I’m writing this post sitting on a cross-country train from Urumqi to Beijing. I’ve been on this train for 23 hours so far, and still have about 8 to go. I’m sitting on a sleeper in a 6-bunk compartment, which I’m sharing with 5 middle-aged Chinese people, playing cards and drinking Baijiu*
As you can imagine, it can be a tad hard to focus.
I love travelling and have been lured by the ‘digital nomad’ lifestyle I’ve seen in so many Facebook groups: travelling around the world, exploring amazing places, moving to a different country every few weeks, all while *effortlessly* growing a 6-figure online business from a beach house. It looked like a dream. It looked like something I could totally imagine myself doing.
I’m sure you can relate to it. You’ve seen the Instagram photos. You’ve read the motivational posts on Facebook.
There is a catch that nobody told me about though: living the life of a ‘Digital Nomad’ and growing a 6-figure business is a lie.
Let me explain why.
First, let’s define what a ‘nomad’ is. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a nomad is:
1: a member of a people who have no fixed residence but move from place to place usually seasonally and within a well-defined territory
2 : an individual who roams about
Now, if you’re based in Bali and working out of a beach house co-working space with an ultra-fast internet connection, you technically aren’t a digital nomad.
You are a location-independent entrepreneur, meaning: you work online so you don’t have to work in a specific place, but you are based somewhere. You have your own place where you’re not interrupted. You have enough *stuff* to live comfortably (aka: you don’t have to wear the same T-shirt for 5 days in a row, feeling like a homeless person, because you’re living out of a backpack and you’re a week between viable laundry spots) You have reliable internet. You control your environment. You are based in a Nomad-hub, probably working from a co-working space with reliable internet, or at least a work-friendly café. You are surrounded by like-minded people who speak English, and with whom you can make meaningful connections. Yes, you can move on a whim, but doing so will inevitably disrupt your working routine and incur an alternative cost: waste of time on travelling, moving your stuff, finding another place with a good, reliable internet connection to work from, finding somewhere passable to stay, finding your way around. All these ‘alternative costs’ are rarely discussed in the rose-tinted stories of the so-called ‘digital nomads’.
Maybe I took the ‘nomad’ part too literally. For me, being a ‘digital nomad’ did not mean moving to a co-working space in paradise. It meant working from a road and exploring the far-flung places I wanted to see, not the places that were ‘nomad-friendly’. I hoped I would be able to carry on with my work while (or rather: despite) being on the road. The results of my ‘digital nomad’ experiment so-far are not promising though.
Let me tell you my story (with all the uncomfortable facts).
How I became a digital nomad
In November 2017 I co-founded an online startup in China together with a Chinese business partner. The startup was an app for expats – basically a map-based directory of local services, venues and events on a map in English – the perfect alternative to the blocked Google Maps.
Fast forward a few months: we built and launched the app, to an initial positive response from the users BUT the business model we created the app for is not working as expected. Our advertising plans don’t sell well. As it turns out, Chinese business owners don’t give a damn about foreigners. The business that do are rare and far apart, and we don’t have enough business to hire a salesperson and scale. After a few weeks of selling we have the numbers and the choice is obvious: pivot or quit.
The thing we had moderate success with was reselling tickets to various events. The market is already occupied by strong competitors with a 10-year track record. We start conversations about doing a joint venture or even a takeover. The conversations don’t really get us anywhere.
June 2018: we decide to stop working on the business and sell it to whoever wants it. I’m leaving China and setting out on a trip to Malaysia and Indonesia (Bali). The thought of becoming a digital nomad first springs to mind. Since 2013, I have been running an online translation and content marketing agency. I’m deciding to go back to my ‘old business’ to work on it and grow it, which I had found a bit boring and hence was always looking for other ‘start-up opportunities’. I decide to launch a project helping beginner-entrepreneurs who cannot afford professional web designers and content writers do their website and content marketing themselves. Since this business if 100% online too, I’m spending the summer at home in the UK and deciding to start living like a digital nomad from October. I’m planning my trip carefully: what I want to see, where I want to stay, and what I want to do with my business at the same time. I’m planning to spend 2 weeks in China, 2 weeks in the Philippines, and 2 weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia respectively for starters.
September 2018: somebody wants our Chinese business. I am flying into Beijing to sign the papers while continuing with my ‘digital nomad’ plan.
