Georgia, not Bali: why digital nomads should have Tbilisi on their list of destinations.
(This is a translation of an interview that was held with t3n.de, a German online magazine for digital pioneers.)
If you think about digital nomads, you usually think about Bali, Thailand or Latin America, sometimes Portugal. But Tbilisi, Georgia? Not really.
Until now. Because more and more, Tbilisi is turning into a new Mecca for digital nomads from Europe. Rightfully so? We talked to Folker Wrage about it, one of the most awarded German advertising creatives, juror at the Art Directors Club and Cannes Lions, and currently CEO at Leavingstone in Tbilisi. And somehow already much longer a nomad that one might think.
t3n: 20 years… it’s been a long time since we worked together at Ogilvy in Frankfurt. I’ve sure been to a lot of places since then. Same as you, right? A nomad of the first hour?
Folker Wrage: Looks like it. For some people it is in their nature. Even already back in the nineties, I wanted to work for Ogilvy in other countries. It took more than a decade to happen, though, when I went to work in Switzerland. You couldn’t really call that being a nomad, but over time it kind of turned into something like that. I noticed that I really enjoyed to work on tricky tasks in completely strange environments. To build, rebuild, turn around agencies. To not just dive into the culture and exchange lamp posts for palm trees, but to do something that would challenge me professionally, give me a chance to grow. Istanbul was extreme — this gigantic city, its completely different culture and way of life, an agency on the verge of collapse, working on digital transformation, and the Gezi Park protests… a pretty wild mix. And now it’s almost even more extreme, in Tbilisi. All of that had never been planned, it just happened. Friends needed my help, and once I was there we noticed that things really fit well — and I noticed that Tbilisi isn’t just beautiful and exciting, it’s actually a pretty good spot for digital natives.
t3n: But, honestly, I would have expected a lot of things from you, CEO in New York, London, Paris, Cape Town — but why Tbilisi? Last Exit Career?
Folker Wrage: Oh, yeah, sure, hit me with that cliché stick! I guess I did think like that some ten or twenty years ago. But, seriously — if I had made a move in that direction and made my way to be a CEO in New York or London, that probably would have been the exit, many years ago. I haven’t survived in this industry because I was kissing people’s butts on the way up, but because I kept looking for ways to expand my horizon, both professionally as well as geographically. Advertising, direct marketing, shopper marketing, and gradually more and more digital knowledge — it has all come together, including all of the things that I learned in the US, in Turkey, Switzerland and Georgia. Combined with what you bring to the table being from Germany, that’s not a bad mix. It keeps me occupied. The path of least resistance leads directly to uselessness.
t3n: Okay, I can see why some people would easily overlook Eastern Europe on their professional map, it doesn’t necessarily sound very sexy. Hardly anyone knows that Romania has the best and fastest web in Europe. But digital experts know, don’t they?
Folker Wrage: Absolutely. With the slight constraint that Western Europeans, even in the digital sphere, are often still nursing some old school clichés. Agencies often think that they have all the fabulous ideas and then think it’s smart to hire some super cheap programmers in Kosovo or Ukraine. They often heavily overestimate the value of their ideas and simply don’t see the great creative potential they can tap into in Eastern Europe. The things my web developers in Tbilisi are able to do is clearly way above average compared to what is offered in Western Europe. And this is not limited to Romania which is often taken as the regional role model. Georgia has a really well developed digital infrastructure as well, the digital community is very lively and well educated, you can find a huge amount of entrepreneurial energy, people are very good at networking — and able to make this network collaborate whenever it is necessary. If you look at the generations in Georgia that are pushing their industries forward, you will always encounter deeply digital people. It’s their life. To put it in more provocative words— back home, if you were born after a certain year, you are called a digital native by default, even if you’re still thinking of coffee when you hear the word Java. In Georgia you simply are a digital native because your everyday life is digital. Of course not as deeply as in China, but definitely deeper than in Western Europe. When I pass the border in Basel and enter Germany, the first thing that happens is that you lose your 4G. No more data. This doesn’t happen to you in Georgia — not even when you drive up to the mountains.
t3n: Looking at it in a sort of subjectively objective way: I am currently really enjoying the weather and the nature here in South East Asia. If I think of Tbilisi I sort of get these dismal post communist visions of ugly concrete cities, of poverty, bad weather, lots of grey coats and an omnipresent sense of depression. I know, really really bad stereotypes. I guess I am completely wrong?
