Originally published on Medium
Once upon a time (cough*last week*), a Forbes contributor called Casey reached out to ask me some questions for an article she was writing. It was published today, titled “Expats Find Fertile Ground For Bootstrapping Startups in South East Asia”.
A classy title for a classy article. I however, have a tendency to learn towards swearing and awkwardly incorrect grammar. Not to mention a penchant for catchy (read: eye rollingly cheesy) headlines.
So VOILA here’s the raw, unedited answers that didn’t make the article but give you a little insight into my story as a startup founder in South East Asia.
Oh wait, sorry forgot my manners! In case you stumbled across this without knowing me (though I suspect only my mum is reading this), my name is Leanne and I’m an alcoholic.
Well, no not really (though I do enjoy my gin).
I’m the founder of Coworker.com — a community powered platform that helps people find, review and contact coworking spaces around the world.
Coworker has over 2000 coworking spaces listed in 795 cities across 98 countries, with thousands of member reviews and tips.
These member reviews powered a recent Forbes article, “Where To Work? The 10 Best Coworking Spaces On Earth”, and we were described by the Financial Times as its “Innovation To Watch” when we launched a few months ago.
Now without dwelling too much on that awkward self promotional stuff (I’m British so as per my birthright feel incredibly weird being anything except self deprecating), let’s jump straight into the Q&A…
Where did the idea for Coworker.com come from? When did you start the company?
Back in June 2015, I met up with my friend Sam Marks in Hong Kong for a month as we were working on a couple of projects together. We assumed it would be easy to plug into the startup scene there but we really struggled when we first arrived.
We wasted so much time on Google trying to find the best coworking space with a strong tech and startup community, but it just seemed impossible to find.
In the end, someone recommended Garage Society which turned out to be exactly what we were looking for.
But it kept niggling in our minds how weird it was that there wasn’t a global platform to discover coworking spaces and people’s recommendations online. Why had it been such a mission for us to find this community?
Why wasn’t there a TripAdvisor / YELP / Agoda / Airbnb for coworking spaces?
It made no sense to us that in the era of online booking for EVERYTHING, nothing substantial existed for the coworking community.
We did some research and market testing, and it soon become clear that this could be a real thing.
The number of coworking spaces had been doubling every year for the past 10 years and the statistics supporting the coworking trend were insane:
- 34 million Americans were working remotely in 2009 (Forrester), and this is expected to grow to 60 million people — more than 40% of the American workforce — by 2020 (Intuit)
- Remote workers are 50% more productive than their office bound counterparts (IBM)
- Cisco Systems saved $277 million / year by encouraging their employees to work remotely (FastCompany)
- Almost $1 billion was invested into the coworking industry between July 2014 — July 2015 (breakdown)
It was clear that the future of work was shifting and we were at the beginning of an emerging trend. We wanted to play a role in pioneering it!
We launched our MVP quietly in stealth mode in mid October 2015, but someone submitted us to ProductHunt where we blew up and ended up trending on the ProductHunt homepage for a week.
I was terrified — I felt like we totally weren’t ready! We were then picked up by the Financial Times and featured (both online and in print) as their “Innovation To Watch”.
Where in Southeast Asia are you based? What attracted you to bootstrap your company from there?
The team is distributed across the world (Malaysia, Indonesia, Bolivia, Canada, France, Australia and India) and I’m usually based in Thailand these days.
I was living in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand when we started the business but recently spent 3 months in Singapore for a change of energy and perspective.
Chiang Mai is great when you’re first getting started. It’s very cheap, has amazing coffee shops, great food and a bustling digital nomad community.
But because most of these people are solopreneurs or working on lifestyle businesses (eg. ecommerce websites, affiliate marketing, freelance copywriting, etc), I reached a point where I felt like I needed to move to a bigger startup hub to get inspired by and learn from people growing bigger tech companies.
