Hubud & the Future of Work with Steve Munroe

Watch the following video to catch a preview of the full interview.

On Friday February 5, I sat down with Hubud Co-founder, Steve Munroe and my good friend Serge Bajic to talk all things Hubud, the Digital Nomad movement and the Future of Work. I found the conversation so interesting and insightful that I just had to share. The following is a transcript of the interview that was part filmed/part recorded on audio;

Me: I have list of questions but for the purpose of people who don’t know Hubud, if you could just give a brief ‘what is Hubud’.

Steve: Hubud is a co-working space in Ubud, Bali that we opened about 3 years ago. It is a collection of around 275-300 members at any one time that are freelancers, tech teams, creatives, video journalists, writers, dreamers and everything in between. It’s a co-working community, largely of digital nomads.

Me: What was your previous experience with co-working like before you started Hubud?

Steve: In terms of my previous experience in co-working the world before Hubud, I’d really never heard of a co-working space before we started the conversation about opening up. I lived in Cambodia before I lived in Bali. My wife and I, and another couple, had gone down the path of looking at opening a community centre that would’ve have been a bit of Hubud combined with the Yoga Barn. A community space where people could do their practices and share with the community. That didn’t ended up going ahead but when we got to Bali that idea was there. Then I connected with the two co-founders, Peter and John, we started this together and that’s how the conversation started.

It really was freelancers like us. I do international development, prior to this I worked for the UN for 10 years. John was a designer. Peter was a video journalist. We were all freelance and we were all tired of working alone, basically, and working by ourselves. We said we know there’s this really amazing creative community here in Ubud, so why not create a space that brings them all together.

Me: What existed before Ubud? You said that there was an awesome creative community here. Where did you see that manifest?

Steve: There was no gathering place for me in Bali, except for the Green School, I guess. My kids go to the Green School which is an alternative, really incredible eco-school. It’s part of what brought us here in 2009. It’s where I met my two co-founders as well. So it was a little bit of that and a lot of people who were parents in the Green School who were newly arrived came with a similar story, which was, I was doing this thing over here, I was a little bit disenchanted, disenfranchised with it, we needed a break, we wanted something different, more creative and inspiring for our kids so we ended up coming here. It was this story of people leaving that life behind, the kind of daily grind, it’s very talented, very successful people. They were here and what was great about it was everybody is here in an open frame of mind, right. People that are corporate lawyers for utility companies, when they come to Bali they cannot do that. They have to be in this open space of if I want to live this life, if I want to stay here or pursue this dream of traveling more, I have to get creative. It’s a really kind of neat point in people’s lives to catch when that happens.

There was nothing like Hubud, definitely, everybody thought we were completely crazy for opening it here. Ubud is where people come to relax, to get married, or to get divorced.

Me: Really? Married or divorced?

Steve: Well this is the Eat, Pray, Love, I don’t know if you have seen the movie?

Me: Yeah, I have seen the movie. It’s like required watching for coming to Ubud (laughs)

Serge: Yes, when I was in the yoga practice, the practitioner said that if you came here with a broken heart, then this is going to be a good place for you. I guess a lot of people come here.

Steve: They are recovering from something. It could be this career that they’re not sure about. Could be a relationship change. People have come here after health issues, they kind of come here to heal. A lot of people come here. Nobody was coming here to do business really in that sense of what you see now.

My experience before and certainly reinforced by evidence after is, I think we think about work in the wrong way, back say in Canada where I’m from. More is better, it’s quantity over quality, and people get into the rut. The rut of life and the rut of work of just doing, doing, doing, doing, and it gets to the end of the week, the month, the year and you feel really busy. You’re like I did a lot of stuff but often you say I’m not sure what I’ve actually done. What have I accomplished? So people who come here with their own businesses, often they say you get this ability to step back a little bit and get perspective. Part of that is the lifestyle, part of that is the community around you where you’re constantly fed with new ideas and stuff.

To go back to the original question, basically there was nothing like that here. There was the Yoga Barn, which was a bit of a rallying point of community point that brought people here and that would be how they met people. We’ve kind of become that but for a slightly, not necessarily a different crowd, there’s some overlap, but people who come here for different reasons.

Me: We went to a café last night called Kafe. We saw, even at dinner there were people with computers out, probably doing work. Even on the board it had one of the job ads I’ve seen on the Hubud board. So I was like that’s strange that I’m at a café and I can see a job ad. I think the people that don’t know about Hubud are still there out there in different coffee shops and this kind of brings them together. Which I think is really good.

