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What is a Digital Nomad? How to Become One.

This post is a bit overdue as I have been working as a Digital Nomad since 2013 and first left my home country to work and travel aboard almost ten years ago in 2008. I'm the founder of the Nomad Summit, the annual conference for digital nomads, as well as the original creator of the weekly meetup and skill share concept called the Nomad Coffee Club. I also regularly attend other nomad related events such as the Nomad Cruise, coworkations, and masterminds. I have also interviewed over 200 other digital nomads on my podcast, Travel Like a Boss. That being said, you'd think I of all people would have an easy, one sentence definition of what a Digital Nomad is and how to become one, but I don't. It's confusing because the term is often interchanged with location independent entrepreneur and is sometime used in place of expat or even a traveler.

Being a digital nomad is both as easy as walking to your local Starbucks with your cell phone and using their free wifi to work online, and can be as complicated as getting your e-residency in Estonia, taking advantage of the foreign earned include exclusion, all while taking advantage of location arbitrage and currency rates to lower your costs of living. To make it even more complicated, anyone who starts a travel blog or an Instagram account can call themselves a digital nomad and often do even if they earn no money. This post is going to dive in deep on what a successful digital nomad actually is, how to become one, as well as introduce you to the best business models that you can start while being location independent. Keep reading for not only the official definition of what a Digital Nomad is and should be, but also how to be a successful one. 



Definition of Digital Nomad



The technical dictionary definition would state that a Digital Nomad is someone who earns a living through the utilization of technology and the internet while living in different locations, moving from one place to another with no permanent home. A digital nomad is location independent and can work from anywhere as long as they have a connection to the web and technology such as a laptop, smart phone, or other digital input device. 

Someone who does not currently or yet earn a living online would more appropriately refer to themselves as an aspiring digital nomad, just as I wouldn't refer to myself as a tour guide unless I was actually getting paid to show tourists around places of interest. However this is a grey zone as plenty of people who have never actually earned money professionally refer to themselves as Actors, Athletes, or Entrepreneurs. Being a digital nomad doesn't mean you have to earn $100,000 a year online to be one, even though that is a nice milestone, but it should mean that you are earning at least something, and hopefully enough to cover your costs of living and travel.

The definition of a successful or established digital nomad is someone who earns a living online, location independently and can do it from anywhere in the world with an internet connection.


The Nomad Summit attracts both established and aspiring nomads

Digital Nomad vs. Expat 



Here is where it gets a bit tricky, we like to think of ourselves as a unique set of individuals that have never existed before. We are the new digital nomad generation and are nothing like expats, vacationers, retirees or the snow birds of older generations. However, there are a lot of similarities and often there's no real difference besides the label we've given ourselves. An Expat which is short for an Expatriate is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than their home country. These people have been around for generations and also take advantage of lower living costs, and better weather in other countries than their own.

The funny thing is, they've been living in places like Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand for decades yet us Digital Nomads often think we founded this magical place ourselves. The difference is stark however, as if you go to a Chiang Mai Expats meetup you'll usually find yourself in a room of people over the age of 40-50+ that generally live in one place year round. At a digital nomad meetup, although there are nomads of all ages, you'll generally find the majority of people to be 18-39. Also while many digital nomads choose to setup places like Chiang Mai as a home base and some even live there year round, the difference is that a digital nomad can technically live anywhere and move freely while most expats put down roots in the city they choose.

Also a fun fact is the difference between an Expat, Migrant Worker and Immigrant. It comes down to the intention of living in another country. Migrants are defined as people who move from country to country in search of work, and immigrants are defined as people who permanently move to another country whether legally or illegally. A digital nomad however is someone who's work doesn't matter where they are and is living somewhere temporally.




Benefits of Being a Digital Nomad



I honestly love the digital nomad lifestyle and can't imagine a life without the option of being able to work and travel. One of the biggest benefits is discovering new cultures and really getting to know people who are different from the people you grew up with. It makes us more open minded, and gives us new ideas on how to do things. It also highlights how ridiculous some of the things are that we do at home and consider normal. It allows us to take the good from each culture we come across and leave the bad behind. Being location independent also allows us to have an overall better quality of life. While it sounds ridiculous, one of the reasons I left California is because I love hot weather and hate the cold. Even though compared to other states in the US or other countries getting down to a maximum low of 46F/8C isn't actually that cold, for me I'd rather choose the better quality of life and live in Thailand during the winters where it drops down to a 73F/23C during the same period. 

