Nine months ago, I boarded a plane in the U.K. with a plan to launch two businesses out of a backpack. It was to be an 8,000-mile startup pilgrimage to four countries—India, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia—during which I'd bring two great business ideas to life.
Some expat entrepreneurs have found they can make ends meet and live much less grueling work lives. After all, that's part of the appeal of leaving the urban rat race behind to become a digital nomad overseas.
My expectations were different. I was prepared to go abroad and work really, really hard. Even so, I was surprised at just how hard—and wound up having to adjust course. I'm glad I did. Here's how.
There are plenty of advantages to leaving home in order to launch a startup: Swapping gray skies for blue, saving money on living costs, keeping expenses down while bootstrapping your company. The rise of international coworking hubs means you can get reliable internet access and find potential collaborators as you travel the world. But it’s not all coconuts and cocktails.
After two weeks of struggling to get online in Goa, I moved to Chiang Mai, where I knew virtually no one. And that’s where the workaholism began. I was juggling freelance work at the same time that I was trying to chip away at the two new business projects of my own. I'd set myself the arbitrary target of two months to get them going.
The laptop came out at 6 a.m. and stayed nearby until 11 p.m., sometimes reappearing at 4 a.m. I ate alone. I barely socialized. I nearly gave up on sleep. I found that it's frighteningly easy to fall into this kind of behavior when you're far away from family and friends.
I reached my nadir in Koh Lanta, a region of coral- and mangrove-wreathed islands in southern Thailand, when I launched Start Me Up, which connects young people with opportunities at startups in emerging startup hubs. I fell ill but carried on regardless as applications for the program began to roll in. I should've been resting but I found myself in contact with hundreds of students all over the world. Predictably, as the momentum behind the startup grew, so did my aversion to sleep.
Being able to travel the world and work remotely is a dream for many stuck in dreary offices in big, crowded, overpriced cities. And living in a holiday destination should, in theory, afford you a greater work-life balance. You slash your living costs and your commutes. If you’re in Thailand, for instance, you don’t have to earn that much to pay your way as a knowledge worker. And you generally have a much better view as you toil.
But in my experience, many so-called "solopreneurs" wind up working harder than we did in the jobs we left behind—the ones we ditched largely because we wanted better work-life balance. That's partly because the lifestyle of living overseas can be addictive. "I'm here!" you think to yourself. "This is incredible!" So you work extra hard to maintain those tropical vistas and $10 massages—after all, it's no secret that many emerging digital nomad hubs (even the most affordable ones) are based in major resort locales; not everything is dirt cheap.
And being away from friends and family means you don’t always have people to offer you their perspective, keep a check on your hours, or tell you to shut the damn laptop already and get some rest. Instead, for many of us, having our own business becomes an obsession.
Before long, dinner conversations with other expat entrepreneurs veer off into the latest best-practice-around-marketing funnels. And you may not actually think to yourself, "Wasn't this why I left San Francisco in the first place?" But this often comes with the territory—even if that territory is tropical. Many people who seek a better lifestyle through a location-independent business get trapped in a cycle of overwork.
I didn’t realize how distorted my perspective had become until a close friend from home came to visit. I should've been excited to see her. Instead, I was stressed about taking time out from my business. If an opportunity for fun comes along and you think, "I don’t have time for this," chances are that you actually need it.
I ended my period of enforced solitude after leaving Thailand. I reconnected with friends. I went back to Bali (also a major hotspot for expat entrepreneurs) where I’d spent a prolonged stint previously and knew more people. Here's what I learned:
People help you keep perspective. Hire them. Befriend them. Just don’t try to do everything by yourself. Many solo business owners can become control freakish and reluctant to outsource anything. The coworking communities I tapped into in Asia were a valuable human resource. I’ve worked with people from over 10 countries since I left for Asia who've helped me with every aspect of my businesses.
Coworking spaces, like Hubud in Bali, provide vital support networks. If you’re working too hard, they’ll notice. But forming friendships with people outside the remote-work community is also a good idea, because you’re more likely to have dinner conversations about something other than your business.
You can't work all the time. You should only have one startup phase, and it shouldn’t last an eternity. I basically allocated two months to my get-off-the-ground phase. And that’s the length of time I spent largely alone. It wasn’t easy to break out of it, so I’d recommend warning those close to you in advance so they can keep an eye on you and nudge you (or drag you out of it) if need be.
Don’t say yes to all offers of work. Like many people who launch their own projects, it can be tempting to want to work on everything at once. You want to take up every opportunity—this way, you think, you'll get a steady stream of income right away, expand your network, and hit the ground running. But you essentially fall victim to business FOMO. By continuing to work on my freelance business and keep a retainer client at the same time I wanted to launch my startup, I was trying to have it all. You can’t.
Still, my belief that taking yourself out of your normal life is one of the best ways to swiftly get a project off the ground remains unshaken. There’s no one around to question your sanity. Or drag you out to a bar. The flip side is that there’s no one around to question your sanity. Or drag you out to a bar.
Isolating myself in Thailand was a great strategy for bootstrapping, and it helped me launch a business quickly and cost effectively. But was it as easy and glamorous as it looks in the photos? Absolutely not.
Clare Harrison is the founder of Start Me Up, a program that connects young people with educational internships at startups, and The Story Scientist, a remote communications consultancy. Follow her on Twitter at @ClareJHarrison.