The Digital nomad’s Crossroad:
Is this the Freelancer’s Rise to the top or A Global Race to the Bottom????
What a time to be alive! For the first time in the industrialized world, we have succeeded in untangling time and space from work. There’s a global digital nomad movement, driven by the convergence of outsourcing, the globalization of talent, growth of tech and automation and the self-determinist mores of our generation.
As luck would have it, these factors are behind a movement enabling our generation to throw off the shackles of corporate life and thrive with only laptop in hand. But if half of our generation is to form part of the remote work movement, perhaps it is time we begin unpacking what it really means.
Will this movement change our world?
There are not precise global stats on the total population of this movement. One thing is for sure: what started as a trickle will eventually turn into a flood. For example, estimates suggest 3% of US workers were digital nomads in 2013. Now experts are conjecturing that remote work will cover half the labor force by 2020 and digital nomads will reach a billion by 2035. That kind of growth is astounding but all that glitters is not gold.
Is this a panacea or a ploy?
If we are all destined to join this globally untethered work force, the key is ensuring it works for us workers. But for many in this digital nomad movement, there’s seems to be such rudimentary consideration of supply and demand.
The Usual Suspects
The digital nomad movement is mostly represented across a few streams:
- Travel blogs
- Travel agents
- Digital Nomad Trainers and Service Providers
- Freelancers or Remote Workers
The first 3 are so flawed in terms of commercial viability that it almost evokes pity.
Travel blogging: The number of travel blogs has exploded in 5 years. There are even travel blogs charging to teach people to write travel blogs or to take better photos for travel blogs. Compared to the growth in the number of travel blog, the number of sponsors (hotels, airlines, tour companies, tourism agencies) has been almost stagnant- which means high competition for paltry clients,
Travel booking: For some of those who want to be on the buy-side, there’s always being a travel agent. But it’s an industry that shrunk by half its work force since 1990 and which pays far less than national average wages. With US global tourism increase of 4% expected (and 2% in Europe) , there’s a limited scope for growth as a travel agent, unless focusing on clients in Asia….
Digital nomad coaching and support services: Despite such small numbers, the digital nomad movement is served by a remarkable number of coaches, trainers and service providers. There are hundred of websites, retreats, e-courses teaching people to be digital nomads, to the extent its been called a pyramid scheme. In fact, a third party research study on digital nomad trainings and offerings for e-commerce and online marketing revealed that 99% had lost money and only 1% had seen any return from these “support services”. While there are definitely legitimate coaches and trainers out there, there’s a definite question about whether there’s enough demand to make this a robust market.
Fortunately, there’s also the last and presumably largest segment of digital nomads i.e. contract workers aka remote staff bka freelancers. Before the fancy names, there were simply skilled people who were selling value-add services without the internet. The internet has made it easier to market oneself and gain more new clients than ever, especially with the opening of online contracting platforms ( such as Odesk and TopTal) availing billions of dollars in short-term contracts. It has also made it harder by introducing competition from countries like Poland, Jordan and Pakistan. What happens as more and more US and EU freelancers (whose average ODesk wages exceed $15 per hour) must compete against their Kenyan and Fillipino counterparts (whose hourly wages hover around $4USD per hour)?
Surely, quality, networks and rating, as well as culture and proximity will play a role but are we all truly ready for our skill to be marketed with global pricing? Freelancers have the greatest opportunity of all the usual suspects, if their wages aren’t’ sucked into a race to the bottom with emerging market prices.
And in this case, the same universal rules cut across time, space, culture and even the magic of the Internet:
- Find a profitable and growing niche
- Build networks, brand recognition and most of all, relationships with clients, suppliers, intermediaries
- Invest in packaging and marketing in line with client expectations
- Continually learn, refine and give all you got
This digital nomad era may turn out to be the best of time and worst of times, depending on how’s it’s played. So play to win.