Vitto (event’s manager at Hubud) was telling us in the new members orientation how you found the space is kind of like serendipitous. Could you talk more about how that came to be?

Steve: In terms of the kind of shortened version of the story of how Hubud came to be like this. There was three of us that met and got really excited about the idea. We decided to prototype it, so we took over a small café, 5-10 minute walk from here, and had a 2 week co-working pop-up in May 2012. We had 9 events in that time, we had around 300 people that came through the little space that we had, and we did that on a $500 budget.

That was a good testing ground. One of the events that we did was Pecha Kucha which was an event held globally, it’s like a mini-TED talk, rapid TED talk event. So we began holding that every month after that, at a venue in town, and that kind of started building the community and allowing us to connect with people and all the while we were looking for a space. It wasn’t that easier because unlike bigger cities where you have lots of big buildings, you don’t have that in Ubud, especially in central, maybe there are factory buildings but they are much further out. We looked at 37 places all together, this was place number 37.

Me: It was like you saw this and you’re like, yeah, done?

Steve: We walked in and what I said was if this doesn’t work out I think the whole project might not go ahead because we had looked at everything that there was to look at. Once we had seen this it was really hard to go back to anything that we had seen. People give us a lot of design credit for this space, but this whole interior was exactly like you see it. This meeting room and the Skype booth, we put in the café, the furnishing, all the bamboo and old wood it was like this. It was like it was built for us. It was a green building company that built it to be its office and their showroom and they never really moved in. We walked in and it was kind of like we make a deal no matter what. It took us a week to sign it up, three more months to kind of get it ready and we started 2 years 11 months and some days ago.

Steve: I guess you kind of validated the whole idea, you and the café beforehand, so it was kind of you put the word out and people just came kind of thing?

Steve: A lot of people ask us that, how do we get people to our pop-up initially. It was a bit of gorilla marketing I would say. We brainstormed 15 people, so we didn’t put up posters, we didn’t do Facebook ads or anything like that. We selected 15 people who are based here but who came from different walks of like, lets say, or different communities, nationalities, social circles, interests. We personally invited them, got them talking about it, hoping that they would turn around and talk to their networks about it. I think that worked quite well, it helped with things like, we had a quite famous designer lend us a 10,000 euro table for our mother table in the middle of the space, which was kind of cool and also terrible because I end up chasing people around with coasters when they want to put their drinks down like that. Library furniture, this all came from people wanting to get involved and help out, which is really nice.

The reason why we picked the two week period that we picked, was in the middle weekend was TEDx Ubud which is a fantastic event here. We did a big art instillation, active, creative installation at the TED event and that got us in front of people. People were there, they’re thinking about big ideas, we’re talking about something so we probably had 60 people our first week and 240 our second week. We leveraged off that to get some bodies in.

Serge: When you thought about making Hubud did you just want to do it because it was fun and your dream or did you put in considerable amount of market research and business planning? Or did you do something in between?

Steve: That’s a good question. We also get asked that a lot. How were we ahead of the curve on the digital nomad thing? We essentially created this, I call it a touch-point for the nomadic community. I will confess it here and now, I never heard the term digital nomad before we opened. Our initial thing was building it for people like us who were mobile, digital nomads but we were based here, there’s a large community based here. What we didn’t expect was the shear number of people who have traveled to be here largely because we’re here. We’ve had 3,100 members so far, from 70 countries.

It was I guess a bit of both. We had certainly done market research and were quite confident that we could fill the seats. We have 25 founding members that you can see their funny pictures on the wall downstairs. Those were all people who gave us the money ahead of time, not as an investors, but they thought this is great. We had done the validation in stages. They say you need something like 300 cups of tea to do something like this with people, sit down and have a coffee or tea. So we definitely did that but I think we were not prepared for the global angle of it so much. Word traveled fast.

Me: You were kind of like on a massive trend without even realising it I guess. That’s good.

Where do you see co-working going in the future? When I ask this question I’m thinking of Pieter Levels and how he thinks there’s going to be one billion nomads by 2035. Do you think there’s going to be as many or where do you see this going?