Aside from the weather the other huge benefit is being able to live cheaply and bootstrap a hobby or new business while it takes off, then having the ability to keep costs down even when you're earning a lot to be able to increase your savings rate. For me I lived off of an average of $600 a month for years when I first moved to Thailand and while I was starting my first online business. I wrote about the experience in my first book 12 Weeks in Thailand: The Good Life of the Cheap. If I was still living in California during that time, I would have been stressed and unable to burn $2,500 a month while building a business that might have never taken off. Instead, I knew that living cheaply in Thailand would allow me to not worry too much about investing 2-3 months into bootstrapping a business. Another huge benefit of financial location arbitrage is the fact that when the businesses took off and I started making what I would have made back home at a good job, instead of spending all of it and trying to put $200 a month into savings, I was able to put 75% or more of my income into investments as even when I started earning over $100,000 a year, my expenses in Chiang Mai never increased over $1,500 a month. If you're interested in that part of the journey, read my second book, Life Changes Quick. Then there's the priceless intangibles of having new experiences, getting to see the world and meeting people from different cultures and countries. But to sum it all up, the real benefit of being a digital nomad is location independence and freedom to be able to live and work where we are treated best anywhere in the world, while being able to move to another place if that ever changes. 



Surveyed reasons why people move and live abroad.


Traveling Too Much



Because the idea of working location independently is so attractive a ton of people use becoming a digital nomad as an excuse or reason to travel the world. The only problem is, if someone is changing cities or countries every few days, they probably aren't actually working or building a business. I'm not here to tell people what they can or can't label themselves as, as just like being a Musician, everyone who plays an instrument or at least attempts it is welcome to call themselves one, but we have to admit that there's a huge difference between someone who puts in the time and effort to work on their craft and actually earns a living from playing music verses someone who simply carries around a Ukulele that they picked up while traveling. Just because someone carries around a laptop and takes photos of themselves at the beach or by the pool with it, doesn't necessarily mean they're a digital nomad. If they aren't actually earning a living from doing work online, they might just be traveling and playing the part.

Even for me, while I work online most of the year and consider myself a digital nomad when I do, whenever I go island hopping on a scuba diving trip for a few weeks without internet or much time to actually work, I know I'm just on holiday and there's nothing wrong with that. But we need to clear up the difference between being on vacation, backpacking and being a digital nomad as it confuses people who are just starting out who often mistaken the digital nomad lifestyle to be one of all travel and no actual work, which it isn't. To be fair, we're all guilty of promoting the exciting parts of the lifestyle more than we are the grind, but it's just so much nicer to take a photo by the beach than it is to take one inside the coworking space that we at 8 hours a day everyday. I can't blame people for being excited but you also can't blame anyone else if after your 4 months of moving every 4 days you're exhausted from traveling, haven't learned any skills someone would actually pay you for, and you're now running out of savings.



When you're traveling too much to get anything done.



Traveling Too Little



The entire definition of being a digital nomad is based on earning a living while traveling. But people often forget or put off the first part as the traveling part is so much fun so it's common to lean towards that. However the opposite is also true. If you've put down roots and live in one city year round or at least for most of it, then you're probably closer to being an expat than an actual nomad.  I don't blame that you'd still rather associate yourself with the nomad crowd instead of the exact scene as in general it's a younger crowd with a more positive attitude towards life. Hanging out with expats you'll often see and hear a lot of negativity, which you still get a bit of sometimes in digital nomad groups online, but almost never any in person events. This is a huge reason why I love hosting the Nomad Summit conference, meeting people at the Nomad Coffee Club meetups and attending other in person events like the Nomad Cruise. Nomads you meet in real life are generally super nice and positive even if the comments on youtube videos, in reddit and in facebook groups might suggest the opposite.

