It all started with an event in his Facebook timeline. At the time, Michael Hörnlimann still had a job at a Swiss web agency. Today, he works completely independent of location. Michael told us in an interview what advantages and hurdles this way of working brings with it and what you need for a 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 herd of animals and live very modestly in a yurt. They also travel very slowly. Of the digital nomads I know personally, most live rather above the standard and also travel quite fast, i.e. spend less than 4 weeks in the same country. For these reasons, I simply prefer to use the term "location independent".
#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 start slowly in small steps. The bigger steps will then follow as if by themselves. So if someone is still working classically and full time in an office, maybe there is the option of a home office. From there, I can then further consider going to the local coffee shop or library to work. Depending on whether you like it more quiet when you work or more lively, like in a café. Of course, it also depends on the employer (provided you are not self-employed) to what extent it is possible to work for the company in another city or even abroad.
To earn money as a digital nomad earn money it is usually not necessary to reinvent the wheel. Classic examples are graphic designers, social media, marketing or web design. Basically, from my point of view, there is potential everywhere where there are no regular meetings and the work can be done mainly with the laptop.
A financial buffer is always an advantage, of course. I, for example, had saved up around 10,000 euros before I started my own business full time. In addition, I had a 6-month transition phase, i.e. 60% employment at the web agency with fixed income and in parallel I built up my sole proprietorship. That's great for the beginning, because you usually can't be profitable from day 1 and administrative things have to be done.
If I wanted a place to work... place to work I make sure that there is a reliable and (more or less) fast internet connection. It is also important to me that there is a possibility to buy food near the accommodation. In the accommodation itself I would like to be able to wash clothes, because if such things are not available, it eats up time that I would rather invest elsewhere. Another plus point is that either German or English is spoken in this place, because this way it is possible for me personally to have a deep conversation without any problems. In my opinion, this is especially valuable abroad, where I often experience that I make small talk with strangers or they simply address me and so usually a great conversation develops. This is more difficult in other languages.
A permanent residence is therefore not necessary, but you can of course also start with a permanent residence. For me, working independently of location therefore also means that everyone should find the best form for themselves. There are no fixed guidelines or patterns, which must be kept and everyone can arrange it in such a way, as it fits 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 Swiss Post offer to scan my letters. letters scanned my letters. So when a new letter arrives for me, it is scanned for me and I receive a notification by e-mail. Then, based on the envelope, I can decide whether I want to have the letter scanned to see the contents or destroyed directly. The offer of Deutsche Post is called E-POST, see here.
Besides the Post Office I use the following toolswhich make it easier for me to work from any location:
- NordVPNto protect my privacy, to be secure on the web and for example also to access customer projects in public WLAN (airport etc.) or even to do e-banking transactions.
- Slackto communicate with other nomads, the local WordPress community and Raidboxes\.
- ProtonMailto be able to send encrypted emails with my own domain. From my point of view the best alternative to Gmail, because the user does not notice anything about the encryption and the process happens in the background.
- Tresoritto store my customer data securely and encrypted in the cloud. I use it to manage my quotes, invoices, accounting and backups.
- appear.into make video calls easily via the browser.
- PDF Expertto edit and digitally sign PDF files. This has saved me from having to go to the post office for some things, as the digital signature was sufficient.
- 1Password as a password manager. So on the one hand it is very easy to use complicated passwords and on the other hand it saves time every time you log in to any platforms and websites 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, we thank you for the interesting interview and your honest answers and say goodbye with a greeting to Switzerland. If you have any more questions about location-independent working, feel free to leave a comment!
Pictures: Michael Hörnlimann