Digital nomads are remote workers who for the most part often travel to various different places of their choosing. They regularly work in coffeehouses, collaborating spaces, or open libraries, using devices with wireless Internet capacities like cell phones and portable hotspot devices to accomplish their work at any place they need.
On the off chance that this bold way of life sounds good to you, then being a digital nomad can be one of the most thrilling yet fulfilling approaches to earn a living and live a location independent lifestyle. In any case, in the event that you can arm yourself with discipline and have a hunger for constantly learning as you go, you can appreciate an energizing and satisfying life as a digital nomad.
In this article I will go in-depth into a variety of options on becoming a digital nomad and where to start. There's literally so many paths you can take on living this kind of lifestyle. I'm going to attempt to provide a framework for you, so you can choose your path. I'm going to lay out all the options and you can choose what makes sense for you.
- 1 Steps to becoming a Freelancer
- 1.1 1. Having the right skills
- 1.2 2. Get paid for your skills (or the skills of others)
- 1.3 Remove the obstacles
- 1.4 Choosing your location
- 1.5 In Conclusion
Steps to becoming a Freelancer
1. Having the right skills
The first step to being a digital nomad is you're going to need some sort of skills. You might have these skills already or you might be starting from scratch, either way is fine. There’s 2 ways you can go about this, the first is by getting training in some skill set and the second is to hire people who already have the skillset and then build a business of getting projects and outsourcing the work to your workers.
Method 1: Getting training in some skill set
So let's go through the first option which is self-study, my top pick is Udemy. Udemy is a course marketplace so if you were included to create your own course, you can make one and post it on Udemy and charge whatever price you want. The course creators usually share the profits with Udemy. Throughout the years, I’ve found many great courses on specific web development frameworks and technologies on udemy. On Udemy since there are many options, you can usually gauge the quality of a course through the reviews and the course curriculum and when it was last updated.
The runner ups which I haven’t tried for learning to code are sites like Pluralsite, Code Academy and skillshare, these all have monthly membership plans in order to gain access to their courses. If you are a true cheapskate you can find entire playlists on youtube dedicated to a specific coding topic (e.g. web development, mobile phone app development, graphic design, video editing).
The second option is to get a formal education. You can always get a formal education, either in computer science or in business. Nothing wrong with it, it’s just a more of a slower route and requires a big commitment in terms of time and money.
Some people find it difficult to self-study and need to have a classroom atmosphere in order to learn, and so in this environment this is where they will thrive.
However if you prefer self-study and if you are the type of person who wants to dive into something right away and not have to wait 2-4 years until you can do it, then formal education might not be for you.
The advantages of formal education is that you get time to learn the fundamentals of the topic you are studying. For example the fundamentals of computer programming can be a very useful knowledge to have and is something that can last a lifetime and get your many remote coding jobs in the future and help you to pass computer science questions on coding interviews.
You can always try to circumvent it by purchasing courses on the specific topics that you need in order to pass a test, however nothing beats having a solid knowledge of the fundamentals for the long term.
The third option is joining a coding or design school or bootcamp, these are institutions that offer short term programs designed to accelerate your learning and get you up to speed in a short amount of time. The prices for these bootcamps vary and the entrance requirements for some can be a little bit steep for absolute beginners. However in my experience, your mileage will vary from bootcamp school and if your goal is to learn something in a short amount of time for a new job and you want a structured experience then the right bootcamp can definitely help.
Method 2: Outsourcing Skills
For freelance projects, you can tackle it two ways, the first one is you do the projects yourself, again this requires skills (see method 1), and the second way is you outsource the task to another freelancer, this doesn’t require as much technical know-how as doing a project yourself (however the more experience you have the easier this process becomes, unless you hire a technically inclined project manager to do this work for you). It mostly requires being able to scope a project cost, manage a project, which involves managing time, managing budgets, managing your clients expectations and managing the person that you’ve outsourced the project to.
This model is definitely appealing if you want to take a more entrepreneurial approach on the digital nomad lifestyle.
2. Get paid for your skills (or the skills of others)
There's three options on how to get paid. The first one is getting a remote job, the second one is getting freelance projects, the third one is selling products online (don’t recommend this for beginners, see why below).
If you get a remote job, then you definitely need skills, because no one is going to hire someone without some amount of experience and skills.
For freelance projects, you can tackle it two ways, the first one is you do the projects yourself, again this requires skills (see method 1 above), and the second way is you outsource the task to another freelancer, this doesn’t require as much technical know-how as doing a project yourself. It mostly requires being able to manage a project, which involves managing time, managing budget, managing your clients expectations and managing the person that you’ve outsourced the project to. So these are the 3 points that I will cover in the text below.
