Digital Expats are the New Digital Nomads
Anyone who has spent any reasonable amount of time in Thailand knows that securing visas, work permits, and just ensuring your security here in the Kingdom can be stressful. If your job falls through or you have to move cities, you are more often than not left with a voided visa — only to have to start the painful process again. For digital nomads, woes may increase due conflicting rules and statements: one day a tourist visa is acceptable for digital work, and the next there are threats of yet another crackdown, arrests and deportation.
Each year the laws surrounding digital nomads and other freelancers who happen to work in Thailand seem to change, bringing in new legislation which seems to see-saw between enabling and restricting those working online.
However, despite these hurdles, Chiang Mai is fast becoming one of the most popular digital nomad hubs. With tropical weather, cheap accommodation and even cheaper beers, it’s no wonder there are so many online roamers passing through the city (close to 9,000 members in the Chiang Mai Digital Nomads Facebook group, a number most likely far smaller than actual numbers as at any given time these digital stones are constantly rolling). In addition, Chiang Mai has also seen a boom in societies, groups and spaces aimed at this group of wandering workers such as Makerspace, Pinnspace, MakerClub, Creative City and many more.
This combination of location, weather, low cost and varied communities is exactly what brought 37-year-old Ozzi Jarvinen to Chiang Mai. Jarvinen came with his wife Ann, whom he met in his home country of Finland. The couple have now opened Iglu — a place ‘where cool things happen.’
Founded in 2010, Iglu is a software development company with a twist. Since gaining BOI status in 2012, it has grown to become a community of over 70 digital professionals legitimately based here in our fair city, with work permits, visas, social security and permanent contracts and all.
“The way it works is surprisingly simple,” explains Jarvinen. “Iglu hires you, then you bill your clients through our company. You can then work while lounging on a hammock or sipping on a coconut for the rest of your life.”
Apart from freelancers with their own clients, Iglu is also able to hire employees from companies who wish to relocate and employers who wish to manage their companies while living in Thailand, or tech startup managers who wish to relocate and build a project somewhere cheap and warm.
Being a BOI registered company, Iglu avoids the usual requisite of needing four Thai employees per foreign employee and the company can be 100% foreign owned. By early 2014, Iglu was the biggest single employer of Finns in Thailand, and now in early 2016, has a workforce of 78, made up of freelancers, employees, business owners and start-up techies from all over the world. “Most are foreign, but we do employ some Thais,” Jarvinen said. “However, most skilled Thais move to Bangkok where the in-country careers are much more competitive.”
Put simply, Iglu re-employs you and then pays you directly, based on what work you take on with your clients beging invoiced by Iglu. “Iglu takes a flat rate of 30%,” Jarvinen explains, “which may sound like a lot, but after you take into account the cost of social security, work permit, visa costs, health insurance and cost of living, Iglu employees take home much more per month than they would at home.”
“At home, if the employer pays 5,222 euros a month, which includes tax and social security payments, the employee sees 2,846 euros in their bank at the end of the month,” Ozzi said while writing it all out on one of the white boards in an Iglu meeting room. “If a company agrees to pay their employee overseas through a company in Thailand, they don’t need to pay tax or social security for the employee, meaning the employer pays less — roughly 4,000 euros — and the employee takes home roughly the same amount, 2,800 euros, but can save a lot more as Chiang Mai is so cheap.”
Interestingly, Iglu hires mostly single males, the classic stereotype of a digital nerd, Jarvinen jokes. “80% are single guys,” he said. “Right now we have only one female programmer.” Jarvinen was quick to point out that this was not due to any limitations against women, but just a lack of women working in the IT industry. “Women usually take the role of project managers, so often have to remain in their home location,” he explained further. Regardless, Iglu is a top employer of a range of highly skilled professional programmers, graphic designers, web designers, software testers, SEO specialists and language-specific online professionals.
