THE RISE OF THE DIG­I­TAL NOMAD

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.

North & South - - Contents - BY VENETIA SHERSON

What drives these lap­top-tot­ing, glo­be­trot­ting en­trepreneurs?

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.

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 longterm 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.

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-and­mor­tar 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 (dig­i­tal­no­madnz.co.nz) and Christchurch’s Min­istry of Awe­some (min­istry­ofawe­some.com) 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 ( job­bat­i­cal.com), 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.”

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.

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

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”.

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.”

Above: Sam Bon­said at the beach in Hawaii. Right: For dig­i­tal no­mads, places like Chi­ang Mai in Thai­land are pop­u­lar be­cause they’re cheap, the food is good and wifi is free. Be­low right: Eva-maria Sa­likhova in Porto, Por­tu­gal.

Top and above: 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.

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