MediaChange talked to the co-founder Sam Pessin in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where the group of 75 ‘remotes’, as they call themselves, found their second home (and workplace) for a month. After Prague, the group of highly motivated and talented young people now works at Poligon creative centre and co-working area in Ljubljana and travels the country and the region in their free time. In August, they are moving to Dubrovnik, Croatia. Next they will move to Istanbul, Turkey, and so on through eight following months to other 8 cities on their list, from Asia to South America.
Where did the idea about Remote Year come from and how did it all start?
I grew up all around the world, since my father was a journalist and we would spend a few years in a bunch of different countries. I really value those experiences that I had and I have always wanted to give people that as well.
After I graduated from the university I worked in consulting for about three years and than I worked in another small company for about a year. The whole time Greg, co-founder, and I lived together in Chicago; we have been good friends for about ten years now. And Greg had this idea, why don’t we go travel and work remotely with our friends. It didn’t get to much traction from our friends because they have jobs where they can’t or don’t want to think about working remotely. Then Greg put up a website that sort of said: “Come with us to work and travel”. And that’s how it started.
How does the program work? Is it more about travelling than working?
No, not at all. There are three elements of the program – remote work, travel and community. All three are equally important, but at the end of the day I would say, work comes first. None of these people want to sacrifice their careers for travelling. On the contrary, they want to accelerate their careers while travelling. So, they are not travelling for work, they are working and travelling. It is a different kind of concept.
You have received thousands of applications for the first round of Remote Year program. How did you select among them?
Our main criterion when selecting people was that they already have a job that they can do remotely. We didn’t want to take anybody who was just coming to travel. That wasn’t the idea. The idea was to bring together a group of diverse people and watch them collaborate and learn from each other while also see the world with travelling it and experiencing new things.
We did a few selection rounds from applications and finally we came down to a smaller number of people based on whether they can work remotely and were they doing it for the right reasons, not that they just wanted to travel. We were able to get that down to a number that we interviewed; we interviewed hundreds of people and then select the ones we thought were the right fit for the program. From 75 people there are about half from USA, but we have 14 nationalities in total; there are people from different countries in Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Canada.
How did you promote the program?
It was purely through PR. We got published in a few different sources and also all around the world. That’s have we were able to get some traction in different countries. For example, we got published in a few different sources in Brazil, like GQ, and that got as a lot of Brazilian applications. It helped us get people’s attention and then it all went viral, people sharing it with their friends.
In 12 months you will visit 12 cities in Europe, Asia and South America. How did you decide about them?
We wanted to have a nice weather for the whole year. Within that we relied a lot on our own knowledge and knowledge from friends who were travelling a lot. There was a lot of internet research to find cities that we thought fit best, based on whether they are culturally interesting, do they have a community that we feel our group will connect with professionally and personally, is it safe, is it low-cost enough that people can live there comfortably. Ljubljana was perfect because it is between Prague, out first stop, and Dubrovnik, our next city. There are a few other cities that we could have gone to, but Ljubljana is a little bit smaller and we were looking for something like that. We have chosen diverse cities to experience something different every month.
We had heard great things about Ljubljana from a number of sources, but had not actually been here ourselves. The group has had a fabulous time in the city (and in Slovenia in general). It's really been a perfect way for us to wind down a bit in a smaller city, and enjoy spending time and working with each other. In addition, we have really connected with the local community, and it'll be sad for us to leave in a couple weeks.
How would you describe your startup in terms of its core business – is it a travel agency or something else?
Ultimately, it offers an experience and I would definitely not call as a travel agency. Maybe, literally speaking, you could classify it as that, but nobody on the program would describe our team as a travel agency. We are a lot more an experience provider.
When you think about Remote Year, it actually combines two things: easy logistics, so people travelling don’t need to worry about it, and on the other side there is the community element, having this diverse group working together, travelling together, experiencing things together and growing as a group. We are combining the three elements – travelling, where we work as a travel agency with all the logistics, working, what includes finding interesting speakers to come and speak to our group, and community. All the different types of events that we organize in local communities put us beyond travel agency and more into experience provider.
How do employers perceive this kind of remote working?
For the employers of ‘the remotes’, the ones that have a full-time employment – not all of them have it, some of them are freelancers –, it is a really great thing for them to invest. The reason is in two things that companies care a lot about. One is retention of their employees. Offering this kind of a program to somebody who is doing a good job at work really shows that they care about work-life balance and lifestyle of employees. I think it would lead directly or indirectly into longer retention of their employees.
And the second part is recruitment. When companies go to university campuses and try to find people for new roles, saying that they offer this kind of it becomes a really big competitive advantage in the world that is shifting towards these types of global roles and global opportunities. For example, my old company had a program where they sent people to different offices in different countries for six months. I got a chance to go to India for six months. And that is honestly one of the main reasons why I worked there in the first place. The more companies can offer these kinds of things to their employees, the more they will get the best talent in the world.
What kind of business model for Remote Year have you adopted? How did you estimate the fee and the costs?
We did a good amount of research on how much everything would cost and round it to ensure that we will be able to cover even unexpected costs. There is a 2,000 USD fee per month and 3,000 USD of down payment, which is 27,000 USD a year. We estimated it is an appropriate amount to pull it off.
In a month and a half since you launched the program, did anything surprise you – positively or negatively?
There are definitely surprises and most of them were positive. After the very first day when people arrived in Prague on June 1, we got to know each other, had a couple of drinks, and in my head I thought there was a slight possibility nobody was really here to work. But in the next morning at 10 am, every person was in the workplace, working with their headphones on and some were talking to each other... I was really amazed. We realised that what we had dreamt of, was also their dream.
The other great thing that happened was that after a couple of weeks it still wasn’t totally clear whether the people were just excited to be there and if they truly connected with each other. But after a month and a half it is very clear that these people are forming lifelong connections, personally and professionally.
What are your future plans with the program?
Our goal is to offer this kind of experience and lifestyle to as many people as we can. But right now we are focused on delivering a great experience to our current group. If we are not able to do that, we won’t be able to run another program next time.
Photo credits: Remote Year