I’d heard a lot of great things about The Hub coworking space in Singapore, where a lot of friendly people and companies like BrainTree, Twilio and Mashable were based out of.
One of the biggest draws of The Hub for me was their Mentorship and Investor in Residence programs… I suspected if I became a member at The Hub I’d be able to meet all kinds of amazing people and have inspiring conversations that would help me think bigger and more strategically.
So in May 2016, I moved there for 3 months and it was the best decision I could have made.
Being in Singapore and working from The Hub was like rocket fuel for the business.
During my 2nd month in Singapore, our user growth rate had shot up to 1460%. We had over 3900 member reviews of coworking spaces, with over 2000 coworking spaces listed across 758 cities in 98 countries.
We launched our API and launched a partnership with the popular website NomadList to power its “Where to Work” section.
Forbes published a story titled “Where To Work? The 10 Best Coworking Spaces on Earth” based on Coworker review data, and our organic search traffic skyrocketed as we started ranking highly for valuable keywords.
Although Singapore is not an ideal place for bootstrapping due to expensive rent prices and $26 gin & tonics (scanning a drinks menu in Singapore is terrifying), it was perfect for a short term boost to kickstart extra momentum.
There’s something about being in the middle of all that energy that makes you naturally hustle harder, and having conversations with incredibly driven founders and investors opens up your mind to new ways of thinking and doing things.
Two of the great things about living in Southeast Asia are mobility and diversity… you can get anywhere with an easy & cheap AirAsia flight! As a bootstrapping founder, this enables you to choose your location based on your needs at the time.
For me, when cash is super tight or I just want to get my head down and focus on executing a strategy with zero distractions, Chiang Mai is perfect.
When I feel like I need to start thinking bigger and get out of my comfort zone by having meetings with incredibly successful people, Singapore or Hong Kong are perfect.
When I want to be surrounded by hustling entrepreneurs in a similar position to me and balance work with a great social life, Saigon is perfect.
When I feel stifled by the “digital nomad” label and want plug myself into a local startup community without feeling like a foreigner, Kuala Lumpur is perfect (and much cheaper than Singapore!).
Right now I’m spending two months in Koh Samui growing the business while doing an intensive fitness bootcamp, because I’m training for a half marathon and need to get in shape.
By not having much stuff and living out of a suitcase, I’m able to always place myself in the optimal environment for me to perform at my best.
I wish I had a stronger mindset to always be at peak performance no matter where I’m located, but I tend to absorb the energy from my surroundings so really notice a huge difference in my productivity if I match my location to meet the needs of my current mindset.
For some people, the optimal environment is simply one location. I know lots of people who have put down roots in one city and say they are infinitely more productive compared to when they were “on the road”.
But for me, I find it easier to get what I need from different locations.
And Southeast Asia is so diverse that in the 6 years I’ve been living here, I’ve never felt lacking for anything!
What are some of your own coworking experiences — best, worst, bizarre?
My funniest coworking memory is from about 9 years ago. I was working for a year in Togo, West Africa, as Vice President of an organization called AIESEC but there was no WiFi in our office.
In fact, there wasn’t really WiFi anywhere! It was the era of internet cafes and there were plenty of them around, so most people just used those. In the entire city of Lome, there was only one place that had publicly accessible WiFi (at least, that I knew about)… back then I’d never heard of the term “coworking” but looking back, it was possibly Lome’s first coworking space. It was just a bare concrete room with a ton of chairs scattered around and a few tables.
The place was always packed with young guys in their early twenties. One day I struck up a conversation with a group of guys sitting on the metals chairs with laptops perched on their knees after overhearing them speaking in English. They were Nigeria students studying at the university in Lome.
I asked if they were researching stuff on the internet for class, and they just smirked at each other and went quiet.
A couple of weeks later, one of them revealed their operations to me…. they were scam artists!
If you ever received an email in 2007 claiming you’re the beneficiary of a $1million inheritance from a long lost family member, there’s a possibility it may have been sent from the laptop next to me.
