I have written my master thesis in economic geography about the locational choices of location independent entrepreneurs and therefore I consider myself a little bit of an expert in this domain. Most people have a job or business which requires them to live in a specific location. Therefore they don’t ask themselves the question: ‘Which is the perfect city for me to live in?’. I work online, which gives me maximal flexibility and therefore it’s a question I have been pondering about for a long time. Your personal preferences and priorities change over time and therefore the question is never truly settled.
The world is a pretty big place; therefore you have many cities to choose from. The abundance of options leads to three popular strategies to reduce the complexity of the locational decision-making process: most people live where they grew up, where they studied or where they found their first job. I don’t like this cookie-cutter strategy, because it doesn’t really account for your personal preferences and is rather reactive.
For example, I grew up in a small village near Hamburg with a population of fewer than 2000 people. While I do like the village, I certainly don’t think it’s the perfect location for me. My parents just happen to live there and I think I should make my own locational decision. I hope this article gives you some ideas on how to approach your locational choice.
There are four necessary conditions for cities to be attractive for a wide range of location independent entrepreneurs.
1) A good internet connection. This one is the most important condition and you could argue the only real necessary condition. Without a fast and reliable internet connection you can’t earn money online. It’s the main limiting factor. The minimum requirements for internet speed depend on your line of work. A video editor needs faster internet than a copywriter.
2) Low cost of living. If you can choose your location, why would you waste money on expensive cities like Tokio when you can life in an affordable city like Berlin and save money doing so. As you progress in your entrepreneurial journey your budget and options increase.
3) A high quality of life. While the internet connection and cost of living are hard factors, quality of life is a soft factor and therefore hard to measure. It consists of multiple factors like a wide range of leisure opportunities, nature and good weather. The quality of life of a city is dependent on your personal preferences. For example, a surfer will be more happy in Barcelona than Madrid. However, there are some preferences like warm weather, which are shared by a large group of people.
4) A community of location independent entrepreneurs. It’s easier and more fun to work in a community of like-minded folks instead of being a lone fighter. Other people can motivate you, hold you accountable, give new impulses and direct feedback, among other things. Your chances of success are much higher in this kind of environment. A large presence of location independent entrepreneurs is also an indicator for a good infrastructure, a low cost of living and a high quality of life.
This list isn’t exhaustive by any measure, but it covers the most important factors. Safety is another critical factor, but you can include it into the quality of life. Another factor is the national visa policy. If you can’t enter a country or stay for a significant amount of time, it’s also an eliminating factor. In general, this shouldn’t be a problem with an American or a European passport though.
There are certain cities, which check all the criteria on the list and therefore they are populated by a large community of entrepreneurs. Obviously, there is some variance between them, but they all fulfill the criteria to a certain degree. Some examples:
South East Asia (Chiang Mai, Ho-Chi-Minh-City (Saigon), Ubud)
Europe (Barcelona, Berlin)
South America (Buenos Aires, Medellín)
Entrepreneurs prefer cities with an existing community of entrepreneurs and therefore it’s a self-accelerating process. South-East Asia is the largest hub for entrepreneurs, in large part due to the combination of high quality of living and low cost of living.
The job isn’t the only limiting factor for most people. Many people stay in their home city, because of the proximity to family and friends. I think this factor is overrated. If you are location independent, you can invite your family and friends to your to your new location and visit them at theirs. Additionally, you can make new friends, wherever you go. I think quality time is more important than the frequency of meetings. Wherever I live, I like to come home for Christmas and during this time I focus on family and friends and slack off workwise.
Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp and other technologies make it also fairly easy to keep in touch with people. If proximity to family and friends is important to you, you can limit your locational options to cities with a good connection to your home city or a specific region like Europe. For instance, a flight from Barcelona to Hamburg takes a meekly 2:50 hours and therefore it’s easy to visit for a weekend.
Sufficient conditions: case study Barcelona
Let’s say I want to live in one of the entrepreneur hubs, which fulfill all four necessary conditions. This eliminates most cities and limits the options to a good dozen options. I am going to present some sufficient conditions and my personal preferences using the example of Barcelona.
I really like Spanish and therefore one of my life goals is to speak perfect Spanish (Level C2) before I turn 30. I can only achieve this goal by immersing myself into a Spanish speaking country. This limits my options to the Spanish entrepreneurial hubs Barcelona, Buenos Aires and Medellín. Barcelona has two official languages: Spanish and Catalan. In my experience, it’s not necessary to speak Catalan, because everybody speaks Spanish and all the street signs and public information are provided in both languages.
