In the future, he wrote, high-speed wireless networks and low-cost mobile devices will break the link between occupation and location. Thanks to Moore and his Law, millions would indulge an innate wanderlust by selling their homes and living abroad, doing their jobs over the internet and enjoying the benefits of first-world income and developing-world cost of living. No more rat-race grind of cubicle and commute.
Makimoto’s vision appeared in his 1997 book Digital Nomad, written with coauthor David Manners. The book was virtually ignored by the public. Ten years later, the digital nomad idea resurfaced in Tim Ferriss’s 2007 best-selling book The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. In that hodgepodge of life hacks and business schemes, Ferriss painted a seductive picture of automated income and unbridled globetrotting.
Neither Makimoto nor Ferriss predicted the rise and impact of social networking, smartphone apps, the sharing economy, and on-demand services. Popular apps and services like AirBnb, Whatsapp, Yelp, Lyft, Duolingo, Earth Class Mail, and Google services like Maps, Fi, and Translate, though targeted at the public in general, simplify the digital nomad lifestyle in particular.
The authors also couldn’t have predicted the rise of the digital nomad industrial complex, an entire industry created by and for digital nomads. Whether you’re a digital nomad, aspire to be one, or if you simply travel on business or vacation from time to time, you can benefit from this burgeoning industry.
The real impact of Makimoto’s vision isn’t the possibility of a strange untethered lifestyle for the few. It’s that technology may eventually turn us all into digital nomads. After all, a digital nomad is just another name for a remote worker.
A Gallup poll published this month called “State of the American Workplace” found that 43% of employed Americans worked remotely last year at least some of the time. Moreover, both the length of time working remotely and the number of employees doing so full time has been growing every year. (This is up from 39% in 2012.)
Thanks to the new digital nomad economy, it’s easier than ever to work remotely for the rest of your life or for an hour; from a tent on the Masai Mara or from the Starbucks around the corner. With the exception of two years at an American desk, I’ve done it myself since 2006–from Belize, Cuba, El Salvador, France, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco, Spain, and Turkey.
Author Mike Elgan at work at El Castillo, a Mayan pyramid in Tulum, Mexico.
Drop In and Get Busy
The remote work trend has given rise to the coworking space–office space you can rent for temporary use in the U.S. and all over the world.
The world’s first coworking space opened in London in 1650: The Oxford coffee house. Loosely modeled on establishments in Vienna, which were themselves influenced by coffee houses in Istanbul and elsewhere in the Muslim world, the Oxford started the British coffee house craze. These coffee houses spread quickly throughout London (along with newly found enthusiasm for the stimulating, exotic, and bitter beverage itself). These coffee houses brewed more than coffee. They became incubators and coworking spaces for all kinds of businesses and newspapers. In fact, insurance giant Lloyd’s of London is named after Edward Lloyd’s coffee house, which opened in 1688, and where the insurance company began as an innovative startup.
Nowadays, coffee houses are everywhere and dedicated coworking businesses are growing fast. Some digital nomads prefer the low cost and often superior chow at coffee houses, while others prefer dedicated coworking spaces that offer acoustic privacy, meeting rooms, and the promise of reliable internet. The choice is often governed by what kind of business you do. If you make calls and hold meetings, coworking spaces are often better.
Whatever your preference, here’s how to track down a spot to work that fits your needs:
• The iOS app Work Hard Anywhere offers a user-ranked directory. CEO Benson Chou told me his app offers 13,000 ranked and crowdsourced “laptop-friendly spaces” in 100 countries. These include cafes, coworking spaces, and even libraries. Spaces are ranked by users according to Wi-Fi quality, outlet availability, seating, parking, price, and other benefits. Chou and cofounder Cody Huang built the app because they struggled to find good places to work in launching their startup. Chou told me that freelancers, entrepreneurs, and students also use the app, but that it really “hit a sweet spot” for digital nomads.
• French IT manager Fabien Vauthey also decided that digital nomads need a crowdsourced, reputation-based directory of both coffee houses and coworking spaces from which to work, so he launched CoWorking.Coffee in 2015, with help from a Tokyo startup incubator. Coffee joints are ranked by quality of Wi-Fi and friendliness to coffee-shop camping (where you sit there working for hours on end). Vauthey told me that he hasn’t monetized the site yet and continues to live as a digital nomad while consulting for various companies.
• One simplifying option for nomads and business travelers alike is to join a network of hundreds of global coworking spaces, such as Copass.
• If you need to find a coworking space on the fly, you can also take advantage of directories like the Global Coworking Map, Desksurfing, Workfrom, Conomads, and Sharedesk.
• One sharing-economy innovation is Hoffice, which is a cross between a coworking directory and AirBnB. The site enables people to offer workspaces in their homes, and for digital nomads to rent them.