Non-techie business models for aspiring digital nomads

We have a copywriting and web design business, which sucks for the purpose of this post. Because that’s what almost every bloomin’ digital nomad does (unless they’re into SEO or affiliate schemes).

Thankfully, there are plenty of other people who prove that you can be a teacher, or accountant, or shop owner, or psychologist, or a lot of other things, and make a decent income while travelling the world.

Below are four business models that work for non-techies who want to be location independent – with real-life examples of people who’re already doing it.

If you want advice on the practicalities of getting started with any of these business models, leave a comment and we’ll create a whole new blog post about that! We’ve got lots of geekily curated (as well as tried-and-tested)  info to share about getting started with any one of these business models, but this post started to become insanely long, so we thought we’d save it all for another time.

Once you’ve read this post, head on over to our page of digital nomad resources – heaps and heaps of links to useful people, useful tools and useful services that’ll help you launch your location independent businesses.

Now let’s get started…

Digital nomad business model #1: Provide a service from wherever you are in the world

Client lunches on expenses. Jollies at Ascot and Wimbledon. We can’t deny it: being in the “old fashioned” service industry has its upsides. But we should probably be talking about upsides in the past tense: those sorts of perks are getting rarer and rarer due to recession-induced cutbacks.

And anyway, are they really good enough to put up with all the downsides of inflexible office hours, 25 days’ holiday a year and career progression speeds that would cause a tortoise to high-five itself?

Know the names of Rung 1′s nephews? Yeah… you’ve been there too long

It doesn’t need to be that way. If you love what you do but want to do it from anywhere, you can! It isn’t just techies like web designers who can be location independent: heaps of people like HR consultants, marketing professionals, copywriters and accountants are providing services for UK-based clients from around the world.

Not all clients are happy to work with digital nomads, but plenty will be fine with it. Kent and Caanan run an HR consultancy business from wherever they happen to be in the world – even though HR consultancy traditionally involves lots of boardroom meetings and strategy-planning lunches. They still get clients because they’re good at what they do and because they attract the types of people who are happy to rethink traditional ways of working.

Think about logistics

When it comes to catching up with clients on the phone/Skype, the only real difference from being in the same country is that there are fewer time slots for both of you (because there’ll be less overlap with your working hours). And although I’m not meant to be talking about our Mortified Cow business in this post (because it’s wanky techie/writing stuff), we provide a service and so our experiences are relevant for this section.

And this is what we’ve found: it’s actually beneficial to be in a different country. The fact that we’re not working at exactly the same time as our clients means there’s plenty of “free” time to be getting on with work rather than replying to emails. And because our clients understandably want to have phone meetings during their regular working day, those calls take place at the crack of dawn or evening time for us – leaving us with the rest of the day to either get on with work or go out and visit stuff, or any number of other things.

Digital nomad business model #2: Face-to-face can be webcam-to-webcam

We’re talking jobs like teaching, tutoring, counselling and professional development training – jobs that normally involve being in the same country (and preferably the same room) as the people you’re working with.

Being in the same country/room is no longer necessary though. Take it from a cognitive behavioural therapist who’s lived in Spain, India, Morocco and Mexico over the past few years while treating his patients online.

Tobin Hunt had been a psychologist in the UK for ten years before he decided he was fed up with the ridiculous hours and inflexibility of working for a big employer. He left his job and started his online therapy service as an experiment – to see if he could combine work with travel. He could: clients find him through Google, then he “meets” them through Skype or instant messaging.

Flexible hours – just one of the many benefits of being a digital nomad

You don’t even necessarily need your own website…

Jack is a part-time Psychology professor for a community college in Washington state… but he spends most of his time in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with his wife and daughter. He teachers his students online via email, instant messaging and web-based phone calls. Students find out about and sign up for the course at college, so there’s no need for Jack to find ways to “attract” them to his website.

Not all colleges/universities give this level of flexibility to professors, but more and more are opening up to the idea. You could always propose it to the people at the top – they might be willing to give it a trial run while you’re still in your home country.

Jack also offers personal/executive coaching, as well as help for graduates who want some advice on their thesis. Again, they find him – this time through a website called BuddySchool. All Jack had to do was create a profile on the site and wait for people to search for his types of service. He communicates with them via Skype.

