The rise of the digital nomad: When the office is anywhere


Sam Bakker works on projects with local software developers. Here he is at the beach in Hawaii.

Work’s a beach – or a cafe in Estonia, maybe a hill town in Thailand. Venetia Sherson meets the laptop-toting Kiwi entrepreneurs who call the world their office.

In his mid-20s, Nathan Rose was a typical New Zealand investment banker. He worked long hours, drank too much coffee and checked on Wall Street when he woke. If he thought about his future, which he did from time to time, it typically included a mortgage, a wife and kids further down the line. Patent Godzone.

But, one morning, he looked down the row of desks at men five or 10 years ahead of him. The “corridor test” is what he calls it. “They were all stressed; not spending a lot of time with family. I thought, ‘Is that where I want to be’?” Soon after, he packed his backpack and laptop, and headed for the airport.

Today, he works as a self-published writer and consultant from a shared work space in Tbilisi, the cobblestoned capital of Georgia, where an apartment costs $500 a month, coffee $2, and a meal plus drinks less than 10 bucks.

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Kiwis Eva-Maria Salikhova and Sam Bakker’s lightbulb moment came on their honeymoon in 2014. They, too, had kids and a section in their long-term sights. But they also wanted to see the world and save money. “It’s very expensive to be a young person in New Zealand today,” says Salikhova, who was born in Siberia, but moved here when she was five.

When a friend offered them the long-term use of his house in Pai, Thailand, near the Myanmar border, for $450 a month, they bought a one-way ticket. The apartment had a small sink and no place to cook, but it did have fibre network. They stayed five months. In the four years since, the couple have lived in 25 countries and more than 100 cities, operating their online website marketing and design business – and training others to do the same – while travelling the world. “We don’t just choose countries randomly,” says Salikhova. “We look for places we want to visit, where we can run our businesses cheaply and effectively.”

Welcome to the world of digital nomads, laptop-toting entrepreneurs who make their living online and can live just about anywhere: a cross between Jack Kerouac and Larry Page.

Most are young and motivated by the lure of exotic places, plus the absence of air-conditioned offices and bosses breathing down their necks. They include freelance professionals, online entrepreneurs and remote employees who started in an office but now roam the world. Many are self-employed, others part of worldwide teams with clients across the globe. Among them are website, software and app developers, online marketers, copywriters, bloggers and vloggers who choose their destinations based on wifi speed and cost of living. Their motivation: live cheaply, earn good money and have fun along the way.


Nathan Rose left his job as an investment banker and now works as a self-published writer and consultant from a shared work space in Tbilisi, Georgia.

The term “digital nomad” isn’t new. People have been working remotely online since the invention of the internet. Steve Roberts, who is credited as the original pioneer, travelled across the US in 1983 on a 2.4m, high-tech recumbent bike with a portable computer and solar-powered energy, working as a fulltime freelance writer. But, in the past two decades, an ever-expanding archipelago of nomads has joined the wandering tribe, fuelled by a global surge in broadband ubiquity, an urge to break away from brick-and-mortar cubicles, and a dream of working less and earning more. There are no hard statistics, but some estimate there could be one billion digital nomads by 2035.

Increasingly, the world is recognising their value and catering to their needs – because digital nomads aren’t just barefoot hippies living hand-to-mouth. They are often innovative thinkers with big ideas for start-ups. While many work from cafes, apartments or even on beaches where resorts have umbrella stands with wifi, others prefer shared working spaces and tech hubs that offer access to hot desks, mentors, bars and cafes.

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania – already popular with cyber nomads for its fast wifi and lively nightlife – last year completed Vilnius Tech Park, the biggest site for start-ups in the Baltic Sea regions. WeWork, a co-working behemoth founded in the US, doubled its offices last year and now has more than 300 locations in 64 cities, including Southeast Asia and Australia. This year IWG (International Workplace Group), which has co-working centres in 1000 cities, bought BizDojo, a Kiwi company with co-working spaces in most major New Zealand cities.

On a smaller scale, local outfits such as Digital Nomad and Christchurch’s Ministry of Awesome have jumped on the bandwagon, serving the needs of wandering workers. Hot desks can be rented daily or weekly. Coffee is free.

Karoli Hindriks is the founder of Jobbatical, a platform that allows digital nomads to find work in other countries. He says in a rapidly urbanising world, where many cities offer the same amenities but cheaper living costs, many people are comparing countries online and making choices on which ones are better for their business and lifestyle. To help with that decision, a Trivago-style website has been established to rate locations based on bandwidth, costs, nightlife, safety and weather (nomadlist.com).

Countries are also wooing them. Estonia (population 1.3 million) – one of the world’s most advanced digital nations where Skype was born and wifi has been free for 16 years – has just launched a digital nomad visa to support a mobile workforce. More than 30,000 people have so far applied to become e-residents. For Estonia, which now brands itself as e-Estonia, the influx has fuelled new infrastructure and an end to isolation.

Kiwi nomad Nathan Rose chose Georgia – another former USSR state – as his base, after visiting in early 2016. He says the former Soviet republic, which is relatively small (population 4.3 million), has stunning natural beauty – “a bit like New Zealand”. He works mainly from a co-working space and conducts his business through Amazon, email and online banking. He says working independently in a new country is a baptism by fire. “I’ve had to learn a lot of new skills like content marketing and search engine optimisation that you’re never taught at university.” One of his books is on equity crowd funding, another on chess opening names; both rank highly on Amazon.

Salikhova and Bakker have two main bases – Siberia and New Zealand – to which they return every six months “to see friends and family and for a wardrobe change”.

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The rise of the digital nomad: When the office is anywhere

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