Why Not Start a Co-Working Business Overseas?
Starting a Co-working business as a traveler in Tbilisi, Georgia
By Maida Besic
After traveling the world for three years full time, Candy Treft, a former digital nomad, knew she wanted to create a space where professional remote workers, ex-pats, locals, and travelers could come together to live, share ideas, and have fun.
Tbilisi, the capital of the country of Georgia, a hub for remote workers with a decent tourist market, affordable cost of living, lots of activities and historical attractions, plus nice weather year-round checked off most of her criteria and seemed to be the right place for this new business venture.
With the recent rise of remote workers and travelers, co-working and co-living spaces are opening up all over the world. In the U.S. digital nomads, location-independent remote workers, have increased by 50% in the past few years. There are currently 35 million of these workers around the world. Georgia allows 98 countries to stay without a visa.
As of now, 40 countries have implemented some type of digital nomad visas to entice remote workers to live, work, and spend their money there. Coliving and coworking spaces are popping up all over the world. One of which is LOKAL in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Raised in Indiana USA
Born in a small town in Indiana, where there are nothing but corn fields around, she moved to southern Indiana as a young adult where she became a registered nurse. On one of her contract assignments in Germany for the U.S. Department of Defense, she cared for Georgian soldiers returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars because they didn’t have adequate care in their home country.
Sometimes a family member joined them in their care and they would cook and share delicious Georgian food. It was here where she first experienced Georgian hospitality and culture.
This planted a seed to one day visit the country and explore that part of the world, but first, as many avid travelers do, there were other places she wanted to see and visit like S.E. Asia, Western Europe, and both Central and South America.
Fulltime Travel Blogger
Traveling in between her contract assignments, she met a full-time travel blogger who made his income solely by blogging. It inspired her to start her first business, The Gypsy Nurse blog which developed into a platform for nurses to learn about travel nursing as a lifestyle, work opportunities in the U.S., and organized events.
It also provided people with a chance to engage, socialize, and support each other. She was able to travel while running this online business and ended up selling it to travel full time while keeping an eye out for a place to open her coliving/coworking place.
Georgia, known locally as Sarkartvelo (საქართველო), is located in the Caucasus mountain range, a natural barrier between Eastern Europe and Western Asia.
A country of 1.7 million inhabitants gained its independence from the USSR in 1991. It borders Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan and is on the Black Sea.
There’s evidence of inhabitants in the region going back to 1.8 million years which is the oldest evidence of humans anywhere in the world outside of Africa. They have their own alphabet and language completely unique from any other in the world.
They even have a lovely wine tradition that dates back 8,000 years, one of the oldest in the world, with their own unique approach to winemaking called qvevri, named after the clay amphorae the wine is fermented in.
The history and intrigue of the region is attracting many to live and visit. The country has had a very flexible visa policy offering visa-free entry for stays up to one year to 95 countries enticing remote workers and travelers along with entrepreneurs from all over the world.
What the Remotes are Looking For
Having lived in many co-living and working spaces around the world, Candy knew what remote travel workers, often referred to as digital nomads, were looking for. Plus, with a successful community-based business already under her belt, she decided to start a coliving and coworking space.
The digital nomad community inspired her because people from different backgrounds and careers allow for interesting and unique collaborations and connections. It’s an open community that doesn’t mind sharing knowledge and working together through brainstorming sessions, living together and organizing their own activities.
Co-working and co-living spaces offer the community of a hostel with the comfort of a bed and breakfast, plus networking opportunities and collaborations.
LOKAL Co-Work is Born in Tbilisi
The daily co-working pass costs $9.50 and a monthly pass is $160. You have your own workspace, outlets at each desk, bookable call and meeting rooms, plus the highest WiFi speed available in Tbilisi (100MBPS) along with refreshments. The coliving options are private rooms with a workspace provided in the room and 24/7 access to the co-work spaces.
The rooms have private bathrooms, a shared kitchen/living area, weekly housekeeping, paper products, a washing machine & dryer, complimentary refreshments and includes all utilities and high-speed internet. Guests frequently share meals together, go to after-hour events and activities, plus participate in or host an event.
Regular activities like board game nights and improv nights are offered along with Georgian language lessons and professional development workshops and collaborations. The room rates start at $21/night with stays over 28 nights receiving a 15% discount. There is also a bar on site where guests receive a 15% discount as well.
