Mankind has a history of being nomadic. Think foragers who move from camp to camp in search of available food. While the majority of us no longer needs to hunt seasonal food out in the wild, the rise of internet-based businesses has enabled a new kind of nomadism on a massive scale: the so-called digital nomad.
In case you haven’t heard of it, the digital nomad lifestyle is all the rage among millennials nowadays. From its humble beginnings as an underground movement, the phrase “digital nomad” has come out of the shadows and made the headlines of major news sites lately. BBC has reported nomadic internet entrepreneurs whose work is a nonstop vacation, and the Telegraph wrote in depth about how digital nomads live and work in paradise (Bali).
Although slowly gaining popularity, digital nomads seem to carry this mysterious, enigmatic air with them as they roam around the earth. They evoke the type of public interest that international spies used to evoke, even though most DNs avoid attention like the plague.
Having lived off of a suitcase and a MacBook for three years, I still refrain from calling myself a digital nomad in keeping with the clandestine spirit of this quiet rebellion. But I can share with you my two cents on what digital nomadism is and how to become one from three years of living in 22 cities and 15 countries.
What is a digital nomad?
Many digital nomads who live the lifestyle don’t really brand themselves as one, but a few advocates have made it very clear that there is a distinct difference between a digital nomad and an expat.
In essence, a digital nomad is always on the move with their work. Although their work often doesn’t require them to travel, digital nomads’ self-initiated travels take them to places where they experience new locales without sacrificing work time. They achieve this by carrying out work that can be done as long as there is quality internet connection.
Compared to expats who move permanently to a new country, digital nomads never settle. They aren’t seen with packs of tourists either – as they love to explore places the “local” way. They tend to travel slowly through places. After some time they will pick up and move on to the next location, never making a permanent home for themselves.
Why would you want to become a digital nomad?
It’s a never-ending debate on whether or not becoming a digital nomad is worth the sacrifice.
On the bright side, remote work frees us from the soul-sucking routines that drain our creativity. Most of us find ourselves involuntarily stuck in a rut called 9 to 5 office life right after college. The promise of becoming a digital nomad is to travel the world while working online to pay your bills. And most of the time, traveling outside of cities where the cost of living is high means less bills to pay. Earning $2000 a month can be more than enough to live comfortably from Barcelona to Bali.
Remote work allows more flexibility in when you work, where you work and how you work. Most digital nomads have some sort of control over their work schedule, or are not required to work fixed hours. They can also change things up a bit by working from home, a cafe, a library or coworking space. Moreover, digital nomads don’t have to sit with coworkers in the same space everyday, freeing them from interpersonal politics. For those more introverted or who require more interrupted work time, digital nomadism seems to be the cure.
More focused work, increased productivity and work-related happiness is commonly reported among digital nomads. However, it comes with its sacrifices. The most prominent one being social isolation as a result of uprooting too often. One or a few months living in a city is certainly not enough to cultivate lifelong connections. While nomads have the breadth of experiences, they can suffer from lack of depth in their interpersonal relationships over time.
Three ways to become a digital nomad
Are you still tempted after I have painted an honest picture of being a digital nomad for you? If so, below are three proven ways to become a digital nomad.
1. Become a remote employee
Becoming a remote employee is the safest way to start living the digital nomad life without worrying about your finances. As long as your employer permits, you can travel to and live anywhere in the world where you can reliably carry out work duties online.
To be a remote employee, you first need to become proficient in certain digital skills. Digital marketing, content writing, web development, graphic design and customer support are among the most desired digital skills by remote employers. Even some of the traditionally human-facing roles such as UX design are rapidly becoming remote-friendly.
There are plenty of cost effective learning tools out there to suit your needs. A mentored online course makes it easier to learn the necessary practical skills in a structured way: consider something like the CareerFoundry UX design course, which also comes with a job guarantee.
Once you have acquired the digital skills, you can find remote jobs on sites like weworkremotely, RemoteOk, Remote.com and more. Before taking the leap of faith, make sure that your team have systems in place to make remote working smooth and easy. Your work is done best when everyone is on the same page (i.e. remote) so that you are not left out of important work conversations.
2. Become self-employed remotely
If you don’t want to stick to a rigorous work schedule as a remote employee, consider going self-employed. Most digital nomads I know are self-employed which means their livelihood consists of contracting with paid work part time, and working on their own business on the side.
As millennials, we value variety, autonomy and freedom of self-expression. Being self-employed while location-independent seems to fit the bill perfectly: you could be working a 4-hour/day customer support job on the beaches of Bali, while spending the rest of your day bootstrapping your travel blog/SaaS tool/mobile app to profit. What is work life balance if you can’t find the time to pursue your passions after all? Freedom is the new luxury. In fact, according to a recent survey, freelancers now make up 35% of the US workforce. At the same time, more and more niche freelancer job sites are popping up everyday, as are support tools.
As a UX designer, I have used AngelList, Gigster, Crew.co, onsite.io, and Toptal for high quality freelance design opportunities. For invoicing and contracting, I used Bonsai and And.co to minimise the paperwork. Be careful not to shortchange yourself as a remote contractor though; I wrote about some common mistakes as a rookie freelance designer at my blog BeyondPixels here.
3. Run your own remote company
For the most audacious, today’s remote workforce presents the golden opportunity to run your own remote team. With careful planning and out-of-the-box management, you can run your own company from anywhere in the world without relying on investors or bank loans.
In fact, while other digital nomads are trying to take advantage of currency exchange rates to lower their cost of living, the more money-savvy entrepreneur can think of lowering operating costs by hiring where you can afford the best of local talents.
For example, you can hire top notch app developers in Ukraine, well-trained customer support staff in Romania, incredibly talented designers in Brazil and hard working system admins in Malaysia. Your global team can cost you much less than hiring locally and yield the same return.
Even if you do want to keep your team in the same timezone, there are myriad benefits when it comes to managing teams remotely. 37 Signals – a pioneer in remote working – once said “There are no advantages for people who come into the office, no disadvantages to staying home to get your work done. Startups like Buffer and Basecamp are 100% remote, while big companies like Dell and Apple are slowly opening up a remote workforce.
If you are thinking of growing and scaling a remote company, read Jason Fried’s book Rework, and follow Buffer’s open journey. It will give you a new perspective on how to manage remote teams effectively. You might also consider taking project management courses, or management courses, to help ensure your team is motivated and working efficiently—no matter how many kilometers or time zones are between you.