What goes wrong
Almost as soon as I landed in Beijing I came down with a bad cold, which has been trailing with me for the last two weeks. Luckily, my mum is a doctor, so I got a good supply of everything in my first-aid kit. Otherwise, I would have been really miserable.
Even though I planned my journey to include ‘working time’ almost every day, I quickly realise that my ambitious plans (continue publishing one quality post per week, writing my newsletter, promoting my content + create 12 basic WordPress websites for free to master the process + revise and publish my book + start working on a membership site) will need to go out of the window. Let me tell you why.
The downsides of being a Digital Nomad nobody talks about
As soon as I landed in Beijing I realised my plans were a bit unrealistic. If I were a machine, things could probably work the way I planned. But I’m not and I need to account for the ‘startup costs’ of adjusting to the new environment, and the toll travelling takes on my body and mind.
You may feel bad
As I mentioned, I incurred a bad cold after flying into Beijing, which was only made worse by the jet lag, and soon also by food poisoning.
Let’s face it: you won’t be at the top-performance level when you’re not healthy and comfortable. Making dramatic changes to your environment takes a toll on your sleeping patterns, your immune system, and digestion. Different drinking water, change of diet (you really won’t be able to eat what you want!) and climate – they will all compromise your health and you may simply end up feeling physically too bad to work – especially if your work is highly creative, and requires a lot of mental and emotional energy. Energy is not unlimited resource. Once you’ve spent it on simply *surviving* the day, it’s gone and you won’t be able to spend it on writing amazing blog posts, editing videos, or consulting your coaching clients as well as you would otherwise.
I know there are a few exceptions. I’ve met amazing people who – despite being on the road for weeks at a time – were able to still consistently create *amazing* content every single day. I met Neng of ‘Neng Now’ in a hostel in Jakarta in June, and I must say I’m totally impressed and in awe of what he’s accomplished while travelling around South-East Asia for 200 days. Sadly, two weeks into my trip my experience has been somewhat different. I’m saying this just to make it clear things can go both ways.
On other days, after several hours of travelling / exploring you may just feel too tired to exert some creative efforts. I know I have problems with self-discipline and if you are 100% sure you can get your shit done no-matter-what, this may not apply to you.
My advice: give yourself some slack to adjust to new environment, climate, food etc. at the beginning. Try to stay in one place for at least 2-3 weeks if you want to get some serious work done. Otherwise the ‘start-up costs’ of adapting to new environments are going to seriously erode your productivity and your results may be disappointing.
Unreliable work conditions
That’s a big one. Unless you are planning to go only to places with great ‘Digital Nomad’ hubs – co-working spaces catering to your needs – you may find that the work you are planning to do is simply not going to happen because of the work conditions you find at your destinations.
Since it wasn’t my first time in China I knew that the internet can be extremely unreliable. Moreover, since the access to most western websites and social media is blocked, you need a VPN to connect to them. That requires really strong network signal. Another problem is: in most places where you can find free WiFi (cafes, KFC, McDonald’s etc.) you will need a Chinese phone number to connect to it. You can’t buy a SIM card in China on a tourist visa. The best place to go is Starbucks, but again – you won’t find it everywhere (e.g. not in Xinjiang province, which was my main destination). And when you can find it, it will usually be so packed you cannot always count on finding a place to sit and work (let alone a quiet place).
The time you will waste looking for an appropriate spot to work is going to amount to *very* many hours. The frustration of not being able to connect to the internet, or having a connection that is so bad it takes you 10 x longer to finish your work, will have a serious impact on your productivity.
Plan longer stretches of time in places with co-working spaces. This may compromise your travel plans, and again – may not be ideal when you have to make a move again once you’ve got your ball rolling, have a few client-calls lined up etc.
Stay flexible – whenever possible, don’t book flights in advance. Go to one place and see how it goes there. If you find it comfortable, stay there for longer. If not – make a move and find a place where you have good work conditions.
Constant disruptions = losing focus
The ‘nomadic lifestyle’ implies you don’t really set a wing anywhere. This means you are constantly freaking out about catching your next plane, train etc. and ultimately this shifts your focus from working on your projects to managing your travel plans.
All the ‘start-up costs’ of finding the right place to work will compromise your focus. I found I couldn’t really concentrate on my goal, the ‘bigger picture’ of my work as well as I could when I was back in the UK. My results (and as a result: my motivation levels) suffered and I began to be losing momentum.
