In Episode 3 of Eccentric Airbnb Guests Stories, I will share a story of a Danish couple in their mid 20’s that booked my apartment for 2 nights. They are ‘Digital Nomads‘ living in Bali, Indonesia, and running an online jewelry business.
Let’s call this couple Jan & Emma. When they arrived at the guardhouse, I registered and checked them into their studio while making small talk.
What is a Digital Nomad?
The Digital Nomad culture has become a significant trend with the western Millennials and Gen Z.
These are people that run online businesses or apps and work entirely online. Rendering them location independent, hence the term ‘Digital Nomad.’
Most Digital Nomads from American and Europe take financial advantage of their location independent lifestyle to move to cheaper countries, like in South America or South East Asia.
On social media, they all seem to depict an interesting life, moving from one country to another. Then working in cafes, and beanbags or by the beach.
Are these people making a living out of this, or is it just smoke and mirror lifestyle? That’s something I’ve always pondered.
Digital Nomad Visa Run
Just like other Digital Nomads, Emma & Jan are in Bali with a tourist visa. They can’t stay in Indonesia for more than 3 months (I think). So every 3 months, they will do a ‘Visa Run:‘
This means that they will fly out of Indonesia to a nearby neighboring country, do some sightseeing for a day or two, then fly back into Indonesia. This allows them to stay for another 3 months.
It just happened that Jan & Emma booked my apartment during their ‘Visa Run,’ to KL, and that’s how we met.
This explains why both of them were only carrying a small backpack each.
Taking a Break From Each Other
I made a great first impression with them that Jan invited me out for drinks at a neighborhood bar (we were in Bukit Bintang) to chit chat. I was interested to know more about their lifestyle, so I went with it.
Jan: “Emma isn’t joining us, so it’s just us two.”
Me: “why not?”
Jan: “Oh, man, we’ve been traveling the world together for years, that we could use a break from each other.”
I think that was quite a mature way of handling a relationship, especially a relationship under the immense pressure of always being together. It’s something that most Asian couples typically don’t experience, traveling together for years.
Socializing at a Gin Bar
We sat at a table, and I placed my two access cards on the table while we started to order drinks.
Jan looked at my access cards and asked me:
Jan: “So you said you’re managing two units on Airbnb?” While pointing at my cards.
Me: “Oh yes, I just expanded to have a second studio, and maybe I’ll consider adding more in the future.”
Jan was very interested in my Airbnb business and asked me quite detailed questions on how I started and managed my business.
I knocked out all of his Airbnb questions, and it was my turn to ask him about what he did before moving to Bali.
Copenhagen to Bali
Both Jan & Emma were from Copenhagen, Denmark. Interestingly, Jan used to work as a butcher (like literally slicing and selling meat), and Emma had a typical office job (I forgot what exactly).
They were bored with the safe, predictable life back home and tried to turn Emma’s hobby into a full-time business.
Apparently, Emma loves to design jewelry. For the clueless fellas, this means women’s rings, earrings, and pendants. Stuff that girls buy from Etsy.com:
Emma designed them on paper, then she and Jan handcraft the jewelry out from raw silver. The finished product is sold entirely online.
They made a website and social media accounts to promote their products. To their surprise, Emma’s jewelry was a hit among the Danes & some people in Europe.
But with only 2 people man-power that still have day jobs, there’s only so many orders they can keep up with by themselves. So naturally, quitting their jobs and expanding the business was in order. But the rent and labor costs are astronomical in Denmark.
If both of them were to quit their jobs and live off their EUR 5000 savings for a few months until their business takes off, they could only survive for around 2 to 3 months tops in Denmark. Which might be too short of a runway for their venture to start bearing fruit.
But with the same budget, they can live like kings in South East Asia for up to a year. So moving out of Denmark was a no-brainer for them.
They scouted around and caught the Digital Nomad bug. Circa 2014, every European and American Digital Nomad will typically flock to either Chiangmai, Thailand, or Bali, Indonesia.
Setting Up Shop in Bali
Jan & Emma have chosen Bali, for these reasons:
- The cost of living in Bali is crazy cheap in comparison.
