The Life of a Digital Nomad

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I’ve been working as a freelance web developer for about two months now. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for and it’s been a  hell of a ride.

In an attempt to make sense of it all, I humbly present to you everything I’ve learned in the last 9 weeks about four of the biggest aspects of being a digital nomad.

The Freedom

Ahh, yes. Freedom. ‘Tis a glorious thing. The freedom to work when you want. The freedom to work where you want. The freedom to make Skype calls and talk business whilst drinking Pina Coladas dressed in nothing but your underwear (but for the love of God, DON’T HIT THE VIDEO BUTTON).

The freedom to spend many days building a website that talks in painful detail about your love of aardvarks because you’re the great grandaddy of your business and it’s a niche with a LOT of traffic and if you say it could be a gold mine then you’re going to take that risk cause, dammit, you’re the BOSS.

The freedom to say ‘screw this, I’m going home’ at 10:30 in the morning and then spend the rest of the day riding horses at full tilt around the countryside of Argentina before hitting up an authentic Gaucho bar complete with cowboys in berets and cheap red wine (£1 for half a litre!).

The freedom to work a 10 hour day, every day for two weeks straight. The freedom to worry about how much work you have on. The freedom to worry about how little work you have on. The freedom to worry constantly about where your next job is coming from and how you’re going to be able to afford to live 6 months from now.

The freedom to deal with complaints, handle queries, research keywords, design websites, program themes, market services, chase invoices, fill in tax returns, file receipts and track expenses.

The freedom to placate partners with promises that it won’t always be like this, that the job’s nearly finished and that we can enjoy this foreign city that we’ve travelled 6,000 miles to see NEXT weekend.

The Office

Picture this: You’re at your desk. The temperature is around 30 degrees celsius. The sun is shining brightly in a clear blue sky but that’s OK because your desk is located outside under the comfortable shade of a beautiful dark wood veranda.

You hear tropical birds singing in the jungle behind you and you feel the cooling sea breeze stroke your face from off the beach in front of you. You reach over and take a sip of a refreshing fruit cocktail before returning to your work, relaxed and unhurried.

Now picture this: You’re sitting up on an uncomfortable bed in a dingy hotel room balancing a laptop precariously on your lap. Outside, it sounds like a nefarious deity is trying to flatten the city with rain alone, which would be fine if he would just turn down the heat while he did it.

The deadline is minutes away and you’re desperately trying to upload an entire website on a whisper of a dial up WiFi connection that is entirely dependent on the direction that the wind is blowing. You look up to see the largest cockroach entomology has ever seen climbing up the wall and, for a split second, you imagine how much easier your life would be if you were a bug.

The Work

For eleven of the twelve years I did web design, I never got paid for it. I did it because it allowed me to combine my love of drawing with my love of a good challenge. It was all about the love.

Now people are paying me to do it. People come up to me and they say ‘Simon, we want a website done. We like the other websites you’ve done and we want you to do one for us. We’ll give you ten million dollars to do it.’

Maybe that’s not exactly what they say, but it’s close. It’s incredible and I am entirely and forever grateful to them for the opportunity to get paid to do something I really enjoy.

But for the love of all things good and wholesome why do they want a rainbow-coloured unicorn dancing across half the page while singing Lady GaGa’s ‘Bad Romance’ on a page about bicycle rental?

Seriously now. I know it’s their money. I know I said I’d implement their amends. But please, please, please don’t make me sign my name to this.

The Clients

Clients are amazing. Clients teach you how to be diplomatic and understanding. They force you to confront awkward situations head on and to resolve them maturely and with empathy.

They challenge you to push your skills in new directions and deliver more in less time than you ever thought was possible. They challenge you to make your good into your best.

They test your patience by taking weeks to send over files then blaming you when the launch is 20 minutes late. They insult your integrity by assuming you are trying to rip them off at every turn when the reality is that your current hourly rate for their job has just slipped below minimum wage. Pre tax.

