By Larissa Ham
(In photo: Jodi Ettenberg, centre)
For many people it’s the ultimate dream – ditching cubicle life for the freedom of the open road, without worrying about running out of money.
For a growing number of tech-savvy entrepreneurs, or ‘digital nomads’, making a decent living wherever there’s Wi-Fi has become a happy reality.
We speak to three enterprising types who have managed to create a work/life balance with a difference.
(In photo: James Clark, website builder)
Clark, who still calls Melbourne home when asked, describes himself as a “location independent entrepreneur”.
First bitten by the travel bug when he moved to the UK on a two-year working visa in 1999, Clark found his wanderlust impossible to shake. Luckily, it was around the time the internet started showing great promise.
“That’s when I kind of realised that I really loved the internet and I loved to travel and decided to put the two of them together,” says the now 41-year-old, speaking via Skype from Singapore.
After his UK visa expired, Clark moved to Dublin and vowed to set up a business that would let him continue his globetrotting life. Working temp jobs, he learnt web design at night.
In 2001, he began making travel websites and by 2003, his business, Urban Nomad, had become a full-time proposition.
For many years he lived half the year in St Kilda and spent the rest travelling, but has had no fixed address since 2010.
His main venture is based in Australia and offers web design, e-marketing and search engine optimisation. Clark says his work comes via word-of-mouth or his website, Nomadic Notes, which he created to boost his profile and document his adventures. That’s also led to perks such as a press trip to Jordan.
Clark gets some interesting reactions to his lifestyle.
“I went home once and I ran into a friend and they’re like ‘I heard you’ve become a bum’,” he says.
“It’s a business. I’m pretty sure I work more hours than half my friends.”
- Do easier work in cafes, but save new projects for a quieter space such as your hotel room.
- Meet up with other digital nomads through forums such as the Dynamite Circle.
Jodi Ettenberg, food blogger
Canadian-born Ettenberg, 33, originally planned to take a year of leave from her job as a lawyer in New York to travel.
But somehow one year morphed into five, as her travel blog Legal Nomads gained a following and spun off into freelance writing and photography, a self-published book, speaking engagements and social media consulting.
“For the first two years I was working off my savings. I was on a blogger site and not on WordPress,” says Ettenberg.
Now her website gets about 150,000 page views a month.
She’s travelled to destinations including South America, Russia and Mongolia and is now spending four months eating and working in Ho Chi Minh City.
“There’s a fallacy that because I’m posting photos of soup all the time I must not be working at all,” she says. “I’m building a business that I’m really invested in and I’m really proud of.”
Ettenberg says she rarely gets lonely as she hangs out with other digital nomads, arranges meet-ups on the way and regularly returns home.
“I didn’t set out to be a digital nomad. I just kind of followed each rabbit hole,” she says.
“It’s not like I quit my job because I was disenchanted with the corporate world, but now I’ve left it, I’ve loved building something new.”
Colin Burns, web developer
Surviving on your nomadic wits as a single person is one thing, but what about doing it with two kids in tow?
Ask Burns and his wife Tracy, who left Brisbane with Noah, now 7, and Hayley, 5, in January 2010.
Burns had sold a web design business to another company, which he then worked for – but quickly realised he hated being an employee. The day after quitting he won $25,000 in web design contracts.
“That was kind of the catalyst. We realised we really didn’t have to be in Australia to do this kind of work,” says Burns, who wanted to spend more time with his young children.
“We just figured raising kids was difficult anyway, whether we were at home or travelling.”
Giving themselves six weeks to take off, the young family was hit for six when Tracy was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Three months later she was OK and they were away.
“That first year we did a fair bit of travel, backpacker-style travel,” says Burns.
Tracy home-schools the children while her husband does the back-end work for Australian websites.
Much of their time has been spent in Asia, where life is cheap and Wi-Fi is plentiful.
“You pretty much know that most places in Asia have Wi-Fi. Unless you’re on a tiny deserted island in Thailand you’re going to be fine,” says Burns.
In July, Burns and his family will ditch the backpacks indefinitely, as the children start school in Queenstown, New Zealand.
“We’re at that point now where I’ve had enough and the kids have had enough and Tracy’s had enough,” says Burns. “You can have too much of a good thing.”
Burns plans to continue his business from Queenstown and is also involved in a soon-to-be-launched New Zealand start-up Scrattch.com that aims to be a Pinterest for content. (A content sharing service that allows members to “pin” images, videos and other objects to their pinboard) Ed.