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The rise of the digital nomad: When the office is anywhere

Sam Bakker works on projects with local software developers. Here he is at the beach in Hawaii.

Work’s a beach – or a cafe in Estonia, maybe a hill town in Thailand. Venetia Sherson meets the laptop-toting Kiwi entrepreneurs who call the world their office.

In his mid-20s, Nathan Rose was a typical New Zealand investment banker. He worked long hours, drank too much coffee and checked on Wall Street when he woke. If he thought about his future, which he did from time to time, it typically included a mortgage, a wife and kids further down the line. Patent Godzone.

But, one morning, he looked down the row of desks at men five or 10 years ahead of him. The “corridor test” is what he calls it. “They were all stressed; not spending a lot of time with family. I thought, ‘Is that where I want to be’?” Soon after, he packed his backpack and laptop, and headed for the airport.

Today, he works as a self-published writer and consultant from a shared work space in Tbilisi, the cobblestoned capital of Georgia, where an apartment costs $500 a month, coffee $2, and a meal plus drinks less than 10 bucks.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Kiwis Eva-Maria Salikhova and Sam Bakker’s lightbulb moment came on their honeymoon in 2014. They, too, had kids and a section in their long-term sights. But they also wanted to see the world and save money. “It’s very expensive to be a young person in New Zealand today,” says Salikhova, who was born in Siberia, but moved here when she was five.

When a friend offered them the long-term use of his house in Pai, Thailand, near the Myanmar border, for $450 a month, they bought a one-way ticket. The apartment had a small sink and no place to cook, but it did have fibre network. They stayed five months. In the four years since, the couple have lived in 25 countries and more than 100 cities, operating their online website marketing and design business – and training others to do the same – while travelling the world. “We don’t just choose countries randomly,” says Salikhova. “We look for places we want to visit, where we can run our businesses cheaply and effectively.”

Welcome to the world of digital nomads, laptop-toting entrepreneurs who make their living online and can live just about anywhere: a cross between Jack Kerouac and Larry Page.

Most are young and motivated by the lure of exotic places, plus the absence of air-conditioned offices and bosses breathing down their necks. They include freelance professionals, online entrepreneurs and remote employees who started in an office but now roam the world. Many are self-employed, others part of worldwide teams with clients across the globe. Among them are website, software and app developers, online marketers, copywriters, bloggers and vloggers who choose their destinations based on wifi speed and cost of living. Their motivation: live cheaply, earn good money and have fun along the way. 

Nathan Rose left his job as an investment banker and now works as a self-published writer and consultant from a shared work space in Tbilisi, Georgia.
The term “digital nomad” isn’t new. People have been working remotely online since the invention of the internet. Steve Roberts, who is credited as the original pioneer, travelled across the US in 1983 on a 2.4m, high-tech recumbent bike with a portable computer and solar-powered energy, working as a fulltime freelance writer. But, in the past two decades, an ever-expanding archipelago of nomads has joined the wandering tribe, fuelled by a global surge in broadband ubiquity, an urge to break away from brick-and-mortar cubicles, and a dream of working less and earning more. There are no hard statistics, but some estimate there could be one billion digital nomads by 2035.

Increasingly, the world is recognising their value and catering to their needs – because digital nomads aren’t just barefoot hippies living hand-to-mouth. They are often innovative thinkers with big ideas for start-ups. While many work from cafes, apartments or even on beaches where resorts have umbrella stands with wifi, others prefer shared working spaces and tech hubs that offer access to hot desks, mentors, bars and cafes.

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania – already popular with cyber nomads for its fast wifi and lively nightlife – last year completed Vilnius Tech Park, the biggest site for start-ups in the Baltic Sea regions. WeWork, a co-working behemoth founded in the US, doubled its offices last year and now has more than 300 locations in 64 cities, including Southeast Asia and Australia. This year IWG (International Workplace Group), which has co-working centres in 1000 cities, bought BizDojo, a Kiwi company with co-working spaces in most major New Zealand cities.

On a smaller scale, local outfits such as Digital Nomad and Christchurch’s Ministry of Awesome have jumped on the bandwagon, serving the needs of wandering workers. Hot desks can be rented daily or weekly. Coffee is free.     

Karoli Hindriks is the founder of Jobbatical, a platform that allows digital nomads to find work in other countries. He says in a rapidly urbanising world, where many cities offer the same amenities but cheaper living costs, many people are comparing countries online and making choices on which ones are better for their business and lifestyle. To help with that decision, a Trivago-style website has been established to rate locations based on bandwidth, costs, nightlife, safety and weather (nomadlist.com).

Countries are also wooing them. Estonia (population 1.3 million) – one of the world’s most advanced digital nations where Skype was born and wifi has been free for 16 years – has just launched a digital nomad visa to support a mobile workforce. More than 30,000 people have so far applied to become e-residents. For Estonia, which now brands itself as e-Estonia, the influx has fuelled new infrastructure and an end to isolation. 