They frustrate you with ridiculous requests that take days to implement despite your warnings that the technology can’t handle it, only to change their minds and revert back to the original whilst suggesting that you advised them badly and that you lacked the chops to make it work.

Is it worth it?

Is it worth all of this? Is it worth the emotional strain of mountain-peak highs and deep-ocean-trench lows? Is it worth the risk that you might not eat next month just so that you can move to a new country every few months? Is working outside next to a beach really that great? I mean it’s only sand and water.

Good grief yes.

Every beautiful, infuriating, life-affirming, awkward, stressful, overwhelming, rewarding second of it. I have never in my entire life felt so much personal growth. I have never felt so in control of my own destiny. I have never felt so engaged in the work I do, so direct is the connection between effort and reward.

And that, my friends, is entirely priceless.

Does the digital nomad lifestyle appeal to you or am I just crazy? Leave a comment and let me know.

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63 thoughts on The Life of a Digital Nomad

  1. Pingback: Tips för att bli Digital nomad | Malin Hammar-Blomwall - Lyx.se

  2. Pingback: How We Got Started as Digital Nomads

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  4. Thanks for sharing both the positives and the negatives! It’s hard for people like me who are trying to work towards a location independent lifestyle to even believe that there are negatives, but definitely happy to hear the good stuff outweighs the bad! although a monster cockroach might sway be heavily in the negative direction! :o)

    • There are definitely negatives but yes, the highs do outweigh the lows and the freedom is an amazing feeling. Good luck on your journey to location independence.

  5. Hi Simon,

    Cheers for the post, it’s great and exactly what I’ve started doing over the past few months – in Southeast Asia at the moment, Malaysia to be more specific. It’s super exciting, challenging, etc – everything you’re describing.

    Giving it’s starting to work, I’m also starting to work out what I need to take care of on finance / accounting / taxes fronts, and I don’t know anyone personally doing the same, I’m technically ‘based’ in the UK, so I’m starting to get in touch with a few other of the digital nomads / laptop hobos 😉

    Cheers

    • Taxes is such a complicated issue and we are still not quite sure what the right thing is. Currently we are registered as self employed in the UK and pay tax there, as we aren’t resident anywhere else to pay tax. It’s just easier this way, but maybe if we start making a lot more money we’ll get some proper advice. Good luck with it all and let us know if you have any questions.

  6. Great stuff Simon, thank you for sharing your experience! After building my business this way for the last 4 years and meeting hundreds of like-minded folks through my travels and online, it’s exciting to be part of this societal shift by building an online community to encourage more folks to embrace location independent business! My biggest wish is that in the coming years, more and more people will be able to have this sort of flexibility and control over their work lives! I’ve been in Southeast Asia for nearly 3 years, loving life, and my next destination is Central & South America hopefully later this year, so this gets me excited! 🙂

  7. Man, your posts made me laugh as this has been my life for roughly 8 months now..

    Income may be inconsistent depending on the work assigned, but man, I am very happy I made the move to full-time freelancing.

    No Manager to argue with, no work schedule, no SHIT cause I’m the BOSS ^_^

  8. Simon,

    Thanks for that, I will look into it in more detail and see you when the money rolls in.Haha!

    I am going to post around other sites/blogs and see if anybody has any other issues I can possibly address, but please update me when you come across any more problems that I may be able to overcome through a new design.

    All the best!

  9. Hi all,

    I am currently studying in my 3rd year of a Design degree in Leeds, England and looking to to base my final project around the digital nomad lifestyle. By the end of the project i aim to produce a new product/piece of furniture/accessory to aid a digital nomad. Can anybody help with with my research by identifying what some of the most useful pieces of equipment and why, and more importantly if there is anything that does not work well/could be improved or even invented! The sort of thing when you say “if only I had that” or “that would be useful” !!!

    Any information would be much appreciated, or if you can’t help do you know anybody that could aid me in my research. Thank you.

