These days, it’s a common complaint that we are all chained to a screen during all of our waking hours. For some, however, the screen has meant a completely new freedom.
An article by Asser Bøggild Christensen, originally published at Information (in Danish):
“There is an expectant buzz in the tiny health café in the neighborhood of Nimmanhaemin. The café is filled to overflowing with young Westerners. Some haven’t even managed to get a chair.
Most look to be somewhere in their 20s. They are wearing traditional backpacker threads: shorts with cargo pockets and loose T-shirts. The crowd is not made up of backpackers on sabbatical, however. Instead, they are so-called digital nomads. A growing segment of young people, who are trading the 9-5 grind for the opportunity to work from exotic locations abroad where the cost of living is low.
The man everyone has turned up to see gets up on the makeshift stage to great applause. Johnny F. D. is an American with roots in Taiwan. He is a celebrity of sorts among the growing number of digital nomads in Chiang Mai, and he has thousands of listeners to his podcast Travel like a Boss – Listeners that dream of living his life and trading their drab offices for palm trees and perpetual summer.
Every Friday, a large group of the digital nomads meets at the café to network and share success stories. Today, Johnny F. D. is going to share why all other digital nomads should have a podcast. ‘When I started, I had no idea how to do this’, he says. ‘But today I estimate that the podcast contributes about 5000 dollars to my income every single month’, says Johnny, who by now have produced more than 90 episodes of his program, where he interviews others who – like himself – travel while they work.
The digital nomads are soaking up the message. With a podcast, you attract more traffic to your personal blog and thereby even more potential customers for your webshop. Their nodding expressions seem to indicate that this makes sense.
Reliable Wi-Fi is More Important than an Office
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the digital nomad movement began. In 2008, however, one cornerstone was laid when American author Tim Ferriss published his bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek.
The premise of the book is that we all have the option of leaving behind the rat race and the inhumanely long hours spent in the office. Instead, you can move abroad as an online entrepreneur. Make your money go further, work less. Hence the four hours in the title of the book. Whether any entrepreneurs really put a mere four hours a week into their businesses is something about which most people in the community have their doubts, however.
While the book and the basic concept were received with quite a bit of skepticism around the time it was published, today it has gained renewed momentum, as online portals like Uber, TaskRabbit, Upwork, and Fiverr have gained ground. Ever so quietly, they are transforming the labor market into the so-called gig economy.
A study by the American software company Intuit estimates that 40 percent of the American workforce will be employed on a freelance basis by 2020. The study concludes that companies increase their efficiency and flexibility with loosely associated employees, while, ‘on the other hand, the freelancers have more of a say in regard to when and how much they work, giving them a better work-life balance’.
This development, combined with the fact that most jobs today can be done anywhere, as long as there is a reliable internet connection, has enabled the new lifestyle as digital nomad in Southeast Asia.
Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is emphasized as the unofficial capital for the movement, and at this writing, the Facebook group for digital nomads in the town has more than 8000 members. It is obvious when you walk around Chiang Mai that something unusual is going on. Especially the neighborhood of Nimmanhaemin, where most nomads settle, is filled with cafés with latte art and shabby-chic decor. All over, you see Europeans and Americans sitting with their MacBooks, working on home pages or other projects.
Said goodbye to it all in three months
Aske Ertmann is one of the digital nomads. Six months ago, he said goodbye to a promising career as web developer at the MOC agency in Copenhagen. Here, he had been behind projects like homepages for the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark and the political party Venstre. Instead, he threw himself into this unknown, but strangely alluring, lifestyle.
‘I had worked at the same place for quite a few years, and I really didn’t feel like saying goodbye to all of that, but at the same time, I really wanted to try something else. And little by little, the possibility of combining travel and work became more and more relevant to me’, says Aske Ertmann, who went straight from secondary school to the labor market and didn’t have a chance to take a sabbatical like a lot of his peers.
He had first read about the lifestyle on Twitter. Slowly but surely, he started researching digital nomads on various blogs and fora, and once the decision was made, he was ready to leave Denmark three months later. ‘The hardest decision was probably to quit my job. Not because I was leaving my comfort zone, but because I didn’t feel like it. I had been at the same place for six years, had made partner, and I liked coming to work. Taking the step from that into the unknown, that was hard. However, at the same time, the point was also to find new challenges’, he explains.