Steve: The end of the this month February we’re having the Co-working Unconference Asia, which is the 2nd year we’ve run this and the theme of the conference this year is the future of work. I’m not so interested for example in co-working finances or things that you often discuss at conferences like this, I’m interested in I guess a deeper, broader question in, what is the role of spaces like this in the immersion future of work. I thinks it’s going to have a massive role to play. If anybody thinks that the trend of people becoming more and more nomadic is going to decrease, I would love to have a conversation with them to hear why they’re that crazy. There’s no where this is going but up. Long-term jobs are becoming less and less available, they just aren’t existing anymore and that is going to increase. So an increase in the use of contracts and short-term work is. The upside to that is going to give people more flexibility. It’s going to be a bit more … People aren’t going to be locked in for long-term contracts in the same way they have been traditionally.

When you look at the desire of people who travel, for either a) the experience of it exploring new places; or b) in some cases the value, the financial rational behind. If you have an Australian who’s making Australian dollars and Australian salary but paying Indonesian expenses, for example. I don’t know if that will continue to be the case, I think that will start to close a little bit on certain destinations. Ultimately I think a lot of people read the 4-Hour Workweek, or books like that. I’ve had a lot of people that have come in and said my turning point was reading the 4-Hour Workweek. That talked a lot about celebrating independence and being able to just go off and be that guy on the beach that’s doing his thing, running his empire where ever he wants. I think what people found is that they were lonely. The successful ones are like I’m in the middle of nowhere and I’m doing $10,000 a month, but I’m here by myself and I miss the water cooler, I miss that banter of the conversation like we’re having now. There are online forums for it but there’s something to the in-person.

I see places like Hubud, I think we’re on the cutting edge of destination working, is kind of how I see this. I think that will definitely increase. I think there will be networks of places that people go, that convene communities that you feel resonance with. The Hubud crowd, we have a very loyal base I think, very strong brand loyalty but it’s not necessarily for everybody. It’s not necessarily the vibe that everybody wants so I think there will be more and more of them coming up that allows you to go where your people are.

That will tie in with co-living. We’re looking at ourselves. We get that, probably our single biggest question is, where can I stay when I’m there where I can be around other people from Hubud, which is interesting and that’s something that we never factored in. People are coming and part of the reason they’re coming is to connect with other like-minded people.

Serge: Have you ever thought about renting a huge villa or a complex of apartments and then offering that as a part of your service?

Steve: Yes. For 2016 we’re kind of looking… For us this has gone very well so the question is what do we want to do with that? We kind of look at it as the four co’s. Co-working. Co-learning, we did 360 events last year. We also started an education company that we started called TurnPoint, which is kind of longer, meatier courses everything from 2 month Ruby on Rails boot camps to more introspective, how do I line my business with my purpose kind of courses and everything in between. That learning piece is huge.

For me, I think people will not be going to university, or go to university and then realise, I don’t want to say wasted money, any education is a good thing, but people might take a marketing degree for 4 years and spend whatever they spend, within 5 years it’s questionable how valuable a lot of that stuff is because things are moving so fast. That’s assuming they’re still in the marketing field. People are reinventing themselves every 3-4 years, you kind of keep shifting.  The learning piece will be huge, that’s why we do a lot of peer-to-peer learning events. Co-living is a big piece.

The 4th is co-giving and this is something I will be talking about next month at the digital nomad conference. I don’t know if you guys are going, the DNX in Bangkok. One trend I see on the negative side is that you have all these people coming and they’re coming to places, not just in Ubud but in general, they’re coming to places and they’re not quite tourist. Tourists come to somewhere for 5 days, visits the temple, eats at the restaurant, goes home. They’re not quite the long-term resident. In Bali we have lots of people who’ve been here for 5, 10, 20 years that tend to be very integrated, they speak the language, they participate in ceremonies. And then our group here is somewhere right in the middle, that’s why we don’t do daily memberships because we’re only looking for monthly so that most people are here for awhile.

But the question is, how do these people who are coming, how do they impact the place that they are in? How do they – if they want to – connect into the local community in a meaningful way. We know a lot of people do. People come and they’re like I want to help, or I want to do this, or I want to do that, but it’s hard to do that without, I don’t know sometimes being annoying. It’s one thing to volunteer with an organization but if an organization has 20 people showing up saying I want to volunteer for a day, it’s more work than it’s actually value, it’s hard to get that right. So, we want to help be that bridge where people who are coming that want to do something here, organizations that will benefit from the type of expertise that we’re best positioned to offer, that we can kind of make these two connect in time-bound meaningful projects a month. We do the entire digital profile of this NGO for example. We could do a lot to help in co-management.

Serge: When you’re talking about digital nomad groups and people, freelancers, artists who are coming here to do their work but now it kind of popped up that a company might send their five people to work on a project, in an isolated place like this. Do you think that also will be an interesting marketing strategy?

