Learn How Niall Doherty Travels The World Without Flying, All While Pissing Off Zombies
This Irish rabble rouser has been travelling the world for the past four years, earning an income through various activities to fund his nomadic lifestyle.
Please tell us a little about yourself, your background and what you do for a living?
I’m 32 years old, from just outside Waterford City in Ireland. I studied IT and Multimedia in Waterford Institute of Technology, and was able to use my degree to get a job working as a web designer in the USA. I lived and worked in New Orleans from 2007-2010, which I loved because it’s a great city and my favorite basketball team plays there (that was my motivation for going over in the first place).
In 2010 I quit my job as a web designer and started working for myself online. I’ve done a variety of different things to earn a living since, but mostly it has been freelance web design that has kept me going.
Travel-wise, since 2011 I’ve been trying to do one complete circumnavigation of the globe without taking a flight. I’m almost done now, just the Atlantic to cross and I’m pretty much home. It’s been a great trip overall, taking me through 30+ countries, but I’m looking forward to finishing it up and availing of the convenience of those magic skybuses once again.
What made you decide to become a digital nomad?
I knew I wanted to travel, and I knew I wanted to try working for myself. I saw great growth opportunities in both pursuits, and that really appealed to me. And then, starting in about 2009, I was seeing all these people online who were working from their laptops while traveling the world and I thought, “Wait a minute. They don’t have anything I don’t have or that I can’t learn. I should be able to do similar!”
And so I set about making it happen.
You currently make the bulk of your income through web design. What other income streams do you have?
I can give you exact figures for 2014, since I track every dollar I earn and spend. So here’s the breakdown of my income for last year:
- 68% Freelance web design
- 10% Gifts and donations (mostly from my blog readers)
- 9% Book sales
- 8% Coaching
- 5% Miscellaneous
How do clients generally react to you not having a standard set of hours and have you lost business because of your nomadic lifestyle?
Clients are generally cool with it as long as I do good work, communicate effectively, and deliver on promised deadlines. I try to let clients know when I will and won’t be available well in advance so they can hire someone else if necessary.
Most of my clients come to me though through my blog, and so they already expect that my schedule will be a little unusual.
I definitely have lost business because of my nomadic lifestyle. I used to rail against the 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday work schedule, but after four years of doing the digital nomad thing and never having a solid routine for more than a couple of months at a time, I’ve come to appreciate the value of working set hours and hammering away consistently week after week. I’ve no doubt that I could have made a lot more money and built my business a lot better these past four years had I stayed put in one place and made work my main focus. I don’t have any regrets about it because the last four years have been amazing for the most part, but I’m at the stage now where I’m looking forward to transitioning back into a lifestyle much less nomadic.
What are some problems you have encountered, working with clients remotely?
Two main problems.
The first is staying reliably connected to the Internet. It can be an ordeal to find a nice, comfortable work spot with fast wifi. I had major struggles trying to get work done in countries like Iran, China and Bolivia. You can never really tell how it’s going to be until you get to your destination, so you might line up a whole week of work for yourself, then arrive at your nice hotel to find that their wifi sucks, and you’re left scrambling trying to find somewhere else to work. Hunting around a strange town for a place to work can take a lot of time and energy, and thus significantly impact client projects.
The second problem is somewhat related, and that is a lack of routine. When you work 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday, and always from the same location (whether that be an office or your own home), it’s easy to get into a rhythm and rip through your to-do list. You have few distractions, you can focus quite easily. That’s the beauty of routine. But when you travel as much as I do, routine goes out the window. You have to try squeeze in a few work hours here and there. Your schedule is all over the place. Your attention is far more divided. Given that, there’s simply no way you can get as much done or deliver the same quality of work.
I should mention here as well one problem I haven’t encountered while working with clients remotely. Most people assume that my business suffers because I usually can’t meet clients face-to-face, but that’s never been an issue for me. Skype and email work just fine. I’ve never met most of my clients.
How do you prefer to work? Coffee shop, your apartment, co-working space etc?
My ideal is to stay put in a country for at least a month, rent a nice apartment with fast wifi, and crank out solid work days from there. I’ll go to coffee shops for a change of scenery, or when I feel I’m being too lazy and not getting much done at home. I rarely use co-working spaces simply because coffee shops are usually cheaper and there’s always one nearby.
Can you walk us through a typical day for you on the road
If I’m renting an apartment somewhere and I’m in a nice work routine, I’ll usually be up at 7am. I listen to a podcast (usually something related to personal development) while making breakfast, then spend a half hour reading and listening to classical music while I eat.
Then I’ll usually spend 20-30 minutes getting my to-do’s and emails organized before launching into work projects. I try tackle the biggest/scariest task on my to-do list first. I like to have lunch at home and continue working into the afternoon. I try take the evenings off and go do something fun or relaxing. I save most of the tourist activities for the weekend.
But all the above is only if I’m in a nice routine and settled somewhere for a while. Otherwise, I don’t really have “typical days”. I might spend a full day or night on a bus, or half a day off exploring a new city, or a few hours chatting with other travelers at a hostel.
