Last year, I visited over 29 cities across 11 countries. I've been on 45+ flights, stayed in more than 40 Airbnbs , and spent over 250 days on the road. And until recently when somebody asked me where I lived, I drew a blank. How could I sum up that for 2 months last spring I bounced between Malta, Greece and France? That Sumo is in Austin, but my family is in Vancouver and I spent the summer in the US, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador?
And that none of this travel was traditional “travelling”? Because when you’re travelling, you have somewhere to return to at the end of your trip. And that wasn’t my case. So, I’d stutter out the best answer I could: I live and work as a digital nomad.
What Is a Digital Nomad?
Digital nomadism is becoming both more recognized and more sought after. If you’ve read The 4-Hour Work Week or even one of the insane number of articles out there (a couple of which I’ve written) about quitting your job to travel, you might be able to understand why. Many of these resources promise a lifestyle full of travel and adventure afforded by little material, relational and financial responsibility. But aside from the promise of what a digital nomad can entail, let’s look at what a digital nomad is.
A digital nomad is anybody who can work from anywhere as long as they have a wifi connection, and travels and lives a largely “nomadic” life. Digital nomads are different from those who you would call location independent, in that they — for at least a majority of the year — travel between different cities while working on the road. If you don’t have to be in any particular location for your work, you’re location independent. That’s pretty cool, too. But digital nomads differ in the term “nomad” – they don’t live anywhere in particular, and instead opt to travel while working. Sound cool? It is. But if you’re reading this from your office cubicle before running into a meeting in half an hour, you might be wondering how it’s possible. There are two ways to become a digital nomad:
- You can be a digital nomad while also working for a company. I work with SumoMe (and also own my own business). My friend Chloe is also a digital nomad who works for somebody besides herself. Warning: many companies are okay with remote workers but not okay with digital nomads.
- You can become a digital nomad by owning a location independent business. A brick and mortar store wouldn’t give you the location independence you need to make digital nomadism work. This type of lifestyle is usually reserved for professional bloggers, freelancers, coaches, those who sell digital products and have service-based businesses. The key here is usually that your business has to be an online business.
You can’t be a digital nomad without working. Otherwise, you’d just be a nomad (or a long-term traveller, vagabond, whatever). And typically, you can’t be a digital nomad without working just as much — if not more — than your location dependent counterparts. Surprising, right? Yup, if you’ve been sold the Kool-aid. You know that nice bedtime story where you’re supposed to be able to quit your job, start a blog, book a one-way plane ticket and live happily ever after off of… Well, what exactly?
Digital Nomads Don’t Get a Free Pass to Work Less
Let’s revisit those numbers up there really quickly: 29 cities. 11 countries. 40 airbnbs. 250+ days on the road. And only one of these trips was a “vacation”.
Want proof? During that exact same time period, I've written over 30 articles for Sumo, 11 for Unsettle, nearly 20 that have been guest posted on places like Foundr, Smart Passive Income, Huffington Post and Smart Blogger, and countless pieces of content for my Etsy Seller's course, my private community, and of course, my email list. I've coached clients to launch their businesses and grow their incomes from $0 to $10,000/month, doubled my email list and had a hand in making sure the content marketing team at SumoMe reached our goal — every single month.
- I sent out my most profitable sales email ever for SumoMe when I was in Santorini, Greece.
- I wrote my most popular article I've ever written (about Instagram marketing), raking in over 7,600 emails when I was in Cusco, Peru.
- And in Colombia, I reviewed so many websites for conversion rate optimization that I literally lost my voice.
So most digital nomads don’t work any less than those who go to an office every day.
In fact, I’d argue that many of us work more.
Because not being in the office or not being accountable to a traditional “boss” for those who just run their own businesses mean that a lot of the time, we feel like we need to prove ourselves. In Greece, I found myself working 8-9 hours every day of extremely focused work (not including meetings, administrative work such as email processing, and the type of work that doesn’t require my laser-attention). Doesn’t sound so bad? Studies show your average North American office worker gets in around 3 hours of productive time over their 8.8 hours of being in the office. Not every digital nomad hustles like this. Many prefer to travel to cheaper countries so they can spend less time in front of their laptops and more time exploring the cities they’re visiting. That’s ok, too. But the crux of digital nomadism is that digital part. And here’s the kicker…
Digital Nomadism Is Not “Getting Paid to Travel”
A strong myth about digital nomads is that we “get paid to travel”. This is how some (more shady) people “sell the dream”, so they can then sell you their products. It’s wise to be skeptical of these claims, because they’re (usually) false. Sure, you can get paid to travel. If you’re a flight attendant, travel photographer, or have a job on a cruise ship, you’re getting paid to travel. Those are all worthy careers. In most cases, though, these careers are not within the “digital nomad” category. Digital nomads get paid for their work — usually by clients, customers, or their employers. It's not “getting paid to travel”. Think of digital nomadism as paying your living costs in many different places rather than one static place.