Aske Ertmann made an agreement with his former employer that they could use him one day a week, if they needed it, and after that, it was farewell. So far, the trip has brought the 25-year-old web developer to Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Well, and now, Chiang Mai in Thailand. Aside from traveling, he puts most of his efforts into an open-source IT project called Neos, which he has been part of developing from the bottom up. That is his passion. When the tide is a little low in his bank account, he shores it up with a few freelance jobs as web developer. ‘It’s a bit of a luxury, being able to do this almost full time’, he says.
Aske’s plan, however, is slowly but surely to start accepting more paying jobs, as the trip progresses. In spite of having savings, he needs to make sure that the journey can continue as long as possible.
From Diving Bum to Nomad Chief
I meet Johnny F. D. once again at the popular coworking space PunSpace in a green belt at the outskirts of Nimmanhaemin. By now, his name is becoming synonymous with the nomad lifestyle. American business media and the entire blogosphere have discovered this as well. The story about how Johnny F. D. went from diving bum on the brink of bankruptcy to online entrepreneur with a passive income of more than DKK 60,000 a month is practically a modern version of the American dream.
Johnny, who had had enough of the rat race, went to Thailand to become a diving instructor, train muay thai and ‘live the good life on a rock’, as he himself puts it. The lifestyle only lasted a couple of years, however, before he was just a poor American without a career in a foreign country. He wound up writing an eBook about his experiences. The pseudonym F. D. came from his living as Fighter Divemaster – his legal last name is Tejen. That kicked off his life as an online entrepreneur, where he makes the majority of his income today on a type of e-trade called drop shipping, affiliate marketing, and online courses.’There was not much of a community for this sort of thing in Chiang Mai, when I got here. Nobody used the expression ’digital nomad’, and we, who were interested in working online, found each other randomly’, he says.
‘However, living as a digital nomad has become increasingly popular. Not only has finding a job become easier, but also all the peripheral things like housing and networking. Everyone who feels like taking a break from his or her job for six months to a year, can go somewhere like Chiang Mai to meet other likeminded individuals and potentially make enough money to be able to create a life there.’
One thing that really made the lifestyle possible is the boom that has taken place as far as the prevalence of office communities. From being something practiced by creative types in Copenhagen, Berlin, and New York, it has now become a common site in a number of major cities in the nomad circuit in Southeast Asia. Along with his wife, Vichaya Sirisanthana founded Euam, Chiang Mais first coworking space, PunSpace, three years ago. In the beginning, they were unsure whether the customers would show up, but today there are four coworking spaces in town.’We are both programmers and would like a place for ourselves to work. There were no coworking spaces in Chiang Mai back then, so we thought we would make one. After a year, our first coworking space was so popular that we started a new branch’, says Vichaya Sirisanthana. He explains that the digital nomads are the main reason for PunSpace almost always having all their desk spaces filled. ‘The vast majority of our users are digital nomads. Many of them are freelancers in programming or graphic design, but quite a few do online marketing and e-trade’. A coworking space, he says, is a better place to socialize than cafés, where you don’t see the same people every day or know if they are digital nomads. With a coworking space, you are sure to get human contact and fast, reliable Wi-Fi. These are two of the main concerns of people who work online.
Vichaya Sirisanthana estimates that several factors have been instrumental in attracting the digital nomads to Chiang Mai. Basically, however, it is just a very pleasant town to live in. It is neither too small nor too large, the prices are low, and the weather is nice year-round. ‘But things like Johnny’s blog have also contributed to spreading the news’, he explains.
Chiang Mai and the rising population of competent western workers are also starting to show up on the radar of several American online giants. A short time ago, Amazon stopped in at PunSpace to talk about the company’s new e-trade program. The freelance portal Fiverr and the online payment service Payoneer have also had networking events in town recently.
Vichaya Sirisanthana believes the future is bright for coworking spaces in Chiang Mai. He believes the trend is sure to increase in volume. ‘We meet many who just quit their jobs and have come to Chiang Mai to become digital nomads. Most have been employed in a company previously, but are choosing to try this lifestyle, because they want to travel and be free. As a digital nomad, you don’t need to work five days a week. Instead, you can follow your own program, and perhaps work hard for two weeks, and then take two weeks of vacation afterwards. At the same time, you can travel and experience a new culture. Many young people are attracted to that’, he says.
The best decision ever
The lifestyle definitely appeals to Aske Ertmann. With no hesitation, he says that becoming a digital nomad may be the best decision he ever made. And he is planning to continue to travel around the world while he works for quite a while yet. Only one of those big life-altering events, like a relationship or a dream job, for instance, can put an end to the trip.
