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Jun 16

Workforce wanderlust: Digital nomads get paid while passing through – Virginian

Alex Martin, who studied economics at Old Dominion University, dropped out his junior year and took a job at an app company in New York.

But the big city didn’t appeal to his sense of adventure like he thought it would. When he quit, he ended up nearly off the grid.

With a passion for hiking, he brainstormed how he could spend more time in the wild. Though not formally trained, the Virginia Beach native had been dabbling in photography. He took a chance and emailed a slew of travel companies, bartering pictures and blogging for trips and other freebies.

It worked.

In the beginning, he got by on his hustler instincts and living “very streamlined.” About a year later, he was earning paychecks from sponsors that took him to places like Alberta, New Zealand and Peru. A “day at the office” was flying 10,000 feet above the Canadian Rockies in a helicopter or sleeping in a car in Iceland, using hot water bottles to stay warm.

His company, Wilderness Culture, is a digital marketing agency with a handful of employees and an online fan base that relishes far-flung locales. It’s a resource for outdoor enthusiasts to share their travel experiences. Though nowadays practically anyone with a camera thinks he’s a photographer, Martin said his business has differentiated by going to the “most epic” and hard-to-get-to locations. Tourism departments, such as Visit California and the U.S. Department of the Interior, and gear makers pay the company to promote their destinations and products.

“I knew the next big thing was going to be social media and, like, digital real estate,” he said.

Martin, 28, is a so-called “digital nomad,” and his kind is a growing breed in the workforce. Though not all are extreme outdoor adventurers like him, they’re people who find ways to work and roam at the same time. Freelancers have done this for many years, but millennials have taken the ball and run with it. Myriad online forums have sprouted to support such work-travel lifestyles, providing fellow nomads tips, such as where to find low costs of living abroad and, perhaps more important, high-speed internet.

Their jobs – marketer, web developer, tech support, online business owner, writer, accountant – take them anywhere they can use their phones and laptops. For many of these unchained workers, the lack of an office is the greatest job perk.

More Americans are working remotely with the aid of telecommunications, according to a Gallup survey released last year. The “State of the American Workplace” found that 43 percent of U.S. employees are spending at least some time working outside the office, up from 39 percent in 2012.

And more employees are working remotely all the time: Of people who said they telecommute, 20 percent said they do so full-time, up from 15 percent four years earlier.

Martin’s company, whose audience is composed of many like-minded “digital nomads,” is perhaps a testament to how teleworkers are increasing. Its Instagram account has more than 2 million followers.

Organizations are seeing this shift as an opportunity to cut costs by reducing their real estate. That employers are becoming more comfortable with the idea could be favorable for military spouses, a segment of the labor force that has traditionally faced challenges because they move frequently.

Erica McMannes, another Virginia Beach resident, has benefited from the tech industry’s use of virtual workers. Despite her husband’s job in the Army, she was able to stay with the same Silicon Valley startup for five years, she said, developing a support position into a full-time community director.

But some military spouses, most of whom are women, haven’t been as lucky. A 2016 survey by Hiring Our Heroes, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce foundation, showed the unemployment rate of service members’ spouses is 16 percent, about four times the rate of all adult women.

As someone who has moved 10 times in 16 years – and is about to move again to Florida – McMannes thought she had the experience to be part of the solution. She and another Army wife, Liza Rodewald, founded MadSkills, which plays matchmaker for companies and skilled military spouses and manages virtual teams for them. MadSkills has 10 contracts now and handles all of the HR and payroll needs for the employees.

Rodewald, who recently moved to Hawaii, has led the fledgling company out of a hotel room shared with four children; McMannes, who has two of her own, calls her home office the “Harry Potter closet.” They get their face time with clients using video-chat technology and stay in touch with Slack, an office messenger software.

“We live what we preach,” McMannes said.

In the digital job market, some employees want to rove but are turned off by doing the research and booking accommodations.

For some, it’s a big enough barrier to keep them from stepping out of Wi-Fi range from the corner coffee shop. A handful of startups are creating work-tourism programs to help novices dip a toe into the digital-nomad lifestyle.

One such Chicago-based business, But Everywhere, is arranging three-month trips for groups of 10 to 15 people. The excursions include two-week stays in six different cities. In each place, the company sets up a co-working office space, housing and transportation for a fee of $1,850 per month. A Quartz story about the company likened the experience to the MTV series “Road Rules” but for employed adults.

Norfolk will be one of But Everywhere’s stops in December. Founder Mike Doyle said he picked it and several other cities in the United States because they are “up-and-coming.” The startup just began researching possible lodging and temporary offices in the area. He’s also looking for a local to participate in the program because he wants the group to have a resident ambassador for each city.

“We’re trying to get to places that aren’t your typical tourist destinations,” said Doyle, whose name might be familiar to “Shark Tank” fans. Mark Cuban and Chris Sacca invested $200,000 in his venture, Rent Like a Champion, three years ago. That company, a game-weekend rental website similar to the Airbnb platform, is still operating.

In some cases, digital nomads are doing more than merely footing their wanderlust. Martin said they’re scaling Wilderness Culture and launching an online store where people can shop for products tied to social causes later this month. That has involved renting a facility off Lynnhaven Parkway for a distribution center and office, he said.

Though it’s getting easier, spotty utility and internet service, time zone issues and licensing inconsistencies are just a few of the technical challenges that arise from trying to work and move simultaneously.

And though digital nomads have the freedom to travel, deadlines and a lack of routine can make it feel nothing like a vacation.

Martin said there are trade-offs, but he reminds his crew to try to “be in that moment.”

“We’re so on the go on these trips,” he said, “that you could literally be like ‘Oh, I was just in Iceland, over the whole island,’ and, you know, basically have no recollection of doing it.’”

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©2018 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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