The skills you’ll need as a digital nomad (and how to acquire them)

Much as we hate the term “digital nomad”, we don’t have a better shorthand for building a business and travelling at the same time.

When you unpack the term like that, it’s clear that becoming a digital nomad isn’t easy: both parts can be hard work, and doing both at the same time is insanely challenging (but insanely rewarding too, of course).

To transition into digital nomadism from a static life with a typical job, you’re going to need some serious skills – and any skills you’re missing, you’ll need to develop pretty damn quickly.

So here are what I consider some of the essential skills you’ll need to make a success of this digital nomad lark – and some starting points for how to develop them.

Written communication

Whether you’re talking to clients, attracting customers or reaching out to people for advice, good communication skills are essential. And the majority of the time, that first contact will be over email.

This might be tough if you’re used to interacting with people in person or over the phone. I’m more comfortable communicating in writing than any other form, and I’ve still found the need to improve – and I’ve had emails from people who are barely comprehensible, but super-smart and funny once we get onto Skype.

As a digital nomad, good written communication is not optional. Any time you invest in improving your writing will be time well spent.

For me, the three main elements of effective written communication are clarity, personality and persuasion.

Clarity is about setting out exactly what you mean, with as little ambiguity as possible, and telling the recipient what action (if any) they should take based on it. This is really important if you’re communicating with clients: we go out of our way to use bullet points, formatting and subheadings to show a clear logical flow, but we can still sometimes be misunderstood.

Personality is what a lot of people struggle with: how do you use words to get your point across and give the reader the sense that they have an understanding of who you are? Forming a human connection without any of the visual and auditory cues you’re used to isn’t easy, but it’s essential to build effective relationships.

Persuasion doesn’t mean manipulation or hard-sell – but you’re always selling something, if only the idea that the suggestion you’re making about a next step is the correct one. If you nail the clarity and personality, a large part of the persuasive work has already been done.

How to improve your written communication

  • Read “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. It’ll deprogramme any weirdness about language that you picked up in school, and focus you on what matters.
  • Read effective writing, and think about what makes it effective. Start with blog posts that you’ve really related to, or cold emails you’ve replied to: what made you respond in the way you did? Some of the best simple, effective, persuasive writing I know is over at Copyblogger.
  • Try free-writing: set a timer for ten minutes, and just write as quickly as you can about anything that comes into your head. This will help you get comfortable with converting your thought process to the keyboard. More on free writing here.
  • If you really struggle, start by recording yourself talking your message, then transcribe from there. A lot of people have been programmed to write in a stuffy, buttoned-up way – using impersonal phrases like “I look forward to hearing from you” that you’d never actually say in a normal relationship. Speaking first will cut all that out.

Online marketing

With the exception of a couple of digital nomads we know who do long-term contract work for one employer, everyone needs to promote themselves somehow: whether it’s to find clients to serve, or customers to buy what you’re selling.

And when you don’t have a local presence or the ability to go door-to-door, that self-promotion will have to be done online. And that normally involves a two-step process: putting a message somewhere online then getting people to see that message.

The most common place to have a message is on a website, but could also be a Facebook page, a webinar or a book. Some ways of putting your message across have inherent “discoverability” baked in: for example, if you record a podcast about kitesurfing, some people will search iTunes for “Kitesurfing” and find you without you having to do any work at all.

Even if there’s some element of discoverability built in, you’ll still need to work to get more people to see your message. Some of the most common ways are:

  • SEO (getting visibility when people search for relevant phrases on Google)
  • Paid adverts (like Google Adwords or Facebook)
  • Email marketing
  • Social media
  • Podcasting
  • Video marketing

Within those are lots of extra distinctions and sub-distinctions, of course: within SEO, for example, you can focus on the technical aspects, or linkbuilding. Then within linkbuilding there’s guest blogging, forum marketing, and all manner of other things.

You can choose to either get really good at one skill and rely on it for the majority of your traffic, or acquire enough of a familiarity with each of them to get a good result when they’re all combined.

How to build your internet marketing skills

  • Start by building an understanding of all the options, in which situations each is effective, and which you might be best suited to doing well with. A good place to start is by watching or listening to entrepreneurs being interviewed on Mixergy and The Rise To The Top. See what worked for people who’ve already built a business similar to what you’re shooting for.
  • Learn the basics about whichever method you’ve chosen – our favourite resources for each are below. At first you might find that you don’t understand much of what you’re reading, but before long things will start to click into place.
  • Get help with executing, if you need it – either through paid mentoring, a course that has ongoing support built in, or just by buddying up with someone who can help you when you’re struggling.
  • Once you know what works, you can outsource to an expert who can refine your process to make it even more effective, if you want. You don’t have to become an expert internet marketer, but you can’t just hire someone on day 1 and say “make people aware of me!” Getting customers or clients into your business is vital, so it’s a process you need to have some understanding of.

Resources for learning about specific skills:

Connectedness

Is connectedness even a skill? I don’t know. But the point is, you’re going to need to develop a network in more of a deliberate way than you ever have before.

