Digital Nomad Entrepreneurhip: Building a Startup while Traveling
There are many ways to sustain yourself as a digital nomad, and I personally think the most fascinating one is building your own Startup, or in other words, creating a product or service (usually online) that didn’t exist before and becoming a nomad entrepreneur. It should be noted however that if you are interested in a digital nomadic lifestyle that involves complete disconnection and freedom, a startup will not be the best option for you.
This article is based on my experiences as a digital nomad who is constantly moving between locations since 2010, while building my two startups. The first is StarutupBlink, a global startup ecosystem map and the second is LingoLearn, an online language school.
Just like having a child, building a startup creates an attachment (a natural enemy of the nomadic lifestyle), but then again, if it works and you manage to later disconnect yourself from it, you can either get “free” by generating passive income or by selling it. Not to mention the powerful effect of creating something new that makes a “dent” in the world and gives you a real goal in life other than just switching from one place to another. The concept of building a startup while living a digital nomadic lifestyle is of course possible thanks to the internet, which allows us to be location-free while working on projects.
As the founder of a startup, you will experience an emotional roller coaster from happiness to despair, even in the same day. It’s a huge challenge, even for non-nomads. But, creating a startup while traveling carries additional challenges, since your lifestyle as a nomad is less stable by definition; therefore, you should really be prepared if you decide to take the plunge and become a nomad entrepreneur.
If you are still motivated to go for it after my short disclaimer, here are some tips on how to build a startup while on the move based on my own experience:
Don’t do it alone.
Find a partner or co-founder. When you travel, you’re exposed to unstable uncertainties, and it is critical to have a backup of a partner who is also dedicated to the success of the startup. The first rule for a good partnership is to choose someone you get along well with and who has your total trust (in a way, partnership resembles a marriage, especially when you are traveling and need someone to cover for you). Make sure your potential partner accepts your choice to be a location-free nomad, while assuring them that your lifestyle doesn’t imply that you are not fully dedicated to the success of the startup.
Build your startup at home, first.
The initial process of developing a business model and a prototype, validating it (getting in touch with the market), and legally registering your startup is better done where you are physically present with your co-founding team, preferably at your home base. Only when all the infrastructure and bureaucracy is dealt with should you leave your home base and continue to work on it while being on the move. I waited for five months while setting up my startup (the online langauge school, LingoLearn) before I went to India (it was supposed to be two months, but it always takes longer than you think it will). It’s a sacrifice, but dealing from logistics when you are far from your home base is nearly impossible.
A startup can’t be successful without huge amount of commitment of the co-founders. This means you will have to dedicate great amount of time and effort to make it succeed. I have found the dreams of a 4-hour workweek while building a viable business as totally unrealistic, so the commitment and passion factors are crucial. Nomadic entrepreneurs have to dedicate even more time to their startup since our lifestyle is costly on time and money. It takes time to find your next wi-fi spot, next place to work from, and next location or “base.” You have to make up for this by putting more of your available time into the startup. The dream of nomad disconnection has to be put by the wayside until your startup is “ready” and creates profits, which usually takes years.
Make sure the idea/business model is not adversely affected by your nomadic lifestyle.
The best way to make sure your startup won’t tie you to the same place, is to create an online business, which will allow you to work wherever you are. However, even some online businesses require staying in a stable base to manage inventory or important meetings, and that’s a position you don’t want to be in (unless your partner can fill in the gap). Create a business model that benefits from you being on the move.
Don’t count on cash flow at the beginning.
The first two years will probably generate losses, since a startup requires investment (unlike freelancing). If you don’t have enough oxygen (money) at the beginning, it’ll be stressful and might push you to give up, even if the idea is viable in the long term. The key here is to prepare yourself in advance for your startup to lose money during the first two years. Start committing to your startup only when you have some savings or an alternative revenue stream to use while you work (I worked as a freelancer on the side during the first 3 years of building my startup to get the necessary cash).
Adjusting your nomadic lifestyle to your startup.
