Today I don’t have a hack for you. I have a story, one that I hope will prove useful to a few of you who are considering a move to Asia to chase opportunities here.
Seven years ago, I was a pretty stereotypical starving hacker. I had five jobs: A full-time dead-end job in biotech, and four part-time or contract gigs that were either electronic hardware design or programming. I worked perhaps 50 hours a week, and was barely past the poverty line – I was starting to wonder why I spent so much time in school. I saw the economic growth in Asia as an attractive but risky opportunity.
Check out that image above…France? No, this is Shenzhen and let’s face it: many exciting things are made there (even the copies). After a short visit to the region, I decided to take that risk but not in Shenzhen. I sold everything I owned and moved from Canada to Vietnam and started a company. Over the last seven years things have worked out well, although I certainly wish I had known more about the process before I got on a plane. This article is about the general path I took to get where I am. Obviously I don’t know the legal framework of every country in Asia, but speaking in generalities I hope that I can cover some interesting points for the curious and adventurous.
The first thing to say is that establishing yourself in another country is hard. My grandparents moved to Canada from Poland in the 1960’s with essentially the clothes on their backs, and without a working knowledge of English or French. I always listened to their stories and admired them for their perseverance. Perhaps there is someone like that in your family, and maybe you’ve admired (or rolled your eyes at) their stories. The fact is though, their tales of hardship are not only probably true, but they’ve spared you the worst of it.
Before You Leave: Sorting out Finances
To avoid a little of that hardship, the first step towards moving to Asia is preparation. We can divide that into two categories: financial and personal. On the financial end, you’ll need a little money. I would say a reasonable minimum is living expenses for a year in your destination, plus any amount needed to set up a company (do some preliminary research). If you plan to keep your foreign bank account, give someone you trust power of attorney over it. Banks are fickle creatures, require that you show up in person to do a number of things, and having a legal representative in your home country costs nothing and can save you a world of pain.
Next, take some steps to prevent identity theft. At the very least make sure that any official documents are being mailed somewhere safe. I was quite careful about this, my identity was still stolen, and it was quite a pain to sort out. Hopefully you will have better luck.
Then it’s time to think about taxes. Chances are you’re not going to make much (or any) money in the first year, so if you’re eligible for an income tax refund from tax paid at your last job, you can work out the optimal time of year to move.
Before You Leave: Sorting Yourself Out
On a personal level, first and foremost you’ll need to have a skill set that is realistically in demand, preferably something that is possible to do remotely. This lets you potentially operate as a freelancer or part-time employee (depending on labor laws) in a sector related to what you want to do while you get the hang of things. Web development or digital marketing are common choices, and while viable, be advised it’s a crowded market for those things here, and scale your salary expectations accordingly. Teaching English without full qualifications as a teacher in your home country is unlikely to build a professional network in the tech sector; my strategy was to avoid it completely, and I think that was the right choice.
Next up is avoiding errors in mindset. Probably the single wisest thing I did was to see myself as an immigrant: that means working harder for less money, and being cautious of being taken advantage of. This is very different from the attitude I occasionally encounter at different ‘expat’ communities in Asia. I want to keep this article positive, so I’ll leave it at that.
It also wouldn’t hurt to read our some of Hackaday’s Life on Contract articles. Many of us are (or have been) working as contractors in the hardware or software world and have contributed to this series of articles. The advice there has helped me more than a few times.
That brings us to the next point: Make sure you love your job, then structure your life to accept longer working hours. Nine-to-five isn’t really a thing in Asia, for reference I work 60-80 hours a week and take about one day off a month. I realized that if I treat my business as a hobby it would remain one, and I committed to putting in the hours to get it off the ground. To my surprise, I have at no point felt healthier or less stressed – working every day means that there are always exciting opportunities to seize, and enough hours to do so with both hands.
Finally, you’ll want to learn enough of the relevant language and culture before you arrive to not be a jerk. It’s easy to learn more once you arrive, but sort out the basics before you get on a plane. While I speak very basic Vietnamese, in hindsight I regret not spending more time learning the language before everything became too busy.
Finally, You’ve Arrived
You’ve arrived, and taken a few weeks off to tour around and get the hang of things. Now you’re ready to get to work, and wondering where to start. This is where I suggest something that is occasionally considered controversial by locals and foreigners: open a company, become a legal resident, register with the tax authority, and obtain a driving license. What type and structure of company you open depends on many factors and is beyond the scope of this article, although I opened a limited liability company with myself as the sole owner.
