Venturing Abroad: A Year as a Digital Nomad — with Michael North
Michael North works for Levanto Financial, where he helps people reach their financial goals by pairing them with their very own Household CFO. This combination of expert advice, paired with meaningful and actionable insights into their household cash flow gets results that they just don’t see with “DIY” products. He is the company’s CTO and function as the head of product as well.
Right now I’m in Kyoto, and in 2016 the list of places I will have visited is:
San Francisco, CA, USA
Seattle, WA, USA
Boston, MA, USA
Orlando, FL, USA
Washington, DC, USA
Sao Paulo, Brazil
Minneapolis, MN, USA
Epic list indeed. It’s crazy to write it all down, even if I omit re-visits!
Why and how did you get into this venture?
I had been introduced to Daniel Chen, Levanto’s CEO, by someone we both know. He was looking to vet CTO candidates for the company, and had nobody technical enough to probe deeply enough on staff already. I love helping startups, and did a lot of consulting as a “temporary tech co-founder” in the past, so I was happy to gave him a hand. Eventually the conversation led to me potentially filling the role myself. I’ve been working towards “un-chaining” myself from my desk for the last 10 years or so, and I presented this idea to Daniel as part of the deal.
As for why I got into this venture— like many people I was a little financially irresponsible right out of grad school. I ended up running up about $11K in credit card debt to furnish an apartment, and it took me several years (and a lot of stress) to pay it off. I can identify feeling “being too busy to make sure every dollar is working hard for me”, and it turns out millions of people in the USA have this same problem. The Atlantic came out with an article earlier this year saying that 35% of high-income Americans would have trouble coming up with a spare $1000 for an emergency — with the right expertise and the right product, we can make these peoples’ lives better.
You mentioned being in debt after finishing up grad school. Being a recent graduate as well, I can completely understand the overwhelming burden that comes from. Other than becoming a digital nomad, how were you able to pay off your debts?
Mainly, I made some extra money by starting a web product design & development consultancy, which I managed at night after my day job.
How long have you been traveling and what are things that you’d always pack no matter where you travel?
I’ve been fully remote for nearly a year now, and have been traveling almost constantly the whole time. Because making sure I can get a lot of work done is a top priority (more so than keeping expenses as low as possible, or being a “minimalist”) I travel with a few things that ensure I can always be productive:
My iPhone, including a ChatSim sim card, with a KnowRoaming sticker on it. This means can have cheap “chat only” connectivity almost anywhere in the world, or step up to a per-day unlimited data plan for a day or two if I need to.
A WiFi hotspot. Most of the ones I’ve ended up renting are junk because they’ve been dropped, squashed, crushed, etc…
15″ Macbook Pro, w/ iPad Pro as a second monitor
Two huge 100mAh batteries for the macbook, in case I don’t get a seat next to a power outlet in a cafe
A muti-country power adapter, and a 3-outlet Belkin power strip (makes me really popular at airports)
A great pair of over-ear headphones and a pair of apple earpods
What was the moment that made you decide to pursue being a digital nomad?
If I had to pick a particular moment, it would have been when I decided to leave Yahoo. I talked to a few mentors who have helped guide me over the past few years, and they encouraged me to not just think about what job I want next, but how I want my life to take shape. Being able to travel, see the world, mix with technologists in different countries, expand my understanding of humanity — these are things I don’t want to wait to experience. I just felt like it was the right time where working from anywhere could be done easily, without destroying my productivity. Once I started doing it, I ran into all sorts of snags (like trying to find the best places to work from — thanks WHA!), but have tried to “debug” as best as I can along the way. Now I’m conspicuously well prepared!
“Do your best to be flexible, and be forgiving of yourself”
What’s the toughest challenge you face (or faced) being a digital nomad and working remotely?
Honestly, finding places to be productive was and is still the biggest challenge. It turns out that, for me, a good work environment with a good vibe can be the difference between “getting a few things done” and being on fire with inspiration. In the right environment, I can produce great work as fast as I can type. In a bad one, it’s much harder to be at my best. Work Hard Anywhere has been a game-changer for me, and I’m glad I found it in the first two weeks of becoming a digital nomad. I remember my first trip to Tokyo — I was three days into the week and felt like I had spent all my time searching for cafes, being politely asked to leave after spending an hour or two working at each one, etc…
Any other digital nomadic traveler(s) you lookup to? Why?
One of my open-source colleagues, Igor Terzic, was a nomad for many years, and not by choice. Recently he’s settled down in San Francisco, but he was able to have a profound impact on the tech community even while moving around all the time. I’m sure it’s quite different when you can’t just go home if you feel like it, but his success over such a long period of time gave me confidence that you don’t have to choose between being ambitious and being a digital nomad. Ivan Vanderbyl (works at flood IO) is also a nomad I look up to. He tends to stick around in one place as long as his visa allows, but more proof that you can be successful in a high-impact and demanding role, even when working remotely nearly all the time.
Are you working on any personal projects you’d like share?
I’m also starting up a side project with fellow nomad Lisa Huang that will help frequent travelers book better flights more easily. This is a skill I learned as a digital nomad— how to pay bottom dollar for great flights — fly in newer planes with better seats, fast wifi , global lounge access AND rack up miles like crazy. We’re even able to, in many cases, add extra stops to your journey without increasing the cost of airfare!
Do you have a favorite workspace outside of home and corporate offices?
My favorite place to work is in the Dongmen area of Taipei. There are about two dozen great cafes there, which are open until late at night, serving great coffee and beer. It’s near Shida University so there are always lots of people studying and working for hours and hours at a time there. I love that area so much that I rented an apartment down the street, to use whenever I’m in town.
What advice would you give a person interested in becoming a digital nomad?
Do your best to be flexible, and be forgiving of yourself. Sometimes there’s a language barrier, and you won’t get the food you ordered, or you’ll miss your train stop, or you’ll buy the wrong ticket for something. This happens much more often when you’re a nomad, and you can’t let it ruin your day.
Take responsibility for making sure you function well within your team. Working remotely is a great privilege. If communication starts to break down, or you can’t deliver results, the first thing that’s likely to happen is you’ll be called back into the office. Earn the privilege by over-delivering whenever possible.
Make sure you stop to enjoy your surroundings, but don’t stress out if you miss opportunities. You’re not a full-time tourist, and you have a luxury that tourists don’t really have (to the same extent) — you can come back!
Three tips on making the transition to being a nomad as smoothly as possible:
Prioritize ruthlessly – This piece of advice can apply in a few different ways. You can’t carry much with you, so it had better be the stuff that’s most important! Also, you’ll have many opportunities to have fun in amazing new places, but remember you’re not on vacation, so you have to be OK with missing a few things
Debug quickly – If there’s something that’s not letting you be at 100%, put some time into finding a solution. Also, simplify away redundancies you don’t need. In my case, I started by carrying two laptops around with me in case one broke. Now I just use two external batteries with a single laptop, and back my machine up to an external drive daily.
Be a part of the nomad community – There are people who have come before you, who have figured a lot of great stuff out. Talk to them, exchange ideas, share tips and bucket lists! Putting some time into social media is also important because you can find community in advance of landing in a new place.