Thoughts on working remotely from ArmeniaPosted: January 6, 2014
I’ve spent most of the last year and a half working remotely from Yerevan, Armenia. I’m a telecommunications consultant and software vendor in VoIP, and my products and services are oriented toward the North American market. Almost all of my customers are in the US. I don’t see 98% of my customers face-to-face pretty much ever, and IP telephony, along with the Internet in general, seemingly make it possible to work from anywhere in the world, which was a thought that led me to attempt somewhat long-term residency in Armenia on that basis.
It can be done, as evidenced by the IT talent that operates here in the service of foreign companies or clients. The Internet connectivity is reasonably reliable. Mobile data services are good. The Level3 route back to the US (Georgia -> Sofia -> Frankfurt -> Paris -> Washington -> Atlanta) is clean and consistent. The reliability of power utilities is adequate, if not at “developed world” levels. There are many cozy cafés with good WiFi. It’s possible to rent a small office relatively inexpensively by First World standards (with the usual caveats about quality and getting what one pays for; if you want First World standards, you’ll pay First World rent; I don’t pay First World rent, and my office is uninhabitable right now due to insufficient heating.) The business environment is notoriously corrupt and contentious, but none of that touches you if your business is not based in Armenia and if you don’t earn income here.
If you work a lot with hardware, import duty, unpredictable shipping, and some paucity of local stock will be a problem. However, I traffic strictly in software goods, so it’s not a problem for me, although having my laptop’s power adaptor or motherboard die would be quite a daunting obstacle to deal with in this corner of the world. You can buy a new computer, sure, but if you’re going to settle in for a while and like to use the latest and greatest, bring spares.
Still, the harsh truth that I’ve begun to understand fairly recently is that the 9 hour time difference (8 hours in the summer) is just too much. It’s a mixed bag, because I am prone to nocturnalism and the time difference does reward it. The managerial classes at large companies like to show up at work at 7 AM and see correspondence in their inbox from this productive “early bird”. Everyone appreciates my willingness to volunteer for 4 AM maintenance windows and upgrades. I can get a lot done before the Americans even wake up, which is great for procrastinators like me who always have things they’ve put off until the last minute. That’s great, but, at the end of the day, I’m not sure it makes up for the fact that even if I keep decidedly unconventional work hours, in local Armenian terms, the latest I can really be available is mid-afternoon Eastern time. This doesn’t seem like a problem in the course of working the daily grind, but when I come back to the US, I feel how much I’m missing out on by not being around during the late afternoon and throughout the evening. That’s when some of the most important stuff happens in the 24/7 techie universe, which is replete with other personalities who aren’t on the early bird manager’s schedule either. The time zone factor influences business-impacting socialisation strongly.
Plus, there’s a powerful ongoing tension between this work situation and the social expectation of keeping relatively “conventional” hours in local Armenian time. I’ve never been able to consistently keep a 9-to-5 schedule in any locale or time zone, but one is expected, generally, to be up and running in the daytime and socially available in the evenings. Even if my local friends and relatives could deal with me sleeping all day, there’s a lot one just cannot do living like that–same as in any other place.
My two-month hiatus in Berlin enlightened me to the fact that an offset of +8 or +9 is like five times worse than +5 or +6. I can make it work from Western Europe, but Armenia’s just too far away. I really might as well be in China or Australia. There are plenty of people in Armenia who can and do make the remote thing work, but I would suspect that most of them are probably not self-employed entrepreneurs, or at least, not ones who have to do a lot of low-volume, high-depth, consultative relationship building in order to move product. Companies can deal with day-night communication cycles with their overseas developers. If you sell a product that is effectively marketed via the web (AdWords, SEO, links, reviews, etc.), it doesn’t seem to much matter where you are. I sell capital goods, and I have to do so very interactively, and into a tiny, close-knit, and judgmental market community dominated by traditionalists. The more qualitative, interpersonal salesmanship dimension of this requires a lot more socialising from me than I find myself able to consistently sustain all the way from Yerevan.
Besides that, I do have some customers that I see face-to-face, or potentially could see face-to-face. Knowing that I’m way on the other side of the globe, with no cheap or easy way to get back, subconsciously changes the tenor of sales conversations that could lead to on-site work or training, or which could benefit from an in-person meeting back in Atlanta. I have a different attitude toward conferences, which play a fairly big role in my marketing, or, at any rate, they ought to. The sense of being remote–deeply remote, not just a little remote, for Armenia is not a place well-connected to the rest of the world logistically–leads to some level of skittishness and unconscious self-censorship.
I don’t have the ability to do a controlled experiment to compare where I am now with how much more business I would have had if I were sitting in the US this whole time. I haven’t lost any customers over the fact that I’m remote, nor have I encountered any frustrations in sales. However, my sixth sense tells me I’m the victim of some pretty bad attrition on the marketing side. I strongly sense that I’m losing out on opportunities, and my evidence for this is that when I come back to the US even for a little while, the pipeline really starts moving again, even though the topology of my “virtual” relationship with my customers–actual and prospective–doesn’t change. It might just be coincidence, but I don’t think so. There’s something about being in the same place, even if I’m still a figment of the Internet, that makes a difference. I haven’t fully figured out if this is more of a “same place” thing or a “same time zone” issue. I suspect it’s both both, but the time zone matters a lot more.
To the extent that I haven’t paid a heavy price for hanging out in Armenia, it’s because I have ways of limiting the damage. I can and do stay up very late as a matter of innate disposition anyway. I speak with a friendly, idiomatic American accent and don’t give anyone doubts as to the plausibility of my claim to be fundamentally “Atlanta-based”. Aside from the ~170 ms round trip delay on the phone, and the varying hours, I do not create the sensation of working with a truly overseas company, so nobody thinks of paying me offshore rates. Still, I have the sneaking suspicion that if I were to keep this up too much longer, I’d probably start bleeding.
I haven’t tried working from South America yet, which is far away enough for the distance and locale to matter, but essentially in the same time zone. It’s on the bucket list.