While many people have told me it was unnecessary, and I could just illegally work and avoid tax, there’s a reason that’s unrealistic. Simply put: a legitimate company gives you access to instruments that let you scale.
No one will be willing to sign a significant contract with you unless you can legally enter that contract, issue an invoice, and have some liability for the work being completed once payment is issued. Not to mention if you ever become even moderately successful, you’ll be big enough to be noticed, caught, and deported.
The exact method to do this varies by jurisdiction. A good way to start (if you are in a communist country) is to read the five-year plan or a summary of it. Do any of the sectors outlined in the plan touch on aspects of your business idea or skillset? If so, you may be able to get some benefit upon opening a company licensed in that area. Examples might include significantly reduced taxes or required starting capital. I was able to do this, and it helped considerably.
Next, network at co-working spaces, explain what you want to do, and ask for a reference to a lawyer. I’ve seen legal fees vary by a factor of five for opening a foreign-owned company, depending on the size and specialization of the law firm, so a referral to the right lawyer will save you a lot of money when you need to do something so straightforward. Explain to your lawyer what you want your company to be able to do, and ask if there are any government programs (e.g. tax breaks) you can take advantage of. Before you pay any significant money, ask them to quickly explain how you can get legal residency as a company owner and make sure you can go through the process.
In several Asian countries, companies are only allowed to operate within the sectors of the economy they are licensed for. In this case, always add consulting to your business license – unexpected opportunities will come up and this will allow you to take them on within reason. As part of the company registration process, you’ll receive a company seal or stamp. Do not ever lose or damage this as it is your company’s legally binding signature.
Your lawyer will also be able to tell you if you’re legally required to rent a specific type of office, and connect you to an accountant. You will need them for tax compliance at least, but only for 2-3 hours a month so the price must reflect that.
Your new accountant will be able to register you at the tax authority, and help you learn how to issue legal invoices and contracts. Make sure to get at least a bilingual service contract and employment contract.
Finally, call a travel agency and ask them to get you residency. You may have to jump through some strange hoops, just do it patiently and insist on getting a legal invoice from the travel agent and paying taxes on it. Some are shady with regards to visas and residency so you want that paper trail! Your travel agent will also very likely be able to instruct you on how to get a driver’s license given your new residency. In my opinion, enjoying motorcycles (responsibly) is one of the great joys of Southeast Asia, and a license is also a useful piece of ID. The ones from your home country will one day expire and become difficult to replace.
Congratulations, You’re a CEO and a Resident
With what you have now, it should be relatively easy to open a company bank account. If you live in a country where there is no company owner’s draw, be aware you’ll likely need to open a personal account too, and issue a work contract between you and yourself to pay yourself between your accounts (not as confusing as it sounds).
With that done, your life is now immensely easier: you can use your company to enter into contracts. Not only does this let you operate confidently as a freelancer, it means a lot of services that are not typically available to foreign residents just became available to you, because you can operate as a local legal entity via your company.
At this point it may be a good idea to print business cards. Co-working spaces can normally help you with this, although you can also hire a designer if you need a logo and so on. Exchanging business cards is still somewhat of a ritual in Asia, so get yours designed and printed properly, on reasonably thick uncoated paper.
Networking: Learn It, Love It
Next is the part that I completely failed to do, and struggled for a year as a result: networking. I used to consider networking events useless, and just worked hard for my existing clients and developed technology I thought I would need later. What I missed out on were more interesting projects, and companies willing to pay me significantly more to do them. I literally went out to one networking event and not only doubled my company’s gross income, but found far more exciting work. The obvious lesson here was that I didn’t have to go to these events regularly, just once in a while to make sure I’m being paid market rates and working on the right projects.
With that you should be able to operate. Looking back, I’d say that the two most important things are to avoid participating in corruption and bad habits, and to cultivate a measure of stoicism. Asia offers a lot of distractions and legally-gray shortcuts, ignore them all. Focus on what you need to do to succeed, do it legally and well. If you’re in a developing country, a few truly terrible things will probably happen too. Deal with them stoically and get back to work – then if it makes a good story, save it for your grandchildren.