How to Run Your Business Like a Nomad -- While Living in a Van
In today's internet-centric business landscape, traditional office environments are no longer a given; 43 percent of Americans now spend at least some time working remotely. While most of those remote workers are still based at home or in shared office spaces, especially for those leading smaller companies, the "digital nomad" lifestyle is making waves in the entrepreneurial community.
Related: Living the Life of a Digital Nomad
I'm one of those nomads: Wanting to escape the harsh winters in my native Minneapolis, I began running my business at age 29 from my Sprinter van as I travelled across the United States. I'm the founder of Vibes, which makes Hi-Fidelity Earplugs (seen on Shark Tank); and for the first six months of this year, I was able to adapt my two-employee business -- just me and another guy, back in our Minnesota office -- to life on the move.
My motto? "Work is an action, not a place." So, if you too have travel lust and little in the way of attachment to a particular locale, here are some pointers I've picked up about how to effectively live the digital nomad lifestyle and run your business from the road:
How do you know what vehicle to use?
You don’t need to go “all-in” to try the digital nomad lifestyle. Renting a vehicle for a week or so first will allow you to see if the lifestyle is something you truly enjoy and can be productive doing. Additionally, it allows you to test different types of vehicles, from vans to RVs to trailers. Check out www.outdoorsy.com, “the Airbnb of recreation vehicles,” to see what’s available in your area. There are also many boutique rental companies offering custom-built vans. Just be sure to chose a vehicle with your workspace in mind!
How do you stay connected?
Being connected by phone and Internet is integral to most digital nomads. Thankfully, staying connected is easier than ever thanks to lightning-fast LTE networks covering most of the country. I’d recommend equipping yourself with a dedicated mobile wifi hotspot from your network provider of choice.
For those using AT&T, I’d recommend the Nighthawk LTE Mobile Hotspot Router, and for those with Verizon, the Jetpack MiFi 7730L. Both provide powerful/reliable signals and long battery lives (20-plus hours); and they can run on relatively inexpensive unlimited data-only plans ($20 to $50 per month).
Outside of hotspots, the availability of “free” public wifi is widespread. With 13,000-plus Starbucks locations across the United States, chances are good that you'll be within striking distance of one of them. If not, most independent coffee shops, libraries or universities allow you to connect for free.
Lastly, if you’re looking for a more formal workspace or are in need of a conference line or meeting space, there are more than 4,000-plus co-working spaces across the country in major and small cities alike. Popular member-based co-working brands like WeWork are already located in 25 states across the country. Even for non-members, most co-working spaces sell day passes.
Where do you stay?
Anywhere! Well, almost. Dispersed camping is one of America’s best-kept secrets. If you look at Google Maps, almost all the light green shaded areas are free and legal to car-camp in. Other than National Park land, almost all federally owned land in the United States is free for you to use. This accounts for 28 percent of the entire country.
Unless signs indicate otherwise, you may legally sleep in your vehicle within any federally designated lands. These include:
- National forests
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land
- Wildlife management areas (WMA)
- National grasslands
- Some county parks and city parks (check their signs)
- Some trailheads (check their signs)
Of course, regular paid camp sites are also plentiful across the United States. For a great resource to find camping along the way check out iOverlander. iOverlander is a user-generated guide to camping spots in your area. For campsites out-of-the-park systems, give Hipcamp a look for private camping options.
For city dwelling stints, most major cities have streets with unrestricted parking, and parks or other areas where you can legally spend the night. Check city codes and read signs carefully before picking a spot for the night.
How much will all of this cost?
Equipped vans cost anywhere from $10,000 to $150,000. Outside of the cost of renting/purchasing a van, you can also expect those other unavoidable costs of gas and insurance. Everything else is a matter of your preference and lifestyle. Accommodation costs depend on where you’re staying and whether that place is free or fee-based. Over a six-month period, I paid only for camping around eight times -- the rest were free.
If you’re spending time outside cities, you can expect your food and entertainment expenses to decrease compared to what they are at home, since you won't have a lot of options for eating out or for entertainment. I should mention that I travelled (still do) with my girlfriend, Hanna Estrem. She's a freelance social media and digital communications mananger, and was able to do her work from our van, as well.
But, back to costs: There was, of course, the matter of food. We managed to cook the vast majority of our meals in our van and average spending about $12 a day on food for two people.
Since you're dealing with limited space, you'll likely find that your spending on miscellaneous items and clothing will decrease as well, regardless of whether you're in cities or remote areas.
And you'll save money because your housing costs will have been eliminated.
How will your nomad lifestyle affect your business?
Because structure is imperative, running your business from the road will affect that business as much as you let it. You need to be a step ahead of your day to make sure your nomadic lifestyle doesn't get in the way. It's important to figure out the night before where you'll be working and sleeping the following day. That way, the requisite planning won't get in the way of your work day.
As for your business's structure itself, setting a regular time to start and finish work helps keep you on track. When you're in the office with your colleagues/employees every day, it's easy to be on top of daily tasks and long-term strategy. When you're living remotely, however, you have to work harder to keep lines of communication open with your colleagues/employees via platforms like Skype and Slack, in order to stay in the loop.
Scheduling regular calls/virtual meetings to ensure everyone is on the same page isn't just important; it's crucial.
The highs and the lows
Hanna and I are back in Minneapolis this summer, for some weddings; but we'll be back on the road later this year. This current stint at home gives me time to reflect on what's been good and bad about our digital nomad lifestyle the first half of this year.
What wasn't good: I was somewhat prepared for our new lifestyle because I grew up camping, but there were challenges nonetheless: ending up, for instance, spending time in areas that weren't scenic or picturesque; enduring unpleasant weather; and sometimes having problems finding laundromats and late-hours grocery stores.
There were also times where we were really busy during the day and left ourselves too little time to find a cool spot or campsite to stay in for the night. So, yes, there were times we ended up sleeping in Walmart parking lots.
Another negative for me was that I had to get comfortable being in a small enclosed space for long periods of time and not always have a shower at hand (though we made do by using our memberships at a large national gym chain). In warm weather we employed a shower attachment on the outside of the van; in cold weather, we looked really hard for those gym outlets.
Finally, despite the advantages of Skype and mobile hotspots, we found that there was really no replacement for face-to-face interaction -- and that the absence of interaction can put a strain on personal and working relationships. So, we really worked at maintaining close professional relationships and friendships with people we couldn't see in person.
What was perfect: I remember the day when I fully realized how unique my new working lifestyle was: We were staying for free at a remote campsite in the Alabama Hills in remote Inyo County, Calif., enjoying stunning views of Mount Whitney behind us. At the same time, I was fully connected to my employees and customers via internet and phone through our mobile hotspot.
At that moment, I recognized that I was just as connected to my business as I would have been in a traditional office in a city. And I understood how none of this would have been possible even ten years ago, technologically speaking.
As I watched the sun set over the hills, I felt a wave of gratitude to be in such a beautiful part of the country without having to take time away from running my business and sustaining my income.
That was the perfect part of my new digital nomad lifestyle: being able to get my work done for the day, then immediately step away from the van to go on a hike on scenic terrain was something I really valued, and value. Perhaps you might, too.