Kiwi nomad Nathan Rose chose Georgia – another former USSR state – as his base, after visiting in early 2016. He says the former Soviet republic, which is relatively small (population 4.3 million), has stunning natural beauty – “a bit like New Zealand”. He works mainly from a co-working space and conducts his business through Amazon, email and online banking. He says working independently in a new country is a baptism by fire. “I’ve had to learn a lot of new skills like content marketing and search engine optimisation that you’re never taught at university.” One of his books is on equity crowd funding, another on chess opening names; both rank highly on Amazon.

Salikhova and Bakker have two main bases – Siberia and New Zealand – to which they return every six months “to see friends and family and for a wardrobe change”.

At the time of this interview, the couple were in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city and Salikhova’s birthplace, where Bakker is working on projects with local software developers. Their workdays vary, depending on the time zones in places where they have clients. “We work around clients’ needs,” says Bakker. “If we can’t operate from where we are, we assign responsibilities to others in our team in other parts of the world.”

Eva-Maria Salikhova in Porto, Portugal.
In Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand, expat Kiwi Winston Carter is an hour into his working day. Via Skype, he apologises for the murky views beyond his windows. It’s the beginning of the burning season, when farmers in the valleys set fire to old rice stalks, and smoke shrouds the surrounding mountains. Carter wears a face mask when he ventures out.

Chiang Mai is a veritable Mecca for digital nomads because it’s cheap, the food is good and wifi is free. Thousands fetch up here every year and stay for weeks, months or far longer. Virtually every day, at co-working spaces and cafes, network meetings and get-togethers are held between business-minded vagabonds looking to launch new ventures and radically revitalise their lives.

Carter, 22, has lived in Chiang Mai for nearly four years. He travelled there in 2014 to attend a month-long course run by Entrepreneur House, a global organisation that helps online entrepreneurs boost productivity and profits. The course promises access to e-commerce masterminds and personal mentors, with the odd visit to a temple thrown in.

While Carter was a teenager when he enrolled in the course, he was no rookie in the online commerce world. When he left Christ’s College in Christchurch in Year 12, he sold vacuum cleaners for a bit and then launched two online companies, buying products wholesale from China, then selling them through Amazon. Success, he says, depends on picking a product with potential, creating an effective brand around it, and selling for a profit. One of his most successful items was a waist-trainer, like one promoted by reality TV icon Kim Kardashian. It went gangbusters and became a top seller on Amazon. He sold the company in February this year for $200,000. 

Currently, he’s selling dog supplements through the brand Mavericks Ranch. The potential market is vast. In the US, more millennials own pets than any previous generation. He also deals in cryptocurrencies.

Winston Carter says money isn’t his motivation.
There are downsides to nomadic life, of course. One is isolation. Carter says people come and go all the time in Chiang Mai. “You constantly have to make new friends.” On the road, people don’t invest too much time in friendships, he says. Forming long-term relationships is also hard. “Many people I know have married Vietnamese, Indonesians and Eastern Europeans. Their new partners can find it tough to get visas.” While the internet has broken down many barriers, there are reminders that borders still have an influence – “even on nomads”.  

Nomads also say the image of a laidback lifestyle with shorter working hours is a myth. Salikhova, who has a degree in marketing and human resources, says she often doesn’t go to bed until 2am. “Recently I stayed up 48 hours to complete a project.” Rose says while he loves the “freedom over space and time – no bosses, no timesheets; not managing other people” – self-discipline and good time management are essential. Like many nomads, he read Timothy Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Workweek, in which the author advises how to work less and earn more. “Working remotely is very different from what Ferriss described,” he says. “You’re not spending time sunbathing on a beach; you are working at your computer screen.”

Making good money can also be tough. Some nomads earn six-figure sums; others less than $10,000 annually, barely enough to live on. Rose says he is making less than he could as an investment banker in New Zealand, but, because his cost of living is so much lower (his flat in Wellington cost four times his current rent), he’s much better off. Salikhova and Bakker say they are doing well; saving enough money to help families at home and eventually to buy a property.

Carter says money isn’t his motivation. While he sold his company for $200,000, he also took a “bit of a hit on paper” in cryptocurrencies when the market dropped. “It will come back up. I’m in for the long haul. It costs me between $1000 and $1500 a month to live; so, if it all turns to crap, I’ll still be able to pay the rent.”

There are also traps for the unwary. Chiang Mai teems with people in search of fresh starts and grand pursuits – and some get burned. Carter says for start-ups, it’s crucial to get in and out of markets at the right time. When he launched his first companies, buying and selling stock from China, it was a “gold rush”.

“You could sell everything from garlic presses to potato peelers and make easy money.” Selling is much more competitive now. “The cookie-cutter model doesn’t work so well.”    

Scammers are also quick to take advantage of get-rich-quick dreamers, promising wannabe nomads access to courses and contacts that will set them up for success. Many try to make a swift buck by capitalising on the gullibility of others.

One of the most publicised cases in Thailand involved US twins Travis and Aaron Atlas, who in 2016 established Digital Nomad Campus in Chiang Mai, where for $US1500 they promised to teach others how to become rich in the digital space. The brothers had no credentials or skills, which soon became apparent. When their scam came to light, they were run out of town.

On his website, NomadList creator Pieter Levels warns there are no shortcuts, even in the nomad world. “Building successful businesses online takes years.”

