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Top 8 Jobs for Digital Nomads

Ed Gregory

By  June 9, 2015

Taking your job online is quickly becoming one of the easiest ways to work abroad. These careers may be your ticket to becoming location independent.

Looking out the window onto dreary Dundas Street West, I sighed. It was another grey winter day and it seemed like there was no escape in sight.

I glanced back down at my computer screen, my work laid out in front of me. Suddenly, the realization hit me hard. Of course there’s an escape—as long as the work gets done, I could be doing this literally anywhere.

As the contributing editor for Verge, I already telecommute for work. So with the click of my mouse, flights were purchased and my first working holiday was born. Two weeks later, I was in Honduras, spending my afternoons transcribing interviews beside the ocean and my evenings writing while bats swooped low over my head.

That was two years ago. Since then, I’ve tapped into the lifestyle of digital nomads, setting up my mobile office everywhere from from Quito to Sydney. While I’m not truly “location independent” (I maintain a home office in Toronto), I can work wherever I have a reliable Internet connection. And although I don’t have a salary or a health and dental benefits, my job comes with countless other benefits—namely that I’ve been known to edit articles poolside, with a mojito in hand.

"I have a life I don’t want to escape from, so the concept of ‘vacation’ isn’t even on my radar."

I’m not the only one who is making this transition. Remote workers, freelance professionals and online entrepreneurs are all realizing the powerful potential of mobile offices. No hard numbers exist on just how many North Americans are telecommuting globally, but a conservative estimate stands at around 3.3 million.

There’s no reason why you can’t be one of them. If you’re looking to trade your cubicle for an exotic locale, there’s no shortage of careers for today’s digital nomad. Here are eight of our favourite mobile jobs and how you can get them:

1. Travel Blogger & Freelance Writer

All in a day’s work: It may seem counterintuitive, but before Candice Walsh became an established travel blogger and writer, she had barely left her home of St. John’s, Newfoundland. “I had never really travelled much,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘If I’m working at home anyway, why not take my office on the road?’”

Walsh blogs about her global adventures on her site Candice Does the World and is an editor at Matador Network. “It’s hard work—really hard work,” says Walsh. “But then I get to play harder.”

Will I get rich? While media junkets and occasional freebies (such as accommodation) are obvious perks, travel blogging alone doesn’t pay the bills. You’ll need to maintain a diverse income stream to make somewhere between $20,000 and $80,000 a year.

How to get the job: Start your own website, build your social media skills and start guest blogging on other sites. Walsh also suggests signing up for a writing course.

You'll find tips and information for aspiring travel writers, in the article, "So, You Want to be a Travel Writer" and "Resources for Aspiring Travel Writers."  Verge Magazine's writers' guidelines are full of great advice.

2. Freelance Translator & Transcription

All in a day’s work: Julie Gassmann Dutra never planned to become a freelance translator. But once she started translating to fund her studies, she was hooked. “Translating was a perfect way for me to earn extra money while studying, doing research and travelling,” she says. Later, when she decided to make a move to Brazil, it became her full-time gig.

Will I get rich? Your earning potential largely depends on the combination of languages you know, areas of speciality (for example, can you translate "legalese"?) and how much you want to work. Expect to earn anywhere between $20,000 and $80,000 per year.

How to get the job: While proficiency in more than one language is a requirement, Gassmann Dutra says that it isn’t the only factor. “At the beginning, freelance translation is all about perseverance,” she says. “There are a lot of translators, so you have to keep making offers, honing your application letter, gaining experience with smalls projects and one day, things just click into place.”

Online portals for translators, such as Proz.com or Translators.com can help you find work. For more in-depth tips from Gassmann Dutra read her article in Verge, “The Portable Polygot.”

3. Computer Programmer

All in a day’s work: While having a mobile office isn’t stress-free, it does come with its advantages. “It’s easy to disconnect when you’re in a new place or far away from the people you’re working with,” says Ashray Baruah, a Chile-based freelance computer programmer. “You can shut your laptop and walk out and do something new and exciting.”

Will I get rich? Freelance computer programmers make anywhere between $25,000 and $150,000 per year.

How to get the job: Although holding a degree in computer engineering or computer science is advantageous, it’s not necessary. “Formal education is nice, but not as important for programming as it is for other technical jobs,” says Thailand-based programmer Greg Jorgensen. Instead, he recommends finding a niche and presenting your skills as solutions to business problems, rather than just as a list of languages and tools.

If you like the security of a job, some companies will allow their employees to work in a remote team. However, if you’d prefer to go solo, consider using an agency or consulting firm to find work. In addition to setting you up with new clients, they’ll also take care of contract negotiation and billing.

4. Freelance Illustrator

All in a day’s work: When Jonathan Woodward graduated from college, he made the sensible choice—he became a graphic designer at a corporate design office in London. It was his wife, Lea, who convinced him that another type of life was possible. “We decided to hit the road looking for a lower cost of living but without compromising on quality,” he explains.

Woodward, 39, now specializes in wildlife illustration. His client list includes zoos, nature reserves, book publishers, TV production companies and toy companies all over the world. Although the couple is now back in the UK (at least until their children are “past the tricky toddler phase”), Woodward’s career has allowed him to live and work everywhere from Dubai to Cape Town. The Woodwards have packaged up the knowledge and insights they’ve gained and made them available for purchase on their website, locationindependent.com.