Any favorite coworking spots?
Working on Coworker has opened my eyes up to just how many incredible coworking spaces and communities are out there around the world. I’m really excited to go spend time at SkyLoft in Costa Rica, DreamPlex in Vietnam, and Cape Town Office in South Africa at some point next year because I think I’ll meet some really awesome people there.
What types of fundraising have you done? What has your experience been pitching investors in Southeast Asia?
We’re lucky that we’ve not needed to do any fundraising. We’re founder-funded, so both myself and my business partner Sam have put money into the business and have enough passive income from previous projects to sustain it at our current burn rate.
However I did have coffee meetings with a number of VCs and angel investors in Singapore, not to pitch but to get their perspectives and thoughts on the future phases of the business model.
All the people I met with were incredibly friendly, funny and dynamic! Very down to earth and humble about their achievements.
There was lots of banter and with all of them we strayed off topic to chat about things completely unrelated to our businesses too. I was happily surprised at how informal and down to earth they were.
Most of my meetings were set up by people introducing me to them, so even though I didn’t have the pressure of pitching them for investment I was incredibly nervous about making a good impression.
I would get to the coffee location at least 1 hour early every time to avoid being late (unfortunately that meant I was hyped up on caffeine by the time they arrived, as if I don’t talk fast enough anyway!) and do a decent amount of Twitter stalking to get an idea of their personality so I could adapt to it.
I’m totally not qualified to give advice as I have very limited experience in this area, but for people planning to pitch to investors I’d recommend first attending a talk about what investors look for.
The Hub coworking space in Singapore has a regular event called “Meet the VCs” where investors have a panel discussion and answer questions from the audience.
I went to one where William Klippgen and Michael Blakey, Co-Founders of Cocoon Capital Partners, a new seed fund investing in scalable digital startups across Southeast Asia, shared their insights into the difference between raising money from an Angel vs a VC, their tips on early-stage fundraising and what Cocoon looks for in an investment.
It was fascinating and would be invaluable prep work before going into any pitch meetings.
What advice would you offer someone bootstrapping their first business in Southeast Asia?
The advice I’d offer someone bootstrapping their first business in Southeast Asia is hugely different to advice I’d give anyone bootstrapping their second, third or fourth etc business.
If it’s your first business, my advice is to start small with an MVP and do as much as you can yourself.
You’d be surprised at how easy and cheap it is to build websites or do app UX mockups with templates from Themeforest, create awesome graphics with stock illustrations (eg. DepositPhoto), create animated videos using Vidgeos, send out sexy HTML emails with Mailchimp, do retargeting ads using PerfectAudience, etc.
The more skills you learn yourself, the better strategies you’ll be able to develop and the better you’ll be able to brief your team members in the future.
I’ve been living in Southeast Asia for 6 years and have bootstrapped multiple mini businesses as a solopreneur in that time — from internet marketing consulting to affiliate marketing to ecommerce to website development to manufacturing 3000 silicone spatulas in China as an experiment (see sexyspatula.com, and yes yes I thought I was hilarious).
Although all of these seem completely unconnected, they all evolved from each other and led me to what I’m doing now.
When you’re an ambitious entrepreneur, often nothing ever seems good enough or big enough.
It’s easy to get frustrated at yourself and think you’re working on something that’s too small or insignificant but it’s important to remember that you’re on a journey and each project you do is paving the road for the path ahead.
The great thing with living somewhere cheap like Chiang Mai is that you have bought yourself time to experiment and learn.
Use that to your advantage and teach yourself as many skills as you can to bring your vision to life.
You learn by doing, so just start googling for answers and execute along the way.
— — — — —
And that’s a wrap, folks! High fives and fist bumps, coz I’m a bro like that.
♥♥♥ Oh and btw, if you love your coworking space then check if they’re on Coworker and leave a review to help other people discover them! ♥♥♥