How to Become a Digital Nomad (and How NOT to Become One)
I sometimes see questions online such as “How do I get started as a digital nomad?” and I can’t help but to shake my head. I think the problem arises when someone gets inspired by a blog telling them that they can quit their 9-to-5 job and travel the world without putting enough thought into how they’ll earn money.
“Digital nomad” has become a catchy term recently, but it’s not a job description. Anyone with the ability and resources to work remotely or otherwise earn money in a location-independent manner could be called a digital nomad. You simply go where you want to go because you can. Or you can mostly stay put too. I would say I’m more of a “digital expat” because I spend over 90% of my time in Thailand. I like to travel, but I don’t just wander the world aimlessly because some blogger told me it was the cool thing to do.
There are people now selling online courses on how to become a digital nomad and trying to make money by selling the lifestyle to others, but it’s all really quite simple and can be summed up in 2 easy steps.
How to become a digital nomad in 2 steps
- Have a skill
- Do it from anywhere
Have a skill
You need to have a skill in order to earn money as a Digital Nomad. Do you know any programming languages? Are you fluent in multiple human languages? Can you write engaging copy that drives customer conversions? If you don’t have a marketable skill that others will pay you for—or one that you can otherwise use to generate income from your own efforts—then you need to learn one before you can even consider becoming a digital nomad.
Do it from anywhere
Assuming that your skill is not one limited by physical location, you simply perform that skill anywhere you want to go. If you’re able to do freelance programming from home, then you can do freelance programming from a coffee shop in Paris. If you can perform SEO consultations for clients from home, then you can do the same from a hotel room in Bali. In contrast, if your area of expertise is in plumbing, sports medicine, or cake decorating, you will have a hard time performing these tasks location-independently. Maybe you don’t even have to quit your job. Convince your boss to let you work remotely and you’re good to go.
That’s all there is to it. There’s no need to over-complicate the digital nomad trend. And there’s no need to force yourself into a category. I don’t really consider myself a digital nomad because I stay in Chiang Mai most of the time. I’m not very nomadic, though I love to travel and take many short trips. One of the nice things about working at Iglu is there are so many interesting places in the region (Vietnam, Bali, Cambodia, etc.) that are easily accessible from Thailand. In the Digital Nomad documentary below, Iglu’s founder Ozzi also mentions how he doesn’t call himself a nomad, even though he was one of the first ones.
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How to NOT become a digital nomad
If you can become a digital nomad simply by having a skill and doing that skill anywhere you want to, then the way to not become a digital nomad is to have no marketable skill and not go where you want. Let’s take a look at some typical mistakes that aspiring digital nomads often make.
Don’t try to be a “digital nomad”
Become a website developer, programmer, graphic designer, SEO specialist, copywriter, translator, etc. As I said above, you need to have a skill that will allow you to earn money. The term “digital nomad” is about as useless as “office worker” for describing what someone actually does for a living. You can have various skills and multiple sources of income, but the bottom line is that you have to be good at doing something or you’re never going to earn any money. If you can work from home, then you can work anywhere with internet. But don’t imagine that by traveling the world you’ll magically unlock a secret source of easy money. Check out this post on what marketable skills you can learn before you go quitting your job.
Don’t come to Chiang Mai
OK, Chiang Mai is an awesome city and a great place to live. You may love it, but please come here because it’s where you want to go, not because all the blogs are saying it’s the place all digital nomads should go. It’s true that Chiang Mai is a very affordable city as well, but it’s not somewhere you can live for free. If you want to be a successful digital nomad, you need to be generating some income BEFORE you quit your job and travel. You can’t simply arrive in Chiang Mai with no marketable skills and no revenue stream and expect to learn how to be a “digital nomad” and start making good money in a few months. It’s unrealistic.
Don’t go to co-working spaces
There’s certainly nothing wrong with working at a co-working space if that’s what you want to do. If you are more productive in such an environment, then it may be a good choice for you. Just don’t do so because you think it’s what a digital nomad has to do. If you really are free to roam the world, why limit yourself to only those places with co-working spaces? Thailand has many great island and beach locations, but Koh Lanta seems to be the only one digital nomads talk about just because it has a co-working space.
Don’t start a blog
If you’ve got something to write about, then by all means start a blog. Just don’t expect to have many readers initially. New websites typically get very little organic search traffic for the first 6-12 months while Google waits to see if you’re worth ranking. If you quit your job, start a travel blog, and expect to be rolling in the dough within a few months you’re going to be very disappointed.
Don’t start a YouTube channel
There’s nothing wrong with starting a YouTube channel if you’ve got something interesting to say, just don’t expect to make any money from it. Making videos can be very time-consuming depending on the amount of editing required, and you need a huge audience before the ad revenue becomes worthwhile.
Trying to make money directly from videos is probably a waste of time, but they can be useful in other ways. Videos are most valuable as a lead generation tool. For example, if you are an online language tutor you could make a series of short video lessons for the language that you teach. This would help you attract new customers.
Don’t create an info product
If you have something useful to say, then go ahead and write that ebook. Maybe you’ll be successful selling copies on Amazon because you’re able to share your specialized knowledge on a certain topic with an interested audience. What you don’t want to do is write an ebook or online course that specifically targets aspiring digital nomads without providing any real value.
Yes, you could try to make your first money online by selling books about “How to make money online”—and you may even sell a few—but do you really want to be that guy? You’d be better off spending your time learning how to code.
Arming yourself with a useful and marketable skill will give you the power to earn a living regardless of your physical location. If you want to travel—that’s great! Becoming an online business owner, freelancer, or remote worker will give you the freedom to come and go as you please.
Setting off on the road first—having no current income source—with the vague goal of “learning to become a digital nomad” is a recipe for disaster. Every hour you spend blogging about your “new life as a digital nomad” is an hour that you could be writing freelance articles for money, studying coding tutorials to increase your skills and market value, or analyzing and improving the SEO of your e-commerce website to get more customers.