How to get a remote job
One option is by asking your current employer to let you work remotely for a few days a week and eventually work from home permanently. It all depends on how progressive the company really is and how flexible the manager is and how the team can work when not physically together. Of course your mileage may vary and this may be difficult because some companies are still not used to the idea of remote work. But that’s not to say that there aren’t companies that aren't hiring remotely, and according to the new york times, "43% of American employees spent time working remote last year" and not only that but in times of enforced quarantines and global pandemics, companies have been forced to embrace the remote work route and have their office workers go remote.
Another option of getting a remote job is applying directly to remote job postings. There are a variety of companies looking to hire with all sorts of budgets for their positions. The common misconception is that because there are many people applying for the job from countries where the salaries are alot lower than western nations, the misconception is that this will drive the salaries down. This couldn't be further from the truth, because some companies prefer to hire either people who are in the same time zone as them or at least have a good amount of overlap, people who are native english speakers, people with a good track record of experience working for other domestic brands and people who are citizens of the same nation. That's not to say that there aren't companies out there who are not looking to hire people from developing countries because of lower costs. But the reality is that the HR department of these companies who post these remote job postings will get a huge flood of applicants with maybe about 60% being unqualified for the position.
That being said, if you were an expert in your field you can probably get a remote job pretty easy because there's plenty of remote jobs out there for highly experienced people because talent is hard to come by in the digital world so they're willing to hire remotely if you're highly talented.
How to get freelancing projects
Freelancing is another option and one of the biggest reasons is that there's a new way of doing it there's these online freelancing platforms like Upwork, People Per Hour and Guru. You can either bid for jobs, send in your price, send in your proposal, and apply for jobs that somebody else has posted or perhaps you can get contacted directly based on your profile from the employers themselves and invited to apply.
Another more exciting alternative model is using a site called Fiverr, on Fiverr you just list smaller tasks that you are willing to do and the rate that you will do them for. For example, transcribing for $5 or doing voiceover for $10. The nicer thing about this platform is that you don’t have to bid for anything, you just list your services and if someone wants to buy it then they can just click buy and pay for it.
Basically the do-everything-yourself method of freelancing is more suited to people that have built up skills, experience, and reputation. The reason why you will need to build a network and reputation is because this is kind of a model where people find you and want to hire you. That's great if you can do that but as somebody starting out that's going to be pretty hard unless you're really awesome at what you do because you need to build your account / brand where people are going to hire you.
Selling products online (highly don’t recommend this route as a primary source of income unless you have money or a lot of time to invest)
You can go the selling products online route and by-far this is the most risky choice, especially if you don’t have patience or a lot of money to start off with. However, it can give you the quickest results in terms of from the moment you list a product on your shop and start to drive paid traffic to it. However it’s not a reliable method since buying trends change through seasons and there is a lot of competition from many different marketplaces and vendors, and if you don’t know what you’re doing you can lose your shirt almost as quickly as at a casino.
You can sell physical products or digital products. If you sell physical products you can choose to buy products in bulk and in order to get a better price per item, however you still have to deal with shipping costs and packaging products. Another option which many people talk about is dropshipping, which is where you carry zero inventory and only buy individual units at the time that you receive an order.
Selling digital products involves the skill of content creation. Your imagination is the limit and there are many examples of people who are already doing this, some people sell access to their downloadable content through a membership site like patreon, gumroad or through their own website. Some people offer consultation services in an area where they are experts, or some people sell courses on specific topics through their website.
The reality that no one really talks about
The reality of selling products online is that you need a lot of skills to get up and running as well as lots of time to wait for the search engines to trust your site and start to drive free organic traffic to your shop. If you want to shortcut it, what you will have to do is bootstrap the traffic to your site by purchasing traffic through running ads either text ads, image ads or video ads through many different platforms. This is unavoidable especially for the first 6 months that you start your online shop.
There are many people pushing dropshipping or amazon FBA programs, and the reality is that each one is difficult, with amazon being the most high risk because you have to have a lot of money to invest in purchasing large quantities of inventory and shipping it off to amazon’s warehouse and on top of that you are at the mercy of amazon in many ways. Through their high selling fees which a lot of people say that because amazon covers the marketing then it evens out, however when you’re starting out you still need to separately buy traffic to promote your product on amazon, plus you are easily open to competition from other sellers who want to sell the same product as you as well as needing to deal with getting reviews for your product in order to have a more favorable listing to buyers and to the amazon search engine.