I think the main difference between expats and nomads is that we have the option to move from place to place and can leave whenever we wish if a place no longer serves us or we're not longer happy. Expats typically can't as they often put down roots, own a home, have a family, run a physical location dependent business or are living off of a fixed income. Being stuck in one place, even if it's better than your home country, is still being stuck and often leads to being pessimistic and seeing the downsides of a place rather than the upsides. I've met a lot of super cool Expats and go to their events and often cite their data as they have a ton more lifestyle research done than nomads, but you can pretty clearly see the difference of the two mentalities as in general being a digital nomad means the world is your oyster and your income is potentially limitless. There's no perfect place in the world or perfect solution, but I think the ultimate happiness factor we'll eventually move towards is either slow travel where we stay 2-6 months in each location, giving us time to develop deep connections and a healthy routine but not ever feeling stuck. Or the other option is having a home base where we come back to often and call temporary home but use it is a base to travel from every few months or at least a few times a year. 


Why Expats Choose to live in Thailand


Ways to Make Money as a Digital Nomad



There are a ton of ways to make money with an online business and I've now met hundreds of people with different businesses that they run remotely. Some of the more unique ones have been dentists and doctors who do online consultations over Skype, or the people who run traditionally physical businesses remotely. These people have included the makers of energy bars for hikers, to soap makers selling on QVC and all the way to people who rent out rooms in hotels or have an Airbnb business that they run remotely while traveling.

However even though everything is possible and the pure definition of being an entrepreneur is making the unlikely happen, the most common jobs I come across fall within these categories below. All of which have been featured at least once on the Travel Like a Boss Podcast where I interview digital nomads weekly and ask them how they make money online while traveling.


1. Web or App Development
2. Freelancing - Illustrator, Designer, Consultant, etc. 
3. Ecommerce - Dropshipping or Amazon FBA
4. Online Marketing/SEO/PPC
5. Content Creation (Blogging/Youtube/Podcasts, etc)
6. Copywriting or Translation 
7. Online Course Creator
8. Web/Graphic or UX Design
9. Remote Worker or Employee 
10. Online Tutor or Teacher 
11. Artist, Photographer, Videographer, etc
12. Coach or Consultant
13. Investor or Trader

If you want to know more about any of the above, read my blog post 28 Ways to Make Money While Traveling or my post How to Start Making Money Even if You're Broke.






Overall Thoughts on Being a Digital Nomad



For the first few years of living abroad after reading the 4-hour workweek, I spent most of my time on little islands around the world working as a Divemaster. I then spent a few years living in Muay Thai gyms training and competing in fights in Thailand. But it really wasn't until 2013 that I actually became a digital nomad, it wasn't until I was making more money online than I was spending from my savings that I really considered myself a success. The happiest and healthiest I've ever been was when I was living most of the year in Chiang Mai, Thailand making $3,000-$5,000 a month running an ecommerce store online and and having the option to go somewhere for a few weeks at a time during a visa run to work remotely from there. The most stressful times on my mental and physical health was the year that I made $325,785.19 and traveled through 17 countries. This past year my goal has been to slow back down and get into a routine, but the problem is having too many options is sometimes a bad thing. Knowing that I have the money and freedom to go anywhere in the world and knowing how fun and amazing each place would be makes it hard to stay put and get into a healthy habit. Moving around so much has made it hard to stick to a healthy diet, workout routine and work schedule which makes it easy to make less money and get out of shape.

My best advice for everyone getting into the Digital Nomad life is to go for it with all of your heart as the freedom is worth it. It's an amazing age we live in where we have the freedom to live and travel anywhere in the world. But once we get to hat point, we should realize that just because we can, doesn't necessarily mean we should. I am super grateful that I have the option and the financial freedom to travel as much as I want, but now i'm really happy to have figured out that I have my whole life to do so and to be a sustainable digital nomad that life, even as a nomad is a journey, not a sprint and it's definitely not a race. Lets all vow to take the good, leave the bad, and mold both ourselves as well as the digital nomad and location independence movement into both something good for the world, leaving places between than we found them and adding value along the way, and also doing so sustainably as I am a big believer that digital nomad is here to stay, it's not a fad, but a new way of life. I want to leave everyone with the thought that no matter where you are in your digital nomad journey, it's always changing, it's not a thing, it's not easily defined and it'll change. Enjoy the journey, enjoy the ride, just keep track of where you are at all times so you know where you're going and how you got there.