Steve: Yes, actually we’ve been approached by a couple venture capital firms who when they see a place like this it’s not so much as a funnel for new startups or something like this that they’re going to send series A funding to, as much as bringing teams for set periods of times. Like for now till product launch where you need to get in, get down, hunker down, focus, get out of your environment, this will be perfect for that.

Absolutely, we’ve had teams already that have come out and done that, anywhere from 1 to 4 months. It’s great and they love it. Talk about an unexpected bonus but it ends up costing the company less. If all that money is coming from the VC you want them sending 3 or 4 a month.

Serge: I would always argue as a project manager that it’s always more efficient when you need the project down in the short-term, properly and correctly, to just get your best people and put them in a room outside of their usual place of work.

Steve: Lock them up. This is not a bad place to be locked up.

Here’s an interesting way to also look at that from the project manager piece, we figure we get people on average 20 extra hours per week. So, if they’re coming from … Where you from?

Me: Australia. Brisbane.

Steve: Okay, so you’re from Brisbane. You come here, depending on what you decide, you don’t need to do a lot of things that you need to do in Brisbane. You can outsource housecleaning, shopping, laundry, kind of all that stuff, housework. You can typically avoid a commute of any amount. Mine takes me about 4.5 minutes to get here from my place. When we put all that together it works to be around 20 a week on average. That’s massive, that’s huge if you think about it. That means that you could still work, let’s say a 40 hour week, but still have all the balance that everybody is constantly seeking, like a yoga teacher coming to your conference room at lunch time and everybody’s quickly doing yoga at lunch, forget that, you got 20 extra hours, you can to go to a proper place, you get a spa, you get exercise, go bike riding. You have time and time is everything.

Me: You mentioned that Hubud is on the cutting edge as a destination. If you look at Hubud in terms of co-working spaces around the world, its on a premium and I think the price reflects that as well. My question is how’s Hubud … I’ve been here so I know what it’s all about … but for people who don’t know Hubud, how is Hubud different to some of the places out there and what makes Hubud so good?

Steve: The advice that we got beforehand was start with the community first. For me that was a little bit confusing advice, this was the year before we open so I was like how do you mobilize people around a product that doesn’t exist yet. Most people here have not heard of co-working at all, but even if they have it’s like cool we’re in a co-working space. Let’s say we got the advice but I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it but when looking back I realize that’s what we did with the pop-up and bringing people in that way, with the events we did leading up to it, and kind of bringing people along for the journey. Every time we’d have an event we’d be like hey guys we’re getting closer, this is where it’s happening, and that’s why we were able to sell founding memberships before we opened because we did it with people. We’ve really tried to keep that at the forefront. It’s cheesy and every space will say it but with the community first it’s what we do with basically every decision that we make.

I think it’s maybe because when we started we thought we were going to be at a disadvantage where that was concerned, the community first, because we knew we’d have a more transient space then Melbourne, for example, people live in Melbourne their whole lives or for 10, 20 years. Our customers typically don’t live in Bali for 10 or 20 years so we were a little concerned about the turnover. How do you maintain that? I think we worked a little harder at it. We got people out in front of people, talking to people, trying to host in a certain way, the new members orientation in a certain way.

Member’s lunch is still my favourite event out of 360 of them because it’s simple and having lunch together. It’s giving people that little bit of an excuse to talk to the person besides them. That’s all they need, they don’t need a lot, they don’t need handholding for the rest of their life, but they need that when they first get here, especially that little thing that says, hey you’re a something, let’s talk about that. And then they’re off. So a lot of people it feels like coming home and that’s what we’re after.

Me: I definitely felt the sense of community here.

Steve: That’s really great.

Serge: It’s easy to start talking to people.

Me: Why is this a great place to work in terms of speaking to an audience of people who don’t understand that you can actually work remotely. What would you say to those people that just don’t get it? Maybe it’s a limiting belief that they have, they tell themselves I cannot work overseas, that it might not work and they don’t bother looking into it. I obviously know that it works because I’ve done it and we’re all here doing it. What would you say to those people?

Steve: I would give the hardest advice that anyone could ever give or get and that’s don’t be afraid. I think it’s fear that stops, I would say 80% of people doing it. There are certain jobs that are physical that you must be physically in a place. There are far fewer of them than people realize.