Andy Brennenstuhl, Citylife’s web developer among other things, also runs his business under Iglu. His move to Chiang Mai was inspired by the same question many other digital nomads like to ask — where do I move to next? Having lived away from his native Poland for most of his life and gaining over 16 years of web industry experience, Brennenstuhl’s main decision was not whether or not he should move to another country, but rather “finding the right time to quit my corporate job, and start my own business, which would build on my experience.”
For many people these days, with international work and travel at our fingertips and an ever increasing globalised society, home is where you want to be, not where you were born.
A tech start-up manager who began a new project to harness useable energy from the likes of WiFi, Lauri Jämsä, said that Iglu paved the way to a new country and a new life. “In 2013 I got divorced and decided to start a new life. What would have been a better way to do it than selling everything and moving to Thailand?”
“[Working for Iglu], you don’t need to start your own business,” Brennenstuhl agrees, “which can be expensive and cumbersome, not to mention the need for a Thai partner. Iglu also took care of the whole visa process, which let me stay focused on my work.”
According to Jarvinen, a large proportion of Iglu employees also make use of the copious number of workspaces in the city. There are also courses in things such as 3D printing, electronics and hardware design which promote the sharing of creative design ideas within a professional community. Chiang Mai’s technology scene is certainly booming along with increased demands from these skilled experts setting up base in the city. MakerClub plays a vital role in Jämsä’s development of his own electronic invention, Ruuvi (www.ruuvi.com), with products that work as a tracker and sensor for a range of specifications to harvests energy from a range of ‘green’ energy sources such as solar, thermoelectric, RF waves, movement, WiFi and much more. Brennenstuhl also makes the most of Makerspace in his spare time. “So far I’ve built my own amplifier, speakers, a foldable work desk, a laser-cut tool case, and I’m currently working on a media centre with a built-in amplifier and Bluetooth streaming,” but his dream is to perhaps add this to the already wide range of skills and services he can offer paying clients.
“The great thing about Iglu is that it brings likeminded skilled people together,” Jarvinen boasts. “We often have clients looking for a team of workers, all with different abilities. Iglu then asks around and before you know it there is a team of Brits, Jordanians, Thais, Belgians, and Finns all working together, meeting at least once a week in one of our three offices (two in Chiang Mai, one in Bangkok).”
Despite the dream lifestyle Iglu promotes, it still sees a lot of employee turnover, even expats tend to move on either due to better opportunities or when things don’t quite work out. “Iglu provides clients and opportunities so that all who are employed can pitch in and join a team or take the job,” said Jarvinen, who goes on to say that this type of working may not suit everyone. Brennenstuhl agrees, saying, “Some of them are making the leap into digital nomadism without being professionally and emotionally ready for it.”
Jarvinen likes to refer to his members as ‘digital expats’ rather than nomads. He pointed out that it is the negative misconceptions about some digital nomads that sometimes overshadows the genuine attempts at portraying a professional image in Chiang Mai.
Brennenstuhl highlights the truth about life as a self-employed expat. “In my personal experience, becoming a successful nomad or a self-employed expat requires the same attitude and set of skills as becoming a successful business person, with the added challenge of succeeding while navigating new places and environments,” he said. “I live in my favourite city on the planet, I can legally work here, and I no longer have to do visa extensions and worry about how long I can stay here. Most importantly though, I still get to be my own boss and work on my own projects, so I didn’t need to change anything about how I’ve been running my business over the past few years.”
Each year Iglu has grown by a minimum of 100 percent, which soon will demand more offices and a further-reaching network of experts. A bigger office in Chiang Mai, complete with a sauna (a serious pre-requisite for any self-respecting Finn) is on the cards this year along with a new office in Phuket, if all goes to plan. With very few places like Iglu available in Chiang Mai, or even Thailand, it almost seems like a no-brainer for anyone who is skilled in technology and wishes to plant some roots in this ever-popular city. For those looking for some of the best tech nerds in the area, Iglu is overflowing with intelligent people just waiting to take on your new project.