How to Become a Digital Nomad: 4 Simple Steps to Living the Remote Work Travel Lifestyle
Just over a year and a half ago, I recorded a video on 'How to Be a Digital Nomad' where I laid out my own 4 step process to achieving a lifestyle of remote work and travel.
To this day, this simple framework remains relevant but I still receive email after email from my readers who understand the process but perhaps need more information into how to make their dream of becoming location independent and travelling the world their reality.
I get it. Out of all the topics I discuss on this website, none seem more challenging then to actually make an income online and travel the world.
In this article, I'm going to go deeper into the 4 step process outlined in the video above and share with you my top tips from over 2 years of living and working remotely.
First, let's cover the basics
Digital Nomad-ism 101
Here's a quick crash course for those of you who are new to this idea of the digital nomad lifestyle.
Digital nomads are individuals who leverage technology to be able to work from anywhere in the world, provided they have an internet connection and a computer on which to work with.
These individuals generate income in a variety of ways - everything from selling t-shirts to building websites. In fact, I've interviewed 17 different digital nomads on how they make money online in my article on digital nomad job ideas.
How does one become a digital nomad?
Each person's path to becoming a digital nomad is different.
For some, it's accidental. One day, they realise that they are already working remotely so they just go travelling.
For others, it's a very deliberate process.
For me personally, I became infatuated by the idea of becoming a digital nomad long before I was ever earning a dollar online and I used travel as my primary motivation for learning how to create an online income.
The path I took meant re-skilling in a completely different field to what I was studying at university and creating a new career for myself with which I could take on the road.
You see, everyone starts from a different place and for some, the digital nomad lifestyle brings with it certain sacrifices that you may not be willing to make.
Often, the digital nomad lifestyle is glamourised but in this article, I'm about about to dish out a healthy dose of digital nomad reality.
Should you become a digital nomad?
Before we get into the tips, it should be mentioned that the digital nomad lifestyle is not for everyone. That's not to say that anyone can't do it but for some, they may find that the cons out-weight the pros of living this lifestyle.
In my video entitled, 'Is the location independent lifestyle for me?', I cover some of the pros and cons of being a digital nomad but more importantly, I ask two major questions that weed out a lot people.
- Are you willing to work hard to become a digital nomad? and
- Are you willing to forego your physical possessions?
Here's a few others:
- Are you willing to give up a steady income to freelance or start your own business?
- Are you willing to learn new skills and sell your services/product in a competitive marketplace?
For most people, becoming a digital nomad is tough. It's just like starting any business or choosing to freelance. It's risky and you might not be willing to give up your current lifestyle to try and make an income exclusively online.
However, if you know you truly want to become a digital nomad, here is my recommended process.
How to Become a Digital Nomad - The Framework
If you watched the video above, you should understand the process now but let's recap and go into more detail.
Step 1: Build your skill
The first step to becoming a digital nomad is to learn the skills of a digital nomad. The goal isn't to learn every digital skill there is but instead to choose one major skill and develop it.
Whether you plan to freelance, work for a company or start your own business, you'll need to build a certain skill. It might be learning how to build websites, analysing data or publishing books on Amazon. Whatever it is, if you can stick with that skill and aim for mastery, you will be destined to succeed.
Now before you become overwhelmed with the idea that you'll have to go back to school or college to learn this new skill, do not threat! We are currently in a golden age of self-education and learning new skills has become incredibly simple and inexpensive.
Take for example my own story, which I wrote about in my first book, 'How I learned to Code'.
I was in my final semester of university when I decided to learn how to code. I started learning Ruby on Rails with a free membership to Lynda (provided through the library at my university) and a month before graduating, I had my first full-time job as a developer.
We're told we have to go to university for 3 years to get our foot in the door when really, we can get so much information from the internet. And, not only can we get this information for much cheaper than a college degree, we can also be in control of our own learning and educate ourselves at our own pace.
How do you choose what skill to build?