As an example, a friend of mine from Canada said oh I’d love to do that but I could never do that. He works for a big company, quite a big company, he’s an operations manager for a company that has 200 and some properties. So I said just walk me through your day and when he did that I said well can’t you do that from home and he said “oh yeah I work from home all the time”. I said what would stop you, except for time-zones and there’s those logistical challenges for certain professions. I said what would stop you and he said, “well I need to meet the suppliers sometimes”. I was like well how often? He’s like every 3 months. I said then come back every 3 months. You can absolutely do it but people really in so many ways, what’s that expression, whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re probably right. It’s like that, it really is like that.

Serge: It isn’t for everyone. Some people need structure and some people need to be told what to do, when to get up, when to get to work.

Steve: But that’s not related to working remotely. Some people that work her very much have a 9-5 job. They have to be online certain hours. Somebody’s a customer support officer, they have very set hours, they much be online, and it’s very structured and all the rest

Serge: It is but when you want to come here you need to do a lot of research. Where are you going to go? How to get there? What is Hubud? Why Bali, why not Thailand? There’s a lot of effort you need to put a lot of imagination you need to put into the action of coming here and not a lot of people want to be bothered with it. They’re inside their comfort zone in Brisbane, Toronto or wherever.

Me: I think that’s why there’s all these travelling nomad groups and things set up like Tribewanted, for example, I don’t know if they travel but, Tribewanted Bali for example is as far as I understand a full service kind of thing where you just pay them the money and they will get you there and sort you out and tell you everything that you need to do. And then there’s those traveling groups like Hacker Paradise. Terminal 3 just added me on Twitter and I was like oh what’s that, oh it’s another one of those groups. I think that those groups are sort of facilitating for those people who kind of don’t want to do all the research and need a shove to like say, yes this will work and we’ll all handle this for you. 

Steve: I think that there’s the community factor can’t be overlooked. I think that the appeal, say Hackers Paradise they were here last year working here, they’re coming back to Bali in a couple months. It’s a game. You show up and it’s a bunch of people and a little bit like this, it’s like a clubhouse but we’ll travel, which is kind of neat. It’s partly the logistical support I guess for some people.

I think at various times I’ve changed my story about what our business is and currently, I used to say that we’re in the business of accelerating serendipity, that was my money quote. I’m sure I stole it from somewhere but since captured it as my own. Really what I actually believe what we are in the business of is fostering meaningful connection. That’s it and again, not what I expected when we started out. Its very much shaped the other bits of the offer why co-living, why co-giving? I think once people get over the initial euphoria of life, “woo-hoo I’m traveling, I’m working, I’m growth hacking and all this stuff” and it’s a thing. That’s great but that as I said is what we see is people get, after awhile they tend to get if they’re doing it all on their own all the time, if they don’t have a connection to something else. Again, that’s why I think certain spots like this are popular with that group because they meet people who are like that.

Me: Actually I think I might suspect I know the answer, given what you just said, to my next question but what makes a great co-working space? And I suspect it’s to do with community.

Steve: Entirely. What makes a great co-working space? When we first started out we said there were 3 things we offered. Facilities, learning opportunity, and community. I’ve done the tour 500 times I’m sure of Hubud, of when people come in and I would always lead with the facilities. So I would start with what is our internet speed? What is our internet back up plan if there is no power? What is the redundancy rate? What is the uptime braid? How do you book the meeting room and the conference room? Our coffee is free, the this and the that. That’s really what we started with because at the beginning I honestly thought that’s what we were offering. In Bali the internet connection was significantly worse than it is now, even 3 years ago, so it was a big deal. We spent a fortune on our internet connection actually. For me that’s where I saw the value, the Internets awesome. And there’s some learning stuff that’s really cool and there’s some neat folks around.

Over the time, that whole value proposition has completely shifted around. I say yes, the internet is … Can you do your work here internet-wise? Yes. Tick. That’s kind of where that belongs. You’re never going to get South Korean, Lithuanian speeds, Serbian speeds in Bali, but can you get it done, yes. Where the value is in 360 learning events per year. I can point at people who came here literally just saying, I have no idea what to do about anything and they literally just sat here and watched businesses and whole product lines, literally from sitting in here. They’re working obviously, they’re working hard at it for sure but they’re going to all the free stuff, they’re talking to all the people, they’re getting support, they have a community behind them.

For me the learning is incredible and the community is the ticket.

Thank you to Steve Munroe and the team at Hubud for the insight and support you have showed me.

Until next time,
Christopher R Dodd

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About the Author

Hi, I'm Chris. I'm a self-taught web developer, YouTuber, Blogger and Digital Nomad.

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