Challenge of starting and operating a business during Covid
Starting a business in Georgia is easy and as an ex-pat financially it’s easier to withstand certain difficulties and get the business off the ground. The first hurdle was to find a property. Not having much luck she planned to leave the country so she booked a trip when a few properties popped up leading her to find and open her business at the end of 2019.
The pandemic derailed future plans for businesses all over the world and it did the same to her business. “I had a plan, but Covid’s been pretty difficult. It’s put in front of me a lot of challenges I wasn’t planning for as it’s done for many people.” Maneuvering and adjusting around that with a tourism-based business has been tough.
The co-working place had to be closed during the lockdown and caused her to re-evaluate what the future holds. The co-living space was still operational during the lockdown and maybe even fared well because of the pandemic. “Weirdly enough Covid hasn’t affected the coliving part of the business model, we’ve maintained good occupancy probably because of Covid.
You can be in a co-living and not be isolated away from the entire world because you’ve got an immediate community, but the co-work has definitely suffered. The co-working model is focused on temporary remote workers that are here temporarily so without that audience coming into Tbilisi we obviously suffered.” Some people stayed for four to six months. The minimum stay is one week.
The pandemic required her and the business to be flexible and reactive. The hours, programming, and member processes needed to be adjusted. Staying up to date with local legislation, restrictions, and requirements was necessary, yet challenging with the frequency of changes and lack of clear communication from governing bodies. Although the pandemic has posed a great challenge it also made for more creative efforts to keep the community engaged and connected. Programs were created that otherwise would not have been. For example, an online virtual craft beer workshop was hosted along with online discussions and workshops.
The top goals were to keep the community engaged and connected which actually helped it become stronger and more supportive. When asked about her favorite part of running the business she replied, “The people that I’ve met. The connections that I’ve made. The relationships that have been built.”
It’s been her favorite part of running LOKAL even amidst the recent challenges. With limited travel, the co-work side of the business has been slower, but with travel becoming more prominent again there is potential for it to grow. So, in the meantime, a variety of activities and events are being developed to bring in a wide range of people from fun game nights, skills-based workshops, and social activities for the community.
Challenges of starting a business in Georgia in general
It’s important to understand the cultural norms and standards of how business is conducted because it drastically varies from place to place. In Georgia, meetings, appointments, and times are not strictly adhered to. So, people showing up late is acceptable.
She recalls sometimes people arriving an hour late or even after a few days without any communication or forewarning. Thus, it was a big adjustment compared to the punctuality expectations in the U.S. where being on time is highly valued and a necessity in business.
The right staff
Finding the right staff has been an unexpected challenge. Salaries in Georgia are pretty low so by offering a higher wage Candy expected to find reliable staff pretty easily. Unfortunately, that was tougher than anticipated. Eventually, she did find her right-hand person in Georgia whom she speaks highly of and feels it’s a necessity to have such a person when operating a business in a foreign country. Currently, there are four Georgian staff members at LOKAL that help the business run.
The Georgian Language
The Georgian language is quite hard to learn for English speakers. It’s ranked as four, exceptionally difficult, on the Language Difficulty Ranking scale by the U.S. State Department. It has a unique alphabet making it even more challenging. It was a big help to Treft when she hired Milena, a local Georgian who speaks English fluently.
Milena helped and continues to assist her in navigating the Georgian culture because there are certain cultural norms that as an ex-pat one is not privy to and this could make doing business more difficult. Milena also assists with finding the necessary services, and the right professionals to work with, reviewing contracts, ordering supplies, and setting meetings up. “Everyone needs a Milena,” says Candy. It’s integral to have someone within the country you can trust and rely on as you are starting and running your business, especially when you don’t know the language.
Quality is Hard to Find
Quality products have been difficult to find in Georgia. Countless items have been replaced because of poor quality. A small example is a brand new thermometer that recently broke which she had just recently purchased. Along with some lights that had to be replaced numerous times. It’s an added stress and cost.
Although prices in Georgia are low, having to buy and replace things frequently eats up cost, time, and energy. It can be quite frustrating given that there are so many other things to tend to in the business as well. Just getting the right supplies that will work long term has not been easy, causing her to order supplies from abroad even though it would be preferable to support local suppliers and businesses.
Part of Candy’s mission is to build community with a focus on inclusivity. She knows what it’s like to sometimes feel excluded and also noticed while staying in other digital nomad communities that local people were missing. She acknowledges outreach is tough and there are cultural and language barriers, but she strives to have a relationship with the local community. However, it’s been a challenge.
