunt is about 50% in the second day. So that means I estimate being #1 on Product Hunt in March 2015 gets you about 28,000 unique visits (second day 14,179 * 2):

Screenshot 2015-04-02 19.38.04

That means the total after a month is estimated at near 100,000 unique users (67,313 + 28,000). That’s a lot of traffic.

To compare, that’s about three times as much as it was when I launched Nomad List to #1. That means Product Hunt has grown 3x as big in 6 months.

Product Hunt also asked me to do a collection called Products for Nomads:

Which helped it get more exposure:

Email signups

Screenshot 2015-04-02 19.41.01

3,723 people signed up, that means 3.5% of users. I have no idea if that’s high or low conversion. I’m sure I could increase that by adding some deceptive “GET THIS FREE EBOOK” but I HATE that stuff with a passion. It’s tasteless. People should just want to sign up, I shouldn’t have to trick them.

That .GIF tweet

I couldn’t imagine how well tweeting that .GIF worked. That’s a crazy number of retweets and favorites. And since it linked to Product Hunt that resulted in upvotes. It’s really the time of visual communication. People like moving pictures:

Press coverage

I didn’t reach out to press, as it’s been increasingly hard to get reporters to write anything about me. As in, it’s more effective nowadays for me to just wait for them to contact me (they usually do). I think tech reporters are just overloaded with email and whatever you do, you probably won’t reach them. They’re out there looking for stories though.

The Next Web featured it, then Forbes followed and then Fast Company. And Lifehacker Russia. For some reason any project related to remote work or nomads I do, gets a massive response from Russia. Many of them are very smart programmers and tech workers, and many of them want to leave the country due to its political situation. Interesting…

The popular bookmarking service Pinboard recorded Remote | OK as one of the most bookmarked sites that week.

The cake is a lie

In my true #fail fashion, the daily/weekly jobs email people signed up to, it was a lie. It was just a MailChimp email submit.

Now a month later, I’m finally getting around to launching the email robot that will send everyone their emails. Making that just cost a bit of a time, here’s the layout. Getting this right also took long because writing HTML for emails is a mega pain. You have to specify every style INSIDE each HTML tag, AS IF IT’S 1997 AGAIN:

Replies from job sites

Honestly, if anything should go wrong, it would be the job sites I sourced emailing me and telling me to shut it down. But the opposite happened.

Angel List’s jobs head emailed me with some nice questions. Since he was asking me questions, not shutting me down, that was good news:

xScreenshot-2015-04-02-20.04.28

And WFH.io (Work From Home), a big remote job board actually asked to be indexed too:

And then many others followed. There was many job boards who made a custom feed for Remote | OK only.

So, something funny happened here. As they saw it was now a popular site, and it used their content, they were better of keeping it alive than shutting it down. Just like what happened with Google News.

Extra features

Many people asked for a Twitter feed of all jobs, so I made it, and I made it cute with emoji:

It’s fully automated and actually writes pretty unique tweets for each job it finds. It also tries to match the company’s Twitter handle in the tweet.

Business model

As it’s an aggregator, it’d be unethical to let people post jobs and charge for it. As I’d be taking the content from other sites, and then compete with them. I don’t want to compete with them obviously. So when you click Add New Job you see this:

Screenshot 2015-04-02 21.23.11

So how can I make money from this? One way is building up an audience, which means the daily traffic to the site and the growing mailing list, and then let people sponsor both. Think how a company might want to target only iOS devs. I have 100 of those on my list now.

I want to do that too ethically though. So no separate mailings, but maybe add a sponsorship box to the mailing and website, e.g.:

This message is sponsored by Meteor, the open-source platform for building top-quality web apps in a fraction of the time.

How much though? Well if I can grow the mailing list to 10,000 people. Then charge a premium CPM of $10-$25 to sponsor it. That’s $3,000 to $7,500 per month. That’s a crazy high CPM, you say? No, I don’t think so. This is a hyper targeted audience and the jobs market is different. An average job ads goes for $250 to $500. But I’m not there yet, so we’ll see.

Conclusion

Remote working is a rapidly growing market and this adds some value, so I think it has a good future ahead. I’m happy that whenever someone tells me again there’s no jobs you can do remotely, I can point them here and tell them:

NOPE

Our society is not in line with our natural reward systems, and alcohol and drug abuse proves it

ANDREW: There’s all these studies showing that if you give a rat unfettered access to drugs and alcohol, the rat will hit the lever until it dies, right? That’s actually not true.

