Who among us hasn’t dreamed of jacking in their day job to trade forex from a laptop in Malibu or open a beach bar in Thailand?
You might have read The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss and asked why you haven’t yet “escaped the nine-to-five to live anywhere and join the new rich”. I know I did.
Last autumn, I left my job of ten years to go freelance. Two weeks later, my partner was made redundant. The timing couldn’t have been worse, but we were determined to turn our dubious new freedom into a positive, and decided to give Los Angeles a whirl, living as so-called “digital nomads” (we cringe at the term, too, but that’s what the cognoscenti has determined to call this new breed of laptop-wielding self employed). I would be able to pick up commissions from back home, and my partner could enjoy some time off in the sun while keeping an eye out for new jobs.
In the UK, there are more than 2m freelancers – a 43 per cent increase since 2008, according to industry body IPSE. In 2016, these people contributed £119bn to the UK economy, a rise of £10bn on the year before. The trend is even more pronounced in the US, where according to a study by the Freelancers Union, 35 per cent of the workforce are freelance. These 55m people collectively generate $1trn a year.
Much has been written about the negative aspects of the “Uberification” of work, but data from the US shows that 63 per cent of people chose to go freelance rather than doing it out of necessity, 73 per cent said technology has made it easier to find work and a third said the amount of work they have has increased in the past year.
So what’s it like to join the “flat white economy” (so called because of the digital nomad’s penchant for using coffee shops as offices)? Getting to LA was easy – I had a journalist visa but a simple ESTA should cover you, providing you’re not in the country for more than 90 days. I then spent a few hours scouring listings on Airbnb until I found a place in the Hollywood Hills called the Handlebar Treehouse. It was available for a whole month, had wifi, looked well appointed and, most importantly, had a terrace with 180-degree views of the city.
Everyone tells you that you can’t live in LA without a car, which was probably true until Uber and Lyft came along. We used them for the entire trip (handy tip – link your Uber account to a Monzo or Revolut cash card so you don’t pay foreign transaction fees), which cost around £250 a week, but for that you don’t have to worry about car hire, drinking and driving, parking, tips for valets, petrol or insurance. Digital nomads no longer need their own wheels.
First impressions: LA is a nice place to do business. In the mornings, I woke at 6am to the sun flooding the apartment – during the first few days, that was down to jet lag, but I tried to stick to the routine. At times, living the dream in warmer climes, feels a little too relaxed. It’s easy to feel like you’re on holiday, rather than being an important, participating member of the free and mobile 21st century workforce.
I decided to take some advice on how to maximise both my productivity and my tan. Elizabeth Day is a freelance journalist and author of The Party. She also based herself in LA last winter. She says if you don’t have an office to show up to every day, you need discipline. “I worked out quite early on that the key for me was getting out of my apartment as quickly as I could in the morning. Otherwise you disappear into a quicksand of email admin and you’re still in your pyjamas come lunchtime. I would wake up, get dressed, go and do some exercise or grab a tea, and then settle down to the day’s work, which helped get my mind into focus.”
Alex Holder has a similar story: she went freelance after working her way to the top of the advertising industry by the age of 30. She’s now working remotely in Bali with her partner and young child. “My first few weeks in Bali were chaotic and messy because we couldn’t find a place to work that had both a good desk and good wifi,” she says. “Now we wake up at 6am and have breakfast with our son. At 10am a nanny comes and we go to a work hub or local cafe, where we work at our computers for a few hours. The nanny goes at 4pm and then it’s family pool time or dinner at a beach club.”
I tried to take a leaf out of both books. The eight-hour time difference (at 7am in LA it is 3pm in London), meant I could get my emails done before the end of the UK working day, for instance, although waking up to a deluged inbox was always a bit of a drain.
After I’d finished with emails, I’d typically head into West Hollywood for a post rush-hour workout at Barry’s Bootcamp or Cycle House. I’d be back at the treehouse by 1.30pm and spend the afternoon writing features, researching ideas, prepping for interviews and working on my travel trend forecasting website (globetrendermagazine.com). Part of my decision to be in LA was to enjoy a slower pace of life, so I put in fewer hours than back home (about 30 a week). As long as I met my deadlines, I tried to be flexible in when and how much I worked, although sometimes this did mean getting my laptop out at weekends.
I was happy setting up a workstation on the terrace most days, but I also spent time at the LA outpost of Soho House, which proved invaluable for conducting interviews, and also for eating lunch when I got bored of making salads every day. Unlike London, which has dozens of private members’ clubs for professionals, LA lags behind. However, this summer, a branch of London’s Hospital Club, with 36 bedrooms and interiors designed by Russell Sage, is expected to open in the former Redbury hotel on Hollywood and Vine.
For those who don’t work in the creative industries (Soho House and Hospital are picky about who they accept), an alternative is WeWork, owner of 235 co-working spaces around the world, with aggressive expansion plans. Its offices all have industrial-cool communal areas, high-speed wifi, meeting rooms, free coffee and free beer. Hot-desks in LA cost from $350 a month, and if you book a “business travel ready” Airbnb (via airbnb.com/businesstravel), you can claim a free day’s access to see whether it’s for you.
Having lived this lifestyle for the last few months, the thought of going back to a nine-to-five office job sends shivers down my spine. I work fewer hours and earn more money. Not having a boss is liberating. I was surprised how quickly the feeling of being a tourist subsided once I started getting some work done, although the endless days of sunshine, lunches at the Beverly Hills hotel and boulevards lined with palm trees didn’t get old. And once things start feeling “normal”, it’s probably time to move on.
Most people in this position travel between countries or back and forth from their home base (where they pay taxes and have bank accounts), so tourist visas should suffice, as long as you’re not conducting big business deals in the host country. At least until Brexit (and possibly after, who knows), it remains easy to work anywhere in Europe (Lisbon, Berlin and Budapest are hotspots). Further afield, Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand, Medellin in Colombia, Ubud in Bali, Florianopolis in Brazil, Cape Town, Melbourne and Siem Riep in Cambodia are all popular choices for remote workers.
To stay longer than 90 days in the US, you’ll need to apply for a visa, which is getting trickier. Your best bet is probably a “special immigrant visa”, which has a sub-group for “persons with extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics”, known as an E2. Otherwise, you will have to leave and re-enter the US on your ESTA, which is what a true digital nomad would do in any case.
For me, that meant the South of France for Christmas, and my next stop is the Caribbean. If that’s not enough to convince you to hand in your notice, I don’t know what is.