Lifestyle

Here’s What Happens When the Entire Planet Is Your Office

by Karen Emslie

March 28, 2016
Marcus Meurer and Felicia Hargarten founded DNX Camp in 2015 to facilitate collaboration among fellow digital nomads.

In a chilled-out, bamboo-bedecked lounge by the ocean, a group of travelers with laptops sip on freshly squeezed juices. Though one might be tempted to assume that these tourists are idly scrawling through their newsfeeds, it turns out that they’re app developers, translators, web designers, and entrepreneurs, deep into a lively discusson about their business goals.

The conversation is part of a session for a digital nomad camp on Koh Lanta, a Thai island district—one of several that Marcus Meurer and Felicia Hargarten, founders of DNX camp and DNX Global, organize all over the world. Here on the island, Meurer and Hargarten have gathered together 17 successful digital nomads for 10 days of dynamic workshops and talks. The DNX camp is about productivity—and also about well-being.

“Besides the business stuff, we work on personal growth topics, hang out together, do sports, eat healthy, and have a good time,” Meurer explains in an email sent during a spare moment between sessions.

Before the camp, the pair were in Bangkok for the DNX Digital Nomad Conference, where hundreds of other nomads met and connected. However, this vibrant network is far more interconnected and collegial than what was possible for digital nomad even a few years ago, at least according to Meurer and Hargarten, who say that there was a lack of community when they first started.

“We felt very lonely on the road, hanging out in backpacking hostels and not having like-minded entrepreneurs around us,” Meurer says.

According to Hargarten, true digital nomads aren’t the backpackers earning just enough to survive until they can buy their next plane ticket. They stop for weeks or months at a time, and build successful careers that exist almost entirely online. “It’s business first,” she says. “Traveling is a nice side effect.”

Yet these career-savvy jetsetters are not “lone wolves,” pursuing a solitary, luxurious location-independent existence. In fact, over the years, digital nomads have been quietly forging strong connections with one another online and in person, says Hargarten. But that global community has been a long time in the making. 

Spurred by the same isolation that Meurer and Hargarten experienced, Johannes Voelkner launched Webworktravela “Travel Guide for Digital Nomads” in January 2012, as well as a digital nomad Facebook group in March 2014. The group now boasts more than 12,000 members. It makes sense that nomadic communities thrive online, given that digital nomads’ work relies so heavily on technology. Yet Voelkner knew that virtual friendships are not adequate substitutes for the real thing. 

Checking in when he has a free moment while attending ITB Berlin, the world’s largest tourism trade show, Voelkner tells me that when he started out in 2010, people were exploring the digital nomad lifestyle on a much more individual basis. “When more and more people started writing about it, we got connected, and the movement started its first real-life events,” he says.

“Beside the business stuff, we work on personal growth topics, hang out together, do sports, eat healthy, and have a good time,” Marcus Meurer says.

Over time, Voelkner’s networks expanded, and he invited fellow nomads to Tarifa, Spain, to work and socialize together. Similar ventures have popped up in so-called hot spots like Chang Mai, Thailand, and Medellin, Colombia, he says. Such coworking projects allow digital nomads to swap skills and support one another professionally and personally. They’re the lifeblood of the community.

Yet this raises a crucial question: What’s the point of traveling if you’re only going to meet people who are like you? It’s a question that Hargarten has considered. She compares the digital nomad scene to the expat scene, noting that it’s easy to get sucked into a nomad bubble. “It is natural that the longer you stay at one place, the more you fall into a routine like in your former, home country,” she says.

Hargarten and Meurer combat this natural tendency by actively working and engaging with locals in the communities they visit. They invite local entrepreneurs to give talks at events and provide opportunities for photographers, videographers, event managers, and caterers. They also contribute to social and environmental projects.

Last November, the pair crossed the Atlantic aboard a passenger ship as it was repositioning from Europe to South America. They weren’t alone—more than 100 digital nomads were on board, transforming what had been a scheduled trip for random tourists into a transatlantic meet-up led by Voelkner. The ship docked in Salvador, Brazil, where Meurer and Hargarten have set up a charity to help street kids. And, in 2013, they worked with families in Kuta, a village on the Indonesian island Lombok, next to Bali, to help send kids to school.

So warm-weathered Wi-Fi access isn’t digital nomads’ only pursuit? No, Hargarten insists, though the image of a relaxed digital nomad with a laptop on the beach persists in public perception. “Unfortunately there are still people that don’t get this lifestyle right. We try to do as much as we can to give a real picture of what it really looks like.”

Meurer and Hargarten think that digital nomads have something more meaningful to leave behind than footprints in the sand, and Voelkner shares this sentiment. While nomads contribute hard cash to the places where they set up shop, Voelkner believes they could (and should) do more, such as “spark entrepreneurship and really leave a positive impact by helping these communities to grow.” 

There’s no way around it: combining work with travel is a privilege. Yet Meurer, Hargarten, and Voelkner are on the leading edge of a movement to turn the digital nomad lifestyle into one that includes responsible choices as part of its very make-up. These are exciting times for digital nomads, Meurer says, but he knows that digital nomads will face increasing scrutiny as its popularity grows. 

“We should be aware that the world is watching us. We are an important part of the future of work,” Meurer says. “We should be humble for all the opportunities we have, and use them wisely, in harmony with local communities.”

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Here’s What Happens When the Entire Planet Is Your Office