It’s Saturday night and Kevin Kumala, a 32-year-old Indonesian inventor, is demonstrating the effectiveness of his edible, marine-degradable alternative to plastic. He does this by dissolving one of his bags – made from cassava starch, not oil – into a glass of water and then drinking it. It draws the first of many gasps from the crowd. Next is a talk on how projection-mapping can be used to hack plant photosynthesis, followed by a demonstration of the world’s first pocket astronomy camera. Before we break for vegan burritos and a glass of turmeric kombucha, a performance that empowers the deaf to dance brings the 500-strong crowd to its feet. It would lift the roof off – if there were a roof, that is.
Instead, however, the view above us is of 15m-tall coconut palms and blue kingfishers swooping under the bright night sky. As you might have guessed, this is not your average TED Talk. We’re at the Setia Darma House of Mask and Puppets, taking in TEDxUbud, an independently organised offshoot of the technology, education and design conferences dedicated to “ideas worth spreading”, currently enjoying its fifth outing in Bali. Or Silicon Bali, as it’s jokingly known among its more techy residents.
Ranked by TripAdvisor as 2017’s “world’s best destination”, Bali has long been a mainstay of jetset fashionistas, clean-living yoga enthusiasts, honeymooners and backpackers. Yet among the five million visitors to the Indonesian island over the past year are tens of thousands of self-employed creatives, software developers and eco-entrepreneurs. Enticed by the prospect of year-round warmth, deliciously fresh and spicy food and welcoming locals, not to mention low business overheads and high-speed broadband to match most developed nations, Bali has also become the world’s top destination for the “location independent” – those who take advantage of today’s online tools to work from wherever they want.
Just don’t call them “digital nomads”. “There are deeper things at play than just being able to use Skype, email your invoice and scraping by while you’re travelling,” says David Abraham, founder of the Outpost co-working space. “It’s about people looking to create a new lifestyle, with a better balance and more meaning from their work.” Situated in a former clinic overlooking hills of lush teak and mahogany and a chattering river, a few minutes south of Ubud, Outpost is truly idyllic – no wonder the nomads have settled here. Outpost is base to several architects, the director of an Indonesian nature conservatory, the founder of a chia-seed cultivation start-up, and someone who runs a coconut plantation – in Brazil. With modern project management software, residents can work in real time with colleagues thousands of miles away. Meanwhile they’re sitting in a natural paradise. No wonder businesses in Bali are often inspired by the island’s lush landscapes, and motivated by more than just monetary gain. “People have put down roots here,” says Abraham.
To ease the escape from the rat race, Outpost offers a “soft-landing package” where, in addition to picking you up at the airport, handing over a local Sim card and the keys to your own scooter, they put you up in one of their two luxury villas in rooms complete with spacious outdoor bathrooms, overlooking a giant swimming pool and jacuzzi. Abraham tells us his biggest surprises have been how often people choose a room next to one that’s already occupied even when the adjacent villa is empty. It is, he reckons, symptomatic of the fact that many come here looking for a sense of community that is now absent from many western cities.
Outpost doesn’t just offer fast Wi-Fi, fantastic views and the kind of lifestyle that might see you rising to surf the famous Echo Beach break before dawn, before settling down to sip young coconuts while standing at your desk. Selling itself as “the kind of co-working space Google would create if they opened in Bali”, Outpost also hosts a full-on schedule of classes and events, ranging from talks by Vogue fashion editors to crash-courses in entrepreneurship.
These courses can be life-changing. “You come to Bali with a particular intention, and somehow the place inspires an even better idea,” says Baron Walton, an Australian photographer who, with his chef wife Izzy, originally planned to take a six-month sabbatical in Bali with their four children in tow. Both foodies who found themselves in thrall to the spicy local cuisine, they signed up to a month-long start-up incubation course at Outpost and came up with the idea of Eatworthy Ubud, a smartphone app geolocating the mom-and-pop warung restaurants around town, “the kind of places you could live next door to without knowing, down little alleyways and family compounds, where they squeeze out the coconut milk by hand and garnish with herbs picked fresh from their gardens.” Now they’re in the process of selling their Brisbane house and car.
“Bali seems to attract people who are typically ‘mid-way’ through, whether they are 30 or 50 years old. People who have a bit of experience under their belt, and a degree of success, but decided it wasn’t exactly what they had signed up for,” explains Steve Monroe, co-founder of the Hubud co-working space – tagline: “get re-motivated” – a few doors down from one of the town’s top tourist attractions, the Monkey Forest.
“So many of the people who come here tell us that their friends and parents thought they were crazy to move to Bali. Then they arrive and find a tribe of like-minded people. You don’t have to do it alone,” Monroe says. “We package all this for you, essentially creating the foundation for a new lifestyle.”
