Why Building Your Web Startup in Asia Might be the Difference Between Success and Failure

So you’ve picked a word and dropped its last vowel for your site-name, and now you are faced with building your new website or mobile app. If you are crafty enough to get your hands on some of the overly enthusiastic funding that’s floating around at the moment you can rent offices in San Francisco, New York City, or maybe Austin. But if you are bootstrapping your new operation, perhaps with friends and partners, you’ve got to stretch your money as far as possible in order to maximize your chances at ultimate success.

One way that increasing numbers of entrepreneurs and even solo freelance laptop-workers are stretching out their runways is to move the operation to cities in Asia where the cost of living is half or even less than it is in the US or Europe. Bangkok is certainly the most popular place for this, but there are a variety of other cities in the region that also make this popular, many of which are even cheaper.

Regardless of your current lifestyle, you can maintain it for half the price or even less in Asia

While building my own website and doing freelance work I’ve traveled all over Asia for the past 15 months, including a 3-month serviced-apartment rental in Bangkok. I recently wrote about the good things about working while traveling, but that’s only part of it.

It’s really shocking how cheap things are (not including Japan), and how nice things are at the same time. A 1-bedroom apartment with good Wi-Fi and a good location in Bangkok starts at around US$300 per month, or even less if you are willing to live like a local. You may choose to pay more for an even nicer place, or for a 2-bedroom that you’ll share with a partner. As long as you like Thai food, full meals from street vendors are never more than a block or two away, usually between US$1 and US$2 each. The Skytrain costs around US$1 a ride, and taxis are nearly as cheap, so transportation costs are next to nothing.

Though Bangkok is the most popular place for Western entreprenuers to set up temporary shop, you could instead try Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, which is even cheaper and has better weather. Or try out Manila or even somewhere like Goa in India, and in all these cities you can easily live in a bit of luxury for under US$1,000 per month.

For most people, it’s easier to stay focused on the other side of the world

When you are working hard to start a new project you’ll want as few distractions as possible, and moving your base 10 or 12 time zones away can really help. When your Twitter and Facebook feeds are constantly scrolling every minute you are awake, it’s easy to lose your concentration. But when things are quiet for a nice and solid 8-hour block during your day, work will get done efficiently.

Of course your new surroundings might be distracting for a while, and there’s a bit of a downside to being so far from your media feeds, but overall the isolation should be a positive for people trying to get as much done as possible on limited funds.

Everything is available

One reason Bangkok in particular is so popular is that it’s a huge city that is overflowing with the comforts of home for those who want them. If you need to buy a new second monitor (rather than paying nearly as much to bring it from home) you’ll be able to get it cheaply enough in almost any city in Asia. But in Bangkok, as well as in Chiang Mai, you have a place called Pantip Plaza, which has literally hundreds of computer and electronics shops all in one mall.

You can get anything you need, from a printer/scanner to a high-end compact sound system for entertainment purposes, all at prices similar to those in the US, and definitely cheaper than in Europe. In that same mall you can also buy any imaginable DVD or software package for under US$5, which makes you wonder if they are legitimately licensed or not, especially with the amateur packaging.

Weekend breaks and recreation are also cheaper

You can’t work 7 days a week for months on end, so it’s another great benefit that you are never far from an excellent island or beach for a short getaway. Thanks to a few low-cost airlines in the region, most notably Air Asia, which has major hubs in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, you can get very cheap flights to Phuket or Bali or Ko Samui, and then find a hotel room for around US$20 per night once there.

Even if you don’t want to leave, you’ll have cheap drinks and interesting clubs with mixes of locals, expats, and tourists, never far away.

Deal more easily with Asian subcontractors

If you need some design or programming done for your project, obviously you are aware that you can find good quality work for very low prices in India and elsewhere in the region. Even those needing writing can find good candidates in the Philippines (where English is quite common), and it can’t hurt to be able to communicate with these people when they are actually working rather than only by email when they are done for the day.

Conclusion

Certainly it’s not for everyone, and many people might end up so disoriented that it would be even more distracting, but for those who want to keep expenses as low as possible for a 6- to 12-month build-out of a new project, moving to Asia could be an exciting possibility while stretching out your runway to give you the greatest chances at success.

2 Comments

Cherubian

I did this exact thing – twice. Once in Shenzhen China, and another time in Buenos Aires. And decided it was a poor decision both times. The overhead and inefficiencies created in less developed countries take up massive amounts of time (try ordering an English book from amazon), along with the period of time to get accustomed to the new food, city, environment, etc. Not to mention the fact that you are very well removed from many other sources of inspiration, investment, or perhaps the center of your industry. The only cases I think this is really a viable option is if you have very limited funds (your time is essentially worth nothing) and are willing to live a local lifestyle, and/or if you are a bunch of coders planning to hermit up and just code in solitude for a few months. Even in the Bay Area within public transportation reach of silicon valley, you can take BART out to the suburbs of Pittsburgh or Brentwood and find very cheap cost of living, without any of the acclimation period, language barriers, or inefficiencies of developing countries, although certainly you won’t be living in a chic neighborhood like you would in another country.

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