It all started with an event on his Facebook timeline. At that time, Michael was working for a web agency in Switzerland. Today, he works from any location he likes. We interviewed Michael and he let us in on the advantages and difficulties of this way of working and what you need to live life as a "digital nomad".
#1 How did you end up working from anywhere?
It all started with a very inspiring lecture by Nick Martin ("6 years of world travel, the hottest gap in your CV") at the end of 2016. I'd already been working for a web agency near Zurich for more than 2 years by then. I was often the first one in the office in the morning and the last one to leave in the evening. So even before seeing the lecture, I knew I wanted to change something. But I wasn't quite sure what.
In the end, I stumbled upon an event on my Facebook timeline (while I was still active there). I could see that a friend was "interested" in attending. The famous "maybe" - not quite a yes and not quite a no. So I attended the event but didn't see my friend there. That was one of the best lectures I have ever attended! My roommate told me a few days ago how much I was raving that evening when I got home from the lecture. About how I wanted the same for myself, to be able to combine traveling and working.
For me, this was the beginning more freedom, a higher quality of life, and the key to how I manage my time.
Needless to say, I hadn't known such a thing was possible before. It'd never occurred to me to consider doing an office job from a café, coworking space or from home. Before watching the lecture, my idea of the working world was very traditional and I'd never questioned sitting in the same office with the same colleagues from Monday to Friday. But who today still strictly separates their professional and private lives? I don't know anybody who does.
#2 What are the biggest advantages of being a digital nomad?
Definitely the possibility to work independently of time and place. I'm most productive in the morning, for example, and less so in the afternoon and evening. So when the weather is good, I might work in the morning and then spend the rest of the day outdoors in nature. The flexibility is enormous and the quality of life is high.
In short, I can arrange the day from start to finish by myself. Sometimes I work on weekends and then won't work in the middle of the week to make up for it.
#3 How do you find suitable accommodation and what do you look for?
It is, of course, very important that a location has WiFi - this is a must. I like it when there's also a kind of community living feeling and I can live together with other people who also work independently of location. This is what most coliving companies already offer anyway. But if it's not available at a certain location, I use Airbnb or hostels, whereby these two options are only really useful for short stays. Otherwise costs quickly mount and the value for money ratio doesn't work out anymore.
#4 Where do you see the biggest disadvantages of being a digital nomad?
I have to say loneliness is the biggest disadvantage for me. Everyone I know has regular working hours and so has free time on weekends and holidays. So far I've not been able to meet many people who are as flexible with their work as I am. And when I do, those encounters are usually rather superficial. Although the principles we hold are similar, other people tend to be drawn in different directions so it's difficult to build lasting friendships. In my private life, real contact is important to me. In terms of work, on the other hand, I fully rely on emails and so meetings in person are usually superfluous.
Another more business-related aspect is my experience with customers with a conventional way of thinking about work. Twice in the past I've had customers choosing not to work with me because I'm not available by phone or for meetings in person when I'm traveling. I always accept this without probing any further, after all there are countless other web designers out there for customers to choose from.
Making video calls is another big challenge for me when I'm abroad. Two words: time zones. Depending on the country, let's say New Zealand, it's pretty difficult to set up an appointment for a call when there's a 12 hour time difference to Germany/Switzerland. Fortunately, it's not too often I have live video calls with clients, as I try to communicate as well and accurately as possible in my written communication. This prevents misunderstandings and usually makes video calls unnecessary. Video calls also tend to run on longer than emails and I or the other person quickly stray from the topic at hand.
#5 How do you feel about the term "digital nomad"?
From a marketing point of view, of course this way of life needs a name. I just can't really identify with it, a digital nomad would have to be on the road all the time and I'm not.
The real nomads in Mongolia have their herds of animals and live very modestly in a yurt. They also travel very slowly. Of the digital nomads I know personally, most of them live rather a comfortable life and travel quite fast, i.e. spending less than four weeks in one country at a time. That's why I simply prefer to use the term "location-independent workers".
#6 Which countries do you like best so far for location-independent work and why?
Bolivia and Portugal. In Bolivia I lived in a group of 12 people in a coliving setting in the mountains. It was in the countryside at about 3,300 meters above sea level in a very quiet area. We could simply go jogging or hiking when we wanted to, which I really enjoyed.
