Working on the rooftop of The Blue House.

The age of the digital nomad

Thanks to ever-improving technology you no longer have to be deskbound to earn a living. All you need is a laptop, a backpack and a plane ticket and you can work from pretty much any location in the world.

In 2005, after spending several months in Asia as a tsunami relief worker, 22-year-old Ben Lucking decided to make his home in Singapore. At the latter end of 2015, having spent ten years working in the finance and energy industries, Lucking decided to chuck in his corporate job and set out exploring the world again – this time with a wife and toddler in tow.

After lengthy pit-stops in Morocco, the UK and Greece, Lucking and his wife Laila Friday plan to arrive in Honduras this spring to work with the Honduras Child Alliance (HCA) – a volunteer-based organisation that runs projects to support education, health and communities for the impoverished peoples of El Porvenir.

“We are giving ourselves a six-month ‘test phase’ to play with different revenue-generating ideas to support ourselves – namely forex trading (buying and selling currency on the foreign exchange), and at the same time we are running an online vehicle to generate awareness and funding for the HCA,” explains Lucking.

Lucking has become a bona fide ‘digital nomad,’ part of a rapidly growing community of professionals who travel from country to country while working for forward-thinking firms or running their own online businesses.

The rise of the digital nomad

The seeds for the digital nomad movement were initially sown by self-help author Tim Ferris and his book 2007 book 'The Four Hour Work Week' which encouraged people to leave their office jobs and start online businesses while living in foreign countries where their particular currency would stretch further.

The campaign has since been further cultivated by 29-year-old Dutch programmer and entrepreneur Pieter Levels, who, on realising that the Internet enables one to work anywhere, in 2013 sold everything he couldn’t fit into a backpack and headed to Thailand. In 2014 Levels launched his ‘12 Startups in 12 Months’ strategy – one of which is called NomadList, a website that lists the best places in the world to live and work remotely.

NomadList began as a simple crowdsourced spreadsheet detailing a few far-off climes with decent Internet, good weather and cheap cost of living that Levels shared on Twitter. People began adding their suggestions to the list, leading to Levels setting up the current website which now provides data from over 500 cities around the world, as well as a ‘nomad job site’, a 3,000+ member chat forum and ‘meetup’ facility.

The benefits of working location independent

For the ever-expanding army of digital nomads remote working provides multiple benefits, not least for young firms and start-ups. For example, it provides access to a global talent pool, completely does away with costly overheads, negates travelling-to-the-office time, gives a broader view of the world and, perhaps most surprisingly, promotes a boost in productivity.

“As soon as you start travelling something just unlocks in your brain and makes you more creative,” says Domenico De Fano, one third of a new Nice-based start-up that has developed a successful ridesharing app called Hupp.

Unlike carpooling, which relies on fixed daily schedules, the Hupp app works in real time - allowing users to see who is going where, matches the passengers, suggests an optimal meeting place, and shows exactly where a particular driver is and when they will arrive. The ultimate idea being to reduce congestion on roads.

“One of the reasons we wanted to do a start-up was to get out of the office,” explains De Fano. “But even when you work in your own place – you can still end up in a similar ‘office routine’. Which is why over the past year we have travelled and worked at least once a month around France, Poland, Italy and Morocco.”

“Even though we were travelling we were still working very hard – but just the fact that we were somewhere else was really refreshing,” adds business partner Omar Ali Fdal. “You start seeing problems from new perspectives and when you stop work your mind just empties because you are somewhere completely different.”

Get rich quick?

“Obviously one of the other key factors of remote working is keeping costs down,” says Hupp’s third developer Patrick Browne. “Unless you’re fortunate enough to have a wealthy sponsor, most young entrepreneurs don’t have much in the way of funds.”

“At the moment our app is completely free – and we don’t make much money,” continues Browne. “We just suggest fees that passengers can pay to drivers – but in the future we will also handle the payments whereby users can top-up their accounts – and also pay the driver via computer rather than involving cash.”

And while Hupp’s developers don’t oversee users’ travel negotiations, they do monitor the system to prevent crashes and can be contacted by clients in the event of a glitch.

Which is why, when working on the hoof, sites like NomadList are invaluable.

Ben Lucking is now one of the website’s estimated half-a-million users.

“Initially my main challenge was accessing a stable WiFi connection to commit to my target of spending at least three hours a day on response time-sensitive trading,” Lucking explains.

Do you have WiFI?

