KoHub: How a UK-born programmer created a community for traveling digital workers on a Thai island

A few weeks ago, I spent some days working from a coworking space called KoHub. It’s not your average coworking space: KoHub can be found on the tropical island of Ko Lanta, situated right in front of the shore of Thailand’s East Coast. Unlike places such as neighboring Phuket, Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand or Ubud on the Indonesian island of Bali, Ko Lanta in comparison must still be considered an insider tip for travelers and location independent workers alike. But probably not for too long. Tourism is growing and KoHub is thriving. I wanted to learn a bit more about why one would open a coworking space on an island and how the journey has been so far, so I sat down with James Abbott, a 39-year old UK-born programmer and global traveler who runs KoHub together with his team.

James, the most important question first: How’s your Internet connectivity at KoHub? Considering that the place is located on an island in Southern Thailand.
We have two lines, one with 100 Mbit/s downstream and one backup line with 50 Mbit/s. The upload speed for our main line is 30 Mbit/s. So I’d say it’s pretty good for the type of environment that we are in. One time, we had 90 people working at once at KoHub. That pushed the limits of course, but it was not a big issue.

90 people at once sounds crowded. Especially considering that KoHub is fairly young.
True, but we are a large enough space and of course that was a one-time peak. During the months of the low season, sometimes only 5 to 10 people are around. So the occupancy varies a lot. But overall the numbers grow nicely. KoHub indeed still is fairly young, and we are only now reaching the phase in which we are experiencing an increasing number of returning members, who also start to invite their friends. So the word is spreading.

James

KoHub founder James Abbott, with the view from his coworking space.

How did KoHub happen?
It’s a bit of a longer story. I left the UK 12 years ago with the goal of extensive traveling. I have been a programmer basically since the age of 6, but in 2004, if you wanted to see the world, you had to find alternative means of financing. No one was traveling with laptops back then. Wi-Fi was rare, and if you wanted to work, you had to go to Internet cafés, coding away with bad connections on bad computers. It was very hard to do much. I met some people who still tried it, but their tasks mainly were limited to email communication and selling or buying shares. Generally, working with the computer remotely was a bad idea. So instead I became a dive master and immediately an instructor, and then I used this job to fund my travels across South America, the South Pacific, Australia and South-East Asia. I think I ended up creating a coworking space because over the past ten years, I had various experiences related to remote work and community building. As another source of income I started to sell analytics software for professional Poker players over the Internet and programmed for websites of clients. At one point I lived on a sailing boat for 2 years, floating around in South-East Asia, managing websites for people (and in between I did diving). Eventually I thought I was done with Thailand, but a friend insisted that I should visit Ko Lanta. I came once, and then over and over again, often for periods ranging from a month to 6 months. The last 2 years I’ve been here full time, building KoHub.

Lanta

Ok, so that explains the choice of location. But what made you open up a coworking space?
First I came for diving and kept doing programming gigs as side projects. I was involved with a community website, which taught me a lot about dealing with problems of real people. And then, at one point, I visited Bali and Ubud, which is known for its vibrant coworking scene. I got so inspired and I realized that I wanted to try building a coworking community on an island I like living on, which of course was Ko Lanta, which had become like a second home. I knew of the house close the beach which had been empty for 2 years and decided to rent it. That was in mid 2014. In November 2014, after 3 months of renovation, KoHub opened its doors.

Where did the money come from?
From my own pocket. I had some savings, some money left from selling the sailing boat, and income from my programming jobs. First I thought I could run KoHub as a side project and continue to invest the revenue from programing and selling software into the coworking project. But I quickly had to face the reality that KoHub was a full-time job. I never knew how intense such an undertaking would be. Probably because I wanted do it right. I didn’t just want to create a shared office space on Ko Lanta. I aimed at building a community around a coworking space, which takes a lot of energy and also money. Nowadays we have about 10 full-time employees, also rent needs to be paid. The membership prices are rather low, because we want to make it affordable for many. So it definitely has been and still is a challenge. Also, because the bigger it gets, the more attention it requires.

