OPINION: Technology has changed the way we all work, but digital nomads have taken the freedom it offers to a whole new level.
I recently hit the road, leaving Perth behind on a journey that has led me north, to Chiang Mai, Thailand, which happens to be a prominent haven for digital nomads.
Digital nomads are people who maintain online businesses while travelling. It has become a movement, a community, in recent years. But it’s not a new thing, and it is not the preserve of the young.
Increasing globalisation has made this lifestyle a lot easier. It is simple to create, for example, a US corporation using European servers from Thailand. That business can access any market in the world (except places such as China and North Korea). The founder never has to actually be in any of the countries involved. Getting revenue in US dollars while paying costs in Thai baht is good for the bottom line.
For some people, this has become a vision of the new normal; they see it as a new way of living and working. It has become a social movement for some, freeing humanity from the shackles of the conventional workplace – minimalist living, away from the tyranny of owning ‘stuff’ or property, allowing us all to live wherever we like, letting us live whatever lifestyle we choose.
There are many advantages to this lifestyle. The sell high, buy low disparity in currency purchasing power acts as a multiplier on revenue. This enables a lifestyle that would not be possible by living in the developed world. Wandering from city to city, experiencing amazing culture, making friends along the way, with everything they own in a single backpack.
It’s a very Instagram-friendly lifestyle suited to the kind of person who takes photos of every meal to share with their ‘audience’. This has, in turn, led to a backlash against young photogenic nomads giving the entire concept a bad name. In some circles, ‘digital nomad’ is a derogatory term.
There is a definite split between the older, more established nomads and the millennials. There’s a sentiment that people should establish their business first, then go travelling. Millennials tend to go traveling and then try to start their business as they travel.
And while it’s unclear whether this is viable or not, it does raise hackles.
The businesses tend to be more restricted than we see in the startup scene. The goal for nomads is to maintain their lifestyle, not create a unicorn. The bible is Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek, rather than The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.
Drop shipping is common. This is the practice of setting up an online shop that holds no inventory. The manufacturers ship direct to the customers anywhere in the world. The shop owner only has to manage customer service and charge backs.
Self-publishing books and online courses are also popular, which leads to the nadir of nomadic experience – supporting a nomad life by selling books on how to be a nomad.
Creating apps, both mobile and web, tends to be unpopular. Developers working remotely for a non-nomadic client are more common. It’s possible to live well on very low wages, which makes bidding on remote work very competitive. This suits creative freelancers such as writers, artists, animators and designers.
Co-working spaces are common and cheap in most of the places nomads like to go. There’s a standard routine of spending the day in a co-working space, then exploring and socialising in the evening. All the nomad meetups tend to be in the evening to fit in with this.
It also seems that after a few years wandering, most nomads settle down. Not necessarily to a single place, some have two or three ‘homes’ they migrate between. The community has a large share of ex-pats who stopped moving around.
There is very much a community of digital nomads. I’ve only started on my journey, and so far my experience of the nomad lifestyle has been positive.
The meetups are friendly and convivial, and feel very like startup meetups, with the same sort of characters and mix of geeks, hopeful newbies and jaded veterans. There’s the same willingness to share experiences and tips and help each other.
As I said, I’ve only just begun. I may return to this subject in a future article once I’ve experienced more of it. I suspect that the veterans are jaded for a reason.