A Whole New Industry Is Popping Up Around “Remote Work”

By Lydia DePillis
Houston Chronicle

Nühanzi Article Summary (tl;dr) How would you like to spend the next 12 months traveling around the world while still getting your work done? The founders of “Pangea196” say it’s possible and they’re ready to set you up with the perfect travel package to make it a reality.

Houston Chronicle

Travel agents have long seemed like one of those types of intermediaries doomed to death by disruption. Who needs professional help when flights and accommodations are available anywhere in the world with a tap on your smartphone or a click of a mouse?

It turns out travel is changing — and with it, a new type of travel agent has emerged.

Meet Pangea196. The four co-founders — Meredith and Lawrence Kalinov, Bobby Mansour, and Stela Tomova — sit around a table cluttered with laptops and travel guides. Their product is no two-week greatest-hits adventure tour, but a year-long, 12-countries-in-12-months, 30-person trip around the world. For $27,000.

And here’s the key: It’s not supposed to be a vacation.

The startup’s warehouse-like office, in an industrial park on a sparsely populated stretch of Steubner Airline Road, shares space with a fabrication shop owned by the Kalinovs. So despite the occasional shriek of sheet metal being cut next door, it’s their best source of free work space. But Pangea196 is targeting people who typically camp out in Starbucks.

“If you go downtown and you walk into any of the coffee shops during the day and you see all those people with their laptops open, they’re at work,” says Meredith. “And they’re paying more than this costs to sit there in that coffee shop, and the reason that they’re there is that they don’t want to be alone. They don’t want someone to tell them to go to the office, but they still don’t want to be alone.”

What if, instead, they bought a most-expenses-paid travel package that allowed them to do their work from pre-vetted spaces around the world with like-minded professionals? Kalinov thinks that would appeal to some coffee shop-squatters who want to take their internet-enabled business on the road, but who don’t have the know-how or confidence to do it.

“They’re there, and they have the ability to do all of these things, but they’re going to sit there the entire year,” Kalinov says. “And they could do this instead, for probably less than they’ll spend that year.”

The $27,000 price tag includes lodging, most flights, local guides, and activities across three continents. It becomes financially feasible if, rather than giving up your apartment for a few months, you let it go altogether.

So far, they’ve got 24 applications for 30 slots in the first trip, scheduled to begin in January. They include people like Yvonne Boustany, 43, an independent management consultant and graphic designer who helped start a co-working space in the Heights.

“The prospect of being able to travel all over the world sounds amazing. As long as I have internet, everything else can fall in line,” Boustany said.

But why not skip the overhead and plan travel herself? “I do have friends all over the place, and I could do that,” she said, “but it takes the guesswork out of it.”

The Pangea196 crew believes that the market is vast for this kind of curated travel experience: Not just an independent entrepreneur, but for employees of progressive companies that allow them to work remotely. Down the road, Pangea196 wants to explore partnerships in which employers post their location-agnostic jobs on Pangea196’s website, allowing people to apply with the knowledge that they’d spend their first year on the road. In an era when vacation time can be squeezed and people are looking for more “authentic” travel experiences than a quick week in a place can allow, work-travel experiences seem like an obvious fix.

Over the past year, a whole ecosystem of businesses, services, and web forums has popped up around the community of people — computer programmers, accountants, freelance writers — who set up temporary offices in cities around the world. There’s Nomadlist, an online community that requires a paid membership to participate. Roam.co is an international network of co-working spaces.

And then there’s Remote Year, which operates almost exactly like Pangea196: A year long package with a month in each of 12 countries, for $27,000. It’s already had six groups of people go through the program, with tens of thousands applying to participate, supported by a staff of dozens. Remote Year spokeswoman Heather Lee, on the phone from Lisbon, says they’re not troubled by the fact that Pangea196 and a few other startups seem to be riding the coattails of their success.

“It’s great that this is becoming such a trend, and that this is something our generation is interested in,” Lee says — meaning 20 and 30 somethings, although the program doesn’t have an age limit. “It’s great to help the cause and the movement of helping people with this cause and this lifestyle.”

The Pangea196 team says their idea is different than Remote Year because of the emphasis on productivity. Tomova, an enthusiastic native Bulgarian, checked out Remote Year after she lost her job as a quality assurance manager for an oilfield services company. It felt more like a college study-abroad program than a professional community, she said.

“It didn’t look like they had a work focus,” Tomova says. “There were some bad reviews.”

In May, travel website Atlas Obscura published a long narratives of what Remote Year’s first trip had been like. Indeed, several of the participants lost their jobs along the way, accommodations didn’t seem up to snuff and a few people left the program entirely. Heather Lee says changes have been made since that first trip, and they have more staff to help when the work part of the work-travel experience gets rocky.

So how big can the “digital nomad” industry get?

Alec Turnbull, a New York City-based computer programmer who has spent long stints working from places like Buenos Aires and Berlin, toyed with starting a remote work travel agency himself before deciding against it.

“I doubt they’ll ever be more than a new type of packaged travel,” Turnbull says. “They’re clearly part of the startup ecosystem, but they’re never going to have startup scale and returns. And that’s just fine. It’s plenty interesting in its own right.”

If anything, Remote Year’s Lee says, their growth is limited by the number of companies willing to let their workers give up physical presence entirely for an extended period of time. Even the most liberal telecommute policies usually apply only for a few days each week — according to Gallup, the average number of days American employees work from outside the office per month hasn’t changed much since 2006.

But if you can work just as well from Croatia or Rio or Bali, you’re likely to have more options than ever.

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