Folker Wrage: I won’t lie to you — when I first traveled to Tbilisi, my expectations weren’t that much different, even though my research had already told me that these expectations were wrong. But in a way, it is a very helpful initial expectation: when you arrive and spend some time there, the reality is sensationally different. As a matter of fact, Tbilisi is a really beautiful city. What we would identify as old town is a really vast area full of wonderful turn of the century buildings, beautiful old European architecture. Sure, you have quite a few concrete boxes on the less attractive outskirts of town — but not really proportionally more than in Berlin for example. Actually, Berlin is a pretty good comparison. The mood is similar, cultural life as well. Tbilisi is very young, people love to go out a lot, there are lots really good bars, clubs and restaurants, a really vivacious scene and lots of young entrepreneurs that keep coming up with really exciting new projects. You would be amazed to see what they turn ugly old factories into. And you should also know that you really won’t find anything that we would identify as somehow post soviet. The Georgians have never really integrated themselves in the Soviet Union, they kept their language and their alphabet, they always supplied the best wines and spirits, always had by far the finest cuisine. And since the war with Russia the distance to all things that come from there has risen to maximum levels. Even those who speak Russian stay away from it — English is the most common second language. People don’t look towards Moscow, they are looking towards Europe.
t3n: How about the digital nomad scene in Tbilisi? Would I run into a few of them? If yes, where?
Folker Wrage: It would be a bit of an exaggeration if I said that digital nomads had become a deeply integrated part of the Georgian scene. But as a lot of other things, the whole topic has developed with enormous speed. There’s a really large and well-equipped Impact Hub, it’s part of „Fabrika“ — a former textiles factory that also has a large and recommendable hostel, some really good restaurants, the best hamburgers in town and a few shops for the essentials of young digital nomads like skateboards and music on vinyl. Georgians are hospitable to the extreme and the digital scene is very sociable. One great example is an initiative with the name workfromgeorgia.com — anyone that registers on their website is eligible for a desk at one of the agencies and digital companies in Tbilisi, free of charge. Naturally this leads to new contacts, and sometimes even the opportunity to cooperate on a project. The participating companies do whatever they can to make sure that the digital nomads that they are hosting will have a really good and enrichting time and can use their time with them productively. But yes, one thing is clear — for those whose interpretation of the life of a digital nomad is presenting their tanned bodies next to a laptop and in front of a palm tree on Instagram won’t necessarily find happiness in Tbilisi. Well … on the other hand… it just takes a couple of hours to take your snowboard to the Caucasus mountains, and the Black Sea isn’t far away either. On the train there you even get super reliable WiFi.
t3n: So — you would say that Tbilisi is a great place for digital nomads?
Folker Wrage: Absolutely — if you’re really serious about it. If you are hoping to get plenty of palm trees and sun for the least amount of money, you should head elsewhere. Tbilisi is not really the perfect place for those who want to optimize their share of free time. But of course, real nomads are looking for other things. A minimum amount of bureaucracy for example. In Georgia EU citizens are allowed to stay a whole year without needing a visa. Which basically translates into more or less unlimited time. If you want to open a bank account, a passport is all you need, usually including additional accounts for Euros and/or Dollars. If you want to register your business in Tbilisi, it is fairly easy, and the tax rate is at or around 20 percent. And it’s sort of a flat rate without all the bureaucratic hassle that Germans for example think is unavoidable. Cash isn’t used a lot — if you shop for some tomatoes at the corner, you just pay with your card or with Apple Pay. Every time I am putting some real money on the table when I pay for lunch, my colleagues always look at me with a strange kind of pity. Look at the old guy. The city is actually safer than some of our Western European metropolises and the cost of living is really low, comparable to that of Bulgaria or Serbia. Flights are affordable, and if you choose to enter the country through the smaller airport of Kutaisi you can even fly there for a few Euros. All of this adds up to a mix of conditions that digital nomads hardly find anywhere else.
t3n: Do you work with digital nomads at Leavingstone? And how do you find them, how do they find you?
Folker Wrage: Like many other colleagues in Tbilisi, Leavingstone supports the Workfromgeorgia project. We already had a few nomads in our house, and of course we take good care of them. It doesn’t always lead to some sort of collaboration, but it does happen. The last time someone spent time at our company, she moved desks to join the design team and work together with them. Right now, we are trying to expand our network to reach more digital nomads that are specialized in web development — unfortunately, the Corona crisis made this more difficult at the moment. But if you want to meet digital nomads, you just head on over to Fabrika, on Friday evenings the whole scene is there, having food, drinks and fun. If you don’t get connected there you should consider a career as a hermit.
t3n: What are your experiences with digital nomad so far? Good? Or more like okayish? Did anything change over the course of the last years?
Folker Wrage: In general, I really like the development in this field. Even all those strange folks that seem to perceive this as some kind of cool new lifestyle trend and think that it’s a neat platform to make a few bucks as an influencer can’t change my position on this. If I look at the broader field of “travelling professionals”, I really welcome the shift from the expat format to the digital nomad format. For much too long, working abroad was somehow perceived as some kind of burden that had to be compensated with a lot of money. In some industries, they still think that way. I like to compare it with the world of football. More and more, all these millionaires that are transferred from one country to another are mutating into these strange caricatures of humans that have lost their connection with the real world and with real life, not really following any idea or concept, and even their charitable activities mostly don’t have their origin in some sort of passion but in a concept created by their managers and accountants. But there are other people too — like Lutz Pfannenstiel for example, a goalie with an amazing career, playing professional football on every single continent, and who has strikingly different ideals and priorities. Of course, digital nomads aren’t do-gooders, and most of them probably can’t be called idealists either. But they do represent our day and age much better than any of those advertising superstars that put more energy into winning awards than into finding ways to balance their personal happiness with a sustainable professional development. True self fulfillment is not driven by vanity and ambition — but by our quest for happiness.
t3n: Is this true for digital nomads in general or rather for specific professional categories?