There are plenty of online “portals” like BuddySchool to sign up to – like Verbalplanet if you can teach languages, and Mootu  if you’re a counsellor or psychotherapist. You can sign up and see if you get any enquiries as a way of testing demand before you make the leap.

Location independent business model #3: Sell physical products without being physically there

Shops, eh? What were they all about? You had to actually leave the house to go to one (it could have been raining or anything!) and queue behind the world’s most indecisive people to wait for some sullen teenager to tell you they were out of stock of whatever you wanted anyway.

As the owners of Blockbuster, HMV and Borders will tell you, physical shops are, like, totally over. But online retail is booming – and it can be a great business model for digital nomads.

It’s actually a model we use ourselves: one of our side-businesses is running a site where people can design and sell their own t-shirts ( We built and promote the site, but the orders are printed and shipped straight to the buyer by other companies we work with.

This fits a location independent lifestyle perfectly, because promoting the shop and answering customer queries can be done from anywhere – and easily fitted around freelancing or other work.

Awww… it’s like looking at a rotary-dial telephone.

Selling stuff without storing stuff

A company that stores and ships products on your behalf is known as a dropshipper. In our case the dropshipper makes the items individually as they’re ordered, but it’s more common for them to have a warehouse full of items ready for you to sell. There are dropshippers for pretty much any product you can imagine, and they’re the magic ingredient for a perfect nomadic business model.

If you decide you want to sell iPhone accessories, for example, just find a dropshipper who has a good range on offer. Then all you need to do is build an online shop and attract customers – all the boring logistics get taken care of for you.

Best of all, you take the customer’s money before you have to pay the dropshipper – so you’re never forking out for stock that you might not be able to sell.

Digital nomad business model #4: Sell your knowledge, experience and ideas without selling your time

This is perhaps the most powerful location independent business models of them all – and it’s something we’ve done before ourselves are will be trying to do much more of in the future. It also happens to be the furthest removed from having a normal job.

Maybe you had a job in a supermarket or pub as a teenager. You were paid as a straight swap of your time for their money – if you wanted more money, you had to be there for more hours. When you switched to a “professional” job, it became more about your skills than your time, but you were still expected to be there between 9 and 5 (and let’s face it, constantly on your Blackberry the rest of the time too).

Consulting or freelancing is the next step towards real freedom, because it allows you to work anywhere and place your own value on your time. But there’s still a ceiling on what you can earn: you can raise your hourly rate, but you can only fit in so many hours of billable work each day. And if you stop working to go on holiday or because you’re ill, you earn nothing.

But what if you could sell your expertise or ideas without it being related to your time at all? That’s what authors have always done: they spend time writing a book, other people sell it for them, and they get a royalty for each sale forever. But the internet has now made this business model accessible to the rest of the us – even if we’ve got no talen for writing about teenage wizards or horny billionaires.

Make like a lizard and scale

Separating your knowledge from your time gives you the benefit of scale: you can create something once, and sell it multiple times. And with digital products, each extra sale doesn’t cost you anything or take you any time.

Rather than your income being constrained by time, it’s the quality of the content (and, admittedly, the quality of your marketing) that determines how much money you make. I mean, The Beatles weren’t in the studio recording She Loves You for any longer than One True Voice (remember them?) were to record Shakespeare’s Way With Words.

Remember: quality matters too

People call this type of earning “passive”, but “deferred” might be a better word. For example, if you’re an accountant, you could spend a week recording a video course helping people to do their own accounts, when you could normally earn £5,000 working for clients in that week. But over a year, you could sell £50,000 worth of your video product: you deferred your income, took a chance on not making any sales at all, and made ten times more money as a result.

It’s an ideal business model to support a location independent lifestyle, because once you’ve created your product it can sell automatically, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. We’ve had emails notifying us about sales of our books Presentation Skills for Introverts and If I’m Not Mistaken, That’s Bacon while we’ve been on the beach and out for dinner… and believe me, the meal’s much more enjoyable when you know your new readers have just paid for it.