“At our first stop in Morocco I spent my mornings scouring the streets of Casablanca looking for Internet – and ended up having to work in McDonalds which was the best local connection I could find,” he laments. “Obviously that slightly impacted my forex trading activities but as a result I'm taking longer-term trades with more detailed analysis when access is available. I've since realised that even though your lodging may advertise WiFi it is probably more expedient to do a bit of research for good shared working spaces.”
 
Hupp developers Ali Fdal and De Fano often use Skype video call bandwidths as an Internet performance barometer.

“If you can Skype with colleagues, generally it means you can operate quite efficiently in terms of uploading files. Obviously it depends on what you are doing – but certainly for app and software building that is sufficient.”

Remote working resources

Whether employed by a specific company or running your own business there are now many remote working resources to hand – aside from smartphones and social media. For example, HipChat for team communications or for sharing screens loaded with code, applications like Screenhero and Google Hangouts.

Or, like Lucking, when unable to upload videos to aid the HCA campaign, using workarounds like dropping video content onto Google Drive and emailing friends to place content onto intended sites.

Naturally certain circumstances are unavoidable – like discovering you have to immediately release a new feature for your app while stranded overnight in an airport with no plugs to fit your computer adaptors. But, generally, unless you accidentally drop your laptop off a cliff, global remote working shouldn’t be a problem.

The growth in co-working spaces

Remote working, however, isn’t just about operating itinerantly from an international Internet café. The digital nomad movement has also simultaneously sparked a huge growth in co-working spaces specifically targeted at start-ups and young entrepreneurs. And particularly rapidly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region - from Dubai, Lebanon and Jordan to Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. And even impoverished Mauritania, currently with Internet infiltration of less than ten per cent, is getting in on the act by holding entrepreneurial workshops and developing plans to create a start-up eco-system by opening co-working workspaces this year.

The logic behind many of these co-working spaces, aside from providing sufficient Internet is to inspire like-minded people, promote the sharing of ideas and, particularly for nomads, to serve as a reminder that you are not actually disconnected from humanity.

Aline Mayard, MENA entrepreneurial expert and one of the editors of Wamda, the ‘go-to’ media site for startups in the Arab world, has recently founded The Blue House, in Morocco. Situated in the surf village of Tamraght, 30 minutes north of Agadir's airport, The Blue House project takes the co-working ethos a step further than the norm.

“There are local work spaces and also in the nearby Canary Islands that cater to everybody – but you don’t get the same working atmosphere when you’re hanging out with a really mixed bunch,” Mayard explains. “There’s nothing wrong with spending time with people who are not in your industry but what I had in mind was to create a space where you are stimulated and challenged by people with the same ideals as you.”

Bringing like minded people together

Consequently The Blue House works on an advance selection basis – via Skype interviews – rather than just walk-ins. Mayard and her team look for friendly, open-minded people willing to shed ‘busy European’ mode for a few days and then match them in groups.

“For example, if we have a few people that have had a really hard time trying to set up their business and just want to come to relax – then we will put them all together,” Mayard says. “Conversely if we have people that are really into working and have a tight deadline we’ll put them together.”

After experimenting with programmes that lasted for a month, taking into account factors like family obligations and the number of flights per week, Mayard found that the optimum timescale for each programme is ten days – with the option for ‘Recharge Creativity’ weekends held a few times a year. 

“If you’re an entrepreneur you don’t really have time to waste and because you want to enjoy your ten days you will be very productive”, states Mayard. “You know that when you are done with your work you can go surfing, or take part in one of our yoga or meditation classes. If you’re here for a month you won’t be so focused.”

Much of residential Morocco currently relies on landline Internet that can be intermittent in isolated areas, but the country is quickly catching up with more reliable alternatives. So in order to be detached but not disconnected The Blue House is equipped with powerful satellite Internet. 

“We also have a good working space with white boards, desks, stationery, printers and even Play-Doh to help you think, and we have one spare of everything,” says Mayard.  “People in the start-up industry bring their computers with them – but in the event of any hardware glitches there are now plenty of technologically savvy places only 30 minutes away in Agadir.”

Improving productivity and lowering stress

“From my experience of working remotely in laid-back places I’ve discovered that stress is mainly in the mind and taking time off in nice surroundings actually ups your performance,” Mayard says.

An attitude echoed in this testament by recent Blue House client Maria Richardsson from the Nordic Design Collective:

“The slow pace in the village and the atmosphere in the house made us very relaxed, even though we worked quite intensely during our stay. I realised our level of stress is not related to the amount of hours we work."

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