I try block off a month or two at a time where I can focus on work, and then a month or two where I can focus on travel. I’ve found that when I try to work and travel at the same time, I end up half-assing both.
You mentioned that you will be settling down for awhile to concentrate on your business. What exactly will you be working on and where about’s will your chosen location be?
My plan right now is to go live in Amsterdam for a year or two and work on building my business from there. I want to focus on a niche and build my freelancing biz to a consistent $10k a month, then look into offering productized services with the ultimate goal of building a SaaS business.
What country has been your favourite and least favourite?
I loved the Netherlands, and I’m looking forward to calling the place home. I spent three weeks in Amsterdam right at the start of my trip and fell in love with the place. Most of the people I met there were well-educated, open-minded, and very easy to get along with. I also like that it’s close to Ireland so I won’t be so far away from family, plus everyone speaks perfect English in the Netherlands so it’s easy to communicate.
Other countries I’ve been to that I’d love to go back and visit include Japan, Turkey, Brazil, Nicaragua and Guatemala.
As for least favorite, I didn’t have great experiences in China, India or the UAE, all for different reasons.
You are very active on and offline, with your blog, writing books, creating videos, all while travelling to exotic countries, and earning an income. What one productivity tip would you give to manage time more efficiently?
I’ve been combining two strategies lately and they’ve been working very well for me.
The first is to start very small. For example, instead of setting a goal of working out five times a week for an hour or two at a time, I set a goal to stretch for 5 minutes a day.
All I have to do is stretch for five minutes a day and I’ve completed my fitness goal.
Of course, once I’ve done five minutes of stretching, I usually end up doing some push-ups and sit ups as well. Getting started is always the hardest part, so if you tell yourself that you only have to do something for 5-10 minutes and then you can quit, you’ll usually end up getting into the swing of it and going far beyond that minimum amount of time.
The second strategy is to get friends to hold you accountable. I have to send a friend a message every day after I stretch. If I miss a day, I owe him $1000. And you best believe he’s going to make me pay!
The idea with the big penalty is to make failure more painful than doing it what it takes to succeed. When I’m having a lazy day and don’t feel like stretching, all I have to do is remember that it’ll cost me $1000 to not do it, and that’s all the motivation I need to get moving.
You can apply those strategies to any goal. If you want to write a book, you can tell a friend that you’re going to write for a half hour a day and send them a screenshot of what you’ve written, otherwise you owe them a sum of money that would be painful for you to lose. (Or if losing money isn’t a big deal to you, your penalty could be public humiliation. Example: you have to shave just one side of your head and leave it like that for a week.)
What advice have you for people thinking about becoming a digital nomad?
I’d caution people against trying to build a business while traveling. It’s one thing to optimise and automate an already existing and successful business, then run it from the road. But building a successful business from scratch while traveling… that’s a much bigger challenge, and it shouldn’t be undertaken lightly.
If I could start over, I’d spend that first year after quitting my job stopped in one place and put all my time and energy into building up a reliable freelancing business. Get established, get profitable, and then look for ways to automate, optimise and outsource. Once the business can hum along nicely with only 10-20 hours of your time and attention each week, you’re ready to hit the road and actually spend a good chunk of time enjoying the places you visit, rather than holed up in a hostel common room with your laptop, stressed about how you’re going to afford to stay another night.
But to end this on a positive note, I’d also like to reassure people that living a life of extended travel is very doable. There are lots of ways to earn money online. As long as you’re willing to persist and experiment, you can make it happen.
What backpack do you use?
- Deuter Futura 42-liter backpack: This is my “big” bag. It’s not all that big compared to what I see most backpackers carrying, but I believe you’re better off limiting the size of your pack to resist the temptation to fill it with lots of crap you don’t need.
- Samsonite Luxemburgo 33-liter backpack: This is my “small” bag. It’s great for day-to-day use, when I want to carry stuff around without looking like a backpacker.
What are some of the main items you carry on your travels?
You can see a full list of my possessions here, but here are some items of interest.
- Amazon Kindle: I consider this a must-have. I read a book or two a week and it would be impossible to do that with paper books given how much I travel. Also, I like to send articles to my Kindle. I usually send to the device the Wikipedia page and Wikitravel page about my next destination, and then read them en route.
- Small blue hand towel: Don’t waste your money on those thin travel towels. They’re supposed to be super absorbent but I’ve never found one that I liked more than a simple hand towel. Of course, a hand towel isn’t much good at a beach or a pool, but it’s all you need to dry yourself off after a shower or bath.
- Second (decoy) money clip with cards: In countries that are known for having corrupt police officers (hello Thailland!), it’s a good idea to carry around a decoy wallet or money clip with some expired cards and a small amount of cash. Take it out and pretend it’s all you have when a cop pulls you over and it becomes clear that he wants a bribe.
- A good padlock: If you’re going to be staying in hostels, buy a good padlock so you can keep your stuff safe in a locker. Usually the padlocks you can rent from the front desk aren’t very good.