Barcelona is located at the Mediterranean Sea and has mild winters and hot summers and little fluctuation in temperature. The average annual temperature is 70.2 °F (21.2 °C) and pleasant sea breezes cool you down. Therefore it doesn’t have extremely hot summers like Madrid, where everybody is leaving during the summer.
The most popular beach is the Playa de la Barceloneta. It was artificially created for the Olympic games in 1992 and renewed since then. It can be crowded in the summer, but you can always walk further along the promenade to the calmer Playa de la Nova Icaria. The beach itself isn’t that spectacular, but the proximity to the city center is unique. The beach is long, clean and has public showers and toilets. Many sellers (Mojitos, beer, water, blankets, etc.) are walking across the beach, but they are less intrusive than in other countries and they concentrate in the most touristic areas of the beach.
Barcelona is located at the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula near the French border. The Balearic Islands are nearby and easy to visit via plane or ferry.
The Barcelona International Airport is linked to the city center with Renfe train and Aerobus. The Airport is connected to almost all of Europe and a couple of destinations in South America (Bogotá, Lima, Sáo Paolo). With a stopover in Madrid, you can reach even more destinations in South America. Like I mentioned before, a flight between Barcelona and Hamburg takes 2:50 hours and therefore it’s easy for me to visit family and friends.
Barcelona has a strong brand and is an international household name, which attracts world-class talent to the city. It hosts more concerts than you can possibly attend and a series of popular annual festivals, most notably Primavera Sound and the Sónar festival. Personally, I like to chill at the Monday jam sessions in the Jamboree. You may prefer Nasty Mondays in Apollo, the self-proclaimed biggest rock ‘n’ roll party in Europe. Whatever floats your boat. Check out city magazine TimeOut Barcelona for current activities and events.
Architecture and parks
One of the main reasons I prefer living in Europe over the States is the architecture. Barcelona has a nice mix of gothic and modern architecture. You can feel the influence of Gaudí in large parts of the city. My favorite is the Park Güell in Grácia. I like the relaxed vibe of Grácia in general.
Barcelona has a grid plan. This is a result of the Cerdá Plan from 1859. Ildefons Cerdà was a founding father of urbanization and he focused on the needs of the inhabitants. He emphasized mobility and communication. The streets were optimized for pedestrians and streetcars and large green spaces were part of the concept. This is visible to this day. Barcelona has plenty of dope parks, where you can chill year-round. One of my favorites is the Parc de la Ciutadella, which never fails to inspire me and get my creative juice flowing.
Barcelona is perfect for watching professional sports and doing sports. FC Barcelona is one of the best international football clubs, but the tickets are somewhat hard to get and overpriced for non-members. But you should attend a game at least once, preferably El Clasico against Real Madrid. Camp Nou is largest stadium in Europe with a capacity of 100,000. If you want to attend football games regularly, you can go to the second team RCD Espanyol Barcelona, where tickets are much cheaper.
Personally, I am more excited about the Basketball division of FC Barcelona. It’s one of the leading Clubs in Spain and the Spanish league is arguably the best basketball league in Europe and the second best league worldwide after the NBA. You can read more about the underlying reasons for the success of Spanish basketball here. I went to a quarterfinal of the Spanish playoffs in Barcelona and paid 18$ (15€).
Barcelona is also perfect for doing sports. The long beach promenade lends itself to a run in the morning to start the day. If you prefer to run in a group, you can join the free organized midnight runs (different times). There is also a nice swimming pool at the beach called Club Natació Barcelona. It’s rather pricey, but that means you can swim uninterrupted. A day ticket costs $15 (13€) and the membership prices depend on your age. There is a discount for residents of Barcelona. There is also a free outdoor gym at the beach with showers. It’s highly popular and therefore you should come early. I like to put in some reps after my morning run.
Barcelona is young, creative, entrepreneurial, international and has an energizing vibe. In other words, it’s the perfect environment for me. If you want to create something meaningful, you have to move to a vibrant city, it’s easy as that. If you want to build a unicorn, by all means, go to Silicon Valley. If you want to grow a successful business, go to Barcelona or Berlin. The living quality is higher and the price tag much lower there. Spain tries to attract entrepreneurs and therefore offers an entrepreneur visa. Having said that, doing business in Spain is still fairly bureaucratic.
