Dateline: Ubud, Indonesia

Twenty years ago, when I first backpacked around South East Asia, there was no internet. There were no cell phones, and places like Chiang Mai, Saigon and Bali were mere quaint backwaters.

Today, they are some of the region’s most livable cities for entrepreneurs.

When I decided to become an entrepreneur out of college, with no experience or business background to boot, I made my way to the financial world and learned to sell investments and life assurance making 100 calls a day.

Today, however, it’s different.

Not only can you get the necessary business experience from a growing community of startups ready to accommodate and help you, you can also shortcut the growth curve by heading straight out to Southeast Asia.

In the three years that I’ve been writing guides for location independent entrepreneurs, I’ve noticed a quiet revolution happening in cities like Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Saigon and Ubud.

I’ve met drop shippers importing furniture from warehouses in China while living in Saigon, web developers managing remote global teams from a coffee shop in Thailand, and real estate developers managing their portfolios while island hopping around Indonesia.

Time to go East, young man! Startups are gravitating towards a growing, thriving community of location independent entrepreneurs who have come in search of opportunity and to explore the online frontier that makes all of this possible.

So, let’s look at what makes South East Asia so attractive for entrepreneurs today.

1. Cost of living

Yes, outside of Singapore, South East Asia can be remarkably cheap.

I know entrepreneurs who can live on $200 a month, in one­bed apartments in Chiang Mai. They’re not slumming it: they’re eating out and taking taxis all over town.

But it’s not just about living on coconut dollars. There are entrepreneurs living the kind of lives they could only dream of back home. You could hire a maid, living in a family home with a garden or pool and even use the services of a personal chef for $1,000 a month.

Living the millionaire lifestyle for a slice of what you’d pay back home is great, but it gets better when you consider how that impacts your business. If you’re in startup mode, you don’t need to extract thousands of that precious cash flow to stay afloat. You can retain more money in the business and allow it to grow organically.

Think of how many businesses fail because they couldn’t make enough money to support the founder’s living expenses. Basing out of South East Asia isn’t just a lifestyle choice, but also sound business sense.

2. Business location

Southeast Asia really comes into its own when you look at the explosion of coworking spaces in recent years. Coworking spaces sit somewhere between cafes and offices in terms of their function.

They’re cheap, providing all-inclusive setups for business for around $200 a head.

But it’s not just about the money. Coworking spaces can provide robust internet connectivity where previously there was none. Ubud in Bali has turned that once remote tropical island into a realistic base for many entrepreneurs previously turned away by a familiar frustrating internet experience.

Lack of internet has always stunted the growth opportunities of many countries in South East Asia but change is afoot. According to Netindex, 20MBps internet speeds are common enough in Chiang Mai to cross that concern off your list.

3. Entrepreneur networking opportunities

Coworking spaces also provide an excellent social space for a young, dynamic crowd.
Entrepreneurs often forget that even though they can run their entire business online, nothing beats the real world connectivity of offline. That’s why cities like Chiang Mai, Saigon and islands like Bali make for excellent networking opportunities. Here you’ll find more networking events and startups than you can shake a stick at.

Without the baggage of familiarity, without the comfort of family and friends around you, you are forced into an environment where personal and business relationships move fast. You’ll bump into bloggers in coffee shops and eat out with like-minded entrepreneurs over a Pad Thai.

Networking is easy. So easy, in fact, that many partnerships and lifelong friendships are formed in the short time that many entrepreneurs spend in these cities.

4. Easy visa-free travel

By comparison, it’s a lot easier to stay long term here in Asia than it would be in the United States.

While it’s difficult to secure a stable, long term visa, you can hack the system and renew your visa every 30 to ­60 days. Many entrepreneurs in Thailand are familiar with the visa run to Bali or Cambodia to reset the clock, even as the government there cracks down on the process.

Of course, there are no guarantees of re­entry but compare the process to the US. Southeast Asia’s relaxed attitude to border controls makes JFK look like Checkpoint Charlie.

5. Free market economies

It’s not just immigration where South East Asia is a little more relaxed than the West, it’s also the economy as a whole. While Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia can, at times, appear chaotic, there are distinct advantages in this lack of planning.

Unlike the US, most entrepreneurs are relatively free to get on and run their businesses. Sure, you have to fill in forms and pay taxes, but there are less heavy­handed authorities bearing down on everyday life.

Singapore and Malaysia lead the way in the region. According to the World Bank, Singapore ranks as the 6th easiest country to start a business in the world and Malaysia number 13. The US comes in at 48.

6. Territorial tax policy

Better still, don’t set up your business in South East Asia and locate if offshore. Singapore and Malaysia both don’t tax overseas income.

If you’re a going concern, the prospect of keeping your offshore income tax free and the relatively low cost of living in cities like Kuala Lumpur makes Malaysia an interesting option long term for entrepreneurs. Less pretentious and costly than Singpaore, Malaysia also offers open borders to economic migrants who can prove a long term contribution to the economy through the MM2H (Malaysia My Second Home) scheme.

7. Lifestyle

Last, but not least, we can’t ignore the reason that attracted so many students like me to South East Asia in the 90s, before it became a serious business option, and that’s lifestyle.

With world-class food, weather, and beaches, South East Asia has it covered.

I know entrepreneurs who run online business from cafes or coworking spaces and eat out every night of the week, enjoy three-day weekends snorkeling some of the world’s finest reefs. On top of that, they still manage to save significant sums of cash at the end of the month.

And where does this new wave of entrepreneurs end up long-term? Perhaps they’ll stay in Southeast Asia as the scene continues to grow. Perhaps they’ll decide to cash in their chips and return home with savings, experience, and passive income streams. Perhaps they’ll return home broke.

All of which could have happened if they never left in the first place.

Today, you don’t need an MBA or seed capital to start a business. You also don’t need to forego a desire to see the world with one to build your career. Perhaps this generation is the first to join the dots and make it all happen.

Southeast Asia is by no means a paradise, there are still many things that need work but, as it stands, it’s a very exciting option for entrepreneurs. If you’re an entrepreneur try it, at least once, if only to say, in years to come, “I was there when it all kicked off.”

Graham Brown
Last updated: Aug 19, 2021 at 8:33AM