The way of seeing business collaborations is a bit different from the U.S. Unless there is an immediate financial payoff to local businesses here, generally speaking, they don’t see the point. Developing partnerships for future opportunities has proven to be a challenge.
Part of what she wants in the space is for travelers, ex-pats, and locals to engage with each other, learn from each other, and have access to new opportunities.
Even though events are geared toward remote professionals most events are free so locals can participate and they are advertised in both English and Georgian.
The lack of participation from Georgians could be due to many factors, such as the rough political and economic situations the country has experienced, but there is a clear difference in how partnerships are facilitated. This is an area of growth she hopes to build on.
Advice for those thinking about starting a business abroad
Take your time
Candy likes to jump in and figure things out along the way. She did her research but advises others to spend more time learning and figuring out how things work in a particular country. She advises others to study the businesses in the area, talk to people, and figure out who to hire to help them along the way.
“Take your time, slow down, understand the rules, the laws, the regulations, the tax implications…don’t just blindly trust what someone tells you.” These things take time and there’s no rush. It’s necessary to do due diligence beforehand to avoid unnecessary pitfalls and setbacks.
Learn about the local tax system and regulations
It’s imperative to find the right people to assist you as you learn the laws and regulations in a new country. Initially, finding credible and reputable professionals was a challenge.
It’s necessary to learn about the local rules, laws, regulations, and tax requirements as much as you can beforehand and not to just rely on the local experts that you find because they may not have all the know-how that you’d expect.
Engage with the ex-pat entrepreneur community
Meeting others who have been down the road you are planning to go down will make the path much smoother. In Tbilisi, there is a large expat community that has shown to be supportive.
So, Candy encourages others to engage with entrepreneurs in the area to learn from them, ask questions and support each other in the process. They’re a great resource.
Finding professional and reliable services proved to be a challenge. Mistakes were made and setbacks were faced along the way. The sooner you can meet and develop relationships with people you can trust in the community to provide you with solid referrals for services the better. Referrals and word of mouth are still the preferred way of doing business in Georgia.
Don’t get too emotionally invested
Having some emotional investment in your business is necessary to create a good business, but you do have to let go a bit. With her first business this was quite an arduous task; so with this one, although she is investing a lot of herself into it, she has plans to let go of the reins so she can still pursue travel in the future. The goal is to set the right process and people in place so it can run without her there full time. It also eases the stress load.
Work with your competition
Co-living and co-working spaces are popping up all over the world and even here in Tbilisi, but she is not worried about competition because it’s healthy. “It keeps people honest. It keeps people fair and it keeps people creative. Each place is different and offers different things.” For example, she had a digital nomad couple where one of them chose to stay at her co-work and the other went to a different one.
“Different people, different needs.” Not every space is suited for everyone and she wants to work with her competitors to collaborate and build on each other’s strengths. They’re in talks to see how they could do just that. Understanding that competition is inevitable and using it to be better, to see competitors as allies is key in not letting the competition get the best of you. The key is to focus on offering the best service you specifically can with your own strengths to your specific niche. What each person and each place offers is very particular to them and the customers they serve.
Running a tourism-focused business during a pandemic is no easy feat and now with Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine, another stressor looms. The co-working space is focused on temporary remote workers coming and without people being able to travel it didn’t work as well. However, now that things are returning to some semblance of normalcy the many people that have taken to remote work will be encouraged to travel and work by staying in co-working and co-living spaces.
Spaces like this are opening up all over the world and the numbers of these places were rising even before Covid. Georgia itself is a great destination and has been on people’s radar for a while. It offers great natural beauty, convenience, affordability, and flexibility. Its people are known for hospitality, even being so generous as to, during this current conflict with Ukraine, offer people places to stay in their homes, free accommodation in hotels, food, and the like.
Even at LOKAL donations are being accepted to send to Ukrainians. There’s a reason many have made this country their home while working remotely and why many are flocking to visit as tourists. There’s a rich and old culture, twelve different climate zones and it’s at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Western Asia with a beautiful mountainous region bringing out a very unique mix of culture, architecture, and tradition, making it very likely to be a huge attraction post-pandemic.
Maida Besic is a freelance educator, writer, and yin yoga teacher. Born in former Yugoslavia, raised in the U.S., and currently in Tbilisi, Georgia. Since 2016 she has been nomadic, exploring the world slowly while working remotely. Visit her teaching page.