Formerly the director of the United Nations’ land-mine clearance programme in Cambodia, Monroe moved to Bali with his wife and two kids in 2009 having had his idealism burnt out by the bureaucracy of the UN. What tipped the balance in Bali’s favour was the Green School, where children from three to 18 learn from project-based activity and not from rote, in classrooms built from bamboo. There’s a focus on local eco-minded learning; high-school science classes see teenagers convert their school bus to run off the waste oil from local restaurants. Having surveyed Hubud’s 3,000 members from over 70 countries, Monroe estimates that without having to commute, and with the relatively cheap cost of home help – “all the stuff between your job and your parenting; the experience of hundreds of millions of people” – you can save up to 20 hours a week living here. “The question I always ask is, what would you do with those extra 20 hours?” In Monroe’s case, he’s used his time wisely: Hubud is one of the 10 Best Co-working Spaces on Earth, according to Forbes.
So many of the people who come here tell us that their friends and parents thought they were crazy to move to Bali. Then they arrive and find a tribe of like-minded people
Bali also has another knack of hacking the time-money conundrum, offering what is referred to in start-up parlance as a significantly longer “runway” for businesses to eke out their precious seed money. “Compared to Europe or the US, your money probably lasts five or ten times longer here,” says Nick Martin, the Danish co-founder and CEO of the digital publishing platform MagLoft. “We were able to bring a team of six, build the prototype, reach out to potential customers, gather feedback and improve our product, on money that would have barely covered a year’s rent in Copenhagen.” MagLoft is based at Livit, a start-up incubator which is home to six companies and 30 software developers and has birthed the award-winning desktop email programme Mailbird, and Vilondo, a booking site for luxury villas in Bali. Livit describes itself as a “chore-free ecosystem” in which room, board and boring business admin are taken care of so start-ups can focus on getting stuff done. After an intense six-hour working day, “I’ve caught myself driving along on my scooter, shouting out at the top of my lungs, ‘This is awesome!’” Martin happily confides.
Outpost’s David Abraham, a former White House budget director and Lehman Brothers analyst, helps contextualise the glee. “The stigma of not being based in a big city like San Francisco or London is going away,” he says. This change in attitudes, allied to the expense of living and running a business in these cities, is beginning to “democratise funding”. Now if you tell a potential investor you’re based out of Bali and not Tulsa, Oklahoma, “they’re going to say you’ve made a good decision”.
But Bali isn’t just a great base for people who can work over the internet, it’s also become a stop-off for a new breed of global worker. These are people for whom jobs-for-life are giving way to more project-based work, which may take them anywhere around the world. Many of the millennials among them will, in any case, be priced out of owning a home back home. Lured by the prospects of faster internet speeds worldwide and ever more affordable flights, such people have become permanently itinerant, going to the big cities when work takes them there, leaving for cheaper, balmier shores when it’s done. A new type of business has inevitably sprung up to cater to this lifestyle.
Billing itself as the “world’s first global co-living provider”, Roam offers accommodation and workspaces around the world to the growing army of freelancers who skip from country to country carrying out short-term contracts. For $2,000 a month, you can have a bedroom and a workspace waiting for you in London, Miami, Tokyo, Bali, and soon, San Francisco. Roam’s Bali space, a converted boutique hotel, has 24 bedrooms centred around an atrium swimming pool, with Eames chairs bedecking a rooftop workspace bright with lilac orchids and hibiscus overlooking the lush treetops and temples of Ubud. The base has been featured in business titles like the Wall Street Journal and Fast Company, and design magazines like Vogue and Dezeen. “Of no fixed abode” has never been sexier.
Co-living, is “a new way of describing a very old way of living”, as Roam’s literature points out. It’s the act of sharing major expenses and spaces such as kitchens, laundry and utilities like gas and electricity for a better quality of life. When Atlas visited in May, there were daily acro-yoga classes on the roof and “Taco Wednesdays” socials. In residence were a stock market trader – surely the easiest way to make money on the move – software developers, content creators, and Shannon Bender, a brand consultant originally from Oregon.
A fully paid-up Roamer, Bender has previously spent time at the New York and Miami spaces. Over a cold-pressed coffee from Alchemy, the celebrated raw vegan restaurant next door, she tells us that having got ground down by New York, she is now spending a month in Bali consulting for an organic skincare company and researching textile factories for an LA-based fashion brand.
Which prompts the question: If you’re spending $2k a month, Roam makes sense in New York, Tokyo or San Francisco, where the average rent is nearly twice that. But why would you in Bali, where it’s possible to find a villa with a swimming pool for nearly half Roam’s monthly lease? “We were tempted to do so, but I really wanted to have the experience you get at Roam – the entrepreneurial community here fosters less of a vacation mindset,” Bender says. “I think if you were at a hotel or a villa and you’re looking around and everyone’s on vacation, you would be less motivated to work. Here, we wake up and go upstairs to the working space; it keeps us on track.”
It’s true, there is something about sitting up on the top deck, gamelan lullabies from the nearby temples drifting in on the breeze, that is highly conducive to work. This article itself is testament to that. Full disclosure is that once we’d wrapped for the day, our afternoons were spent white-water rafting down the River Ayung, taking in the holy spring waters of the Tampaskiring temple and lolling about in the waves of Uluwatu. Most evenings were played out swapping stories about new lives in the wild, illuminated by the sparkles of fireflies deep into the night.
Considering the alternative: working from home (boring), or a cafe (uncomfortable) and then heading to a pub to sit out the worst of rush hour. To this jaded Londoner at least, Bali is a no-brainer.