5 years as a Digital Nomad
Waking up on an exotic beach, hearing the sound of the waves crashing while you open your laptop, and sitting under the shade of a palm tree as you reply to your emails, is the idyll that most digital nomads hope to actualise. Sand in between your toes while you work and earn money is a special feeling, which seems like a distant cry from today's world of lockdown and working from home. However, the reality of working remotely doesn’t always match the ideal.
Don’t get me wrong, the life of a digital nomad is pretty special; the internet and modern advancements in technology have created a world where it is possible to run a business from a laptop and a good wifi connection (well actually even an adequate wifi connection will do).
You can choose your own hours, decide when you have a day off and being your own boss is like no other way of working. Having the luxury of being able to travel, work, and earn money off your own back at the same time gives you a freedom that you don't get with a normal job.
I have been living in Thailand since August 2016; my wife works in an international school in Bangkok and we decided to move out here when teaching in the UK became unsustainable. I was already running my freelance design business in the UK so moving abroad wasn’t too much of an upheaval for me. There was obviously the initial worry about getting new clients, but really I was in exactly the same position as running the business from a cottage in Warwickshire. None of my clients wanted to see me in person really — email contact was fine and as long as I regularly kept in touch no one seemed to miss me. Or maybe they didn't want to see me face to face anyway.
Since the move I have been living in Bangkok working from our base in the centre of the city. We have managed to do a lot of traveling and I have taken the laptop and (hopefully) seamlessly been running my business without a hitch. During my time out here Vivi Creative has managed to work successfully with clients from all over the world, from North America to Europe and in Asia.
Being your own boss does not come without its own stresses and worries however. When you work for yourself you are on your own, you need to wear a lot of hats, and you are married to your business. In my case I am the designer, the marketing department, the accountant, the salesman and everything in between. I have a trusted developer who I call on and rely on to help with the development side of projects, creating websites and apps, but apart from that I am on my own.
You see loads of adverts online of people offering you the nomad lifestyle and sharing their success story of how they left their £20 grand job and now earn £500 grand a year from their luxury yacht in the South of France. Now I'm not saying these people are full of shit, and I’m sure there are many who have been afforded that lifestyle, but the ones who have are dedicated and have worked hard to achieve what they have and where they have got too. I have met a number of people who have successfully run their various businesses online, but not too many of them have a yacht. I’m not saying it is not financially rewarding but you also have to be realistic. It is hard work being self employed, or indeed being any sort of entrepreneur, and not everyone is cut out for it. Also, it doesn’t make good business sense to spend every penny you earn on a holiday-like lifestyle – everything in moderation!
There are pros and cons of being a digital nomad that these people do not mention in their facebook ads, so I thought I’d write a little blog post about what I’ve experienced over the last 5 years of working as a digital nomad.
Firstly let's start with the pros:
You have lower financial outgoings as a business; you are not paying for office space, only internet. The lower your outgoings as a business, then the more profit you make. It’s easy maths really. Living in Asia especially, your general living costs are lower which has been a bonus. Bangkok is not exactly the cheapest city I have lived in and certain restaurants and bars are up there with the most expensive in Asia. But you don't have to visit them all the time! Unless of course your wife is organising date night.
You can choose your own hours and work to your own timeline with clients. I’ve also found that being based in S.E Asia and working mainly with clients in the UK and North America means that the time difference can work in your favour. You are 7 hours ahead of the UK and a whopping 14 hours ahead of the West Coast in the States, which means you can do a full day’s work while they are asleep and get revisions to them to view over their breakfast.
You can travel and work from wherever has a good internet connection. You can choose to go to a co-working space if you wish or even work from a nice quiet hotel lobby, beachfront restaurant, or ideally in a nice hammock with an awesome view and hopefully a cool breeze.
There is no stress of the commute to work, waking up and defrosting your car are distant memories, and for the last 5 years my general commute has been to the coffee pot and then to turn on my imac or laptop depending on location.
Having a business that doesn’t depend on your location is amazing; you can truly work on your own agenda and experience different places while still earning money to support your lifestyle.
Thank you to the gods of the internet for inventing such an amazing tool.
Before you stop reading, as I am starting to sound like a smug wanker, there are also downsides to this lifestyle that are not often documented.
So here are the cons:
Firstly, the internet connection... In a variety of places you may find that the internet is not up to scratch and even in 2021 a lot of the internet speeds can be frustratingly slow. For those people who put pictures of themselves working from a remote beach, I would be inclined to think that they are more posing for a picture than earning themselves £100,000 a year, and I would bet my life on the fact that there is no reliable Wifi connection. Zoom calls and business meetings are also rather painful with a terrible connection and you don’t look the most professional when intermittently dropping in and out of screen time.
There is nothing more frustrating than when the sun is shining but you have a load of work on, but are stuck in a hotel room working to a tight deadline. You may have travelled to an exotic location but, at the end of the day, the client comes first. A few years ago we were in the Gilli islands in Bali, and I had a client frantically trying to get hold of me. My internet connection was shite as I was on the move, and I was in the middle of a website design. We got to a beautiful little hotel and I spent 8 hours a day sitting in the restaurant with my nose in my laptop, sweating away, stressed to my eyeballs trying to deliver on time and to the best of my ability.
Another drawback is working from a laptop itself, especially in the line of work I’m in, as I am used to working with a 27” imac. You can see all your designs clearly and in high res on a big screen, which is something that I really miss when working from my laptop. Trying to do design work, whether it be a website or a brochure, can be really difficult on a smaller screen; you are hunched over a small laptop, get a really bad back and eye strain. It is also more difficult to have multiple screens open which can slow down your work rate.
Acquiring a work visa is practically impossible when you are self employed. Therefore, you are relying on tourist visas which usually give you between 60-90 days before you have to leave and reenter the country again. It works great if you are happy moving from country to country, but if you really like where you are and want to stay for a bit, it can cause some issues. Having done pretty much every visa run in South East Asia I can, from experience, say that Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam is by far the easiest and quickest, with Vientiane in Laos coming in a solid last...An absolutely beautiful country but 3 days to get a visa is a bit ridiculous.
In business a good old fashioned face to face is still the best way to come to an arrangement. Being in another country and trying to do business with people on the other side of the world is often difficult over a laptop. It is harder to get your personality across and create a relationship with potential clients.
So what is the reality?
I’m starting to sound like there are more negatives than positives about being a digital nomad, which I can honestly say is definitely not the case. I just thought it was important that you can see both sides of the lifestyle. It has afforded me probably the best years in my life working this way; though hard at times it has been exciting and fulfilling. Visiting some amazing destinations and working on some awesome projects with exciting new businesses has been a real highlight of the last 5 years.
My time working from S.E Asia is coming to a close, and in 5 months my wife and I are moving back to the UK for the next chapter in our lives. Vivi Creative shall be opening its doors on UK soil as of this summer, and I know I am going to miss every aspect of the lifestyle that I have enjoyed for the last 5 years.
I love working for myself and building my own brand and small studio. I have learned so much about who I am and how I cope under pressure. I have loved the freedom that this business has provided and the places and experiences I have enjoyed thanks to how lucky I am to be able to work this way. I am under no illusion that my business could go south at any time; I just have always known that I need to work hard to keep my current clients happy and market myself to find more contacts and exciting opportunities. I now face a very different challenge of returning to a Covid hit UK and try to market myself to businesses under incredible strain.
One thing I know for sure is that when I'm full time in the UK, I'm going to wish I was back on that beach again with the shit wifi and a cold beer.