Our guests today are Marcus and Feli, founders of DNX – the first digital nomad conference. We asked them to share their story from the very zero and lessons learned.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you are currently up to?
Hi guys, we are Marcus & Feli a digital nomad couple from Berlin, Germany.
We are founders of the first conference for Digital Nomads – DNX. At the moment we live in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Berlin is our homebase when we are not traveling.
We came back a few weeks ago from Curacao, and before that we ventured to Colombia and Brazil over the winter months. We always travel and work location independent in the winter when it gets cold in Germany.
We came back at the beginning of March because we were invited to speak on a panel about the future of work at the world’s leading travel trade show, ITB. We will stay in Berlin until our German-speaking DNX – Digital Nomad Conference, which takes place in May 2015. We also still have to do some last checks with the location, catering, technique, etc.
You can organize quite a lot from on the road as an event organizer. Before the event with 500 people you also have to check some things on the spot as well, of course.
After the German-speaking DNX conference, we will move to Tarifa in Spain to work from there and learn kite surfing.
We will come back in June to organize the first international English-speaking DNX GLOBAL conference, taking place on the 31st of July and 1st of August 2015. We will have speakers like Pieter Levels, Mark Manson, Derek Sivers and Natalie Sisson at DNX GLOBAL.
What drove your motivation to start a nomad conference and what kind of impact are you aiming to achieve?
We love to connect people and exchange know-how — in real life. We are both very extroverted and also love to host people. We have a huge network to connect people all over the world.
We want to raise more awareness on the topic in the working world and show more people that the Internet is their chance for more personal freedom. They can be valuable to others while earning money from everywhere and build an audience. For those who started an online business already, we want to help them take it to the next level or help them get out on the road and enjoy traveling.
The world is changing but most of our “systems” are still the same.
As we have worked in the online marketing scene for many years we are annoyed by the “get rich quickly“ scams that give earning money via the Internet a bad image. We want to change that and want to show that you can build real sustainable business models that provide value. Most of the time it takes up to three years, depending on your background, until you earn what you earned before in your old job as an employee. It is not easy, but it is absolutely doable.
For a start, the easiest way to make money is to freelance and to start your own projects beside that. We think many people just don’t have enough patience. Some things need time. Many also underestimate what it really takes to live this lifestyle, have wrong expectations and forget about the sacrifices you have to make. There are also still so many people who mistake it for recreational world traveling.
A world trip, however, is indeed a good start if you really want this lifestyle and to get business ideas. Being on the road, far away from home, with new sights and sounds can boost your creativity.
We believe that the world will be a better place once more people travel and get to know other people and cultures.
The DNX conference is the place where trends of the digital nomad are set and discussed. DNX is the platform where the scene comes together in real life.
As for your personal experience – how did your nomadic lifestyle start and how did you handle the transition to working remotely?
We started very simple. We quit our jobs at exactly the same time and went to Thailand together with our notebooks just two weeks later. Before we took off, Marcus founded a company in Germany. We sold most of our stuff and sub-rented our flat.
But don’t think that the decision to start from ZERO again was easy for us.
We both can adapt very well to new surroundings and circumstances. We also knew that we wanted this lifestyle 100% and did not want to wait until our savings were gone. That’s why we started very quickly.
We both worked for online startups as online marketing manager and communication & event manager. We were with StepStone – Europe’s biggest online job board, Zanox – affiliate marketplace and Searchmetrics – search and social analytics tool. Marcus had already dived into some client jobs besides his work as an employee. We already had a big network and were able to find our first clients because of that. We started to offer our services quite cheap.
Well, after a while we realized that we CAN earn money and run an Adwords campaign for a company, build websites and handle their SEO and content while being on the road. The thing was we didn’t really like working for others. After seven years of work experience in Internet companies, we had a much bigger picture in mind.
We started to build up a virtual team to help us execute the jobs so that we were able to scale the business. We cared about the lead generation, communication with the customers and quality control, of course. We were no longer freelancers but entrepreneurs. That was what we wanted.
