Road warriors

Laptops and other devices allow people the freedom to work

The only permanent home for Jen Harvey and Steven Hugg at the
moment is their web address.
The only permanent home for Jen Harvey and Steven Hugg at the moment is their web address.

After years of working information technology jobs in the Washington area, the couple last year chose to ditch their permanent home and hit the road while building their startup business. They use laptops, cellphones and cheap web services to handle millions of users of their HeyTell application, a popular messaging app that turns smartphones into virtual walkie-talkies, which has turned into their full-time job.

Instead of office jobs, a pricey rental in Bethesda and a Beltway commute, they now stay in short-term vacation home rentals on sunny beaches and visit friends and family whenever they wish. Over the past year, they’ve traveled the country from Austin, Texas, to Seattle, with a stop at Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood mixed in. They’re now calling a beachside rental in San Diego home, for the time being.

Traveling “keeps us motivated,” said Hugg. “When we have to travel, it shakes us up a little bit. It makes us more productive.”

Hugg and Harvey, who are in their late 30s, are members of a growing community of workers who are taking advantage of technology – the latest gadgets, plus widespread Internet connectivity – to combine work, play and travel, all full-time.

These digital nomads are at one extreme of a broadening range of options for workers in the growing knowledge economy. Millions of workers are beginning to benefit from a confluence of factors – from advances in mobile communications to a stagnant real estate market – that are un-tethering some from an office.

“I think that as the physical location of where you work becomes less critical, the place you live becomes more important,” said Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class.” “I think many of them are out there looking for a place that suits them.”

Florida, a professor of business and creativity at the University of Toronto, sees the rise of digital nomadism as rooted in capitalism. Individuals and businesses can save money by cutting the costs of offices and transportation to and from work.

“I think this is capitalism becoming more efficient, with new ways of working for knowledge workers,” Florida said.

While digital nomads have been around practically since the dawn of the Internet, the phenomenon has grown in recent years. According to WorldatWork, a worldwide nonprofit human resources organization that tracks worker demographics, the number of employees allowed to work from outside the office at least once a month nearly doubled from 2005 to 2008, to 17.2 million. Another estimate from the Telework Research Network puts the number of mobile workers who regularly work while on the road at around 15 million to 20 million.

A survey this month of 1,000 business professionals by Skype, the online video chat and phone service, found that companies are shifting toward a “living workplace” model, where workers can work from home, a client’s office, a coffee shop or wherever they choose to be. The survey showed that 62 percent of firms have remote workers, who work either full- or part-time outside the office. On average, these workers spend 40 percent of their time working from outside the office.

Today, mobile phones and smartphones are ubiquitous and allow people to connect with people both personally and professionally instantaneously. Social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, bring people closer together online despite physical distance. And online video-chatting is inexpensive – or even free – allowing workers to tie in with their colleagues wherever they all are.

“We’re seeing more and more companies – even very large, nationally recognized organizations with lots of U.S.-based staff – move to a virtualized office environment,” said Amy Webb, chief executive of Webbmedia Group, an international digital strategy firm based in Baltimore. “It provides an incredible cost savings for small businesses, especially. Most do not really need to rent traditional office space.”

Digital nomads take their independence many steps further than telecommuters, who may only telecommute a couple times a month. No, digital nomads are hard-core.

Some other terms for them include “technomads” or “location-independent” people. Their numbers are hard to quantify, but there are many websites and blogs that offer online communities for people who are both working and traveling worldwide.

One website, Technomadia.com, is a chronicle of work and travel by Chris Dunphy, 37, and Cherie Ve Ard, 38, who work as software developers while traveling full-time across the United States. They spent this past winter in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and are now travelling in Florida.

Last month, they traveled to the South By Southwest interactive festival in Austin, Texas, where they gave a presentation to more than 40 people interested in full-time work and travel. Hugg and Harvey, the HeyTell app developers, were at their talk.

Dunphy and Ve Ard have been on the road for nearly four years, and they live primarily out of a camper. They pay income and corporate taxes to South Dakota, a state they chose to be their legal personal domicile, and they also have drivers’ licenses from that state. Health insurance is more expensive than they would like, since most plans are regionally based and they need country-wide access to medical care.

Some of Ve Ard’s clients were initially concerned that she would be so mobile and feared she’d be hard to reach. But she’s been able to take care of their needs well, she said.

“My accessibility is the same it’s always been,” Ve Ard said. “Most of them think (the traveling) is kind of cool…. We are a true living laboratory for mobile living.”

Through their website, the couple coaches people on how to live and work while traveling and doing it debt-free. They have found that as long as they have income coming in, it can be less expensive to travel and work than to stay in one place. For instance, campgrounds and off-season vacation rentals can be cheaper than paying a mortgage or rent.

“It can be cheaper to live on the road than living in a house,” Ve Ard said. “And as long as you have an income, you can be mobile.”

Depending on how much driving digital nomads do with a car, they may find that they’re actually driving fewer miles in a year than if they were commuting from a suburb to work, according to Dunphy, who used to work in Silicon Valley and commute 90 miles a day, or more than 20,000 miles a year. While traveling the country nowadays, he estimates they average up to 14,000 miles a year.

Not all digital nomads are independent business owners or freelancers. Heather Van De Mark, a senior designer with Groove Commerce, a Baltimore-based e-commerce company, negotiated with her boss the freedom to leave Baltimore and travel, while also fulfilling her regular work duties remotely.

The 26-year-old upstate New York native graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Baltimore and had lived in the city for a couple of years. She found that she liked her job but was ready to see other parts of the country.

“I’ve only lived in Ithaca and Baltimore and I was like, ‘Man, I should really see some other places.'”

The new arrangement started out as a tentative experiment in August, but Van De Mark and her boss, P.J. Gill, have made it work beyond its early phase. She returns to the office about once a month to catch up with him and others.

“Happy employees make happy clients, and it drives business, so I’m cool with it,” said Gill.

Meantime, Van De Mark has visited 10 states and stays in short-term rentals or finds house-sitting opportunities. But lately, she seems to be gravitating toward Brooklyn, N.Y., for its culture and variety of social experiences.

“I have very few expenses, no rent, no cell phone bill (Groove pays for it). … It’s really just food and transportation. All this traveling is strangely really good financially for the savings.”

For Hugg and Harvey, they’ve watched their HeyTell application grow from a few dozen downloads last year to more than 5 million so far. The application is free, but they sell upgrades that users can buy to enhance their experience, such as a voice-altering feature. And they also make money from featuring advertising through the app. So far, they say, their business has been profitable.

But Hugg and Harvey, Van De Mark and the Technomadia couple all agree that the digital nomad lifestyle may not be for everyone. Many people like being rooted to a particular place. So, if you don’t have a certain amount of wanderlust, such a life of travel and work could become a grind, they say.

“It’s still fun,” said Harvey. “There are times when it’s stressful. But we’re sitting here looking at the bay and the ocean. I don’t think we can complain right now.”

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