My laptop has allowed me to work in 45 countries in 7 years

How to quit your job and travel the world, working as a ‘digital nomad’

Exploring Kathmandu, Nepal.

Exploring Kathmandu, Nepal.

 

A few weeks ago, a video I made about quitting my job went viral on Facebook, amassing more than 10,000 views in three days. The video clearly struck a chord with people, especially back home in Ireland.

Since posting, I’ve received countless comments and messages asking for advice, from folks eager to quit their jobs and set off on their own adventures. The key, I tell them, is the ability to earn money from anywhere, via the internet. Once you can do that, the world is your cubicle.

Working remotely is still a radical concept in Ireland, but it’s quickly becoming the norm in other economically developed countries, especially the US.

Niall Doherty’s ‘office’ in Tenerife.
Niall Doherty’s ‘office’ in Tenerife.

According to a Global Workplace Analytics report based on US Census Bureau data, up to a quarter of workers in the US already operate remotely to some degree. Another half hold a job that is compatible with partial remote work. Three-quarters of people who work from home earn more than $65,000 (€55,000) per year.

Several other studies (referenced by Entrepreneur.com) have found remote workers are healthier, more productive, more loyal, and save companies huge amounts of money.

During my travels to more than 45 countries over the past seven years, I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve met who are making a full-time living from their laptops.

Hanging out with other digital nomads in Medellin, Colombia.
Hanging out with other digital nomads in Medellin, Colombia.

They are freelancers, entrepreneurs, and remote employees. Some work typical tech jobs - web design, programming, digital marketing - while others have figured out how to provide services like sales, accounting, or sports coaching to customers and clients they’ve never met half the world away.

These “digital nomads,” as they’re sometimes called, come from all corners of the globe, live wherever they want, and work on flexible schedules.

You’ll find many of them hanging out in places with warm weather and low cost of living, such as Chiang Mai in Thailand, Bali in Indonesia, Medellin in Colombia, and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in Spain.

What’s surprising to me is that there aren’t more Irish among them. As tech-savvy, native English speakers with a high standard of education, we certainly have the capability.

Meeting local kids in Delhi, India.
Meeting local kids in Delhi, India.

As The Irish Times reported last year, 44 per cent of the Irish population now lives in Dublin, spending a big chunk of their hard-earned income on rent, and a significant slice of their time commuting to and from the office.

Dublin is a great city, but nobody should feel they have to move there just to earn a decent living, especially when so many are capable of doing so online, giving us the freedom to stay home in Sligo or Longford if we wish, or head off to explore South East Asia.

Irish ‘digital nomads’

That said, there are a few very successful Irish digital nomads. Johnny Ward (onestep4ward.com) might be the most famous example, a 33-year-old travel blogger from Co Down who has already visited every country in the world, funding his adventures with various online businesses. He claims to have made over $1 million from his blogs.

Carlo Cretaro and Florence Murphy (nextstopwhoknows.com) from Roscommon, who provide writing and marketing services for clients around the world, have been on the road almost non-stop since 2012.

Corkonian Janet Newenham (journalistontherun.com) also earns a living as a writer, via her own travel website and as a freelancer.Working online allowed her to visit 31 countries last year alone - “a bit much,” she admits. In recent months she’s been to Indonesia, Hungary, Georgia, South Korea, Turkey, and the Maldives.

It’s easy to look at a web designer like me, with my degree in IT and multimedia, or a writer like Janet, with a degree in journalism, and think, “It’s well for some!”

But none of us have received any formal training relating to the online businesses we have built. And the same goes for plenty more digital nomad types I’ve met around the world, from many different countries and all walks of life, some with kids in tow. It’s a way of work and a way of life available to anyone.

Advice

If you’re eager to give it a try, here are a few recommendations based on my own experience, and countless conversations with others who’ve built online businesses.

1) Make the time

There are two ways to start an online business. The first is to build up some savings - ideally three to six months of living expenses - then quit your job and go all in. This gives you lots of time and minimal distractions, allowing you to make fast progress.

The slower but safer alternative is to stay in your day job and spend at least 10 hours per week, evenings and weekends, building your own thing. Once that side-business starts earning you decent money, you’ll be able to quit your job confidently and go at it full-time.

Visiting a waterfall in Thailand.
Visiting a waterfall in Thailand.

2) Start with remote or freelance

Almost everyone who works online fits into one of three categories: remote employee, freelancer, or entrepreneur.

