How to run a business without borders
Is the digital nomad dream all it’s cracked up to be? Can you keep running a business while spending months at a time overseas? Yes you can, and he is the living proof, writes Nathan James Thomas. New Zealand is far from much of the world and therefore when we Kiwis travel, we tend to […]
Is the digital nomad dream all it’s cracked up to be? Can you keep running a business while spending months at a time overseas? Yes you can, and he is the living proof, writes Nathan James Thomas.
New Zealand is far from much of the world and therefore when we Kiwis travel, we tend to do so for a long time. Chances are, we’ll want to keep our businesses or jobs going while overseas, so it’s perhaps inevitable that we’ll check the odd email and maybe attend the odd Zoom call while catching up with family in the UK or temple-hopping in Thailand.
It’s not much of a leap from this to the so-called ‘digital nomad’ life. At its most extreme version, being a digital nomad means having no geographic ties to anywhere, at least not as far as your work or business is concerned. You can get the job done from anywhere, and choose your next home with the same insouciance with which most people choose their next restaurant.
Sounds appealing right, but is it realistic? Can you keep running your business (or keep successfully working in somebody else’s) while spending months at a time overseas?
In my experience, yes, you can. Far from draining your energies, traveling long-term can be a creative spur that broadens your mind, grows your network, and teaches essential skills that can be applied elsewhere. But there are some considerations.
‘Remote first’ doesn’t have to mean ‘remote only’
In my decade of experience as a digital nomad, I’ve worked in various capacities as a freelancer, consultant, contractor, and remote worker for companies based around the world. I’ve hired and been hired by people I’ve never met, and worked, sometimes for years on end, with people who I’ve only known as squares on a laptop screen. This is, of course, not unique to the ‘digital nomad’ — we all lived a version of this reality during Covid, and many still do today.
One thing I’ve found time and again is that while remote business relationships can succeed, they work so much better if they’re backed up by even the briefest amount of real-world contact.
Just that one face-to-face meeting gives you the entire sense of a person, providing much-needed context for your future online interactions. A colleague at an American training company I do copywriting for was terrified of the short, abrasive-seeming pieces of feedback the CEO would send her on Slack. Then when she finally met the CEO months after joining, she realized that he was kind and just a little bit awkward—those Slack messages suddenly seemed endearing and understandable as opposed to callous.
Showing up means more connections
Much of the focus of the digital nomad thing is on where you aren’t (at home, in the office) but there are work advantages to be found by focusing on where you are. An edge that the borderless life gives you is you get to be the one who shows up. The client who lives high on the hills above Malaga in Spain was delighted that I made the hour-long bus journey when I was passing through the city – it solidified our relationship and we worked for many more years together.
Many businesses I’ve ended up working with were introduced to me at formal or informal networking events – travelers support each other and especially if you favor less obvious locations (Cagliari rather than Rome, say) then you’ll find welcoming communities of both locals, expats, and drifters ready to take you in. And it’s almost inevitable one of them will know someone who needs the product you’re selling or the skill you have to offer. Thinking about traveling this way, with purpose as well as for curiosity, can help you to understand ‘digital nomadding’ as something that supports your growth, both business-wise and personally, as opposed to a kind of aimless break from reality.
The challenges of travel are frustrating, but dealing with them teaches useful skills
When we travel in rougher lands, we expect and even anticipate weirdness. We are prepared for things not to work. For the hotel room sheets to be stained, the border guards to be obstinate and rude, and the local rules opaque and contradictory. It’s scary when the internet goes down before an important meeting, and embarrassing when, as has happened to me in both Shanghai and Tbilisi, you’ve been unable to shave before an important client call because you’ve had no running water for 24 hours!
We embrace this chaos of travel when it’s a temporary break from everyday reality, something that we can check in and out of voluntarily, but when it’s also your daily life and you’re trying to run a business (or not get fired from one) these daily annoyances can be deeply frustrating.
One way to solve this is to do the digital nomad thing but cleave to the calmer, developed parts of the world. The other is to embrace it, using chaos and unpredictability as a way to stay humble and stimulate your creativity.
