How a French-Spanish Expat in Singapore Builds Communities for Global Nomads

Co-living start-up Hmlet wants to bring the right people together

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BY Adelle Chua - 27 Jul 2017

expat in singapore

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

“I got bored in engineering,” Yoan Kamalski initially said of his studies. “There was too much math.”

He moved to Singapore in his early 20s, seized with a longing to live out of the box that had been carved out for him by his traditional family in Bayonne, France.

He got his degree and moved to Korea for his masters, where he stuck it out with engineering even as he wondered: We are building all these, but who is selling them?

When he returned to Singapore, Kamalski got caught up in the building frenzy—and the technical challenges of his profession. But as he sunk deeper into the corporate world, he concluded that many companies did not care about their employees and simply saw them as a tool.  

The last straw came in 2014, when his firm wanted to send him to Hong Kong for a big bridge-building project.  “There was no big vision there, we were not changing lives, and at the end of the day we were just helping the 1% get even richer,” he says.

He decided he wanted out.

Building from experience

Kamalski bounced off ideas with a friend, Zenos Schmickrath, who had had his share of experiences of traveling the world, learning languages, and establishing start-ups. They talked about living conditions each of them had seen and what they envisioned good shared living to be.

“So far, it had not been a good experience,” he says.  He wanted co-living to be something more than sharing space. So Kamalski did a bold thing and used his savings to take a six-bedroom property, spruced it up and imagined how millennial travelers who did not have a lot of money but who wanted to have good co-living experience would want to, well, live.   

An initial run on a worksheet told him the project could be viable—and so he and his partner set to work. Full furnishings, check. Super-fast fiber internet, check. Support services like housekeeping and laundry, check.

The plan was for the place to not be simply a dormitory for adults. “Other such service providers simply squeeze the people into small rooms. We, however, built the property around our needs. We live in our own product,” Kamalski says.

Central to establishing Hmlet—derived from hamlet, which means a small village—is getting the right group of people together.

Entrepreneurs as curators

The biggest challenge was not in the real estate but in the people.  “How do we determine a good mix at any given time?”

It turns out all that math helps make things easier.  An algorithm helps Kamalski and Schmickrath concoct a good match. Primary considerations are diversity in background, personalities, and interests.

“You would think that my partner and I would be tech geeks—his background, after all, was in computer science while mine was in engineering. On paper, and if you did not know us, you would never think we would be people persons. But actually, we are.”

This was, he thought, a real opportunity to bring people together. “What is the added value, something different that would change their lives?” asks Kamalski. “If you would force yourself to spend time with new people, it might as well be people who would make for rich interaction.”

Once a month, they organize events to provide opportunities for residents to get to know each other.

Sometimes, of course, the matching does not work and there are personality clashes—there is only so much an algorithm can predict. People, after all, are complex and cannot be reduced into their numerical equivalents. Kamalski would like to think, however, that the pleasant surprises far outweigh the rare, not-so-pleasant ones. “We are all excited to attend our very first Hmlet wedding,” he says. Yes, two people who met each other at a time when they were both guests at a Hmlet house.

Same village, different cities

Hmlet now has four properties in Singapore central business district, and is also in Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Kamalski says they try to simply transport the same Hmlet brand from one location to another, as if in a box, even as the cultural environment is different. For example, in Singapore, the guests are from diverse origins, expatriates traveling for business, study or leisure. In Japan, on the other hand, guests are locals themselves, young people who are so focused with their work they hardly have time to socialize with friends or colleagues. Hmlet gives them that opportunity.

Not beer pong every night

Their target market are millennials all right, but there is no clear-cut age for this, Kamalski says. “It’s a stage in your life rather than a fixed age, it is when you start roaming the world and explore your individuality… millennials build themselves through experiences and interaction with others.”

Hmlet’s guests’ age can range from 19 to 39, he adds. They have had celebrities, start-up founders, venture capitalists, and students among their residents.

So it’s not a house party every time. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s not rainbows,” he says. They have had to counter the mindset of those who do not appreciate what good co-living is. Learn how to play the risky field of real estate. Constantly manage people of different backgrounds and temperaments. Ensure that guests’ needs are taken care of while impressing upon them that this is not an extension of their college dorm.

“By traveling, I grow every day. By being an entrepreneur, for the first time, I am convinced that what I do helps change lives,” Kamalski says.