Becoming a Digital Nomad - What Location-Independent Work Really Means

Becoming a Digital Nomad - What Location-Independent Work Really Means

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 come to work remotely?

It actually all started with a very inspiring lecture by Nick Martin ("6 years of world travel, the coolest gap in your CV") at the end of 2016. At that time, I had already been working for a web agency near Zurich for more than 2 years. I was often the first one in the office in the morning and the last one to go home in the evening. So even before the lecture, I thought to myself that I wanted to change something. But I wasn't exactly 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.

Logically, I was completely unaware of this possibility before. It would never have occurred to me to consider something like this and to do a fixed office job in a café, coworking space or from home. Until this lecture, my idea of the world of work was therefore very classic and it was never an issue not to do work in an office with the same colleagues from Monday to Friday. But who still strictly separates their professional and private lives today? I don't know anyone.

#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 organize my day from A to Z myself, sometimes working at the weekend and sometimes not working in the middle of the week.

#3 How do you find suitable accommodation and what do you look for?

Of course, it's important that it has Wi-Fi, of course. I also like it when there is a kind of shared apartment feeling, i.e. when I live with other people who also work from anywhere. Most coliving companies already offer this today. However, if this is not available in one place, I usually switch to Airbnb or hostels, although the latter are more useful for short stays. Otherwise, it quickly becomes expensive and the price/performance ratio is no longer right for me.

michael hoernlimann digital nomad

#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.

Another big challenge for me is video calls when I'm abroad. Keyword: time zone. Depending on the country, specifically New Zealand, it can be quite difficult to set up a call if there is a 12-hour time difference to Germany/Switzerland. Fortunately, it's not too often that I have live video calls with customers, because I try to communicate as well and accurately as possible in my written communication. This prevents misunderstandings and usually eliminates the need for video calls. In addition, video calls are usually longer than emails and either I or the other person tends to digress from the topic quickly.

#5 How do you feel about the term "digital nomad"?

From a marketing point of view, it needs a term, of course. I just can't really identify with it, because a digital nomad would have to be constantly on the move. That's not me.

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 above the standard and also travel quite quickly, 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 and in small steps. The bigger steps will then follow as if by themselves. So if someone is still working full-time in the office in the traditional way, perhaps there is the option of working from home. From there, I can then think about going to the local café or library to work. Depending on whether you prefer a quiet place to work or something more lively, like a café. Of course, the extent to which it is possible to work for the company in another city or even abroad also depends on the employer (assuming you are not self-employed).

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To earn money as a digital nomad, it is usually not necessary to reinvent the wheel. Classic examples are graphic designers, social media, marketing or web design. In my opinion, there is potential wherever there are no regular meetings and the work can be done mainly on a laptop.

Of course, having a financial buffer is always an advantage. For example, I had saved up around 10,000 euros before I became self-employed full-time. I also had a 6-month transition phase beforehand, i.e. 60% employment at the web agency with a fixed income and I built up my sole proprietorship in parallel. That's great for the beginning because you usually can't be profitable from day 1 and administrative things have to be done.

When I choose a 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 grocery store near the accommodation. I want to be able to wash clothes in the accommodation itself, because if these things are not available, it takes up time that I would rather invest elsewhere. Another plus point is that either German or English is spoken at this location, as this makes it easy for me personally to have an in-depth conversation. In my opinion, this is particularly valuable abroad, where I often find myself making small talk with strangers or they simply speak to me, which usually results in a great conversation. This is more difficult in other languages.

A fixed place of residence is therefore not necessary, but you can of course also start with a fixed place of 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 that have to be adhered to and everyone can set things up 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 use the Swiss Post service to have my letters scanned. So when a new letter arrives for me, it is scanned for me and I receive a notification by e-mail. I can then decide on the basis of the envelope whether I want to have the letter scanned to see the contents or have it destroyed directly. The service offered by Deutsche Post is called E-POST, see here.

In addition to the post office, I use the following tools that make it easier for me to work from anywhere:

  1. NordVPN to protect my privacy, to be secure on the web and, for example, to access customer projects in public WLAN (airports etc.) or even to carry out e-banking transactions.
  2. Slack to communicate with other nomads, the local WordPress community and Raidboxes.
  3. ProtonMail to be able to send encrypted emails with my own domain. In my opinion, this is the best alternative to Gmail, as the user is not aware of the encryption and the process takes place in the background.
  4. Tresorit to store my customer data securely and encrypted in the cloud. I use it to manage my quotes, invoices, accounting and backups.
  5. appear.in to make video calls easily via the browser.
  6. PDF Expert to be able to edit and digitally sign PDF files. This has already saved me having to go to the post office for some matters, as the digital signature was sufficient.
  7. 1Password as a password manager. This makes it very easy to use complicated passwords and saves time every time you log in to any platform or website in your 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.

michael hoernlimann
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Dear Michael, we would like to thank you for the interesting interview and your honest answers and say goodbye to Switzerland. If you have any questions about working remotely, please leave a comment!

Pictures: Michael Hörnlimann

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