Being a remote employee is like having a regular job except your employer allows you to work from anywhere (an arrangement becoming increasingly common). You get a steady pay cheque, perhaps some benefits, and you don’t have to make all the decisions or wear many different hats. The downside of being a remote employee is that you still have to answer to a boss, and you’ll probably be required to work set hours.

The next level up is freelancing. It’s a bit more challenging and uncertain, but more autonomous and scalable. Freelancers provide services to clients on a more temporary basis, charging by the hour or project. They usually have a more flexible schedule, can choose who they work with, and work on several projects simultaneously.

The trade-off is that income can fluctuate from month to month, and you have to spend time finding and pitching clients, especially in the beginning.

Anyone who works online but is not a remote employee or a freelancer can be considered an entrepreneur. They are the folks making money from ebooks, dropshipping, software, advertising, etc.

I recommend you start off earning money online as a remote employee or freelancer. Your goal should be to steadily raise your income until you’re consistently earning enough to pay your bills in 20 hours or less per week. The pressure will be off financially, and you can afford to take on some entrepreneurial ventures, such as building an ecommerce store or generating affiliate income.

Niall Doherty crossed the Pacific on a cargo ship.
Niall Doherty crossed the Pacific on a cargo ship.

3) Build skills

If you don’t already have skills you can use to find work as a remote employee or freelancer, you can build some. There are many skills you can learn “good enough” in 90 days to start earning decent money online.

Justin Clifton from the US spent two months learning the ins and outs of web design and digital marketing using free and inexpensive online courses, before starting to charge for his services. He was only able to command $9 per hour initially, but steadily raised his rate to $50 per hour within a year.

If you’re not sure which skill you should choose to work online, ask yourself:

- What is there an established online market for? Upwork.com is the biggest freelance marketplace on the internet. Browse job postings and take note of the ones that sound interesting, and how much clients are willing to pay.

- What kind of work do you enjoy doing? Don’t get too caught up looking for the perfect job or something you’re really passionate about. I’ve never been very passionate about web design, but I’m happy to do it because it pays well and I can work from anywhere. I love the freedom it buys me.

Some further questions to ask yourself are: How much time do you have to learn and practice? What kind of work have you been praised for? Been most proud of? Found frustrating or easy? Are there free or inexpensive online courses or other resources to help you learn?

Once you’ve gone through that process, you should have a good idea of which skill is best for you to focus on. Commit to that skill for at least a month and learn as much as you can. You’ll find out quickly if it’s a good fit for you. If it’s not, step back, pick a different skill, and try again.

Five days on a sail boat in Panama.
Five days on a sail boat in Panama.

4) Find work

Once you’ve developed some solid skills, it’s time to find clients (or an employer) and start earning. There are lots of job boards you can peruse to find freelance gigs and remote work positions, including Upwork.com, Freelancer.com, RemoteOK.com and WeWorkRemotely.com.

But I recommend you begin by taking advantage of the “informal job market”, ie jobs that are not advertised, that you can find through your existing network. Social media is a great way to announce your service publicly.

In Thailand this year I met a freelance graphic designer, Molly, who found her first clients with a simple Facebook post. She uploaded a photo of her with her laptop, and a note saying she was available for freelance work. A few days later she had more than €1,000 in her bank account and more work than she could handle.

You can also reach out individually to people you know, especially business owners, to offer your services and ask for referrals.

Niall Doherty with other ‘digital nomads’ in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Niall Doherty with other ‘digital nomads’ in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

5) Be free

If it’s freedom you’re after - freedom to travel, to work from home, or to set your own hours - your goal when starting an online business should be to earn enough to cover your living expenses each month, in as few hours as possible.

If you chip away consistently, keep developing your skills and do good work for clients, going from zero to €40 per hour in a year is very doable.

Work 20 hours per week at that rate, and you’re pulling in €3,200 per month, which is about €1,000 more than I spent per month on my 44-month trip travelling around the world after I left Ireland (and I wasn’t slumming it).

Looking for the Lost City in Colombia.
Looking for the Lost City in Colombia.

Working online is fast becoming the new norm, and Irish people are well poised to take advantage of it. It’s certainly not for everyone, and it does require you to step out of your comfort zone, but as I say at the end of my video:

“For those of you wondering, should you quit your job too.
I’m not saying you should, but I’ll say this much to you:
You have to take chances, for your dreams to come true.
‘Cause taking no risks, is the riskiest thing you can do.”

Niall Doherty builds websites, writes books, and helps Irish people get started working online. See ndoherty.com

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