Warm Regards,

Johnny FD


Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! I'd love for you to join the conversation!


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  1. Love our life. Love being a nomad. Earning a living as we travel ( enough to support husband and kids as a travel blogger) is the gravy on the chips.

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    1. That's awesome you can do it as a family Alyson! Keep it up and congrats!

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  2. Hey Johnny, first off I have to say that I'm not particularly fond of labels. I think they're mostly unnecessary and limiting. As an example, I have a location independent business that I can run from anywhere in the world. I also trade and invest, which I can do from anywhere with an Internet connection. However, I'm not a Nomad as I spend most of my time in Chiang Mai. I'm also older than most people who would call themselves Digital Nomads.

    So would I be more of an Expat? Probably, but I don't think I'm all that pessimistic. Sure, I complain about the smoke in CM during the burning season. But I do the same as Digital Nomads would and go to the beach for a month or so.

    I also like to travel to other countries when I can, so perhaps I'm a traveler.

    You did a good job in the post, digging into the different lifestyles and issues but I just don't see the need for labels. People should try new things, see what and where makes them happy. Enjoy life!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Terry, I super appercaite that comment and agree 100% that we shouldn't force ourselves into a box. You also make a great point that a lot of people are going to be in between the lines and there's no clear cut answer sometimes.

      Delete
  3. nice write up dude! we truly live in an amazing time. The beauty of all this is we have these options nowadays. Which is amazing. 🤙

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree 100% Riley. If we were born even 10 years earlier, we wouldn't have any of these options or be Livin' that Life. We truly are blessed!

      Delete
  4. Great post Johnny!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Trey! Glad i'm glad you liked it. Now that I have more time I'm focusing on writing about diving deeper into things like this that matter.

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  5. I've been living this lifestyle since 2013; I seriously cannot imagine living any other way. Cheers buddy!!

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    Replies
    1. Good stuff Edward! I feel like 2013 was the start of it all!

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  6. Hey Johnny, great post. I have a question for you. How useful has networking with other expats or nomads been for you, in comparison to focusing your attention on a select number of mentors, self-study, and working through problems on your own?

    I have to believe that you gotten a lot of value out of networking. But one of the things that worries me about entrepreneur events in places like Chiang Mai is the idea of the blind leading the blind, and people who aren't actually successful charging others for guidance as if they are. There tends to be a lot of broke, hungriness going around.

    I'm not trying to be negative, I just feel that there is a big difference between talking about making money and making it. Getting caught up in a lot of weekly events, I feel some people might get super-excited, hopping from one thing to the next, and never committing to something long enough to see it bear fruit. Shiny-object syndrome.

    In some ways I feel the potential risks of outside exposure might even exceed the benefits, but maybe I'm wrong. What do you think? Do you feel you could have done just as well without networking with wantrepreneurs and keeping your interactions with the outside world virtual? Or has it been a pretty critical element in your success? Looking forward to your thoughts.

    Jason

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    Replies
    1. Hey Jason, I think it's a balance. Having other nomads around and excited helped me stay motivated, but I was careful not to jump from method to method and just stuck with what I was doing. The most successful people work on their project from start to finish, but keep an ear out on what else is working, not to find something easier, but for a better overall opportunity they might be excited about.

      For me, I started networking with other online business people when I was kindle publishing and trying to figure out ways I could sell more books online, it helped a lot and I got a ton of great ideas and feedback. But one of the guys who gave me the best advice was doing dropshipping and after looking into it more, I realized it would be better than trying to write and sell more books so I jumped ship and got into that. But then even when friends were making a ton of money doing Teespring I decided not to as I saw it wasn't a long term model.

      In short, networking is great for motivation, fun and ideas. Chasing shiny objects is always bad. But in general even if a majority of the attendees at nomad events are just starting out and there because they're new and excited, there are always 10% of people who are experienced and established, people just don't always meet them. For me I always make it a point to talk to the speakers, hosts, and chat with the quiet guy in the corner. You'll be surprised, even at the free weekly nomad coffee club I almost always see at least one person who makes well over $100,000+ a year sitting in the crowd but no one talks to them as they aren't the ones going up to you excited to meet new people. But if you go up to them, they're super friendly and usually pretty generous with their time and ideas.

      Delete

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