Life as a Digital Nomad
An American digital entrepreneur living in Thailand speaks to Sehra Yeap about his digital nomad journey and why it’s the way of life of choice for millennials today. This article was published in the first edition of In Focus.
It may be difficult to imagine if you’re looking at this on your laptop screen while sitting in your glass-walled office. Perhaps in a city like Kuala Lumpur, Seattle or Berlin, and your thoughts are occupied with the morning’s sales meeting or maybe what to do for dinner this evening after your usual rush-hour commute home.
Benefits of Being a Digital Nomad
However, there’s a parallel universe in which a growing number of people might be doing the same thing as you – at work right now and worrying over sales figures or ROIs. Except that they might be sitting in a hammock on a sunny beach somewhere on a tropical island. Who are they?
Digital nomads are those who opt out of the 9-to-5 existence, shunning a way of life their parents chose. Preferring the term ‘location-independent workers’ (even if the term ‘nomad’ is apposite, moving as they do to different cities every few months or years as whim or circumstances dictate), do they earn enough to live on?
The short answer is yes.
More and more people are leveraging technology to enable them to work from a laptop anywhere in the world as long as there’s a reasonably good internet connection. The exponential increase of online work opportunities in the last decade and a half has facilitated the growth of this
industry. It’s to the point where, if you’re willing to forgo some of the certainties that a traditional 9-to-5 can offer, it offers you unlimited possibilities to be your own boss, travel the world and yes, call a beach hammock your office, if you like.
The long answer contains caveats: being a digital nomad does require the same kind of professional skills, technological savvy and discipline as any full-time career. However, unlike a traditional job, being a digital nomad also means there’s always the risk of having to get on a flight back to your home country, broke.
Meet a Digital Nomad
That, according to Dan O’Donnell, would’ve been the worst-case scenario. An American, Dan currently lives in Thailand and runs a website called Positive Atmosphere and a self-development themed Facebook page called Positive Thinking. Currently, it has almost 1.5 million followers.
‘I came over to Thailand three years ago with USD15,000 in the bank. That was probably two years’ living expenses for me in Thailand. If I failed, I’d have just gone back to Bellingham and go back to selling real estate,’ he says. ‘It’s not the end of the world. It might be embarrassing, that fear of looking like an idiot, fear of failure and all that, but realistically, it was a bigger risk to not go after what I really wanted than it was to sit around and hope “someday’’.
Dan was in real estate and also ran his own flea market in Bellingham but he wasn’t really loving it. ‘Some of the people I was working with who had been doing it for 30 years or so were so stressed out and some had been through maybe several marriages,’ he says. He didn’t want that for himself. It was on a flight to Dubai, that he asked himself, ‘What am I doing right now? I’m sitting on a plane, going to Dubai for no reason. I didn’t have a business meeting there, I just wanted to check it out, to travel.’
Then he asked himself what else would he like? ‘Well, I’m reading this Zig Ziglar book while on vacation. No one’s making me read this and I guess I like personal development. So, I thought about starting a website and a social network for people who were interested in personal development.’
An Entrepreneurial Journey
When Dan started the Positive Atmosphere website, he had no tech background. ‘But tech know-how is not a prerequisite – whenever you come to a point where you’re stuck, you ask people, you figure things out on your own,’ he says. ‘And there really is no quicker teacher than necessity.’ He learned and back in 2008, he – along with probably most of the rest of the world – didn’t even know what a Facebook page was. He taught himself how to generate revenue.
His online entrepreneurship hasn’t stopped there. Dan has created a popular board game called Better Me. It’s also based on self- development where players are rewarded for committing to real-world actions to improve their lives and those of the people around them.
Creating and marketing of his board game has been yet another learning curve for him – from getting his idea partially funded on Kickstarter to meeting manufacturers in Shenzen to selling the finished product on Amazon and marketing it to Facebook groups, Dan’s story is the perfect example of what can be achieved if you just put your mind to it.
These days, Dan runs his own Chiang Mai Digital Nomads group. It provides support and advice to anyone who is new to this concept. He also gives talks to help people get started on their own digital nomad journeys. ‘Just start. Don’t overthink it. You can’t wait till all the lights are green before you leave the house,’ he advises.
Popular Asian Cities for Digital Nomads
Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Ho Chi Minh City, Bali and, for its proximity to Singapore, Johor Bahru, are popular. What most of these places usually have in common are their relatively low cost of living, laid-back atmosphere, lively communities of like-minded people to exchange ideas with, good weather and food as well as, perhaps most important of all, good infrastructure such as coworking spaces with high-speed internet.
Details to Consider
Most digital nomads, depending on their country of origin, get renewable 3-month tourist visas on arrival. Also, because their work’s done online, such work largely remains an unregulated area, at least for the time being.
Despite catch-all clauses that seem specific, such as ‘no working in any country on a tourist visa’, digital nomads say the argument hinges on whether online work specifically constitutes work done ‘in’ any physical or geographical space. The labour laws of most countries have simply not yet caught up to the complexities of regulating digital nomadic work, so the prevailing attitude seems to be a benign tolerance of the presence of this segment of tourists.
Digital nomads are generally welcomed in most countries, as authorities realise that this segment of visitors is usually fairly well-educated and skilled people who can, and do, spend money within the local economy.