Digital Nomad Careers
Sustaining the lifestyle of a digital nomad is challenging. Whereas emotional hurdles such as loneliness, societal pressure, and pushing out of our comfort zone can be difficult, the critical hurdle we consistently return to is financial. How do we sustain ourselves while pursuing a long-term journey as a digital nomad? This article will provide an overview of the main nomadic career opportunities to pursue to ensure becoming a digital nomad is financially viable.
Nomadic Careers: Back to the Basics
The life of a digital nomad is usually dominated by two different financial concerns. In the many conversations I’ve shared with fellow travelers, the first challenge discussed is usually how to afford to start your initial travels as a digital nomad. The second difficulty that arises is how to minimize any negative impacts on your career while transitioning to a nomadic lifestyle.
I’ve often found that the majority of people can determine some short-term money making strategy but struggle with developing a long-term plan. Understanding the distinction can be critical. Without a proper long-term plan, even the most talented nomads may end up pressured to put a definitive end date on their travels and return to a 9-5 position. The purpose of this article is to help you build a medium to long-term plan that will sustain you and your career prospects while you enjoy the thrills of a nomadic journey.
Making enough money to begin life as a digital nomad is relatively simple. If you are from the developed world, initial seed funding can be saved while working an ordinary job. Building up a cushion of 6-8 thousand USD will help you take advantage of a normal career before heading out on the road. This can be a bit daunting. Many of us want to simply cut ties and set sail tomorrow. We don’t want to spend another grating day with our boss! However, it’s important to understand that initial savings are vital. Set a concrete departure date in your mind and look forward to that day. In the meantime, make the money needed to fund your transition.
Now, some aspiring nomads may think they don’t need initial cash savings to start their nomadic endeavors. That is a mistake. Traveling from city to city, country to country, and perhaps even continent to continent on a consistent basis means that trial and error will be your constant companions. Living with the existential threat that one false move could end your whole journey and blow your budget is too much weight. It will suck the fun right out of your new life and may even make quitting seem appealing. Instead, we must aim for financially sustainable ventures that are built on a responsible and purposeful savings foundation.
While meandering through the Roman Forum or enjoying a beer in Chiang Mai’s increasingly hipster Nimman district, you must also pay careful attention to your budget – how much you make and how much you spend. Rather than plotting a nomadic route through London, Zurich, and Paris, it would be more financially sustainable to begin in cheaper regions like Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia. The advantages of doing so are compounded when you learn popular digital nomad cost arbitrage techniques. Starting off in less expensive cities allows for greater time to develop a new cash flow. I’ve compiled an up to date list of the top digital nomad cities, check it out for some inspiration!
Digital Nomad Life is Expensive
Two visions of nomadic life tend to compete for traction in popular culture. One vision depicts a wandering hippie living on as little money as possible while relying on the hospitality of strangers and the winds of fortune to continue traveling. The other, that I subscribe to, is of a digital nomad carefully developing an income and working style that will support my long-term nomadic lifestyle. One vision costs more than the other.
By choosing to seek out a digitally nomadic or remote career, you are automatically selecting the more expensive option. Rather than spending all of your time finding the best deals or free accommodations, you must instead search for coworking spaces with high-quality internet, a place to stay that will ensure a good night’s sleep, and a proper data plan for your phone. If you’re going the coffee shop route, your drink bills will also begin to add up. Time is, as the popular quote goes, money. Digital nomads must streamline their time and productivity similar to stationary working individuals. Clients will expect the same productivity, work ethic, and reliability they receive from their colleagues. If you plan on couchsurfing without access to the internet you may not be able to deliver the quality of work expected from you.
A smaller point, yet equally significant, is that once you have discovered an opportunity for paid employment that supports your nomadic lifestyle, you will likely need to increase your quality of life anyway, thus increasing your costs. In working most of the day, it is important to spend your precious spare time doing activities you like and usually cost money. Happiness is, after all, the reason we’ve all decided to take the nomadic plunge. Having enough seed money will ensure your journey doesn’t end prematurely.
