Life as a digital nomad

Written by: Ben Jordan Posted: 02/10/2017

BenJordan_digital nomadEver fancied working from a hammock in Thailand or a beach hut in Indonesia? Then pack a bag and grab your passport, because it’s easier than ever. Ben Jordan (pictured) is a digital nomad, currently based in Cambodia

We have to make an important decision early on in our professional careers. Do we invest time in building a secure financial future with a stable nine-to-five, saving up for a deposit for a starter home and opening a pension plan? Or do we throw caution to the wind and travel the world to build character and broaden our horizons? Because let’s face it, #YOLO. 

To a digital nomad, this dilemma is no longer binary. There’s a growing host of mostly Western, skilled workers who are trading in the nine-to-five for a job that can be done anywhere in the world, as long as there’s a fast enough internet connection. 

Born out of the rise of the sharing economy and cloud-based connectivity, the scene is ripe and just getting started. Those with an entrepreneurial spirit and a thirst for adventure can work remotely, anywhere from the Medina of Marrakesh to a bamboo hut in Koh Samui. ‘Location independent’ and ‘digital nomad’ are trending terms for this untethered lifestyle, evoking a certain image of hipster travel blogging in Instagram-friendly surrounds. 

The secret is ‘geo-arbitrage’, a concept popularised by Tim Ferriss in his best-selling book The 4-Hour Work Week. This involves taking advantage of low-cost lifestyles in developing countries while commanding a first-world salary. Freelance designers, content writers and developers from America to India, Romania to Japan work remotely from hubs around the world. 

A site called Nomad List presents the myriad possibilities, ranking every world city by cost of living, internet speed and overall quality of life. This global directory provides forums for digital nomads to gain travel advice on visas and healthcare options and to link up with each other when they touch down. Top ranked hubs include Chiang Mai in Thailand and Ubud in Indonesia, known for their infrastructure, affordability and thriving co-working spaces.  

Popular shared spaces, such as Hubud in Indonesia or KoHub in Thailand, offer the full package – a private bedroom, three meals a day and your own workspace with fast internet access. They even throw in free scuba diving or surf lessons for your downtime, organise socials and provide free meeting facilities.   

State of independence

Nomads are a diverse community – some work on tech projects or start-ups, or use popular platforms such as Upwork to bid for remote assignments. Others monetise their travels by blogging about their adventures and even make a living through advising other nomads on how it’s done.

The 2015/16 Digital Nomad Survey reflects the breadth of professions that can be taken on the road. The two most common were developers (26 per cent) and content writers (17 per cent). Marketers and designers accounted for 13 per cent each. There are also artists, photographers, translators and engineers.  
 
It’s a hot new scene – 46 per cent of those surveyed had only been location-independent for 12 months or less. The survey also showed that the majority of nomads were single, with just 32 per cent travelling with a partner or family. 

Bucking the trend, popular blogger Nomadic Mick navigates the world with his family in tow. A seasoned 36-year-old traveller, Mick’s blog is a top resource for nomads on bootstrap budgets, and proves you don’t have to be single and under-30 to enjoy the nomadic lifestyle. ‘Travelling with my young boy definitely has its challenges but he loves it in general. He has now been to 25 countries and he’s just turned four years old!’ he writes.

Being location-independent doesn’t necessarily mean city hopping every week. The Digital Nomad Survey showed that 64 per cent had chosen a primary location for six months or more the previous year. 

As 30-year-old Australian Project Manager Kit Teguh points out: “It’s important to have some grounding and stability in order to stay focused. I’ve based myself in Phnom Penh for the past year, where I’ve made friends and know the lie of the land – the best co-work spaces, cafes and bars – and rented a decent apartment. I love travel, but constantly moving from city to city and living out of a bag just isn’t practical for me. I’d never get anything done!”

Living in a developing country with fewer outgoings allows digital nomads to be more competitive. “It’s an open market, with bidding wars on sites like Upwork and Fiver, where freelancers try to undercut each other on rates,” says Teguh. “Here in Asia, I can live on $25 a day or less, so I have an edge there. I do think cheap is cheap though – talent wins out in the end, and when it comes to high-level projects, there’s still no substitute for experience.”