    • YES!

      I was on the bus reading my Kindle this very day and suddenly we found ourselves in a really long tunnel where I was no longer able to see the screen. Fortunately, i had my iPod Touch with me so I whipped it out (and then got out my iPod Touch) and held it over the kindle.

      It provided enough light, but it was awkward to hold both and continue reading so I turned to Erin and I said:

      “You know what would be awesome? Some sort of clip that could attach to the top of the Kindle and hold my iPod Touch/iPhone so that it lit up the screen without me having to hold it.”

      This, my friend, is fate. I have the problem on the same day you ask about products to help digital nomads. Get it made! It’ll make you rich, guaranteed*!

      If it does, this idea is ©Simon Fairbairn 2010. I’ll license the rights to you to get it done, but I want my percentage (say, 15%) when it goes global. This is going to be huge, stranger who I’ve never met before!

      *It may or may not make you rich. It should get you at least a 2:1, though.

      • Simon,

        Thanks for that, I will have a look into that idea further.I am going to post around different sites/blogs to see what responses I can get to possibly turn into a design.

        When you next come across a problem please let me know and I will see what I can do.

        All the best

  10. Hola amigos saludos y éxitos en 2011, muchas felicidades y que se encuentren bien muy lindas sus fotos y comentarios de sus aventuras por Américam, un abrazo y los esperamos por Hotel Rural San Ignacio Country misiones Paraguay con afecto Gustavo Jhave,

  11. Hey Icon,

    Thank you for responding. I took your advice so now i decided to use ‘nomadic trader’ on my business card and my first blog. You’re one of the few people that inspire me because i look up to you. I just learned how to do the blog today and i tried to publish one. Would you mind checking it and please….
    http://travelbroadcast.wordpress.com/.

    More power to all of us…..

  12. hi there, i have been living in the world of nomadism which i have no idea that this world actually exist. I always thought i was the only one doing it. I travel a lot while i do all my marketing works on line for companies back home. I have earned from several projects and enjoy life while going to places. I have been to 22 countries already and i am only 32 yrs old,single.I have done several traditional businesses of my own but nothing really beats having the time and the freedom to do things your way….
    Should i start calling myself a digital nomad or a trader nomad?
    I have started working on my portfolio slowly through the morning forex and now i am in the verge of creating a website wherein people from all walks of life can unite sharing their travel experiences for free. I wanted to make my own business card that says i am a trader nomad or digital nomad and help young people like me to enjoy time and freedom while earning. I need your worthy advice. thanks

    • Tell me about it. My own stupid fault, though. Once I started asking people if they’d pay me to do it they were all, “Yeah, sure. Why didn’t you ask earlier?”

      /facepalm

  13. I’ve been working for myself for 7 years now and I can’t imagine going back to a regular office job! I don’t have quite the view here in Texas that you do, but the cockroaches are large and sometimes fly. 😉

    Glad to hear you are pushing back on clients with the billing. I find people value you more the more you cost, and certainly, some clients will try to get away with whatever they can. IME, setting clear rules and enforcing your limits strictly but fairly helps a lot. Also, if you charge more, you can afford to get rid of the annoying clients who suck up most of your time. Good luck!

    • They fly?! That’s…that’s so wrong!

      I have found exactly the same. Not only do clients respect you more, but you also no longer have to work for minimum wage! Hurrah!

  14. I cannot agree more with you! I am a freelance writer for various companies and while it gives me the freedom to be wherever I want to be, it leaves me at the mercy of poor WiFi connections and drained batteries!

    Oh but I will not trade this life for anything else… no power suits, no 200-floor buildings, no business meetings, no make up!

  15. Ah this particular post totally speaks to my soul Simon and it is inspiring to see you take your work with you as you travel worldwide! Hope you are both doing well. Warm regards from Cape Town, Agnes

  16. Wow, great read, and such a beautiful site. Just came here through Earl’s tweet, and you manage to capture the true essence of being a digital nomad. Thanks for that!