‘The awesome thing about it is being your own boss. That there are no clients or deadlines, and you can work whenever you feel like it. I work anyway, though, usually 30-35 hours a week. But now I work when it suits me. For instance, I can be off and do things in the daytime, while it’s light, and work in the evening instead’, he says. ‘It’s not the way it used to be, where you worked every day during the week and looked forward to the weekend, and it provides a lot of freedom. Yesterday, I rode my mountain bike all day, and then I worked in the evening instead. That kind of flexibility is awesome. That it isn’t just 9 to 5’, he says.
Aske Ertmann does acknowledge, however, that it’s not a lifestyle completely devoid of stress. When you get to a new place, you have to start over and relearn all the practical things. ‘It takes energy and time to find out how things work, find a place to live, find a place to work. Get to know the new customs and rules. How to handle the basics like shopping and laundry. The payoff is great, though. You get a lot back by being in a new place. Everything is interesting. You’ve never done it before. And there is always something new. You get away from the habitual’.
Precisely Chiang Mai does take a little less energy than many other places, Aske Ertmann explains. He succeeded in finding a so-called serviced apartment within half a day when he first arrived in town. It is a hybrid between a hotel room and a furnished apartment. ‘It makes it incredibly easy to move in for a short time, just as long as you’re here for a month. Typically, hotel rooms are more expensive, and you get an inferior place to stay’, he says.
According to the Danish web developer, however, the main attraction of Chiang Mai is especially the other nomads. ‘It is very easy to meet people here. Most nomads live within a radius of a kilometer, so you are always running into people. A great many are open to meeting new people and forming new friendships. People here are not as closed as Danes are usually’.
A legal gray area
There is no doubt that many Westerners love Thailand. This love is not always mutual, however. Just over a year ago, about 20 police officers in riot gear busted in and arrested most of the nomads at PunSpace. They were placed in paddy wagons and were brought to the immigration office. All nomads were released after a few hours and could return to the coworking space.
Johnny F. D.’s variation of the story is that it was a big misunderstanding. The police thought that the digital nomads were working for PunSpace, which would be illegal. When the authorities found out that they were instead working on various online projects, there were no problems.
This variation is naïve, however, according to several in the community. Westerners who live and work in Thailand are basically personas non grata to the country’s military junta. Since the junta seized power in a coup in 2014, it has drawn attention with several peculiar laws and regulations. Among other things, reading George Orwell’s book 1984 in public is illegal today. Although nomads might contribute to the economy, they are not part of an ‘authentic Thailand’.
The blog Chiang Mai Buddy claims that the local authorities are currently gathering proof and building cases against the most high-profile digital nomads in Chiang Mai. Meaning people like Johnny. In principle, the authorities could start court proceedings and deport unwanted elements anytime. And that may be a bomb under the digital nomads in Chiang Mai. The vast majority of them are in Thailand on a tourist visa, which really prohibits all types of work. This also means that every three months, they have to do a so-called visa run. A quick trip to Laos or Malaysia, a visit to the Thai embassy, a new stamp in the passport, and then back for another three months.
This type of thing has become increasingly difficult over the past few years. The visa regulations have been tightened. The latest example was doing away with the popular ‘multiple entry’ visa in favor of a visa, which on paper is a much more difficult to get for somewhat poor, young Westerners. The authorities do not understand digital nomads. ‘Basically, the Thai authorities do not understand the community, and their laws are from a time when there was no such thing as digital nomads. They don’t quite know how to handle us, although we are basically tourists’, says Johnny F. D. ‘Even though it is not legal for us to work here, the authorities are not enforcing the law right now, because we bring a lot of resources to the local economy. None of us is taking jobs from the locals, so they have no reason to want us gone’, he says.
One of the places benefiting from the digital nomads and their seemingly endless cafe latte budgets is the café Healthy B., where Johnny F. D. and the other nomads hold their weekly networking events. In addition, a subgroup with a particular interest in the new hot online marketing technique, search engine optimization, have begun to hang out at Healthy B. every single Thursday. ‘I opened the café three months ago, and I didn’t know much about the digital nomads’, says proprietor Poohwena Sri. ‘Today, however, they are the most important segment for our business. When new nomads come into town, they participate in the Friday meeting, and then they’ll be back later to work from the café for an entire day. Close to 100 percent of our new customers come from that community’, she elaborates.