Folker Wrage: Almost all of the digital nomads that spent time in our company were designers. But that is obviously related to our image. We are doing really good work in web development, but because of a few internationally successful advertising campaigns we did, we mainly attract people from advertising and design. But we are working on this. Bottom line is — we don’t really have any kind of work that couldn’t be done by a digital nomad as well. And it’s obviously not restricted to those who are right here in Tbilisi — we are also interested in talents that have decided to be based at a different location. The Georgian market is too small anyway if you run a company with a hundred people and need to feed it with new talent constantly. Plus, there is a certain volatility — not just in Georgia, in Europe and the US just as well. You can’t expect your business to be reliably fed from your national market — you need to look beyond your borders to reduce the risk. In web development, our share of international business is already somewhere around seventy percent. The borders are increasingly dissolving, and that’s a good thing to happen. If more and more digital nomads are choosing Tbilisi as their location, especially in the fields of work that are important for us, then that’s a great development. We need good people, and the freelancer scene is really small here. If you do a good job in Tbilisi you don’t have to worry about paying your bills.
t3n: If we look closer at programmers and coders: are they better than elsewhere? I mean, there are plenty of good people working as digital nomads in places like Ecuador, South Africa or Cambodia.
Folker Wrage: You should really know what you want to earn your money with if you rent a desk in a coworking space in Tbilisi. With an average monthly income of about 400 Euro a month you can imagine that the money you can earn isn’t exactly spectacular — even if Tbilisi is way above national average. As always, it depends on what you expect. Obviously, you can maximize the positive aspects of life in Tbilisi if you already have a few international clients in countries that pay comparatively well. If you earn about 2.000 Euros a month, you can already have a pretty good life. It’s absolutely possible to generate this on local business — and whatever you make on top is either luxury or savings. But back to your question: are coders and programmers better than somewhere else? In a pretty thoroughly digitized society like Georgia the level of excellence is pretty high. But I would always advise any digital native that’s working here to go for a nice mix of local and international clients. It’s more fun, and gives more stability.
t3n: Where do you expect the highest demand for specialized professionals? Not just within your company, but in general, and globally?
Folker Wrage: At the risk of sounding like a hopeless romantic — I really think that the highest demand will be for people that can do more than one trick, and who have a high level of conceptual creativity. People that are able to solve problems that automation will not be able to solve anytime soon. Genuine human creativity will not be replaced by artificial intelligence for decades to come. We don’t even have a clue yet what creativity really is and how it works. Smart, creative problem solvers will do really well in the future. Even in the creative industries, we will have enough work to do in the future. We are already starting to understand that a strict focus on efficiency and optimization is slowly killing a brand. This might all sound a little vague — but I really do see the highest potential in those areas that are creating true added value. And maybe we will see the day when clients are picking globally connected teams for big and ambitious projects from pools of digital nomads. Real nomads don’t just go from A to B to look at palm trees. They will move from one oasis to another, from one project to another.
t3n: What would be your advice for someone that is thinking about becoming a digital nomad?
Folker Wrage: This is where I usually quote a friend of mine, Axel Quack, who has spent a lot of time thinking about this subject, and who came up with this idea of „nation as a service“. In short: today, it doesn’t make much sense to be all too attached to your home country. On the contrary — for every aspect of life there is a country that is ideal for this specific aspect. Why do you choose Germany as the home base of your company if you can run it with considerably less hassle in another country? Why do you keep a bank account in Birmingham if you can still get some interest on it somewhere else? And why would you fight for an overpriced one bedroom apartment with 300 other applicants if you are happily invited to inhabit a lovely little cottage somewhere else? As mentioned — it’s not about palms, beaches and colonial splendor, but it definitely is a good idea if you don’t tie yourself to a nation, to be connected to the whole planet. Don’t restrict your playing ground unnecessarily. Put your globalized self into the globalized world. It doesn’t mean that you are losing the connection to your homeland. I am much more aware of my origins than I was in the years before I became a nomad.
t3n: Final question: where do you think you will go next? Where would you like to go — if you didn’t stay in Tbilisi?
Folker Wrage: Tbilisi will remain to be my home base for quite a while. And my wanderlust is actually not so intense that I start to get nervous after a year or two. But if nothing unexpected happens, I still have a good ten years of exciting projects ahead of me. And I have no idea how I am going to fill them. I know that I will always want to invest my experience and my knowledge to help companies with exciting visions to create exciting realities. That is more or less the only constant. There is a probability that I will expand my activities in teaching — I always enjoyed working for universities. Now — if I would only look at it from an angle of where I would really like to live one day, I would probably enjoy a place with a view on an ocean. I grew up on the coast of the Baltic Sea. Not really an ocean, but it definitely shaped me. But generally I will go where people appreciate what I am able to contribute.
t3n: Thank you for this conversation — and maybe see you soon in Tbilisi? You never know. Cheers.