  17. I want to be a digital nomad! I’m barely beginning however, so this is going to take time to build up. Will you be sharing more nitty gritty tidbits about how this works for you in terms of the practical business aspects? You alluded to it in the comments when you said you’re a UK-based company doing business with other UK-based companies. Does this mean you’re legally registered/licensed/etc as a business in the UK with a UK address even though you’re technically abroad?

    And thanks for the inspiration!

    • Good luck with your journey to becoming a digital nomad! We just dove in at the deep end and are figuring it out as we go. To be honest we are still confused about the legal business aspects. Simon is registered as self employed in the UK and most of his clients at based there. We use a family member’s address. We need to work out if this is the best way though, and we will share anything that we find out.

      • Thanks Erin! I just had a well-meaning friend advise me that being a digital nomad is pretty much impossible so to stick with the business aspect or the travel aspect only. So it’s lovely to have people like you guys sharing your experience so people like me can go “Well too bad. Other people have done it and I most certainly can as well!” It’s worth trying at least!

        • Don’t listen to the naysayers! There are SO many people doing it now that there is no reason not to give it a try. Good luck and keep us posted!

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  19. I’m glad to read about your experience. Being a freelance proofreader (in French, so my English may not be too good!), I have often considered working while traveling and it seems like, even though it can be hard and frustrating, it’s totally possible, and worth the inconvenience. Time management is what scares me the most – tell us more about it when you find the best schedule!

    • It’s nice to know you’ve had similar experiences. Ilha Grande was a great place to work – mornings at the beach and afternoons working. We didn’t have internet though so couldn’t stay for more than a week! We are currently in Buenos Aires which is a bit of an easier place to work.

  20. This was a fun read, Simon! As a fellow digital nomad (though I prefer to call myself a Nomadic Explorer), I can totally relate with you. I began my journey two months ago here in India and I’m loving absolutely every moment of it.

    Right now, I’m living in the beach town of Gokarna and my daily routine consists of breakfast at the beach, four hours of work in the afternoon, watching the sunset and having dinner in the evening, and finally another four hours of work before bed.

    I will take all the discomfort, unpredictability, and big cockroaches the world can throw at me for the freedom and control I have over my life right now. This lifestyle is definitely not for everyone, but I cannot even imagine living my life any other way.
    .-= Raam Dev´s last blog ..A Vision for Life on Earth =-.

    • We were at Gokarna for Christmas about 2 years ago and we loved it. So peaceful – would definitely be a nice relaxing place to get some work done and it sounds like you’ve got a good schedule going on.

      I’m getting to the point where I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, too. I much prefer the extremes – the beautiful, relaxing ups and the uncomfortable, unpredictable downs – to the middling safe, comfortable but monotonous office grind.

      • It seems like all the nomads who have been to India have also visited Gokarna! 🙂 I’m glad I decided to stop here — the only problem is I’m staying a lot longer than I expected simply because I can’t get myself to leave!!

        After making this lifestyle change and experiencing what it’s like, the thought of returning to a monotonous office lifestyle feels akin to committing myself to dying a long slow death. I’m more confident now than ever before that I was born to be a nomadic explorer.
        .-= Raam Dev´s last blog ..A Vision for Life on Earth =-.

  21. That was a great read Simon. I agree with you all the way. Despite all of the unique challenges and often over-looked difficulties of such a lifestyle, it only takes one quick glance at that beach for me to fully believe that every minute of my nomadic lifestyle has been worth it.

    And even though the freedom aspect is not as glamorous as it may appear, when I think of the alternative paths I could have chosen, I consider myself more than fortunate.
    .-= Earl´s last blog ..Challenges Of A Permanent Nomad =-.