- Instead of forking out $1,200/month on rent in your home city, you might spend $700 on one AirBNB you stay in for two weeks in Split, Croatia before spending another $500 on the next two week guest-house stay in Athens.
- Rather than buying a transit pass in your home city that you use for the entire year, you buy a short-term (10-30 day) pass in the city you happen to be in.
- Instead of spending $200 on your monthly commute, you split $200-$300 between several co-working spaces for the month.
See what I mean? You’re not travelling. You’re just living in many different places.
Sample Work Day as a Digital Nomad
I'm currently writing this article from Porto, Portugal, while my team at SumoMe is on a team retreat that I couldn't attend. Because I’m in a different timezone, I’m accessible for SumoMe from around 3:00 PM – midnight. I sleep from 1:00 AM – 8:30 AM or so. Yesterday Ryan and I woke up and made breakfast (or rather, he made me breakfast). After eating together chatting, he and I got to work — he writing an article for an exciting new project and I on writing this. We worked for an hour and a half or so before getting ready for the day. After lunch we enjoyed a walk to the river in Porto, where we walked around, took some pictures, and had some lunch and coffee before returning home to work a bit more:
We got back at around 2:30, ate a bit more and then settled in to work. I promoted my most recent Sumo article, tracked performance on previous articles, and wrote a sub-article for Huffington Post, and outlined my next article. We worked until 8 PM, when we took a break for dinner and gelato. Weekends are a bit different. We still work a bit on weekends, but spend more time exploring. Recently, one weekend day in Paris we walked around the city for over 11 hours after 2-3 hours of morning work. So, as you can see we still work. So now that you have a more of a realistic view of digital nomadism, you might be wondering…
How Can I Become a Digital Nomad?
Because, yes, you can become a digital nomad. Even if you have kids. You can become a digital nomad in one of two ways: you could work for a company as an employee remotely, or you could start a business that will allow you to work from anywhere with wifi. There are three ways to do this:
- Go remote while still being employed
- Take your side hustle full-time and quit your job
- Start a business.
I’ll break it down.
1. How to Go Remote as an Employee
I’m not going to tell you that being self employed is better than being employed by a company. That largely depends on your personality, whether or not you prefer to work as part of a team, and whether you’re self motivated. So if you’re already working for a company, and you want to continue to be employed, there are two ways to do so:
Work Remotely With Your Current Company
If you’re already working in the office full-time, it’s not easy to get permission to go remote, especially if the company you work for has few (or no) remote workers already. Start by requesting to work one or two days each week from home. Once that request has been granted, do the best work you possibly can from home to prove that you’ll still be productive when you’re not in the office. After you’ve proven that, use that for your remote work request.
Find Other Remote Work
If your company won’t support you working remotely, you could find other remote work. It’s not as hard as you might think. Check:
It’s easiest to find remote work in the technical professions or anything that can be done with websites. For example, content writing, web design, development, and social media. If remaining employed isn’t for you and you already have a side business, you could spin that into your full-time gig.
2. Take Your Side Hustle Full-Time
Let’s say you want to take a stab at making a go of this for yourself. If you already have have a blog or online business — yes, even on the side — you can take two steps:
Find Out What it Would Take to Go Full-Time.
When I first decided I was unhappy with my work in 2014, I already had a blog. It was a personal finance blog that I’d started 5 years earlier, and was making a decent income at the time. After I crunched some numbers, I realized that the only thing preventing me from replacing my day job income with my blog was time. I spent 40 hours per week at my job, and maybe around 15 hours each week on my blog. So what might happen if I tripled the amount of time I spent on my blog? Assuming the amount I earned was directly related to the amount of effort and attention I gave to my site (which is definitely the case for most bloggers, at least within the first couple of years), I’d earn more money with it. I’d have the time to:
- Learn about marketing and market myself properly
- Write more regularly and to master content marketing
- Engage in email marketing and grow my audience.