Use the right state of mind for the right job
When the late nights, the chaos of travel, and the cognitive load of visas and flight bookings do grind down my creativity, I use those duller days to handle administrative tasks (reconciling Xero, anyone?) that I don’t relish and that isn’t my skillset but that needs to be done. And the other days, when I slept well, there’s no construction outside the Airbnb, the local WiFi is strong and the coffee is even stronger, I use it for creative work. I make plans for new products or businesses, write articles or chapters, and reach out to people to network and form connections.
Recognizing what kind of work matches your mood and frame of mind best is a potent productivity hack for when travelling and navigating uncertainty.
When you don’t have the luxury of putting off important jobs, you learn how to get it done no matter what… Even if it’s at 3am on a Sunday. I recently found myself writing a travel guide to Tirana, Albania’s capital while waiting for a delayed flight before dawn at a domestic airport in Argentina. Strange moments like this are exhilarating in their weird way, and that feeling is an energy source if you learn to tune into it. Of course, there are other days when a crisis arises at work but you’re on a bus somewhere with patchy phone signal and the person sitting next to you seems to have had too many beers for breakfast. Those moments can make great stories afterward even if they’re not fun at the time, and it can be helpful to remind yourself of this and to show yourself that the world doesn’t end even if you’re offline for a few more hours than expected.
You’re going to need to take the time zone hit
The advantage of a more ‘conventional’ work-life is that when and where you work is confined. You leave the office at 5pm, and you leave your work there, too. For those of us who’ve made an office out of the entire planet (for better or worse), that privilege is rescinded. I’ve sat bleary-eyed through Zoom calls at 1am or 6am many times, and while I miss the sleep, I’m grateful for the opportunity to do so – though it’s led to some strange experiences (Wandering to a 7/11 store to get an ice-coffee at midnight on a Saturday in Vietnam gave the locals the wrong impression, especially those who crowded around the ATM I was using thinking I was heading off to something far more exciting than a Zoom call with colleagues in Europe!).
Even though I’m a night owl, I’ve found early-morning calls generally preferable to late-night calls. A 6:00am alarm clock is painful, but by the time the coffee is in your system, you’re back at full capacity. Whereas a late-night call lingers on the mind throughout the day, and it’s generally impossible to get to sleep within a couple of hours of serious work thinking, so you end up lying awake until 3am for the sake of a midnight Zoom call.
Working from anywhere can mean working from everywhere
Working from anywhere is freedom, working from everywhere is not. Picture a green hill in the country of Georgia topped by a theme park. A large Ferris Wheel takes travelers high above the city with sweeping views of Tbilisi the capital, and the surrounding mountains. But no sooner had I stepped into the metal carriage than I felt that familiar vibration in my pocket. Better just see what that is… a client had emailed about something. I don’t remember what, and I don’t remember the ride either. The ride ended, and I dismounted. I’d missed the whole thing.
If the first half of the digital nomad equation is learning how to break down boundaries, the second half is learning how to set them. Controlling notifications, making deliberate plans for work-free travel, and overcoming the urge to respond immediately to every client request have been necessary steps to protect the love of travel which launched me on this path in the first place.
You may be noticing a trend that a lot of the unique challenges of the digital nomad are increasingly just problems of modern life. Given that the world seems to impose on us constant availability, I think we might as well enjoy the flipside of that and seek out the freedoms that this can provide us. By traveling, I’ve met new business partners, challenged my preconceptions, learned about the world, met my wife, tried (badly) to learn foreign languages, and have a whole bunch of incredible experiences that would not have happened had I just stayed home!
Nathan James Thomas founded Intrepid Times in 2014, and it has since grown into a popular home for literary travel writing, attracting hundreds of contributors and thousands of readers from around the world. His own travel writing has been published in places like Lonely Planet, Roads and Kingdoms, Outpost Magazine, and New Zealand Memories. In his latest book, Untethered, Nathan James Thomas breaks down the common misconceptions of being a digital nomad, presenting a vision of travel that is both challenging and humbling. Untethered is published by Exisle Publishing, RRP: $34.99.