In April, 2003, I left my job in Dublin and began my life as a digital nomad. At the time I didn’t know that I had just become a digital nomad, or that I would be doing it for ten years. My previous employment record was three years and three months, and that was three years too long. I was just relieved to be leaving behind what was a year of boring office work. I was now doing a job I enjoyed, which I could do from anywhere in the world.
Today I am in Penang, Malaysia, filled with gratitude that I have been able to create this life. I’ve been reflecting on my journey, and how the landscape of being a digital nomad and travel blogger has changed over the years. I began blogging long after I was working online, so this is a good time to fill in some of the back story.
[At the office on a train in Austria]
The working holidays that changed my life
My life as an expat began in 1999 when I moved to London on a two year working holiday visa. I was still figuring out what to do with my life at that point, so I did temp work while travelling around the UK and Europe between jobs.
Working abroad gave me fresh perspective on life and new ideas on what I wanted to do work wise. It was while I was in London that I realised that I had a passion for the internet. I also discovered that I have the travel bug something fierce.
After my time in London I went back to Australia, but it wasn’t long before the desire to live abroad returned. I worked for a year, did a web design course, then applied for a working holiday visa to Ireland.
I arrived in Dublin in 2002 when the Celtic tiger was going through a downturn, so jobs were not as plentiful as during the boom years. With only limited savings I maxed out my credit card with a laptop purchase in my first week in Dublin.
I managed to stay employed during those 12 months, finding casual work that lasted from 1 week to 4 months. During this year I continued to learn about web design, SEO, and affiliate marketing in the evenings, and the experience of working in mind-numbing jobs made me more determined than ever to work for myself.
All of my earnings went into debt repayments and savings, and most of my time outside of work was spent on my business. At one point the cold, rainy weather and boring office jobs nearly sent me back home again, but I had no return ticket, so I had to ride it out. I look back on those days though with nostalgia as it was one of the most formative years of my life.
The life of location independence begins
April 25, 2003, was the day I began working for myself full-time. I was only making about $100 a month in affiliate sales at that point so I wasn’t exactly ready to begin, but my working visa in Ireland had just expired so I didn’t have a choice. I had enough savings to last the rest of the year, and I was fortunate to be staying with my then girlfriend in Switzerland.
While Switzerland isn’t the first place you would go to start a business on a shoestring, cooking at home made the cost of living comparable to Australia and Ireland at the time. I had yet to discover the joys of living in Southeast Asia, so I didn’t know about currency arbitrage.
[Lucerne - my first location independent home]
Switzerland turned out to be a excellent introduction to living a location independent lifestyle. While I worked long hours, I still took time out in the day to go for a swim in the lake and walks in countryside.
By the end of the year I was making enough to live on without spending my savings.
A business/travel lifestyle scene emerges
When I started out I got all my information online from webmaster and marketing forums. They were valuable resources to help me grow my business, but there wasn’t much talk about lifestyle. A lot of the guys I knew were working from home but not travelling.
For years I went about my travels without meeting other working travellers. There were, of course, many others doing the same thing but I had yet to discover this world, and I wasn’t actively seeking it anyway. This began to change in 2007, especially after The 4-Hour Workweek was released. This book brought the concept of running a business while travelling to the mainstream.
There are now countless sites dedicated to the subject of working remotely and the location independent lifestyle. I’ve found a forum where people talk business and travel, with members who have been doing this since the 1990’s.
The rise of travel blogging, and travel gets more social
With the rise of social media, travel blogging became more social as well, with a vibrant community of travel bloggers forming around Facebook and Twitter. I began Nomadic Notes as a way to interact with other travel bloggers that were becoming more prominent in the travel sphere, and as non-business online home for others to find me.
Seeing that we are travellers it was only a matter of time before I started meeting these online friends in real life. I went to my first travel meet up in Bangkok in February, 2010, which was fittingly called the unconventional meetup. The event was hosted by Chris Guillebeau, and got to meet some familiar online faces.
Over the last few years there has been a growing number of conferences, meet ups, organisations, summits, and unconventions catering for travel bloggers, online business entrepreneurs, and lifestyle designers. It has now got to the point where I cross paths with some of my online friends several times a year.
Of course you don’t need a conference to have a meet up. I gravitated towards places like Chiang Mai and Saigon when I was not travelling, partly to be around fellow bloggers.
Home Base vs No Fixed Address
Over the last ten years of being of being location independent, I have switched between having no fixed address, to keeping a home base in Melbourne, and back to no fixed address. In Melbourne I rented a room in a share house for a number of years, sometimes sub-renting when I was away for longer stretches. Every time I returned I felt sure I wanted to live abroad again. I left Melbourne again in September 2010 and I’ve been of no permanent abode ever since.
In the first five years of my digital nomadism I spent half of my time in Europe. In the last five years my focus has shifted to Asia, and if I was to get a home base again it would be in Southeast Asia.
[The view from my room in Penang, where I'm celebrating my 10 year digital nomadiversary.]
Aren’t you tired of travelling?
I often get asked, “aren’t you tired of travelling?” Sometimes I do get tired, but when that happens I will slow down and stay in one place for a while, such as in Playa del Carmen, Chiang Mai, and Ho Chi Minh City.
What I found more tiring was getting up at 6am everyday and commuting for a hour to a job I didn’t like. My current lifestyle is easy in comparison.
Where to next?
I couldn’t have imagined what an incredible life this would be when I started out ten years ago. Occasionally I think that it might all end and I would have to go back to an office. I had a couple of lean years and I nearly did, so I have always tried to make the most of my travel opportunities while I can.
Looking forward, I can’t imagine a life that doesn’t revolve around travel, but it might be a lot slower with fewer destinations each year. For now my heart and work community is set in Southeast Asia, so I will continue to use this region as a base and go on shorter, more regular trips from there. I will continue to work on online projects, as well as resurrecting some offline business ideas, such as my stalled property rental business.
As for Nomadic Notes, this site will still be based on my travels, but I will be featuring more long term travel tips, digital nomad resources, and of course, cafes around the world. I’ve made so many friends through this site and it has also been a doorway to other business opportunities so I will be continuing to blog here.
Thanks for following along!