Digital nomads: the reality of running a business from anywhere

Jubril Agoro remembers first hearing the word “coronavirus” last March in Bali, Indonesia. “I was just panicking,” he says. After 11 years on the road, the co-founder of financial education business Live Richer Academy and founder of travel video company Passport Heavy rushed to get on a flight back to the US.

Agoro, 34, is one of a growing number of digital nomads — people who work remotely online and are “location independent”. According to a report by MBO Partners, which supports independent professionals and their clients, their numbers have increased by 49 per cent in the US during the pandemic, rising from 7.3m in 2019 to 10.9m in 2020. The “biggest shift is that traditional job holders have been unleashed from their offices and many, instead of staying in one place, are taking to the road,” the report adds.

A nomadic life is very appealing — and some countries, such as Barbados and Bermuda, are trying to attract more remote workers. But the wider tax implications of working away from your home country are complex. Anyone planning to work abroad long-term needs to get specialist tax advice.

Life as a digital nomad

Agoro, a Nigerian American who started his first business as a teenager selling items on eBay, says he first hit the road because “if you’re living an $8,000-a-month lifestyle in Chicago or New York it will cost you about $2,000 a month [in Bali]”.

After returning to the US, he headed to California. He has since travelled internationally again and acknowledges it is “a very sensitive topic”. There has been a split on social media, with some arguing non-essential travel is irresponsible. “I’m trying to live my best life as responsibly as possible,” Agoro says, adding that he wears a mask and takes weekly Covid-19 tests.

Thomas Parkinson, a British Amazon seller and founder of Amazon support company Fast Track FBA, says that after quitting an electronic engineering degree he worked in bar management for five years before starting his first online business. After going through a relationship break-up, a friend suggested he try running his company from abroad. “I only booked a four-week getaway . . . and I still remember to this day I got on the phone to my sister and said ‘I’m not coming home, at all, ever, period’. That was about three years ago,” he says.

Parkinson, 35, is currently in Mexico and after five months in Cancún plans to move to Mexico City.

Malaysian software developer Farez Rahman, 49, is married to British data consultant Jo Lodge, 46. The couple relocated to Malaysia from the UK in 2017. The aim was to run their web development agency Redkey Digital remotely, while retaining their UK client base. “When I worked in London, I had quite a good salary and at the end of each month I didn’t have anything left. Here, we are living on a fraction of that salary and we seem to have more cash,” says Lodge.

“Some days I’m working for my client, some days I’m doing my own thing and some days I’m just surfing. I’m doing what feels exciting for me,” says Rahman.

Travel writer and author Matt Kepnes founded his blog, Nomadic Matt, in 2008. “I never wanted to take this path. You know, life unfolds accidentally,” he says. He started the blog, which focuses on budget travel and life as a digital nomad, as “simply a way to do freelance writing in hopes of writing enough so I could keep travelling”. The 40-year-old American has been to more than 100 countries, but during the pandemic he stayed closer to home, travelling within the US as well as spending six weeks in Mexico.

For Brenna Holeman, her childhood dream of becoming a travel writer “seemed as unattainable as wanting to become an astronaut”. Now in her thirties, she started her blog, This Battered Suitcase, in 2010. Having not left her home region of Manitoba, Canada, since January 2020, she says her readers appreciate the fact she has not promoted travel during the pandemic. “Either they feel it’s not an ethical decision or it makes them feel bad because they can’t travel as they’re in a part of the world where there is a lockdown,” she says.

How did the pandemic affect business?

“The last year’s actually been incredible,” says Agoro. “As people started to focus more on their finances and learning how to budget”, Live Richer Academy had its first seven-figure revenue month in April 2020.

For Rahman, business has been “OK”, with “projects coming and going”. Lodge worked for her previous employer, a UK council, remotely for a few months, but since her contract ended she’s been focusing on setting up a “techie YouTube channel” covering data and business intelligence.

The travel blogging community has been hit harder. Kepnes has created a membership programme and started hosting virtual events. “These are things that never would have happened without Covid, so it created that shift.”

Holeman had several revenue streams before the pandemic. “When all of them shut down all at once, that was quite a blow,” she says. “It’s really allowed me to examine what do I truly love? How can I pivot and what can I salvage?”

Future hopes

The digital nomad lifestyle may be an appealing next move for some workers who have unexpectedly become freed from office life. According to MBO Partners’ report, between 2019 and 2020 there was an 18 per cent increase in Americans saying they “plan on becoming digital nomads over the next two to three years”.

Agoro says: “One of my biggest goals is just to show people, open people’s minds to, this is possible and it’s a lot easier and more affordable than people even thought.”

Parkinson’s goal is to hit £1m in sales. He wants to “hire a Mustang from Miami, drive around the whole of the US, meet lots of Amazon sellers, YouTube it and do it over the course of three months”. He would also like to visit friends in Asia and to see his team in the Philippines.

Rahman and Lodge are hoping to be able to visit friends and family in the UK. In the meantime, the couple are “trying to look at different income streams”, Lodge says.

Holeman isn’t planning any international trips, but hopes to travel locally in the summer. “I always used to say if nobody ever read the blog again or if I never made another cent from it, I would still keep doing it,” she adds.

For Kepnes, “I’m just looking to get back on the road and reignite my love for travel,” he says. “I like what I do. What I do will eventually come back so I’m just waiting out the storm. I don’t want to do anything else.”

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