It turns out that it is not so easy to find good and reliable people for that. This is why we ended up still doing the work ourselves in the beginning.
The best thing that could ever happen was that we started Travelicia, our professional blog for backpacking & adventure travel in the Philippines. We did content marketing, Facebook marketing, email marketing, SEO as well, but it was for our own project.
The travel blog increased our reach and awareness and gave us lots of new possibilities.
So our challenge turned from: “Let’s do something to make money!” into “What do we really want to do?” We had to be honest with ourselves.
Where are you based now? What’s the best thing about traveling/working there?
A few weeks ago we just came back from South America to our homebase in Berlin, Germany.
Berlin has a very special vibe you cannot find in other German cities. It is very international and open minded. You have lots of individualists, artists and creative people.
There are so many things to do that it would take years to check it all out. It just doesn’t get boring. Berlin is also called the German “Silicon Valley,” so you will easily meet a lot of like-minded people and a lot of Internet startups here. It’s a very motivating and inspirational environment.
Furthermore it is very centrally located in Europe, and you can get cheap flights to and from Berlin. The Internet speed is perfect everywhere. You can also buy a local SIM card from “Congstar.”
If you have a “green lifestyle” or love yoga, Berlin has a lot to offer. The nightlife is also very outstanding and varied.
You have a Western standard in Berlin, and the costs of living are still very reasonable.
It’s a hotspot for startups here. You have lots of meetups, events, workshops and lots of different coworking spaces and cafés:
Siliconallee, Venture Village, Berlin Valley, Meetup.com, betahaus program.
What worked well for you to keep yourself productive and push your products/services forward while being on the road? What helps you to stay on track and focus?
After the first months of being on the road as entrepreneurs we came to the point that we needed routines. The tipping point was that too many decisions each day made us tired. These were not only work related but also about our daily life:
What do I eat for breakfast? Which task do I do first? When do I work? Where do I work? What do I do for exercise today?
Unless you have an appointment or Skype call, you can schedule your day all by yourself. This is at times really overwhelming. Besides that, you often have to face new experiences on the road that keep your brain busy.
So we read everything we could find about routines and how other entrepreneurs solve that and started to test a lot to see what fits best for us.
What decided on:
- We get up early before 8 a.m.
- We have breakfast. Each day the same: Müsli with yogurt and fruits with a green tea.
- We fill out our daily journal and answer three questions:
- I am grateful for (three points)
- What would make today great? (three points)
- Daily affirmation: I am …..
- We meditate 10-15 minutes with the app Headspace
- We do the 7-Minute app for functional exercise. You can do it wherever you are
- We do the most important task of the day first. We write it down on a sheet of paper the night before. While doing the MIT we use the SelfControl app to block the Gmail account, social media channels and other distractions.
To get into our routines we put post-its on the wall. Initially we used Coach.me. But sometimes there are things that work better offline, too.
Generally Saturday and Sunday we are free of routines. Sometimes we do some of them because it just feels good. Of course, there are also days when we do not stick to all the points of our routines. On those days we also don’t think “Oh no, we didn’t make it,” but rather we take pride in every task we did complete.
What are some of the most surprising discoveries you made about nomadic life and work style?
After a while it gets kind of “normal.” You get used to being a freelancer and entrepreneur with more freedom to travel. You could also use more time for family and kids.
When you have faced a lot of challenges and found solutions for arising problems, you are always looking for the next bigger challenge. But what could that be?
The other thing is: Nothing lasts forever. Even when you start something you are really passionate about, you might still find it boring after a while.
So you are never “ready” and you’ve never entirely “made it.” It’s a lifestyle that constantly changes you, and you have to reinvent yourself again and again. Maybe one day you’ll even get tired of traveling.
What are the biggest challenges of being a digital nomad and how do you handle them?
For us the housing is a bit of a problem. As we said our homebase is in Berlin. We do have a flat but it is sub-rented long term. We just keep it because in Germany we need to have a physical address for us and our company. Our mail is forwarded by a service called Dropscan. They scan our mail and provide it by email. But there are a few things that are not forwarded, like letters from the government. At “Deutsche Post” we also have a free post box for parcels.