Barcelona has an awesome metro/bus system, which is complemented by a streetcar and a bike scheme called Bicing. You save 50% when you buy tenner tickets instead of single tickets. You need an address in Barcelona for a Bicing registration and the annual fee is $55 (47€). The rental is free up to 30 minutes and afterward costs $0,86 (0,74€) per 30 Minutes for the first 2 hours. You have to pick up and return the bicycle at one of the many stations. You can also go the traditional route and buy a bicycle, but bike sharing is more convenient for minimalists. One item less you have to worry about when you move to another city.
Spain is part of the European Union, which makes it a very convenient location for European citizens like me. The European Union has three major advantages for me:
1. I can live in Spain without a visa and I am allowed to work without any form of bureaucracy (massive advantage).
2. Spain has the same currency as Germany (Euro). Since 2002, I don’t have to bother converting Deutsche Mark to Pesetas.
3. My German health insurance covers Spain.
While Barcelona has its own unique culture (Catalan, Castellers, Fideua, etc.), I am referring to Spanish culture in general. I enjoy three parts of Spanish culture in particular:
1. Lifestyle: Spaniards know how to live and they are known for their relaxed way of life (“No vivas para trabajar, trabaja para vivir.”) They prefer a healthy work-life balance and they take their time to meet family and friends. Life is not rushed like in Germany and people prefer to do things unhasty. While this can be a nightmare doing business, it’s rather enjoyable to live at a slower pace and the reduced stress is a nice side-effect.
2. Food: The Mediterranean diet is healthy and delicious. It’s rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, fish, and whole grains and low in red meat, and free of refined foods and added sugars. It’s not a coincidence that Mediterranean people live longer. I choose a grilled fish with a hint of lemon over a greasy cheeseburger, all day every day.
3. Socializing: As a result of the healthy work-life balance people tend to meet more often. Life takes place outside in bars, restaurants and parks, which is also linked to the excellent weather.
The downside of Barcelona
It’s not all fun and games in Barcelona. It also has two major drawbacks. No city is perfect in all aspects. It’s about finding a city with maximal upside and minimal downside. Unfortunately, I am not the only one who likes Barcelona and therefore Barcelona is overrun by tourist hordes and dreadful stack parties. This is especially true for the center and Barceloneta. You can avoid this dilemma by avoiding these areas and living in a less touristy area like Grácia. But this way you are missing out on most of the nightlife and the beach. A possible solution is to live in Barceloneta first and move to Grácia when you want some rest from the tourist madness. Another option would be to live in a non-touristy barrio near the beach like Raval.
The other downside is the adventure aspect. While Barcelona has its own culture, it’s not that different from the rest of Europe. I am thinking about solving this problem with a second home base in Buenos Aires or Medellín. That way I have the best of both worlds.
Which is the perfect city for you?
The eleven aspects I listed are sufficient conditions. It’s important to find out your own preferences and priorities and choose your location accordingly. I value entrepreneurial people, warm weather, Spanish and a laid-back and positive lifestyle. Therefore, Barcelona is the perfect fit for me. Barcelona is a global city, but still affordable unlike London, New York City and Paris. Your location impacts your chances of success and your level of happiness. Therefore, it’s an important life decision.
The topics of global cities, entrepreneurial hubs and locational choices fascinate me and I am going to give you some book recommendations if you want to go down the rabbit hole of economic geography and cities:
- The Rise of the Creative Class-Revisited: Revised and Expanded
- The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent
- Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life
- The New Geography of Jobs
- How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood
You should at least check out the first book. It’s a controversial must-read for urban planning. Richard Florida coined the term Creative Class and described their locational choices and the implications for cities. I don’t agree with the scope of his argument, but he challenges common knowledge and his writing game is on point. I always try to get an edge and the locational choice becomes increasingly important in a globalized world.
On first sight, you only need an internet connection as an online entrepreneur. However, your chances increase tenfold when you surround yourself with a network of other entrepreneurs and live in a city, which supports your lifestyle. In my experience, productivity is directly related to happiness. I have to write a book about this shit at some point.
Most people reduce their locational options based on the proximity to family, friends and job opportunities. As an online entrepreneur, you expand your range of options, which is always a good thing. The internet enabled this global lifestyle and for sure I am taking advantage of this relatively new opportunity. The fact that you can move wherever you want, whenever you want is highly appealing to me. It’s time to jump on the bandwagon, the internet isn’t going away anytime soon. Now you know everything you need to know about locational choices.
The rest is up to you,
1. How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood
2. The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent
3. The New Geography of Jobs
4. The Rise of the Creative Class-Revisited: Revised and Expanded
5. Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life