- There is already a vast network of Digital Nomads, so they can expect:
- Fast, reliable internet.
- Healthy amounts of cafes and co-working spaces to do work.
- Western standard restaurants around the corner if they get sick of the local food.
- It’s also a major tourist attraction, so they won’t be bored.
- Apparently, there’s a lot of skilled craftsmen in Indonesia that their business needs.
- There’s a vast MMA gym and following in Bali, which is what Jan was totally into.
I was impressed with how they got to be so far.
Me: “So you work at one of those co-working places that look like the Google office?”
Jan: “Yeah, we made a lot of Digital Nomad friends in Bali, they’re all working on their own hustle. From launching some sort of app to drop-shipping to any online business, you can think of.”
Jan & Emma set up a workshop in Bali, and they hire local craftsmen to handcraft Emma’s design into reality. The local authorities love them because they provided jobs to the locals.
The finished product is then sold on their website to European clients that are shipped directly from Bali.
I was seriously impressed with what they got going on.
Another Visa Run in KL
About 6 months later, they needed to do another visa run. Jan Whatsapp-ed me to book with me directly as opposed to going through Airbnb.
We agreed to a price, and they stayed at the same apartment again.
Jan asked me out to the same bar to catch up. As we found a place to sit at the bar, I placed my access keys on the table as before. But it wasn’t 2 access cards. This time, I had 5 access cards.
The waiter came by, and Jan made his order then while I was making mine, Jan looked at my access cards and asked:
Jan: “So, you have 5 units now?”
Me: “Oh, this? Yeah, it’s been a crazy couple of months of expansion for me. How about you? How are you guys doing?”.
Jan: “We’re doing great, but uneventful. I’m really impressed with your progress here, Helmi. You’ve expanded from 2 to 5 studio units within what? 6 months? That’s awesome!”
Me: “Oh thanks, but come on, this is nothing compared with you guys and the Digital Nomads working on beanbag chairs and cool coworking spaces down in Bali,”
Jan: “Oh man, you remember I told you about those Digital Nomads I meet at cafes and co-working spaces in Bali? Most of them are not going to make it and are only living off their rich parents!”
Me: “Really? No way… I don’t believe that all of them have rich parents.”
Jan: “Trust me, man, I talked to this random guy working at a cafe in Bali this one time. He told me that he’s working on an app that will revolutionize the shipping industry and whatnot.”
Jan: “He was totally passionate about his project. His idea made sense, but when I asked him, how would he make money with his app? I was hit with a blank stare.”
Jan: “We also know this one girl from California who also sells custom jewelry and has a shop in Kuta, Bali. But she sells them back in the States.”
Jan: “We are quite close, and she told us that she’s not making any real money from her shop. She was funded by her wealthy father. Reading between the lines, I gathered that her father supported her just so she can say that she did something with her life.”
Jan: “He’s not the only one like that. Most of these Digital Nomads are living a dream. They might be good at coding or whatever, but they still have no idea how to make money. They all move to Bali to ‘work’ and party for a few months until they run out of money, then return home.”
Jan: “Bali is full of these fake wannabes. We are quite sick of it, really. We are actually planning to move somewhere else because of it.”
Jan tapped my stack of 5 access cards and told me, “but this is a real business.”
Not going to lie, that made me feel good and reassured me that I just dumped in a lot of money setting up new units. In 2018 I was managing a total of 10 studios at my peak.
Unfortunately, with the dwindling economy and Covid-19, my Airbnb business also ground to a halt. Although my venture ultimately failed at five years in, due to something out of my control, I did not regret it one bit and learned so many streetsmart skills that I never would’ve at school or a traditional job.
Key Takeaway from Jan & Emma
- I like how they took control of their future.
- I love how, despite only being in their mid-twenties, they are very mature in handling their romantic relationship.
- I’ve always wondered how do these ‘Digital Nomads’ earn a living? They all look so exciting and cool. It takes a real one to reveal the truth from the smoke and mirrors portrayed on social media.
- At the time, it felt good to have a fellow entrepreneur seeing my progress and believing in me.