While you develop a startup, you can no longer be a free spirit. Feel like a few months trip to Cambodia’s islands? It might not work, since you will have no internet. Did you always dream of living in Yemen? Problematic as well, especially if you need to make necessary connections with fellow entrepreneurs and potential clients. In a nutshell, you can still be a nomad, but a less “wild” one. You will have to pick the locations with stable internet connection, and avoid places that are unstable, with high crime rates or bad infrastructure (those “bad surprises” are interesting while traveling, but your business needs stability). I am addicted to the concept of using co-working spaces while on the move to increase effectiveness, but those places are mostly available only in modern cities. This means I have to avoid long stays in villages and small towns, although those are usually the most interesting locations. That’s the sacrifice you make as a nomad entrepreneur and you should be aware of it before you choose the path of a nomad entrepreneur.
Use your nomadic lifestyle to leverage your startup.
Being on the move can also have advantages for your startup. You’re constantly meeting new people and being exposed to new markets, which can get you new clients, suppliers and potential partnerships. Networking and understanding new markets can be a huge boost for your startup and these are worth a significant time investment. While traveling, I recommend connecting with local entrepreneurs and getting to know startup enthusiasts instead of just hanging out with tourists. Check out relevant events in each country, and search for relevant meetups on meetup.com.
Don’t aim for investors.
This is important for all startups in their initial phase, but even more crucial for nomad entrepreneurs. I’m a great believer in creating a minimum viable product ( a lean startup approach), which means that you must have more than a dream (idea) in order to look for investors, but you have to take it a few steps further. Before approaching investors or trying to raise money, do your best to “be in touch with the market/users” as soon as possible. This means that, after deciding on an idea/business model, you have to validate demand for your idea by creating a prototype and only when you have proof of demand (people using or purchasing your service/product), can you go to investors. This is even more critical for nomad entrepreneurs for the following reason: investors are giving their money not merely for an idea, but mainly for a talented and dedicated team that can execute. When you tell investors about your nomadic lifestyle, most of them will not accept it (they might appreciate it, but not to the point of funding it). The solution? Prove your dedication by building something that is much more advanced and compelling than an idea. Then, even as a nomad entrepreneur, you will get their attention. It goes without saying that if your idea can generate income and profit from clients, just keep on building it by using the money generated from sales. The best investor is a paying client.
Love your startup.
It’s crucial to love and to be passionate about your startup. The process of building a startup is consuming on many fronts (time, money, effort, emotions). When we do things we love, we increase the chances for success. If you’re are investing all this effort in something you are not passionate about, it will probably make you quit along the way in one of the “low” points, even if it could be successful over the long term. Just like a nomadic lifestyle can’t be sustainable if you are not happy and passionate about changing locations, working on a project you don’t like will also affect your travel-habits and will make you grumpy on the road, making it a losing game on both fronts: being miserable with what you do and frustrated with your lifestyle. If it comes to that, wouldn’t it be better to just stay on the same place and get a boss (or get married)? The key here is to pick and develop an idea that you are passionate about. A happy founder of a startup is also a happy nomad.
Don’t go for it full time before you become an avid nomad.
If you’re a newbie nomad, you’ll make mistakes that’ll consume time and money. Try to delay entering the full startup gear until after you’re completely comfortable with the way you travel, and making sure you have developed the basic skills a nomad needs. The good news is that once you have developed the necessary nomad skills (decision making, being street wise, negotiating, taking quick calls), you will find that those skills run parallel to the necessary management skills needed from an entrepreneur. If you are just starting your nomad adventure, focus more on small cash flow streams (freelancing) that will teach you necessary skills and take the real full time startup jump when you are a stable nomad.
In conclusion: startup owners and nomads have a lot in common as they both embrace uncertainty and enjoy the ride more than arriving at the destination. If you already discovered that you have a nomadic spirit that is addicted to changes, what can be more suitable than becoming a nomad entrepreneur? Just remember that this path is challenging for a nomad, so go for it and create your business only if you are willing to pay the price and adjust your lifestyle accordingly.