Packaging it all up

You can package up your skills in a load of different ways…

Ebooks are ridiculously easy to publish these days. You now have the same access as a major publisher to the world’s biggest book-buying audience on Amazon… which is pretty amazing when you think about it.

The rewards can be higher away from Amazon though, because you can price according to the value the book gives rather than the “typical” price of the book. For example, Pat Flynn sells a guide to passing a popular architectural exam for $45, because its value to a struggling student will be huge. After an intense burst of work in creating the product, Pat has now been selling his book steadily for years with no extra effort.

Courses are more interactive ways of sharing your expertise, but they stop short of being actual one-to-one coaching (business model #2). They’re often a combination of written material, videos or screencasts, and ofen some ongoing support over email or in a forum.

This format lends itself to almost anything. A guitar teacher can record video lessons. A Photoshop expert can create screencasts showing how to achieve particular results. A social media specialist can combine videos and PDFs to teach small businesses how to use Twitter. And by including membership to a private forum, students can support each other – and being part of the network can become another benefit of buying the course.

You really can teach an online course in anything

The theory behind membership sites is that it’s far more awesome to have a customer who pays you every month rather than a customer who pays you once then disappears. By creating a valuable and comprehensive resource, people will pay you for continuous access. (That’s also the theory behind porn sites, FYI.)

That’s what mortgage broker Lisa Williams did. Rather than advising clients about the same topics over and over again, she put all her knowledge on a membership site and charged clients for continuous access.

But it doesn’t even have to be your own knowledge: Andrew Warner founded Mixergy, where he interviews entrepreneurs about their experiences so his audience can learn from them. Andrew still adds new interviews, but there are also hundreds of interviews in his archive which users will pay $25/month to view whenever they want.

A membership site isn’t truly passive, because without adding new content you’ll have high attrition rates – customers signing up for a few months, reading everything you’ve got, then quitting.

And there you have it – four business models that it’s possible to do while being location independent! I hope I’ve convinced you that whatever you do, there’s a way to make money from it without having to work for anyone else or be tied to an office.

Remember: we’ve got loads of extra info to share about how to get started with any one of these models, so leave a comment or email us if you want access to all the stuff we’ve geekily curated or tried out ourselves.

And also remember to head over to our page of digital nomad resources – which contains all the links and information I couldn’t fit into this post.

Oh and one more thing: if you can think of any other business models, or if I’m wrong about anything, or if you’re actually doing one of these business models already, let me know in the comments!

  • Adam – Tropical Nomad

    Hey Mish,
    A few gems here. I think the ideal business model for non techie digital nomad jobs, would be to have a combination of the above mentioned factors created over a period of time.

    If you could have 3-5 eBooks, an iBook, a kindle book, niche websites selling Amazon products or making money with high CPC from Adsense, (once you know how – rinse and repeat), Clickbank, (I still haven’t had luck with CB)..etc. You are setting up the stream or different flows of income.

    Membership sites are a goldmine, as they offer recurring income for months on end. I think it would be a great challenge to find an accountant that was exciting enough to make videos that would have you watching.

    I suppose you should utilise whatever skills you can to remain location independent. I seen people selling wrist bands, gems and necklaces in Byron Bay, Queenstown and Cairns. I sold fruit on the beach in Spain to make a few dollars. You just have to get out and try.

    Teaching english is always a good option for native english speakers and I will probably do this myself at some time to fund onward travels.

    All the best,

    • Mish

      Fantastic comment Adam – such brilliant ideas!

      You’re right: the dream is to have a nice ol’ combination of the above models, and that’s what Rob and I are trying to do at the moment. We’ve got some passive income and “providing a service” income, but the one we really want to get right next is business model #4.

      Love the accountant training video idea – someone definitely needs to do that!

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  • Ronnie

    Great article with tons of food for thought. I just read an article on LinkedIn entitled something like “Don’t sell your time”, talking about how you should go out and create something, anything, to avoid exchanging your time for money. It’s quite a coincidence that I found this within the same week. And again, you recommend at the end of your article separating time from revenue, and creating a product that will continue to produce revenue after the initial time is spent. I’m excited to try it! I definitely don’t want to sell my time for the rest of my life. This is a good wake-up call.