News & Analysis

Is digital nomadism a startup thing?

- February 5, 2014 3 MIN READ

A recently published oDesk study reveals a surge in digital nomads – people who are breaking free from the constraints of physical workplaces and living life as an adventure, with the help of technology.

According to the study, Digital Nomads: A Revolution in Work Freedom, which was conducted on 847 oDesk customers, 74 percent made a deliberate change to be less tied to a physical workplace, and 79 percent of ‘digital nomads’ said the transition was for life. The study does not indicate whether these participants are startup founders, though it wouldn’t be a surprise. Startups are always disrupting norms in the space of business and technology.

Come to think of it, the concept of “anarchy as an organising principle” holds true for startups. Dr Sam Vaknin, editor-in-chief of Global Politician, believes “[t]he dotcom revolution was less about technology than about new ways of doing business – mixing umpteen irreconcilable ingredients, stirring well, and hoping for the best.”

He continues, “No one, for instance, offered a linear revenue model of how to translate “eyeballs” – i.e. the number of visitors to a Web site – to money (“monetizing”). It was dogmatically held to be true that, miraculously, traffic – a chaotic phenomenon – will translate to profit – hitherto the outcome of painstaking labour.”

This theory reflects the startup life to an extent. There seems to be a common story among founders – they broke free from the corporate chains they were tied by, despite how well paid they were, and just went, “Fuck it, it’s time to innovate.” Many founders that I’ve spoken to plan on never reuniting with corporate infrastructure ever again. A good portion of them are digital nomads – travelling around the world with their WiFi dongles and Macbooks. Pretty cool, if that’s all you need.

The oDesk study validates what’s already been discussed extensively – that technology is empowering professional freedom. More than 9 in 10 professionals surveyed agreed that “technology is making it easier to work wherever you want,” and 82 percent agreed that “the Internet is freeing us to live life how we want (versus where we need to be for work).”

With this opportunity comes professional empowerment – 81 percent agreed that people increasingly expect flexibility in how they work. In fact, a prior oDesk survey found that a wave of people were planning to quit their jobs in order to be entirely independent (72 percent of those who had started freelancing said they’d like to quit their “regular” jobs, and 61 percent said they would within two years).

“I saw this explosion of location independence take hold over the past year or so,” said Shawn Matthews, Chief Creative Officer of Tractive West, a video production agency and creator of the Digital Nomad film. “Because of this movement, I was able to use an entirely virtual film crew.”

Interesting, the study further revealed that being less tied to a physical workplace eventuated in people earning a higher income, being happier, and being more productive (79 percent).

“People are ditching their desks rapidly, but they’re by no means neglecting their careers,” said Matt Cooper, oDesk VP of International. “I meet Digital Nomads as I travel the world myself, and it’s clear that these people are thriving and more productive than ever, since they love living their adventure as they want, versus where they need to be for work.”

Agreeing with the sentiment, Jay Shapiro, CEO of Infinite Monkeys, said in the media release, “I think that 10 years from now this absolutely will be the norm. There are so many reasons why being a Digital Nomad is a great way to work.”

Given how large the startup community is becoming worldwide, it wouldn’t be a surprise if offices were turned into something else. Perhaps it’ll be less buildings and more nature, like it was in the good ol’ days.

Other results of the survey show:

  • Decreasing ties to actual offices: Of the almost three quarters (74 percent) who made a change to be less tied to a physical workplace, 67 percent became a freelancer and 34 percent created a virtual business or team.
  • Increasing happiness: Since becoming less tied to a physical workplace, 92 percent said they’re happier (vs. 6 percent no change and 2 percent slightly less happy).
  • A surge of Digital Nomads: 39 percent said they now consider themselves a Digital Nomad and of these, almost half (45 percent) became nomads in just the past year.
  • A sustainable new lifestyle: Digital Nomads saw an increase in income (59 percent, vs. 17 percent with no income change after “going nomad” and 24 percent with a decrease). 79 percent said they expect to be a Digital Nomad for the rest of their life.