Kohub

What does make KoHub special, in your eyes?
Apart from the fact that it is a part-open-air office on an island in Thailand, it’s definitely the community aspect and the fact that we organize activities daily. Some people of course want to keep themselves to themselves and that is fine. But generally, this environment attracts a certain type of person and it also gets the best out of these people. That’s why I’d say we’ve been thriving in regards of community. The relationships that I’ve seen develop here are really strong. For me, KoHub is also some kind of social experiment. I noticed that when you have over 40 people here at once, the dynamics change. Different cliques and smaller groups are forming. It can be emotionally draining to be involved, but it’s also absolutely fascinating.

When you described how you founded KoHub it sounds as it is easy as a foreigner to just open up a coworking space in Thailand…
In Thailand, starting a company is very doable. Keeping it going is very tricky. It takes a lot of energy and knowledge to keep going. Learning the Thai language helps of course. Considering how much time I’ve stayed here, I am utterly disappointed in my own knowledge of Thai. It is just very hard to find the time. In most cases, when you are busy, you want to communicate in a language which enables you to get things done. That’s why most of my staff prefers to talk to me in English :)

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At which point did you feel that KoHub is actually something which can work in the long-term in a sustainable way?
I still don’t really know haha. But sure, at one point it became clear to me that the team and I managed to built something which other people actually liked. But it is hard to put a date on that because we have been ever expanding. The space, the community, the team, everything is growing. It is the way I like it. And I like to see the community getting what it needs. It is kind of an organized anarchy at times. When we are really busy it can be pretty crazy. But still. We try to deliver what people are looking for, within our vision to create a kind of oasis for people who are on the road or who want to start experimenting with remote work, who come here, meet friends and move on.

How did the locals react to your project?
As a tourist destination, Ko Lanta is still relatively small. There are none of the big supermarkets or chain stores here. I think we have 5 to 10 years until the development will get really intense. But of course there are plenty of hotels and resorts. It took more or less amost 2 years to make people on a larger scale understand what KoHub represents. The concept of remote work, coworking and digital nomadism is new for most people. That’s why these labels, as annoying as they sometimes can be, are needed. As people started to understand that we are not just an Internet café but a community I was keen to get our community involved with the local community. It took a long time to built the contacts and trust, but nowadays we have great initiatives going on, such as assisting with teaching English at local schools or doing other kinds of projects with locals. The Tourist Authority of Thailand also got curious. They see us as an opportunity to develop tourism during the low-season, during which everyone on the island is struggling to make ends meet. Our members inject money into the local economy when few others are here. People start noticing that, especially our neighbors. Regarding the charity projects, we are doing them not doing only to help out the locals but also to bring new members here. Charity activities always bring you closer to local people and culture. You change the word locally, not globally. For members, that aspect can be very attractive, too.

Are you happy with where KoHob is right now?
When I came her first, I was the only nerd on the island, so to speak. Now Kohub has really transformed things. We put Ko Lanta on the map as a place to visit for those location-independent workers who are in South-East Asia. And the general trends are pointing into the right direction. In a Forbes ranking, KoHub was ranked second among the best coworking spaces in Asia, and for Inc.com KoHub is one of the 5 most beautiful places in the world to start a business. So that’s very encouraging. However, from a finance point-of-view, we are still vulnerable. Two bad months is enough to put us out of business. So we have to be very disciplined with spending and prioritizing.

How much do you do KoHub for the money?
The only constant thought about money I have is to be sustainable and to have the means to not only survive but to thrive. I do not want to stand still, I want to develop KoHub further.

That sounds as if you would have nothing against opening additional KoHub locations elsewhere.
You know, of course I had that thought. I have been approached about that question as well. I have some side ideas in terms of opening up a more globalized community. A lot of our members are meeting at other spaces when in other countries. So we got a great culture. It would be fitting to give them spaces to collaborate elsewhere. But I am very nervous about the idea. The coworking movement is a very open collaborative movement at the moment. Young, fresh, with a lot of independents. I spoke to quite a few who have multiple spaces. The general consensus is that it does not scale well. You inherit all the old problems and new ones. Physical community dynamics are very tricky to replicate. You need to be very sensitive to the local environment. However, to repeat myself: I do not want to stand still. So we’ll see what happens next with KoHub.

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