Will I get rich? Illustrators can expect to earn between $30,000 and $75,000 per year.

How to get the job: In addition to graphic design and software skills, Woodward says that developing business management, marketing and client management skills are key. After honing your creative style and creating an online portfolio, determine where you work could best be used commercially and compile a list of ideal clients.

“Keep reaching out,” advises Woodward. “In my experience it takes an average of a year of consistent, focused action before the results—and clients—start to come.”

5. Graphic Designer

All in a day’s work: Janet Brent’s teenage self would be proud. “When I was 13, I taught myself html code and thought working online all day was the ultimate job,” she says.

Today, she’s got her dream job—Brent’s a freelance graphic designer, a career that has allowed her to work in the Philippines, Germany and Thailand. “I have a life I don’t want to escape from, so the concept of "vacation" isn’t even on my radar,” she says.

Will I get rich? Freelance graphic designers can make upwards of $50,000 a year. To scale up your business, consider other streams of income, including selling art prints, stationary or greeting cards.

How to get the job: Natural talent as a visual creative is a must, as are software skills, including proficiency with graphic design tools like PhotoShop, InDesign and Illustrator. Learning html and Wordpress web development are highly marketable skills in conjunction with graphic design skills.

“If you’re set on a mobile career, without bricks and mortar, digital web presence is the best way to set up shop,” says Brent. Once you’ve created your online portfolio, she advises connecting with like-minded clients through social media, as well as online groups. “You have to know who your ideal client is so that you can target them and network,” she says. “It’s much better than taking any and all random design jobs just for money.”

6. Online Tutor

All in a day’s work: While teaching English as a second language (ESL) has long been a mainstay of young North Americans looking to work abroad, it’s also possible to teach English—or any number of subjects—online.  

“You must really love teaching. Doing it because you think it’s an easy way to get money is not true,” says online Spanish tutor Maria Ortega Garcia, who is currently based in Ireland. Instead, expect to spend your time meeting with students online, as well as spending hours preparing classes, creating materials and marketing your business.

Will I get rich? Online tutors pull in roughly $25,000 to $35,000 per year. However, you can supplement your income by working as an online translator or developing educational materials.

How to get the job: Much like a traditional classroom environment, earning teaching qualifications such as TESOL or TEFL is the first step. Once certified, start marketing your skills by creating YouTube videos or writing a blog. “Be ready to spend a lot of time working for free,” says Ortega Garcia. “If you are good, the students will find you.”

If you’re already teaching ESL and thinking about making the jump to online, Off2Class, a site designed by seasoned online tutor James Heywood, offers training programs including lesson plans. 

7. Virtual Assistant

All in a day’s work: When Sarah Begley, decided to move to the south of France with her boyfriend, she spoke little more than conversational French. Getting a local job was out of the question, so she did what dozens of other digital nomads are doing—she went online. With a diverse resume ranging from flight attendant to an account manager at an advertising firm, becoming a virtual assistant was a natural fit.

Online virtual assistants help clients with a range of tasks, dependent on what area of specialization they cater to. Now based in Vietnam, Begley’s typical daily tasks include email marketing campaigns, website management, newsletter creation, social media management and the proofreading of presentations.

Will I get rich? Income varies based on the number of clients and hours worked. Expect to earn between $20,000 and $75,000 per year.

How to get the job: A background as a personal or administrative assistant is beneficial. In addition to registering for freelance websites such as People Per Hour and Elance, Begley recommends getting offline to find clients. “Networking online is harder than networking face-to-face. You have to work double hard to gain trust and build relationships,” she explains. Instead, attend events for small businesses in your community, such as Chamber of Commerce meetings.

8. Poker Player

All in a day’s work: James Sudworth had a normal job, managing a golf course in the UK. But that all changed when he realized that his hobby was earning him more money. “I noticed that my income from playing poker was becoming far greater than my ‘real world’ salary,” says Sudworth. He quit his job and began playing full-time around the world, setting up shop everywhere from Brazil to Thailand.

It might seem like a cushy job, but as Sudworth (who has since returned home to earn a law degree) explains, it can be a highly stressful lifestyle. “If you have a bad day, week or month you can lose huge amounts of money, at which point your whole life gets called into question,” he says. “Dealing with the taboo in society is also stressful.”

Will I get rich? The better question here is “will I get poor?” While dedicated players can find themselves earning anywhere between $3000 and $10,000 per month, playing poker online is the only job listed here where you’ll actually lose money.

How to get the job: Sign-up for a poker training site. While there are free strategy websites available for novices, Sudworth recommends paying for a subscription service if you want turn your hobby into a career. “They’ll help train the silliest monkey into becoming a winning poker player, given ambition,” he says. And while the skills needed are basic—strong numeracy and analytical skills—there is an upfront investment.  In order to win money, you have to invest money, including a monthly fee for using online poker rooms.

Think you're ready to open your mobile office? Here are three things that you'll want to consider first.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Verge.

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Published in Work Abroad
Jessica Lockhart

Contributing Editor

Although Jessica has travelled to more than 30 countries, her favorite place to throw down her bag is still her hometown of Cold Lake, Alberta. A freelance journalist, Jess has worked for international development organizations and tour operators. She’s conducted workshops in Vanuatu, perfected the use of a satellite phone in the jungles of Guyana and supervised teenage pool parties in the Dominican Republic. Although she's based in Toronto, Jess works remotely from all around the world.

Website: www.jesslockhart.com

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