So if we come back to Berlin for the summer months we always have to look for a flat for sub-rent. Last summer we moved to five different places in different districts of Berlin. We always find something but it’s challenging to have a smooth transition. Sometimes there are some days in-between we have to bridge the gap with a few days at Airbnb places.
We do not have a lot of things, but in Berlin we have more than just a backpack like on the road. We have a few more clothes here and some sports equipment. So we always take a car from a car sharing provider to bring our stuff from point A to B.
We store those items in a “storage box” in Berlin Neukölln when we are on the road.
Psychologically, it’s hard to be “alone.” We are a digital nomad couple but still need like-minded people around us. So we always try to meet a lot of people wherever we are or ask others if they also want to come to a certain spot. We go to work in coworking spaces and keep connected online with others. When we are in Germany we always have so much more self-doubt than on the road. This is also a challenge. On the road we always have more courage.
Financially, it is important to keep the overview. Do not spend more than you earn. We do it with Google tables and use Fastbill, a really cool tool for our accounting.
As Marcus has a company and Feli is self-employed we also have to divide our earnings between each other properly. Basically Feli bills Marcus an invoice as we do everything via the company.
We also have a tax accountant helping us. In Germany you have to take care of the “value-added tax.” You can pay them quarterly or yearly. Some people forget about that and get a shock at the end of the year over how much they still have to pay the government. Besides that you also have to pay corporation tax and income tax.
Before we started as digital nomads we cut our fixed costs down as low as possible and became minimalists as we didn’t know how much would come in each month. We spend more or less the same amount each month. Some months you make more, then you save it for the months that are not going that well.
Now we have a stable monthly income and still love to live as minimalists. It’s not only good for your wallet but also good to free your mind.
The last problem concerning finances we had to face was what we do with our savings. If you are self-employed you don’t pay retirement provision. So we wanted to save at least a bit for it.
Now we decided on ETF equity funds.
If you could give yourself any advice when you were just starting traveling and working what would it be? What would you do differently?
To be honest – not much. I think we did a lot of things right from the beginning. One mistake we made several times is that we booked a return flight some months later. But we ended up somewhere other than where we originally expected.
When we were in Central America we ended up in Honduras and had a flight back from Cancun in Mexico. It was quite expensive to fly from San Pedro Sula, Honduras back to Cancun.
Another time we ended up in Bali and had a flight back from Singapore. But because the flights are quite cheap in Asia this was not a big problem.
In South America, however, we cancelled our flight back from Brazil. It was cheaper to book two completely new flights from Colombia to Curacao and from there back to Berlin than to fly from Colombia back to Brazil.
The flight prices in Central and South America are high as soon as you fly from one country to another.
So the advice is: The longer you travel the more you should think about buying a one way ticket.
We also made things too complicated in the beginning, shaped by our previous corporate jobs. We had to get into the correct mindset to just start things.
What do you think is the future of remote work and digital nomadism and how do you see it manifest in the years to come?
We see that it is a huge topic that many people are interested in. Solopreneurship will become more popular. People who are online entrepreneurs without an office but a remote team. They have more freedom than freelancers.
There will be more and more offers for digital nomads and doing this lifestyle will become much easier. Internet connections all over the world will improve, nomad housing and co-working spaces and camps are increasing.
For companies, there are first movers already, but it will take some years before we will see bigger changes there.
What are your next life, work and travel goals?
After the German DNX – Digital Nomad Conference in May 2015 we have a one way ticket to Malaga in Spain. From there we want to go to Tarifa. In Tarifa, we want to meet more digital nomads and take kitesurfing lessons. Tarifa has a very strong wind. It is directly in front of Morocco. A friend of ours knows some people who can give us private kitesurfing lessons there.
We fell in love with kitesurfing a few month ago in Brazil and definitely want to become better at it. Enjoying different kinds of sports is one of our passions.
We will stay in Tarifa at La Cocotera – Working Hostel.
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How Marcus and Feli started the first digital nomad conference