Back in Siberia, Salikhova and Bakker are preparing to shift camp. On their wish list of future travel destinations are Antarctica and Cuba, but neither has internet access. “It might be Bangkok,” says Salikhova. They will return to live permanently in New Zealand one day, she says. But, for now, they’re enjoying their nomadic life, including eating caviar for lunch. “It’s so cheap over here.”

Wellington company BizDojo has co-working centres in most New Zealand cities. This year it was bought by multinational corporation IWG (International Workplace Group), which has centres in 1000 cities worldwide.

Hot Spots for Nomads

Just as the tide of digital nomads ebbs and flows around the world, so does the range of places they flock to.

NomadList ranks the popularity of more than 1250 destinations. The ratings are constantly being updated and fluctuate dramatically, but when we checked online in early August, Wellington (232) was the top-ranked New Zealand city for digital nomads, followed by Christchurch (287) just head of Auckland (288).

Across the ditch, Melbourne (150) and Hobart (191) were significantly more popular than Sydney (421). Worldwide, the top 10 cities were: Bangkok, Berlin, Budapest, Canggu (Bali), Ho Chi Minh City, Chiang Mai, Prague, Ubud (Bali), Barcelona and Lisbon.

The list ranks destinations based on some 25 categories, including internet, cost of living, air quality, safety, happiness, freedom of speech, friendliness to strangers, weather, free wifi, racial tolerance and friendliness to the LBGT community. New Zealand cities rank highly in most categories, apart from “cost of living” (and apparently Christchurch is more fun than Auckland or Wellington, although “nightlife” in all three rates as only “okay”).

How Nomads Rate NZ

Left: Hong Kong-born Jonathan H. Lee works out of cafes and other people's homes. Right: American Robert Crocker has been a nomad for 10 years.

While New Zealand isn’t the highest-ranked digital nomad destination in the world, because of the cost of living, what do visiting nomads think about their work experience here? 

Robert Crocker

A 28-year-old American with a background in IT working freelance in data visualisation – a way of making data easier to understand. He’s been working as a nomad for the past year and has visited 10 countries.

Why New Zealand?
To speak to a data visualisation group in Auckland, meet friends and stir up new leads for my work.

Why work as a nomad?
The DN lifestyle feels very natural to me. No need for expensive clothes or excessive material goods. You also don’t have to waste unnecessary time commuting.

Where did you base yourself?
 
A cafe in Imperial Lane, Auckland. I couch-surfed at a friend’s place. Otherwise it would have cost me around $1000 a fortnight to live.

You stayed just a few weeks?
I could have worked in New Zealand if I had the right visa and more time. My skills are rare and sought-after, but only in small circles.

How do you rate the country as a nomad?
I love how everyone is kind and welcoming. The food is delicious. But I found work relationships in New Zealand are built on trust over a long period of time. Time is a luxury for nomads. We don’t have it; we need to get into a country, make contacts and get people to trust that we can deliver what they need. New Zealand has a way to go in that respect.

Tom Finn

A 25-year-old Canadian working for Space Squirrel, a company building apps for the Shopify e-commerce platform. The founders are based in the UK, but there are remote workers in Bangladesh, Luxembourg and New Zealand.

Why New Zealand?
I met my partner, a Kiwi, in Canada. I love the outdoors and the massive diversity in New Zealand’s landscape.

Why work as a nomad?
In Canada, I worked remotely for Shopify and the life grew on me. Without a “place of work” per se, I’m free to work where and when I want. I’ll keep going as long as it’s financially viable.

Where do you base yourself?
I’ve worked in co-working spaces like Ministry of Awesome in Christchurch, where I’m based now. I also enjoy just going to a park and working from my phone when I can.

How do you rate the country as a nomad?
It’s more expensive than Canada, especially groceries and eating out, but phone plans are much cheaper, especially if you use lots of data, like I do. It’s good fibre is being rolled out; it makes such a difference. Unfortunately, in the remote places in New Zealand that are most beautiful, it’s hard to find a wifi connection and a place to work. I think the community of nomads here will grow as resources improve.

Jonathan H. Lee

A 32-year-old Hong Kong-born photographer and videographer, who has lived most of his life in the US. He works mainly on environmental and social enterprise projects, and left the US in 2009 to work and travel as a digital nomad. 

Why New Zealand?
The country had been on my radar for 10 years because of its natural beauty. A friend contacted me a couple of years ago about an urban food hub getting underway in Christchurch, sparked by the earthquake. I have an interest in urban food, so I booked my ticket for the Social Enterprise World Forum, in Christchurch in September last year.

Why work as a nomad?
I like that I can combine my hobby and my work in different places around the world. You can meet people with similar passions for the work you do.

Where do you base yourself?
Out of cafes and people’s homes, if I’m working independently. I also have a hot desk at the Ministry of Awesome while I’m working on a collaborative project with them.

How do you rate the country as a nomad?
Naturally, it’s very beautiful. But, for a small country, it also has a lot of innovative people working in the social and environmental space. I was going to spend three months here, but I think it will be at least six months.  

This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of North & South.