Why? Because if you’re permanently on the move, you won’t just be saying goodbye to all the social structures you had at home – you’ll also be operating in a parallel universe from the permanent residents of the places you visit. You won’t have the work environment or any of your old college friends, but you’ll also miss out on serendipitious encounters at the gym or the coffee shop – unless you base yourself somewhere for at least a few months.

At the same time, you’ll be doing something new and scary. It will involve skills you might not have developed yet, and pressure and fear beyond anything you’ve previously experienced. Not to put you on a downer, or anything.

So, a social structure is essential – both for moral support, and for getting specific knowledge when you need it.

How to develop a network

  • Look for what in-person networks are around you, if you’re travelling slowly enough. Coworking spaces are an ideal place to meet other entrepreneurs, and they often host evening social events too. In major cities, Meetup.com is worth a look too.
  • Start a blog. We originally started this blog just to make friends – and it worked. Sharing the process you’re going through and the things you’re learning will draw the right people to you.
  • Comment on other people’s blogs. We’ve become friends with some of our commenters and met them in person, so it works. This works especially well when combined with having your own blog – because people can click through from your comment to find out more about you.
  • Jump into conversations on your social network of choice – probably easiest on Twitter and Google+.
  • Look for online communities that cover areas you’re interested in – whether that’s entrepreneurship or location independence in general, or a specific skill you’re trying to develop. We’ve got a pretty awesome one here. As a general rule, paid communities are more worthy of your time – because there’s a barrier to entry and discussions aren’t indexed by Google, you get a higher level of discussion and information being shared more openly.

Flexibility and resilience

Building a new business is highly stressful. Travel is stressful. Combine both, and what have you got? Enough stress to make you compulsively pick your feet and pull your eyebrows out. If you’re us, anyway.

Also, things will go wrong. Depending on your location, wifi could go down for an entire day. Your website might get hacked, and you have to drop everything you had planned to sort it out. Flights will be delayed. Accommodation will be hard to find.

That’s why you’ll need the resilience to get through these events with sanity intact, and the flexibility to adapt yourself to whatever is most urgent at any given moment – without ever losing sight of the big picture.

How to develop flexibility and resilience

  • This is a tough one, because to a large extent it comes with practice. We used to be hopeless at travel and easily pushed off track by anything unexpected, but little by little we’ve got better at it.
  • Meditation probably helps, but we don’t have much experience with it.
  • Out of everything, having a strong network is probably the best weapon you can have: a group of people you can turn to for advice, vent to, and know that you’re not the only person going through this madness.

Productivity

Coming into digital nomadism from a more structured environment can be a shock: there’s no one to tell you what to do (hurrah!), but you either have no clue what you should do or way too many things to do (boo!).

Building a business can be overwhelming, especially because you’re learning most of the skills you need on the fly. At the same time, you won’t want to work 18-hour days every day: fun though business is, you’ll want to explore your new surroundings and have the experiences that make this such an awesome way of life.

The answer, then, is productivity: getting the right things done as efficiently as possible.

How to be more productive

  • I wrote a pretty comprehensive post about all the productivity habits I’ve tried. But in a nutshell…
  • Make a list in the evening of what you want to get done the following day. Aim for 2-3 Most Important Tasks, and some smaller or more optional bits. Then when you start your working day, complete your Most Important Takss before allowing yourself to do anything else.
  • Try the Pomodoro technique. Set a timer for 25 minutes, and work with complete focus on one task the entire time. Then take a five-minute break to walk around, check Facebook or whatever, before launching into another focused 25-minute session.
  • Batch things up. Instead of replying to emails as soon as they come in, have one or two dedicated sessions each day just for replying to email. The same thing works for meetings, phone calls, or anything else that’s necessary but can disrupt your flow if they happen completely ad-hoc.

Just get started!

OK, so there are a lot of skills you need, but I hope I haven’t put you off: becoming a digital nomad is hard work, but in our opinion it’s the most exciting, freeing, satisfying lifestyle you can possibly have.

The trick is to see the development of these skills as an opportunity to learn exciting new things in new places rather than just stagnating in an office – and they’re useful skills to start building right now, even if you’re a long way from being ready to jump into doing your own thing.

Do you need any help with anything? Just get in touch and we’ll do our best.

And have I missed out any key skills you think are essential? Let me know in the comments!

  • Beto

    Although I´m not currently freelancing as a digital nomad but being an employee for a US firm who works remotely, I saw a chance to prove myself I could go places and get the job done at the same time. Last year, I tried it on Europe and was mostly successful at it. This year I am doing it across South America.

    Tell me about being prepared for the worst – I´m typing this on a second hand laptop I bought today as my main Mac died on arrival and is currently being serviced. Needless to say I just had one of the most stressful weeks of my life. Thankfully most of my day-to-day tools are cloud-based so the loss impact has been minimal. But it just goes to show how Murphy´s law is just lurking around the corner at every step. “What doesn´t kill you makes you stronger” may be a tired phrase, but it certainly embodies a whole lot of truth.