What would it take for you to bring your existing blog or business full time? Sometimes it’s surprising to learn you just need a couple more clients, or some more time in your work week.
Find Out If Your Side Hustle is Already Earning Enough
Your side hustle may not be earning enough to replace your full-time income with it. But it may be earning more than enough to live as a digital nomad. Many countries are far cheaper to live in than any city in North America. I could have spent ½ the amount of money in any city in Colombia to live a rather lavish lifestyle than I could in Vancouver. If you’re not sure how much it costs to live in certain cities, use this runway calculator my friend Nat made. Crunching the numbers might actually show you that you already have the freedom to become a digital nomad — without lifting a finger (except to pack your bags).
3. Start a Business
Maybe you hate your job and that’s why you want to explore the world of digital nomadism. Or maybe you just want to travel more and know the company you’re working for won’t support you working remotely. But more likely, you just want to be your own boss. You want to take a shot at working for yourself. If the other two options weren’t your jam, there are three ways you can do this to become a digital nomad.
Launch a Service
The easiest way to launch an online business is to offer a service. I’ve coached clients from $0 and a brand new website to $10,000/month in under 6 months just on a service. Even if you’re not aiming for that $10K milestone just yet and you want to set your sights on replacing your day job income, it’s not unrealistic to offer a service that earns $3,000-$4,000 within a few months as long as you are willing to put yourself out there. What are you good at? What are you interested in? How can you pivot those things into a service that you can offer online? You don’t need a website, a blog, or even an email list to launch a service. You just need clients and a way to get paid (I recommend starting with PayPal initially).
Start a Product-Based Business
Services are a great place to start, even if you ultimately don’t want to trade time for money. But, I have to say this: If you’re looking at starting a business, you need to let go of any illusions of passive income and making money while you sleep. If you make it to that point, expect to put in a minimum of a year of hard full-time work to do so. Which means, get started now.
You might think that selling a product would tie you down to one place, and you’d be right most of the time. Taking on inventory, shipping and suppliers can be a commitment that prevents a lot of travel (unless you have somebody manage this for you). That’s why the best products for digital nomads are digital products. Digital products are things like:
- Online courses (like my Sell on Etsy course)
- Membership websites (like Smart Blogger’s Serious Bloggers Only community)
- eBooks, and anything that can be delivered digitally.
Before you can actually sell your product though, your business needs to have a group of people to sell the product to. That means starting a blog or even just an email list with a simple landing page. If that’s not for you, you could…
Start an Ecommerce Business
Starting an online store doesn’t rely so much on content or an audience as it does on exposure through media, ads, and social, and as I mentioned above it does have some limitations. You can start an ecommerce business and still be free to be a digital nomad through three methods:
- Having a fulfillment company package and ship orders for you like Fulfillment by Amazon, which some people have parlayed into full-time online businesses.
- Drop-shipping so you never have to have inventory in the first place, like Will has done from Startup Bros.
- Hiring an operations manager or somebody to deal with inventory, shipping and anything location-sensitive like my friend Ronak does with his business Code and Quill.
Some businesses traditionally thought of as ecommerce (for example, starting an Etsy shop) can also be conducive to digital nomadism – specifically if you sell digital products. For example, Bliss Paper Boutique sells printable digital downloads for wedding stationery. Because there’s no inventory management or anything to ship, they likely have the ability to work while travelling. But before you get excited and type up your resignation letter for your boss, I highly recommend you reconsider.
Don’t Just Quit Your Job, Start a Business and Book a One Way Ticket
There are stories all over the internet of grand gestures of rebellion. People just quitting their jobs, starting a fledgling online business and booking a one way ticket (honestly, usually to Chiang Mai, Thailand. What is it with that place?) And while this makes for a good story, I think it’s a little reckless. Maybe I’m becoming risk averse as I age, but “burning the ships” sounds exciting… until you realize that you’re stuck in another country with no money in the bank and only a backpack to your name. Not fun.
I’d highly recommend saving up a runway — or an amount of money that will allow you to live cheaply in another country for a number of months while you build your business to become self-sustainable. In this case, you’re using your employer to fund your business with the wages you’re already earning. Don’t have money in your budget to save? Keep in mind that when you quit to travel, you’ll have to be frugal. Scale back on your spending now to help you get used to a more bare-bones budget later. And don’t wait until you “have more time” to start your blog, launch your business or offer your services. Putting in business-building hours after the day job will be hard, but it will show you the work ethic you need to succeed by yourself. Start right now (here’s how).