Work and play on Bali for ‘serious’ digital nomads
Traditionally a holiday destination, the popular Indonesian island is now also developing into a hotspot for the itinerant professional scene
Marion Kutta doesn’t have far to go to work. Five minutes on her scooter and she’s there. Then, the producer of advertising film clips from Munich can stare out across a rice field while she tries to come up with her next creative idea.
The 48-year-old set up office on the island of Bali a few months ago. The weather is better, life is cheaper and the beach is just down the road.
Kutta owns the production company Global Players, whose clients include carmaker BMW and the energy drink firm Red Bull. These clients couldn’t care less where Kutta opens up her laptop to earn her living.
She’s part of a new breed of itinerant professionals who often spend only a few months in a place and then move on. Many of them work in the media or fashion sectors, but lately they’ve been joined by other professionals, including doctors.
Bali, which has traditionally been a dream holiday destination – attracting more than five million tourists per year – is now also developing into a hotspot for the itinerant professional scene.
In all the main rankings for remote working, you’ll find the Indonesian island holding one of the top spots. Apart from the exotic location and great weather, it also helps that you can get along here on not much more than 1,000 dollars a month.
There are two main spots on Bali competing to attract remote workers: the small city of Ubud in the interior, and the even smaller Canggu, about a 90-minute drive further along the coast, which has the advantage of a beach.
Co-working spaces and cafes with Wi-Fi
At the moment, Ubud is still winning. This summer, even former US president Barack Obama, currently writing his memoirs, came to visit.
Ubud has any number of WLAN cafes and a half dozen “co-working spaces” – open-plan offices with high-speed internet connections that professionals can rent space in.
The largest of them is Hubud, a two-story building featuring a lot of bamboo. Open-plan is taken to a new level here – if you want to, you can sit out in the open air. Then you don’t even need a window to look out over the rice fields.
Clean living and lots of networking
The cafe serves up iced cappuccinos, soya lattes and a lot of raw vegetables. On the bulletin board, there are adverts for yoga classes. The message is clear: this is a place for clean living, and lots of networking.
When Hubud was set up in 2013, around 25 people signed up. Since then, a total of 5,000 have spent time in the space, many for just a few months. Right now, there are 250 paying members from more than 30 countries around the globe.
During the week, the office is open around the clock, to accommodate the different time zones that the members are working in. A day pass costs US$20. The internet costs $257 for a full month – not cheap, but guaranteeing the fastest connections.
Hubud boss Steve Munroe says that everything has become more professional. The 48-year-old now doesn’t speak of digital nomads, but rather “location independent professionals” – a term the Canadian says “sounds more serious.” What has changed is the transience of the clientele. Only one-third of the users stay longer than half a year.
This makes Marion Kutta, a member since August last year, an exception. “I had the feeling I needed to try something different,” she says. “Here, people are more open to other cultures than in Germany. This is inspiring.”
In the meantime she has founded another company on Bali, also in film production. But it hasn’t yet paid off financially. Her revenues are still coming from Germany.
Upsides and downsides
Kutta also cautions that one shouldn’t believe that life is nothing but eternal sunshine on Bali. “Often, I am working shifts until 11pm, midnight. Here I am working even more than I did before.”
Something else she misses: “Reliability. It’s partly because many people here don’t stay around in one place for very long. Sometimes it’s hard to bring a project to an end.”
But there are also people earning real money on Bali. One is Clare Harrison, 33, from England. Through her company StartMeUp, she brokers internship positions in start-up companies on three continents.
But she also admits: “It isn’t all coconuts and cocktails here. When you’re so far away from friends and family, you can quickly turn into a workaholic.”
There is no saying for certain how many digital nomads are currently on Bali. Authorities don’t compile any statistics, especially since it’s difficult to officially differentiate between a tourist and someone who is working. But there are thousands.
Most of them only have a tourist visa. Hardly anyone pays taxes. For example, Marion Kutta still reports to the finance office of her home city, Munich.
As nice as life as a digital nomad on Bali might be, it can also quickly come to an end. “People get frustrated and go home, and soon they are working in a normal office again,” Munroe says.
“But still, I wouldn’t say it’s time wasted. Here, you are learning something. And if it doesn’t work out, then at least it was a nice long holiday.”