Ah, good question!
It can be tough. My decision was based on a few factors:
- Web development skills were high in-demand
- I liked the creative aspect of building apps and the challenge of problem-solving, plus
- I could start learning ASAP with free apps and websites
In fact, I recommend a similar criteria for figuring out your own path as a digital nomad.
Natalie Sisson from the Suitcase Entrepreneur calls this process 'finding your sweet spot'. It's about finding the intersection of 1) What you love to do, 2) What you're good at and 3) What people would be willing to pay you for.
Some people get hung up at this stage because what they love doing might not be a marketable or location independent skill. In this case, you should simply look for something that you're at least like doing.
As Niall Doherty puts it in a video discussing the sweet spot (he calls it the hedgehog method) , 'you don't have to love it. You just have to like it'.
If you're feeling lost, just look at a list of digital nomad jobs (like this one) and choose the one you like to do the most.
Where can I learn these skills?
The three places I recommend you look to for learning any digital skill is:
Each of them operate slightly differently but what they all have in common is that you can find courses about a range of topics. Whether it be digital marketing or design or web development, you can find it all in the one place.
If you'd like to learn web development like I did, a few places I recommend you start are:
Some of these resources are free and others cost a little bit of money but it's absolutely peanuts compared to what you'd have to pay to get a formal education.
The alternative to learning online is to go to a training bootcamp, college or university in your local area. It's entirely up to you but I'm personally a big non-believer in university as I got started in web development without any paid education whatsoever.
If you'd like to follow my path and learn the exact skills I used to become a location independent web developer, check out my classes on Skillshare.com. New members get 2 months for FREE!
Step 2: Sell your services
Note: 'Services' can be replaced with 'product' if you run a product based business.
The next step and the one I personally underestimated when I was starting out is the 'sales' part of your business.
'But wait Chris, I'm just trying to become a freelancer!'
Same here but guess what? The best way to succeed even as a freelancer is to think about yourself as a business.
It's one thing to have skills but another thing completely to be able to convince someone to hire you.
When you're seeking employment, you only have to sell yourself once. After that, you're hired. You just do your job and try not to get fired!
As a freelancer however, you're a one man band. The sales department in your business is you! Not to mention, you've now lost your location advantage which means you're now competing with people from all around the world, not just people in your local area.
This was the single biggest mistake I made in what I thought was a perfect digital nomad plan. I built my skills as a developer for a year, got some really good jobs but once I was left to finding work exclusively online, I struggled.
You see, regardless of what core skill you choose to freelance in (or start a business with), you need another skill and that is sales and marketing.
The shortcut to getting sales
To market anything online you need traffic. Traffic becomes leads and leads become sales.
Luckily you don't need to build your own traffic source to start making money, as buyers are a plenty on existing online marketplaces.
When I say Online Marketplaces, I'm talking about sites like:
- UpWork.com - for finding freelance work
- Fiverr.com - for posting ads for your service
- Amazon.com - where you sell virtually any kind of physical product as well as eBooks, and
- Udemy.com - for selling online courses
These sites have already built up massive traffic and in the case of UpWork, thousands of warm leads for freelancers.
But don't get me wrong, just because these platforms have thousands of prospective customers on them doesn't mean it's easy to make sales. This is because the low barrier to entry makes these platforms super competitive.
Especially for freelancers, so-called 'experts' will generally recommend you look at your exisiting network first before diving into online platforms. This is because people like to work with those they already know and trust but the issue with this is that it's not exactly scalable.
When I was starting out as a freelancer in Brisbane, Australia, I decided to do the personal network thing. I set myself up at my local coworking space, I made flyers and I attended all the meetups. I would tell people that I did web development and guess what? It worked. I started getting freelance clients and scored a major contract that resulted in over $10,000.
The issue however, was when I started travelling.
You see, as soon as I left Australia, I left that network behind and I no longer had that location advantage.