Buying traffic is very expensive, some people say you can get away with $300 a month in ad costs, however depending on the type of product you are selling and how much reach you want, $300 a month may be too low. I’ve had sites where the adspend was as high as $500 for one day and as low as $1800 for the week to average out to $257 per day. I’ve also had low volume but high profit products where I was only spending $1 per day to advertise on facebook ads, so it just depends how much competition there is for a given product category. Also when running ads you need to create compelling banners and write compelling text copy to use as marketing materials, so you need to factor the cost to hire someone to do this work for you or you will have to spend time to do it yourself. So I just wanted to put this out there as an advisory for what to expect.
Remove the obstacles
The biggest obstacles I had were marriage, monthly expenses, apartment lease and car loan, lots of items in and out of storage, low savings in the bank, loss of remote work, I also had debt but that I didn’t let that stop me.
I had made the mistake of signing an apartment lease for a whole year in the worst city in the world: San Francisco. In hindsight you can only look backwards to connect the dots, you can’t connect the dots looking forward because no one can see into the future. I was stuck in this lease and no one wanted to take the lease and the property owners wanted a large sum of money in order to break the lease.
My dad gave me great advice, and that was to just stop paying rent on that apartment and leave it. I didn’t listen to it but in hindsight it wasn’t bad advice. If you’re planning on leaving the country to move abroad then it really has no consequence.
After I had finished that lease, living in that city totally bankrupted my savings but it couldn’t break my morals or affect my soul. I eventually ended up trying to unsuccessfully sell everything I had and had to dump a bunch of stuff into the garbage or give it away to close friends, selling my car in order to get out of the car loan and moving back home with my mom and that totally helped cut down my monthly expenses. The marriage I had, while I had no regrets with getting married, had become estranged and eventually would become legally dissolved remotely.
Before moving abroad full time, I had to save up money and so I took on one full time job doing web development and user experience design during the weekdays and one part time job teaching web development to foreign expats on education visas on the weekends. If you have no savings it will be very difficult to live abroad. The discipline and mindset of being able to save money and keep it is tremendously valuable in life.
I still had debt but I was managing it and by moving abroad it helped that the cost of living in southeast asia is so much more economical compared to living in the states that I was able to tackle all of my debts and have less stress in my life.
Now a story that I’ve told in one of my youtube videos was about when I first moved to Taiwan for the long term and to study Chinese in university there, that I suddenly had lost my remote job due to the company shutting down and going out of business. Now with limited savings and loss of primary source of income and the cost of school and living expenses the worry started to come in. If I didn’t have that savings, the situation would have been rougher, so that was a must have. Also applying for remote coding jobs and having to perform the crazy tests and jump through the hoops that they want you to go through is not fun at all.
One of the things I did in order to get work was applying to Toptal. Toptal is a platform that only allows 3% of freelance talent onto their platform. On their platform you set your own rate and you can apply for high quality jobs that their recruiters post.
Now at this point this wasn't the first time I applied with them, I had previously applied about 2-3 times with them and didn't make it as far as I had on this 4th try. After going through their steps for qualification, I finally passed all their tests and requirements and got into the Toptal network and I quickly got my first client on their network and everything else was history from there. I was earning decent income from this remote gig and I could continue studying Chinese while living in Taiwan.
Choosing your location
Choosing your location is ultimately up to where you feel that your life has the least amount of stress and where you feel like you fit in. When you are first starting out, I highly recommend that you pick a place where the cost of living is low, the food is good and the quality of living is good as well.
For me personally, I enjoyed being in Hong Kong, however the air pollution due to it’s proximity to Shenzhen, high cost of health insurance and higher cost of apartments and living was a big deal breaker for me.
I enjoyed my time living in Taipei, however the monotony of everyday life, coupled with the high cost of apartments, low quality of apartments, high wet humidity and overall feeling a sense of not fitting in that made me want to go somewhere else.
Many people want to live in Japan, either in a big city like Tokyo or Osaka, I personally feel that Tokyo is very expensive unless you want to live in a box or on the outskirts of the city and the culture is very distant, and the bureaucracy can be very difficult to deal with that it didn’t really appeal to me.
When I first got to Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam, I had found an apartment online and I went to go look at it, it was brand new and there were no bad surprises, plus it had daily cleaning and laundry service 3 times a week, plus everything was priced very economically and the quality of living was much higher than the above mentioned countries, that coupled with the fact that I just felt like I fit in here, that ultimately I fell in love with this city and this country.
In summary, there's a few ways that I've outlined that you can approach becoming a digital nomad. Everything you need is outlined in this article and the fun part is embarking on the journey.