I found it was quite easy to work on things that were more ‘predictable’ and did not require a lot of creativity. Also – I have a project manager who tends to the day-to-day in my business, so I didn’t need to be there for my clients 24/7. Otherwise, it would be really difficult (if not impossible) to work while being on the road.
Things will not go according to plan
No matter how well you plan (I’m a control-freak and I tend to totally over-plan my trips) things will not go according to your plan. Flights will be cancelled. Trains will be delayed. Your hotel you booked on Booking.com will not be where it said it was, or will be fully-booked (or not accepting foreigners. Youu will have to scramble to find an alternative place in a city you’ve never been to, at 11 p.m., without internet connection, and not being able to communicate with anyone in any language. Sounds like a nightmare? Happened to me twice within the last two weeks (in Kashgar and Hohot).
We are so used to English being the ‘Lingua Franca’ we kind-of take it for granted and forget there are places where people still *don’t* speak it at all. Western China is one of these places.
This may have a significant impact on your ability to find your way around, as well as make meaningful connections with people around you.
I can be a bit of a loner sometimes and I actually enjoy solitude, so it has not had a big impact on me so far (as long as I can connect with my friends and family back home once a day or so, I’m fine) but I can imagine that for people who are more extraverted / outgoing than me, going on a solo-trip to places that are not frequented by many travellers can be a nightmare. Again, it will be different if you go to more popular ‘nomad destinations’ – with big buzzing nomad hubs, hostels and co-working spaces. But that’s not something that I wanted to do.
For my trip I have selected some of the most remote parts of China: Inner Mongolia and the very west of Xinjiang province, close to the border with Kirgizstan and Tajikistan. I was not disappointed by the natural, unspoilt beauty of some of the places I managed to visit. My trip to Kashgar has been the most difficult, but also the most rewarding so far, and I wish I had stayed there longer. I would totally go there again as I feel I left a few stones unturned and there is still so much more to explore. The number of foreigners I saw for days there could be counted on the fingers of one hand though. I was also constantly stopped by security everywhere, had to go through countless checkpoints and show my passport everywhere.
My advice: if you need company on a daily basis to stay sane, take a travel-buddy or avoid extremely remote places without established ‘nomad hubs’ and ‘expat communities’.
If you’re travelling to very remote places, the chance of finding a budget ‘backpacker hostel’ there are close to zero. I’ve been to places in China where there are no hostels accepting foreigners, so I had to pay a lot more for a semi-decent hotel.
Also moving from A to B in a new city is going to be expensive if you cannot use the public transport. Using taxis between train stations and hotels, will inevitably add up.
…but there are also upsides:
Travelling makes you sharper. It also puts things into perspective and gives you more clarity on what you really need and want. You are solving real-life problems and focusing on surviving. Suddenly the ‘first world-problems’ and petty dilemmas such as ‘how do I look’, ‘what will people think’ etc. etc. don’t play any role in your life anymore.
You’re becoming a master of time-management
Coordinating a tight travelling schedule *and* putting in some work in-between is a no-mean feat. You will become a master of time-management and planning, as well as handling crisis-situations and remaining cool in emergencies. These are transferrable skills. Since I started travelling like that, I found myself more creative, flexible and ingenious in the way I solve problems at work. You can put it all on your CV.
I mentioned ‘unreliable internet’ in the ‘downsides’ but actually there are also upsides of not being ‘connected’ all the time! If you don’t have wifi, you’re simply not tempted by the constant flow of notifications, messages etc. that we normally are distracted by all the time.
I can hardly remember the last time I sat working on a blog post like this – completely uninterrupted by anything for a stretch of 3+ hours at a time.
Apart from giving you time to do uninterrupted work, you also get more time so spend with your own thoughts – reflecting upon what you really want to achieve, toying with different ideas and scenarios.
Similar with the solitude: not having conversations with anyone but yourself can really give you the mental space to reflect upon what you really want.
For an entrepreneur, such introspection is a godsend.
In the first 2 weeks of my journey, I managed to read 5 books, consider a few ideas and courses of action, and decide on my direction for the next 6-8 months to come.
I am glad I tried a truly ‘nomadic lifestyle’ as it gave me a lot of insights but I don’t think it works for me in the longer run. I think I still need a ‘base’ to work from and have more control over my environment (my work condition, personal space, diet, relationships with people) than I can possible have while ‘being on the road’.
*Very strong (around 60%) Chinese vodka.