It was only then that I was flung into the competitive world of online freelancing.
The same goes for business too. Set up a garage sale in your front yard and put up a sign around the corner and you'll likely have at least one person show up at your door but of course, that model is not scalable and it's definitely not location independent.
So online marketplaces are definitely powerful. They do a lot of the work for you but you have to play by their rules. You have to understand how they work and you have to act in the platform's best interest to succeed.
The number one online platform for finding freelance work is UpWork. So if you'd like to learn more about succeeding on that particular platform, I created a class on Skillshare.com to show you exactly how to find clients and achieve 'Top Rated' status. If you're interested in using UpWork to find clients and go location independent, definitely check it out here and get two months free (for new members only).
Build your own sales and marketing machine
The alternative to using these online platforms is building your own sales and marketing system. It might be as simple as staying at the one coworking space and mentioning your business to everyone you meet. Or, it could be as complex as having a customer relationship management software, hooked up to your email marketing software and a suite of ads directing traffic to your website and offers.
As this is an article on becoming a digital nomad and not specifically about building an online business, I won't go into a lot of detail here. What I will encourage you to do however, is to not neglect this important step the way I did when I started out.
Whatever it is you're selling, my advice would be to generate at least some location independent income before you set out on your journey as you never know how difficult it's going to be until you actually start selling.
Alternative: Get a remote job
Not prepared to hustle? Need a steady income? or simply want to make sure that you're able to fund a location independent life on a consistent basis?
Well, you're in luck! because it is entirely possible nowadays to stay employed and still become a digital nomad. All you need is a job that you can perform remotely and a boss who is willing to let you travel.
For some, it's the golden ticket, especially if you come from a wealthy country like the US. Your western salary can take you virtually anywhere in the world and you don't have to worry about where your next pay check is coming from.
Hell! You could just live in Thailand and save for a house!
But of course, just like any job there are all the same downsides of a regular 9 to 5, just with the extra freedom to be able to work remotely and travel.
How does one get a remote job?
Good question! It's pretty much the same process as getting a normal job but instead of going for an interview in-person, you might be interviewed over Skype (or similar video conferencing platform).
The hardest part of course, is finding these remote jobs and I've found that there are two ways to do this.
- Check on remote job boards like RemoteOk.io, or
- Create a shortlist of the companies who support remote work and contact them directly
While I've never personally met someone who was hired through an online job board, my friend Blake Moore was able to use the second strategy to find his part-time remote gig as a growth marketer.
Applying for a completely remote job online may be just as competitive as finding freelance work (perhaps even more competitive) but have you considered starting local?
Another friend of mine, Dylan Wolff searched for remote friendly companies in his own city of Melbourne, Australia and got hired as a junior web developer at a forward-thinking Ruby on Rails development agency. He had to work for three months in-office but after that, he became completely location independent.
To me, this represents the best of both worlds as Dylan was able to use his location advantage to find work but not be forced to stay in Melbourne as you would be in the case of a regular job.
This is not to say that finding a remote job is easy but if you can't afford to take the financial risk of becoming your own boss, this could be a much better alternative.
Step 3: Remove your barriers to freedom
For a lot of people, the biggest barrier to becoming a digital nomad is simply the ability to earn a location independent income but of course, there are many other factors that could hold people back from living a long-term travel lifestyle.
In this section, I will be briefly talk about a few of them.
1. Financial Commitments
Do you currently have a lease or a mortgage? Maybe you run a physical business that you can't just quit and leave? Or maybe, you have some debts to pay?
Whatever it is, the ideal scenario is that you do your best to clear your financial obligations before you set off on your travels.
I know this might be incredibly obvious but unfortunately, there are no shortcuts here.
When I decided that I wanted to become a digital nomad, I had 11 more months on my apartment so I waited until the lease ended before my girlfriend and I started travelling.
If you own your own property, perhaps you might want to either sell or rent it out?
