James Clark is what we like to call comfortably homeless. He makes his living on the move, mixing his travels with basing himself somewhere more permanent. A look through his recent blog posts reveals longer stays in Saigon, Chiang Mai, Penang and Playa del Carmen in between trips to Europe and India. When we spoke to James about his nomadic lifestyle he was in Panajachel on a three week trip covering Belize and Guatemala.
You call yourself a digital nomad. That’s quite a vague term and can mean many things. What do you actually do?
I do web design and affiliate marketing, mostly in the travel niche. I also do some travel writing for other publications.
Do you have a base, or are you perpetually roaming?
At the moment I’m of no fixed address. In the ten years that I have been self employed I have come and gone from home bases. For several years I rented a room in a share house in Melbourne which I would spend about half the year at. Over the last three years I have been spending most of my year in Southeast Asia. When I need to base myself somewhere I have been staying in Chiang Mai, and more recently in Ho Chi Minh City.
I doubt digital nomad was something you thought of becoming when you were at school. What did you want to do with your life back then?
The internet wasn’t even a thing when I was at school, let alone being a digital nomad. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was at school, which was stressful at the time. I recall other kids being able to say with ease that they wanted to study x subject at university after school. I went straight into the workforce doing a variety of office work and manual labour jobs. I moved to London on a working holiday visa, and then after that I was in Dublin for a year. It was there that I got the idea that maybe I could learn web design, and that would be something I could do while I was travelling. I don’t think “digital nomad” was a term then, so I might have referred to myself as a working traveller.
So how did you come to follow the path towards becoming a digital nomad?
This something I fell into really. It all started for me in 1999, which was the year I moved to London. It was at that time that I realised how much the internet fascinated me, and I also realised how much I love to travel. I started making travel websites as hobby, and then I discovered that websites can be monetized with affiliate programs. I was doing this part time while I was working in Dublin. My one year visa ran out there so I had to leave, but by then I was now doing this full time.
You have been a digital nomad for ten years. How has working online changed since then?
A lot has changed in ten years. When I first started out wifi wasn’t so wide spread so I would spend many hours in a net cafe with my laptop plugged into the internet. Net cafes would often have an empty desk for people like us. Now with wifi so readily available I am seeing the decline of net cafes everywhere I go as more people are travelling with their own computers.
Technology has obviously changed as well. There were no smart phones or tablets when I started out, and laptop hard drives had laughable storage space compared to todays machines.
When I started out there wasn’t any obvious online community of online travelling workers either. Of course plenty of others doing the working and travelling thing, but it wasn’t as well known at it is today. Nowadays there are many forums and resource sites that cater for digital nomads.
How much of a part does your blog, Nomadic Notes, play in earning your living?
I didn’t start Nomadic Notes until six years after I became a full time working traveller, so I haven’t been dependent on this site for my income. When I started out I was doing web design and affiliate marketing work and didn’t need to blog. As I met more travellers doing what I do I started the travel blog at nomadicnotes.com to give myself an online home. From there I have blogged about digital nomad topics and it has been a great way to meet other people online. The site has served as a business card for me, and has brought in work for other sites. I have gotten writing work elsewhere as well as being able to partner with tourism boards and travel brands as a result of the blog.
How much do you earn?
I’m not a dot-com millionaire yet, but I earn more than I used to when I was working for a salary.
Are you doing the job for love or money?
For both. Without wishing to sound like a cliche, I did what I love and the money followed. In my case it was learning how to make web sites that kept me online for hours on end, which I would happily do without pay.
Tell us a little about your average day?
This depends on if I am in travel mode, or home base mode. I am writing this now while travelling in Central America. When I am on the road my productivity does take a dip, but I still manage 4-5 hours a day. This might involve doing two hours of work in the morning, then the day is spent sightseeing or in transit, then I will do some work in the evening.
If I am in home base made (for example renting an apartment for a couple of months in Ho Chi Minh City) then my days looks like how it would look if I was working from my home city of Melbourne. In that case I would probably work 8-10 hours a day, and I can do those hours easily. It is not a straight 8-10 hours though, like if I was in an office. I may do 3 hours in the morning when I wake up (which is about 6.30 when I am in tropical countries) then I will go to a cafe and work. I will have lunch, perhaps meet some friends, have a siesta, then do some work again.
When I work it is flexible as well. I have long since smashed the concept of what a weekend is. I no longer feel that Friday night buzz that you can feel in the air when you are working in an office. I’m most likely working on a Friday night, yet if it is a nice day on a Tuesday afternoon I might not get anything done.
What are the best bits of your job? And the worst?
Being able to work anywhere in the world has been the biggest plus for me. I love being able to work when and where I please and not have to commute to an office. Meeting so many like minded people has been great as well.
Looking after your health is a challenge on the road. From not having a proper desk all the time and sitting in awkward locations, to having to eat out all the time. Eating out is fine in Asia (my preferred travel destination) but it can be a challenge to eat well economically in the US and Europe.
And leaving those like minded people that you become friends with is also hard.
So, have you ever wanted to throttle anyone?
Ha! No, but I do avoid taking taxi’s as much as humanly possible to avoid unnecessary frustration.
Are you in this job for a while, or planning to do something else soon/one day?
I’ve been working online for ten years and I still enjoy what I do. Having said that I am always on the look out for other opportunities just in case what I do now changes, or if I want to change in the future.
Any tips for those wanting to be a digital nomad?
If you are in a full time job now you can still dedicate 5 hours a day to work on a skill set/business that will enable you to be a digital nomad. And while you are at it, get out of debt, start scaling down your expenses (TV subscriptions etc) and get rid of unnecessary junk.