Johnny F. D. believes that the only sensible solution for Thailand is to create a visa specifically intended for digital nomads. This is because he believes they spend more money in the country than, for instance, backpackers or retirees. ‘We live in luxury apartments and spend money on food and locally produced merchandise, and we are not taking jobs from the Thai. We definitely contribute to the economy’, he says, pointing out that today, he is unable to hire local workers, and instead he must settle for a virtual assistant sitting in the Philippines in order to avoid problems with the authorities. ‘The beautiful thing is, however, that we’ll just move if it becomes more difficult to be here. I love the food and the culture in Thailand, but with one post on my blog, I can just say, off we go to Bali or the Philippines instead, and thousands will follow me there’.
’The new rich’ or a precariat?
In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss describes the members of the new movement as the new rich. Instead of just being rich on monetary resources, they also have plenty of leisure time. This, as opposed to many other wealthy people, they can actually take time off to enjoy their wealth. Since then, however, quite a bit of contention has developed around that view. Among others, professor and labor market economist Guy Standing believes that freelancers make up a new form of proletariat, underbidding each other on platforms like Uber, Upwork, and Fiverr. He has written about this in the book The Precariat. ‘The group belongs to the precariat, which is characterized by uncertain work conditions, variable income, and little chance of developing a career or professional security’, Guy Standing has previously told Information. And it’s not even like digital nomads with blogs or online shops are in a more secure position than their freelance colleagues. If they become ill or the earnings fail, they are left holding the bag. Not the welfare state or some compassionate union. And they have to set aside their own pension as well.
Danish futures researcher, Peter Hesseldahl is another, who definitely does not see the future labor market as being rosy for the small entrepreneurs. ‘Those who used to have a fixed salary and vacation time will have to find new jobs as freelancers in the future. The large union middle class will be the ones to leave their full time positions to enter a status of so-called micro-entrepreneurs. Many of them may as well be called day laborers’, he has previously told F5 Magazine.
Peter Hesseldahl believes that the development calls for rethinking the Danish model. ‘It is a classic job for the unions, but the problem is that the people they want to organize don’t want to submit themselves to the mass-industrial worldview of the unions and the view of working that comes with it. The unions will need to consider what the job concept covers today and in the future and create solutions that match what is being required in order to do a job today’.
Drop your education and start an online business
Skepticism from academics and bureaucrats certainly have no influence on the increasingly large blogosphere for digital nomads, however. Here, the analysis says that the trend will only become more prolific. One popular piece of advice you often see from American bloggers is that the young people at home should skip taking an expensive university education completely, and instead come to Asia and start an online business. It costs a fraction, and you gain tools you can actually use in business. Just in case, they really do want to do something other than being self-employed someday.
‘When I first started, the bias was that making money online was not possible, and that it was a waste of time. Now, people in the United States are more likely to think that it is definitely possible, but many have an excuse for why they can’t do it’, Johnny F. D. says. He does believe, however, that the little by little, it will become even harder to stick to the bad excuses. ‘Over the next couple of years, we will see even more organized events and travel packages for digital nomads. Already now, there are companies bringing young people out into the world to various coworking spaces’.
In Denmark, we see something similar, where, among other things, the company Refuga specializes in arranging so-called work vacations abroad for entrepreneurs. One of the company’s next trips go to the Thai island Koh Samui.
Still just 1 percent of the world
More and more visionary companies are allowing their employees to take their jobs abroad, says Johnny F. D. It makes perfect sense for both parties, but it requires an employer with quite a bit of trust. ‘Letting employees travel while they work is an obvious choice, as they can often be at least as productive as at home. If you allow Danish employees to go to Thailand in the winter, they can be both happier and healthier, and at the same time, the company can save money, since it’s much cheaper to live down here’.
Actually, Johnny F. D.’s statement wasn’t pulled out of thin air altogether. A study from Stanford University shows that employees working from home are typically between 13 and 22 percent more effective than their colleagues at the office. Thus, it may sound like digital nomads are on their way to become a mainstream culture into which most people with a relatively digital job can throw themselves. Johnny F. D. still sees a natural limitation, however.
‘The lifestyle is becoming more mainstream. We are still just a fraction of the world’s population, however. Most normal people fear losing their career and are fearful of living abroad. No matter what, we will never be more than one percent of the population of the world’, he says.”