I understand that it simply may not be practical to sell everything and leave. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it but if you have financial commitments, this needs to factor into your decision
2. Relationship Commitments
Perhaps you support a family or you have a partner who doesn't share your desire and/or ability to work remotely and travel?
Unfortunately, there is no shortcut here either and the decision to travel or not may require you to make sacrifices on either side.
I'm not going to tell you break up with your girlfriend or boyfriend but you need to understand that sometimes you can't have both.
I have a few friends who had to give up their relationships to continue pursuing this lifestyle and it was tough. In the end however, they valued their own personal freedom higher than staying any relationship that forced them to settle in the one place and that's why they had to make that sacrifice.
In western culture, consumerism has reached a whole other level and the concept of Minimalism has gained popularity as society realises that many of us have an unhealthy addiction to physical possessions.
Regardless of whether you want to be a 'digital nomad', I'd recommend that you perform an audit on your possessions and determine which of them actually add value to your life. As a long-term traveller, minimalism becomes ever more important.
Chances are that you can't take your 44 inch television, recording studio or garage workshop in a suitcase to travel around the world and so unfortunately, you'll need to make a sacrifice here as well if you want to travel as a digital nomad.
4. Fear & Mindset
While I wouldn't say being a digital nomad is for everyone, I believe that anyone who loves the idea of long-term travel and is savvy and passionate about digital technology can realistically make it happen. It just requires a certain mindset and might require you to step outside of your comfort zone.
If you feel like fear is holding you back from making the leap, I would advise you to reframe it. You can look at fear as a sign you should turn away or you can view it as a sign of where you need to go next.
Whatever it is you fear, understand that you need to fight fear in order to grow. You might have your doubts about this lifestyle but unfortunately, you'll never know if you don't actually go and do it.
Step 4: Choose your location(s) and go!
This is the fun part. You've now built a skill and are out there selling it (hopefully), you've eliminated (or at least minimised) your barriers to freedom and now it's time to choose that location and book those flights!
When I started out on my digital nomad journey, I wanted to go to all of these places that I'd heard about in the digital nomad community and over my two year journey, I went to over 15 different countries to discover the best cities to live and work remotely.
This step is pretty easy as in theory, a digital nomad destination only needs two things:
- It needs to be affordable, and
- The internet needs to be stable
Everything else is up to personal preference.
Objectively speaking however, there are a number of popular digital nomad hotspots that remote workers most frequent.
Over the last two years, I've made it my mission to discover these destinations and cover them on my blog and in my book, 'The Digital Nomad's Guide to The World 2018'. I recommend you read my posts and order the book if you want to discover more about these destinations.
Another place you can get destination ideas from is the website NomadList.com which lists the best destinations to live and work remotely.
That being said, the one thing I recommend in the video above is to determine your own criteria about what matters to you as a remote worker.
For me personally, I value locations that have:
- A range of coworking spaces and spots to work from
- A thriving and welcoming community of other remote workers and entrepreneurs
- Warm weather, and
- Delicious and convenient food options
What's your criteria?
You don't need to have it all figured out just yet. In fact, it might be exciting for you to spin the globe and go where ever your finger lands!
For those of who are less spontaneous however, if helps to be able to use these resources.
Step 5: Just do it!
Ok. I'm cheating here by introducing an extra step but after you complete the 4 steps above, there's only one more thing you need to do and that is to book that flight, pack your bags and just go!
Of course, there are likely to be many challenges after you start your journey but don't worry too much about them right now. You're now a digital nomad and who knows where this path will lead you.
After two years of doing this, I'm ready to slow down and separate work and travel a little bit but we're all different. Maybe you'll decide this lifestyle isn't for you and come home after a few months or maybe you'll build a passive income business and travel for the next 10 years!
The beauty of this journey is that you're taking your life in a conscious direction and I think that is something that we should all do regardless of whether we want to travel or not.
Go forth, enjoy your journey and let me know how you go!
Until next time,