Live, work and play around the world


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 1 2017)

Distance is an illusion. Today we live in an era in which flight connections and various ways of communication have shrunk the world. New possibilities to stay loyal to your social environment have opened up, even if you are thousands of kilometres away. We are on the edge of a revolution that will change the way we live and work. 

A growing number of so-called “digital nomads” live all around the world with their laptop under one arm, following their dreams, acquainting themselves with new countries and extending their personal horizons on a daily basis. Esther Jacobs was a digital nomad long before the term had been created. She is an author, and as a speaker she inspires companies and organisations around the world to live and work independently of location. She told us how you can do the same.

Why should I become a Digital Nomad?

Being a digital nomad is not for everybody. But if you love freedom, taking your own responsibility and being able to live, work and play all over the world, this might be for you…

Esther, how did you become a Digital Nomad?

I have always lived like this, even before the word “digital nomad” was invented. I have invented my own projects in different locations and travelled a lot because I had this hunger to see the world.

But I always had my base in Holland: I owned a house, was insured, paid taxes, etc. Until 3 years ago, they did not want to renew my passport because I travelled too much. Apparently, you have to sleep at least 4 months a year in one place in order to be registered there, even if it is your own house! That was when I lost my “official” status as a resident of The Netherlands, my voting rights, pension and right to social security; I got kicked out of the health insurance, my company got deregistered, my bank accounts were closed, and my phone plan was cancelled. But the tax service still wanted me to pay taxes! I appealed to the government; the ministers had three weeks of meetings about my case and then decided that I did not fit the system and that there was nothing they could do for me. So now I am officially “homeless” and live outside of “the system”.

Is this a life and work concept for everyone, or do I have to bring certain qualifications or specific characteristics?

You need to be able to deal with insecurities, manage your own work and life, take responsibility, be able to focus amidst many distractions and be able to spend a lot of time alone. You need to have an entrepreneurial spirit to try out different things and find something that works for you to provide an income.

Do you even know Digital Nomad families? What do you think of living nomadically with children?

Yes, I know a few. Some nomads become parents while they are travelling: they kind of ease into the family lifestyle. Other families start travelling as nomads. Most families I meet have young children. When they need to go to school, they usually settle. But I know some families with older children as well: they educate them on the road, and the kids are very “world wise”… 

What are the main steps to start my new international life as a Digital Nomad? 

First: minimize: get rid of as much stuff as possible. Everything should fit into a suitcase or backpack. No storage allowed: you will have to pay for that, and I am sure you’ll never look at these things again! Second: digitize all your documents, photos and other papers. Use the cloud (for example dropbox or Evernote) to always have access to all your stuff (insurance papers, notes, official documents, love letters, etc.). Then you can try a trial period: do a home exchange, or travel for a few months. If you have to set up your business as an entrepreneur, you can do that from your (expensive) home country, but also for example in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for just a few hundred dollars a month; and you’ll be surrounded by like-minded people: you choose!

What are the typical mistakes in the beginning? What do I need to avoid? Any advice?

Many pictures of digital nomads happily working on the beach with their laptop are just fake: you work best in an environment without sand, sun and heat… You need an income source: you might rent out your house to provide you with a modest start. Don’t think you can live off a blog: so many people try; only a few succeed. Take entrepreneurship seriously! Decide if you are a “backpacker with a laptop” basically just travelling and partying and trying to see as much as possible before you run out of money and have to go back home, or a “location-independent entrepreneur”, which is a sustainable way of living.

Where do I have to register if I don’t have a usual place of residence any more? What about taxes and insurance, etc.?

This differs by country. The general rule is that it is often easier when you emigrate (or say you are emigrating), thus providing a new address in another country, than saying you are leaving without a destination. That just doesn’t fit the system and rings all kind of alarm bells. Get sound advice from an expert regarding your company and tax situation, especially if you want to go offshore. Get international health insurance for emergencies only. All other insurance probably costs more than it provides.

What are the common jobs suitable for a Digital Nomad if I want to earn my living on the road? 

These are mainly IT jobs, for example SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), content writing, programmer, etc. But also online-sales jobs on amazon, language teacher, authors as well as craft-based jobs, such as artists, yoga, surfing or diving teacher, masseur, etc.

Do I have to be a freelancer, or can I also live as a digital-nomad employee? Do you know any companies that help their employees “roam free”?

More and more companies work remotely. For example, and some software companies. They don’t have offices, and they like remote employees who like to work remotely. Teams stay in touch via Slack and other apps.

Where do I find other Digital Nomads? Are there hotspots around the world?

Yes, there are hotspots, like Chiang Mai and Medellín. There are also many Facebook groups: search for the city you want to visit and “digital nomads”, and you’ll find like-minded people.

What country do most of the Digital Nomads come from? 

Many Europeans, some Americans, fewer Asians and very few Africans.

Does a Digital Nomad distinguish between “living” and “working” times the way many people do in their 9-to-5 jobs at the office (who can’t wait for the weekend and their time off)? 

Work, life and play tend to blend. Answering e-mails for an hour in a nice café with a beautiful view, soaking up the vibes of a new city, doesn’t feel like working. Even if you spend a day without opening your laptop, you might still come up with a good idea, or meet people that help you with a project, etc.

Who was the first Digital Nomad you met in your life? 

I think I was one of the first digital nomads: already living like this before the word became popular. Tim Ferriss’ book, ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’, introduced me to the idea of “virtual assistants”, though: making it possible to have assistants remotely.

Please describe your personal image of a perfect place to work.

I am in Tokyo now, and I found two perfect spots. One is a library cafe on the 49th floor, with a breath-taking view of the city. The other one is a restaurant in a hotel with a beautiful view of a traditional Japanese garden. Good Wi-Fi, climate control, quiet, beautiful view, inspiring environment and good drinks or food are my criteria.

Do you think you will live the rest of your life as a Digital Nomad, or is it better and safer to be a residential when getting older? For example, in terms of health care?

For me, this is my life. I have been doing this for over 20 years, and I see no reason to stop. I do tend to stay longer in one place as I get older (preferably a month in one place). If I ever get sick or disabled, I will find the best place in the world to deal with that.

Where will we find you in the next months? What are your next destinations and jobs?

Right now, I am in Japan, and I will go skiing here for a few more days. After which I have a presentation in Tokyo. Then follows a week in Seoul. Next, I will visit friends in Koh Phanang in Thailand, and I will attend a conference of location-independent companies, the Dynamite Circle, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. There I will meet like-minded people and I will let myself be inspired by them. In February, I will spend a week in Amsterdam, following which I will go to Curaçao in the Caribbean. I will go to Miami to celebrate my father’s birthday. There will be workshops in Amsterdam, and in May I have a workshop in Mallorca themed “How to write a book in a week”, and another workshop in Greece. The summer I spend mostly in Europe, and in October I return to Asia or South America.

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Esther Jacobs

Esther Jacobs, born in 1970, is an author and speaker who inspires entrepreneurs and organisations around the globe. She has visited more than 100 countries, never staying in one place longer than six weeks. You can often find her in Amsterdam, Spain and the Caribbean. 

Picture credit © Photo by chuttersnap/unsplash


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