Extreme telecommuting

Want to see the world and collect a healthy paycheck? Just grab your laptop and go.

By Chris Morrison, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Anthony Page stood on the beach of Malaysia's tiny Perhentian Kecil Island and marveled at the isolation. Around him were bamboo huts and miles of blue water. Much of the island was jungle, inhabited by coconut-hurling monkeys and giant monitor lizards. Yet he wasn't entirely cut off. At night, when the electricity came on, Page could pull out his laptop and hook up, via satellite link, to the Web. "There's always an Internet connection somewhere, even in the poorest, most desperate country," he says.

Page, 35, had been traveling for almost a year before he got to the island. He hit the road in 2005 when his job as a Web developer in London was outsourced to India. Tired of the grind, he decided to take a leaf from the people his job had gone to: He would work with clients long-distance over the Internet; his office would be the nearest power and Internet hookups.

Mountain man: The Canadian peaks have become LePine's "office."
Perpetual motion: Page has been working from the road since 2005.

"Ten years ago, there's no way this would have worked," he says. "Now there are hardly any barriers." With so many choices for voice, e-mail, and video communication, many jobs today can be done without a brick-and-mortar office. Getting paid couldn't be easier; PayPal and other advances in electronic money management make overseas financial transactions nearly friction-free.

Telecommuting, of course, is hardly a new idea. Nearly everyone knows someone who works at home. But relatively few ask the next logical question: Why stay at home? Today there may be only hundreds of - or at most a few thousand - professionals who have decided, like Page, to make their living as they see the world. Their numbers seem to be growing, but no government tracks their movements. If they weren't well-educated and relatively affluent, they would be called vagabonds. A better term might be "white-collar nomads."

Living and working on the road came naturally to Page. "I've always been interested in travel," he says. "If you have a laptop, there's no reason you can't work too." He gets a steady income from a few simple websites that he's built and plastered with ads. One of them, WorkingNomad.com, has become a clearinghouse for those who aspire to live the same way.

Clients, for their part, now understand that a professional working outside an office - or just outside - can still be reliable. Simon LePine is an insurance salesman and entrepreneur who spends his time climbing mountains in Canada and Alaska. "Whenever I talk to a client, they wonder where I am today, what mountain I've climbed," he says. "They appreciate it."

So how did Page, LePine, and their peers free themselves of office and home? And how can you do the same?

First, focus on your job; you need to be comfortable doing it in familiar surroundings before you can do it hunkered over your laptop in a hotel thousands of miles away. Then, like a good Buddhist, be prepared to give up everything. "Selling our furniture and buying a one-way ticket out of the country was scary," says Trygve Inda, a consultant and software developer who has seen more than 60 countries in five years of working travel with his wife, Karen. "I think that jump off the cliff holds a lot of people back."

Once you've decided to jump, pack smart. You'll need a laptop, of course. Nomads favor the Mac, since viruses and other malware typically attack PCs. An unlocked world phone or PDA that can be switched across networks, or VOIP software like Skype, is also vital. Since you might not see a CompUSA for months, every item in your pack should have a comprehensive damage warranty. Get a keychain drive to back up vital files, and keep it close.

In addition to the essentials - which also include tough clothes, a backpack, and the usual traveler's gear - you might want to pack some extra gadgetry to make your life simpler, like a Wi-Fi hotspot locator. Remember, though, that every item added is more weight to carry around. Inda believes that traveling light, stowing most of your gear in home bases around the globe, is the way to go. "Doing everything with a laptop and a backpack is fine, but it gets hard," he says. "I'd like to have three different places on three continents."

There's one big advantage of taking your job on the road: You can feel rich, even if you're not. With no mortgage or rent, and given the low cost of living in many countries, a little money can go a long way. "I've managed to save a lot because I'm not living in London," Page says. Taxes, of course, must still be paid. Professional wanderers file in their country of citizenship.

Naturally, there are downsides. "It's not always great," Page admits. "I used to work with a lot of people, and it was very social. Now I work on my own a lot - and that's a huge negative, to be honest." Self-management skills are also essential: While home-based workers have to fight off the temptation to raid the fridge, mobile workers have to put off sightseeing in some of the world's most spectacular locales.

For Inda, merging work with travel has actually reduced the chances that he'll have time to relax. "The longest I've ever left the business unattended was four days," he says. "I don't feel like I've had a proper vacation in five years."

Figuring out how to get into a country and how long you can stay can be an extra headache. Some countries require a visa before you arrive; others issue it at the border or send you to a consulate once you arrive. Sometimes a well-placed bribe does the trick. "Just coordinating my life," Inda says, "is a huge nightmare."

That may help explain why WorkingNomad.com's user groups now have more than 1,000 members (though Page knows only a handful who have actually embarked on the life). Most members seem to be more comfortable asking questions and getting moral support than going ahead and taking the plunge.

Despite the hassles, the white-collar nomads we spoke to have no regrets. Gregory Moulinet, a French-born graphic designer who runs a firm called Nomadesign with his Japanese wife, Yoko Chiba, says traveling through the United States and Japan has been a life-changing experience. "I can't imagine how things would be if I'd stayed in France," he says. "Maybe I would have made more money and taken less risks. But I don't think I would be so rich in memories and experiences."

For Inda, it boils down to gaining a new perspective on your place in the world. "People ask me where I live, and I'm not sure what to say," he reflects. "I'm not sure where I live. I live in the world."  Top of page

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