    • There’s a little bit of synchronicity going on between our two blogs there! I totally agreed with what you said – I think there is a tendency to overlook the challenges somewhat (I know I did) and if one isn’t prepared for them the dream can quickly turn into a nightmare. On the other hand, the benefits in the long run far, far outweigh the difficulties and it’s really hard not to wake up 6 mornings out of 7 without feeling amazingly blessed- even with the cockroaches!

  22. Your “office” looks like a great place to work. It’s really inspiring for the rest of us to see someone making it with freelance work.

    PS: I think you may be on to something with the aardvarks.

    • Thanks very much Larry! It really was an amazing place to work. Never felt so relaxed while coding in my life. Not sure about the ‘making it’, though – ask me again in a year!

      P.S. It’s a huge untapped market, I’m sure of it!

  23. This may sound funny, but I think in may ways it’s all about becoming somewhat hardened and selfish. In most facets of life, I would not tout those particular characteristics, but when it comes to clients — with the exception of only a few — it’s best to charge them for every second, every change, every moment of aggravation they give you on the phone. I think people even tend to value your work more when it costs them dearly.

    That said, the traveling lifestyle has been more than worth it for me. I don’t do web design work anymore, but the freedom from a specific office and one often capricious boss is fantastic.

    Then it’s all about time management (I say as I’m still online at midnight knowing I have to be up in 6 hours to get Lila ready for school).

    Fantastic post!

    • I think you’re totally right and, to be honest, that’s exactly the lesson that I’m learning with this freelance stuff. I’m keeping spreadsheets of every second I spend on a job so that, when I price them up in future, I know how much I should add in for emails, Skype calls, tiny amends and so on. My proposals have also got a lot stricter with a clause that says that anything not explicity set out is chargeable at an hourly rate.

      I don’t really see this as being selfish as much as valuing my time and my skills, which I have spent a long time developing. Sometimes this does mean taking a hard line, but I think you’re right – clients respect and value the work more when you value every second of your time.

      I have to confess, time management is still one thing that I’m battling with and I don’t see that war ending any time soon but it is so worth it for the freedom.

      Thanks for your comments!

  24. Thanks for the post! It seems like you really have to have tolerance for adversity and to be able to find great joy in the obscure situations you find yourself. How much of your work is state-side and how much of it is international? Are you making websites in the country you are in? In different languages?
    .-= William Roth´s last blog ..What If Life Were More Like A Video Game =-.

    • Hi William,

      To be honest, I didn’t feel very tolerant at the time! But, yeah, it’s been an amazing experience and, looking back, I can definitely see the positives.

      At the moment, all of the work is from UK companies which I picked up before we left. I haven’t picked up any local work yet mainly because the opportunity hasn’t presented itself but also because of the visa issue and possibly the language issue, although if it’s a Latin-based language it’s less of an issue.

      Being a digital nomad is still a bit of a grey area legally, but as I’m a UK-based company working for other UK-based companies and getting paid into UK bank accounts, I don’t think I’m breaking any Argentinian laws by doing the work here.

      If I did do some work for an Argentinian company, then I definitely would be (whether I’d get caught and/or punished is another issue).

      Si

      • After looking at your site and seeing the prices in euro I bit my tongue and had a world-doesnt-revolve-around-me moment. Sorry for thinking you were in the US. Thanks for answering my questions!

        Traveling in South America I have seen travelers make a small living by creating english sites for guide companies and hostels looking to cash in on the tourism industry. It seemed they would simply exchange a bare-bones site for free rent. These travelers aren’t trying to be legitimate businesses though. It seems they are just looking to live the dream a little longer.
        .-= William Roth´s last blog ..What If Life Were More Like A Video Game =-.

        • Ha ha, not a problem!

          I wouldn’t say no to any work from local companies but UK companies pay better and at the moment I’m really busy with a variety of projects. We have considered offering web services to hostels and such but we haven’t needed to so far.

    • Thanks Adam, that’s real nice of you. Your blogs been inspirational to us – I can’t wait to get up to Colombia now, it looks absolutely amazing.

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