A recent Upwork survey found that 92 per cent of digital nomads felt happier and more productive when freed from the shackles of the physical workplace. Some 59 per cent had actually seen an increase in income and a startling 79 per cent claimed they would freelance forever. 

Remote options

Perhaps that’s why many companies are adding remote working options as they realise the benefits of opening their talent pool globally and increasing productivity from happier employees. Millennials have shown they value experiences over things, and companies have been forced to adapt to retain the top talent. 

Dutch entrepreneur Tom Sam launched his startup NoBu.gs on Kickstarter this year – an insect-repellent clothing brand that targets the outdoor travel market in developing countries that are at risk of malaria and dengue fever. With an initial fundraising goal of $5,000, NoBu.gs exceeded all expectations, raising an impressive $100,000 via crowdfunding. 

Based in Siem Reap, Cambodia, Sam believes location matters. “When you’re grinding out a new company, you’re able to reduce outgoings a lot, which gives you a much longer runway. If I’d started a company from San Francisco, we’d have needed millions to get started. 

“I strongly believe that a business needs to have a healthy balance sheet right from the beginning.”

As a digital entrepreneur, Sam hires nomads for his content marketing. He offers this advice for employers: “The only way you should hire a nomad is to pay them on performance. For things such as social media management, this is easy to quantify. In the end, for a company it doesn’t matter if it takes someone two hours or five minutes to do the job, as long as the result is there. Some digital nomads are great but there are a lot of slackers out there as well, so make sure you have the right guy for the job.”

We may not all choose to live a nomadic lifestyle, as glamorous as it sounds, and many professions will always require a fixed location, but we can look at current trends and guess where the digital and creative industries are headed. Faster, cheaper air travel, ever speedier internet, less home and material ownership, fewer marriages. It all creates a foundation for a worldwide location-independent workforce – an office that knows no bounds. 

So drop in, turn on and grind out – the world is your office. #DigitalNomad.

LIFE'S A BEACH

At the risk of provoking jealousy in the reader, I’m writing this from the blissful idyll of Koh Rong, a remote island off the south coast of Cambodia. These past four months, I’ve been travelling solo across South-East Asia, managing to subsidise my travels through freelance writing.   

It took time to build momentum, and I needed a kitty of two months’ savings to get started, but I now have a portfolio of clients that give me enough hours to sustain my nomadic lifestyle. My clients are mainly UK-based and, despite the six-hour time difference, this works seamlessly. 

I find new assignments through Upwork, and I use LinkedIn to reach out to prospective clients. I’ve learned to make myself marketable by enhancing my skills in SEO writing and social media and perfecting the art of the pitch. I’ve had to run myself like a business and stay disciplined when travel buddies coax me out for beers on a Tuesday night.

I’ve been struck by the thriving community of digital nomads I’ve met across Asia. I would have been lost without this support network, freely dispensing advice on the cheapest apartments, visa top-ups, healthcare and co-working spaces. 

So far, it’s been quite a ride. But just to caution anyone considering a working life on the road, it’s not all massages and mojitos. There are times when clients are chasing copy as you battle through tropical storms and power cuts, when internet speeds are glacially slow, when the simplest request for an iced coffee in a cafe (if it even sells coffee) is met with the blankest of stares … 

Essentially, I’m a hobo with a laptop, but it has its rewards. I enjoy a level of freedom I’ve never had, and greater spending power. With a relatively cheap cost of living, I can afford to rent a decent apartment, eat out every day and live an affluent lifestyle for as little as £200 per week. Working remotely in Asia gives me the luxury to choose what I work on. As a single young professional, this suits me very nicely. 

Life is an ever-changing horizon, a dizzying carousel of new people, places and experiences. There may come a time when I hanker for the creature comforts of home (possibly during monsoon season!) but for now I’m King of the Road. 

And available for hire, by the way.

 


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