If you give a rat access to cocaine or alcohol, or something really rewarding. It will only self-administer the drug, and starve to death for the reward, when its environment isn’t interesting. When the environment is impoverished.

[But, ] If there’s lots of rat toys, and lots of other cute rats hanging out, they’re much less interested in becoming (cocaine) addicts. It’s only in the absence of stimulating enriched environments, do these sort of automatic behaviors take over.

(..) If you put some toys in their case, they stop self-administering [the drugs] to some degree. Addiction is not the goal, the reward is not necessarily the goal when things are interesting and novel, and when you can explore your environments.

(..) and this is not just rats. Humans were given this as well. If you’re an alcoholic, if you’re a problem drinker, you’re always going to be a problem drinker is the prevailing wisdom. Which also isn’t true. Something like 99.5% of people who are problem drinkers, learn to not be problem drinkers. With no programs, no intervention, no therapy. They just learn to get control over their drinking.

JOE: That’s a really interesting point. It’s a really interesting point when you think of people that look forward to happy hour. They look forward to that “drink after work”. Like how many boring jobs have made people into alcoholics, because while they’re at work all day, they’re just constantly itching away at their natural reward systems. Just like “I gotta get something in here”.

ANDREW: Yes, and boredom and lack of ability to tolerate boredom (..) is often the biggest driver for problematic substance abuse.

Andrew Hill PhD in JRE #629 @ 10m32s

This is known as the Rat Park experiment. And it’s interesting if we apply it to humans:

We structure our societies around rewarding unsatisfying work (jobs that people don’t like) with unsatisfying rewards (buying material stuff doesn’t make you happy).

We’ve created our our own version of the rat’s cage.

So it’s no wonder so many people flock to alcohol and drug abuse in the weekends. Daily life itself simply doesn’t offer enough stimuli to satisfy their brains.

Our alcohol and drug abuse is a symptom of a society that is not in line with our natural reward systems.

Yes, 3+ drinks in one session is already alcohol abuse. One of the reasons I left my country was to get out of this vicious cycle.

Can we fix this though?

Work seems to be at the core of this issue, so that’s a good place to start. The internet can give people more freedom to choose what they do, how they do it and where they do it from can help.

And we know that freedom and happiness are strongly related. Freedom entails more opportunity to have a wider range of experiences which results in increased stimuli. Thus, more adventure breeds less boredom. And less boredom results in more happiness.

Makers have become the invisible hand

This just happened:

29 days ago, Ben Rubin launches Meerkat, a live-streaming app that becomes a viral hit. On Product Hunt, @httpete (Pete) writes how he was making the same app but Meerkat beat him to the punch

Screenshot 2015-03-28 17.09.56

A week later, Twitter acquires Periscope, another video-streaming app. it takes them 2 weeks to develop it into a clone of Meerkat, but better. It launches two days ago, and blows Meerkat out of the water:

Screenshot 2015-03-28 19.01.25

Why is this relevant?

The pace of apps replacing each other seems like something we’ve hardly seen before. It’s possible because:

  • Amazing dev tools now means app development time is short
  • The trend for apps is now minimalism, which often means shorter development times.
  • Tech has created winner-take-all markets for apps

What does this tell us?

Tech has made makers of software simply an extension of the market. Something like Adam Smith’s invisible hand:

The idea of trade and market exchange automatically channeling self-interest toward socially desirable ends is a central justification for the laissez-faire economic philosophy, which lies behind neoclassical economics.

The market doesn’t care anymore about the personal traits of makers, it doesn’t care who they are, where they’re from, how great their team is, what tech stack they use, or their company culture.

This is equalizing, as anyone can now launch an app and possibly succeed, whoever, wherever. Competition is fierce and makers know that if they win, they can capture the majority of their market. With fierce competition, users now get the best product. Yet, with the high pace of competition, it also means products can now be replaced in a matter of weeks and lose their market.

How attractive is a market like that really for makers? Economics tells us perfect competition pushes profits towards zero. Is this what we’re seeing here?

If it is, it fits into the overall narrative of tech now. Tech + capitalism heavily rewards efficiency.

It feels almost as if makers are merely the “executing team” of the bigger force that is tech. It doesn’t care about us individually, it cares about technological progress.

Tech rewards only the few who win, until the winners are ruthlessly replaced by the next — sometimes in the span of 14 days.

This (sarcastic) tweet probably sums it up best:

I’m curious what you think, tweet me your feedback.

My adventures and stories