The Subsidy Model
Before we begin a discussion on the main categories of nomadic careers, I’d like to introduce a concept I live by and frequently speak about in my startup lectures – the “subsidy model”. In essence, the subsidy model means that a profitable layer of activities is needed to subsidize not profitable, career building moves. A quality subsidy layer will allow you to either increase your net worth over time (preferable) or simply break even and ensure you can cover your expenses and avoid debt. Although your next activity may involve a great deal of uncertainty, the rewards may be quite high as well. The faster you create a subsidy layer, the less likely you are to dip into your valuable savings or take out loans – the end of your nomadic period will likely follow soon after. Save your savings account for real mishaps or emergencies.
Choosing a subsidy layer can be difficult. An easy rule to keep in mind is to make sure your subsidy layer is stable and reliable. Pursuing too many uncertain goals at once is a headache and potential recipe for unnecessary anxiety. By decreasing the level of risk related to your subsidy layer, you can maximize the risks you take on projects more important to you. Just a quick bit of advice, it’s best that your subsidy layer activity is something you are sure there is demand for, and you can provide easily. The less stable your subsidy layer is the less risk and uncertainty you will want to take on your next career activity.
Knowledge and skills play an influential role in determining how to pursue different nomadic careers. With less experience, it may be helpful to first develop a relationship with someone more knowledgeable in your field, a mentor-like figure, and work alongside them. Apprentice jobs can be very beneficial. They allow aspiring nomads the ability to create a sustainable subsidy layer while simultaneously developing skills that will benefit their future.
The following sections will introduce different branches of digital nomad careers in order from the lowest uncertainty to the highest uncertainty. Nomads with less cash and less stability should concentrate on building their foundation before advancing towards riskier options.
Nomadic Careers: Remote Working for a Single Employer
Remote working for a single employer is a wonderfully simple and stable way of transitioning towards a nomadic lifestyle. While a potentially very attractive option, it can also be difficult to convince an established company that it can be done. Therefore, One of the best ways to nail this kind of job is to transition to working remotely with your current employer. If you’ve established a strong track record of quality work and reliability it may not be difficult to make the transition. However, if you’ve just recently arrived at your firm, chances are the answer will be an emphatic no.
Other nomads may be shocked. Why keep an old boss? Why not shake off the chains of employment and become independent!? Well, stability can be a platform for further adventures. Working with a known employer can yield great benefits, especially if they continue to supply a salary and benefits. Unfortunately, some companies may allow remote-working, but on a freelance contract rather than an employee contract. Benefits are then phased out to save the company money.
A growing number of organizations are transitioning towards a remote-working model. Industry trends may be on your side and I’d recommend researching if companies you apply for a “9 to 5 job” have supported remote workers in the past. If your heart is set on becoming a digital nomad, working for a “remote-supportive” company could be an exciting first step.
Stable paycheck from a company you trust (see freelancing section to understand why this is important).
No need to spend valuable time marketing to new clients and juggling different pressures. You can focus on producing your best work.
If you stay an employee, you might be able to keep some of the social benefits you will not have in your first freelancing years (social security, paid health insurance, pensions etc).
A more rigid style of work (might involve set shifts). This can become especially difficult if you and your company operate in a different time zone.
Low flexibility to periodically disconnect and enjoy uninterrupted travel on your own terms.
Advancement opportunities may decrease. While working remotely, it tends to be difficult to benefit from promotions or other products of office politics. If you are the “odd person far away” you may be overlooked for assignments or promotions.
Working for one company usually involves focusing on one niche activity. This will not prepare you for your next digital nomad career transition, since you are not diversifying your activities on marketing, reaching out to new clients, and building exciting products. A classic case of having all of your eggs in the same basket. You are highly dependent on the favor of a sole employer.
Nomadic Careers: Freelancer Extraordinaire
A freelancer is similar to a full-time remote worker in that they work for a client and have tasks to accomplish. However, the two roles differ from each other in that a freelancer provides services for multiple clients at the same time, and usually for a limited amount of time per client.
Welcome to the club! Life as a digital nomad freelancer is certainly more entrepreneurial. To be successful, freelancers must independently market their skills and accomplishments in search of new clients. Crafting a polished personal brand is important and providing excellent work for your clients is essential. Until you curate a brand that accurately reflects all you can do and hope to accomplish, start low at any gig you can get to build the experience, reputation and skill set that is needed.