I very much like the coastal region in Portugal. The nature is breathtaking and I could go swimming in the sea in the morning before work - what a great way to start the day.
#7 If I want to become a digital nomad in the near future, what things should I consider?
My recommendation is to slow down and start in small steps. The larger steps then follow as if by magic. So if someone is still working full-time in a classic office setting, it may be possible to start working from home. From there, you could think about going to a local café or library to work. A library if you like it rather quiet when working or a café if you prefer it a bit more lively. It also strongly depends on the employer (if you're not self-employed) to what extent it's possible to work for the company from another city or even another country.
In order to make money as a digital nomad, you don't need to reinvent the wheel. Classic examples of industries for digital nomads are graphic design, social media, marketing or web design. Basically, in my view, the potential is there wherever you don't need to attend regular meetings and can do your work on a laptop.
Having a financial buffer is certainly an advantage. I'd saved around 10,000 euros before I became self-employed full-time, for example. I also had a 6-month transition phase, i.e. 60% employment at the web agency with a fixed income and building up my own business at the same time. This is a great way to start out as you're not going to be profitable from day one and you'll also need to take care of administrative tasks.
When I look for a place to work I make sure there's a reliable and (more or less) fast internet connection. Being able to buy food near the accommodation is also important to me. I like to be able to wash my clothes in the accommodation. If such things aren't available, it eats up time I'd rather invest elsewhere. Another plus point is when either German or English is spoken at the location. Personally, this makes it easier for me to have an in-depth conversation. In my opinion, this is especially valuable abroad, where I often make small talk with strangers or they simply speak to me and we end up having a great conversation. This is more difficult in other languages.
You won't need to have a permanent residence but you can, of course, still have one when starting out. For me, working independently of location also means everyone should find their own way. There are no fixed rules
or models that must be followed and everyone can arrange their location-independent life in the way that suits them best.
Some people might ask themselves, "how will I still receive my mail?" A good question with one simple answer.
I take advantage of the service of Swiss Post to have my letters scanned
for me. So when a new letter arrives, the envelope is scanned in and I receive a notification by email. Then, based on the envelope, I can decide whether I want to have the letter scanned in to see the contents or have it destroyed. The Deutsche Post service is called E-POST, see here.
In addition to this service, I use the following Tools, which make my location-independent work easier:
- North VPN: to protect my privacy, to use the web securely, and, for example, to access customer projects in public WiFi (e.g. at an airport). I also use it when making online banking translations.
- Slack to communicate with other nomads, the local WordPress community and RAIDBOXES.
- ProtonMail: to be able to encrypted emails with my own domain. From my point of view, this is the best alternative to Gmail, because the user doesn't notice the encryption and the process happens in the background.
- Safe: to store my customer data securely and encrypted in the cloud. I use this tool to manage my offers, invoices, do the bookkeeping and make backups.
- appear.in: to make video calls very easily via the browser.
- PDF Expert: to edit and digitally sign PDF files. This has already saved me trips to the post office because the digital signature was sufficient.
- 1Password: as a password manager. This makes it very easy to use complicated passwords and saves time whenever you log in to any platform and website in the browser.
#8 Has your life as a digital nomad changed you? and if so, how?
Oh yes, definitely! I've become much more open and I freely approach people. The resulting conversations are, on the whole, enriching and I wouldn't have had the courage to do it before. I've also become more loyal, especially when it comes to other cultures, as this lifestyle allows me to get to know them authentically and over a longer period of time.
#9 Could you ever imagine returning to your old structured lifestyle?
Honestly, no, not right now. I like to compare it to traveling by train in first class. If you do it once, you might not want to go back. For me, the advantages clearly outweigh the disadvantages, which is why I don't intend to change anything. So I can't tell you how I see my life in five years' time. But my hope is to be in a steady relationship with someone who shares my passion for this freedom and flexibility. After all, shared joy is a double joy.
Dear Michael, thank you for the interesting interview and your honest answers. We're sending our best wishes to Switzerland. If you have any questions about location-independent working, please leave us a comment!
Pictures: Michael Hörnlimann