Once your reputation has been developed, you can then focus on attracting a client base. Diversify your reach, focus on your strong points, and continue learning new skills. Eventually, with a bit of luck and professional development, you will reach your own capacity for work and productivity. Then, you can begin hiring other freelancers to help you along with your assignments, which will allow you to scale even further if you wish to.
Less dependency on one primary client.
There is room to rapidly increase your prices from project to project as your skill level increases.
Most freelance projects have an end date, making it easier to plan for travel breaks.
Freelance work usually does not involve a shift or rigid hours, thereby providing you more freedom and flexibility throughout the day.
If successful, freelancing could provide you the opportunity to develop your own agency of employees and fellow freelancers who you can delegate tasks to.
Income is less certain than when working for a stable employer. This is due to varying assignments and potential collection difficulties.
Freelancing involves constantly losing and gaining new clients. Time spent marketing services will decrease time spent charging clients for your time.
Unlike a full-fledged business, running a freelancing network does not usually result in a wildly profitable exit scenario or a passive income stream.
Nomadic Careers: The Online Business Route
Somewhere in between a freelance approach and a startup approach lies the online business route. An online business provides a platform to sell a product rather than a personal service. A slight difference separates this type of online business from a startup. Businesses are wired to solve pains with models that already exist and are therefore less uncertain. Startups require a bit more discovery and ambiguity, which is why I love them. An e-commerce shop serves as an ideal example because it provides the freedom to sell products made by others. Chief responsibilities will include marketing, sales, and web maintenance. Lower risk options include starting a blog or podcast and seeking returns via affiliate marketing.
It is easier to identify what products sell well and validate your approach to market.
You are not the service you sell, therefore you are free to work ON your business instead of IN it.
Potential opportunities for sustainable long-term growth.
Long-term growth could lead to an opportunity to sell your company.
The initial investment required will automatically lead to a reduction in cash flow in the initial phases.
Heavy marketing and business skills is usually a must.
Reaching a level of income equivalent to your former salary could take years.
Statistics show failure is more likely than success.
Nomadic Careers: The Startup Option
Founding a startup is the ultimate plunge into uncertainty. Previous articles have offered insights into nomadic entrepreneurship; briefly, pursuing the startup option involves creating something new in the world that doesn’t currently exist. Although founding a startup is certainly the most difficult nomadic career path, it is my personal favorite. It should be noted that the risks founders must face can result in remarkable rewards. This path is not for the faint of heart. When freelancing, money may begin flowing immediately. However, startups require a degree of experimentation and validation that does not guarantee quick returns. Founders often work without a salary or funnel personal money into the project to keep it afloat.
If successful, you will have ultimate freedom and an opportunity to sell your company for a life-changing amount of money.
The opportunity to create something new and exciting while building a product that solves real consumer challenges.
By selling a product/service that is scalable and disconnected from your personal management, you will gain more freedom.
High level of uncertainty in regards to consumer demand and your chosen business model.
Low chances of success.
The initial funding required for startups is greater than all other options.
Founding a startup is an emotional and fiscal rollercoaster, filled with a few ups and many downs.
I’ve personally adopted a mix of the approaches discussed and worked a variety of nomadic careers. While pursuing a subsidy model of income by freelancing and helping entrepreneurs with business plans on Upwork, I began Lingolearn, an online language school. Freelancing helped me avoid dipping into my savings to support Lingolearn’s development. Once Lingolearn reached a comfortable level of stability and profitability I was able to transition to a full-scale startup model. I founded StartupBlink, a comprehensive map of global startup ecosystems, after four years of sweat, pivots, and hard work. Our team is just beginning to break even and the future is looking up!
Working as a digital nomad can become confusing and uncertain. However, it is a life decision and a certain type of trade. Personally, I’d rather challenge myself to achieve the freedom that freelancing and startups can provide. Hopefully, this overview has provided you with an understanding of the different approaches you can take regarding nomadic careers. Remember, life is short, money is necessary, get to the road, work hard, play hard.