We recently had the pleasure of talking to long-time digital nomad and entrepreneur Eli David. There’s a lot to get through but it’s worth persevering because Eli is both extremely insightful and very funny! Let’s get started…
On his background and transitioning into the digital nomad lifestyle
I used to be an accountant, I worked in companies like BDO and KPMG. Basically that was about seven years ago. I wasn’t too happy with grind of the 9-5 and then I had an opportunity. I actually got fired and I had a relationship that broke, so it was like a good spot to make a change. You have a lot more flexibility when you’re out of a relationship and out of a job.
I just decided to go for this lifestyle. I started traveling, I’m basically travelling every three months. I’ve lived in more than 30 countries. When I started, I started as a freelancer. Slowly built a niche of preparing business plans for people and that’s where OK money was arriving. I also started a language school called Lingolearn that I have until today.
Yeah, over the years the opportunity to build startups just came up. I said “OK let’s go for this one (StartupBlink) as well” because I really like startups and startup ecosystems and so on. We keep on developing it and trying to make it a little bit better. It’s a very bootstrapped project but very fun to work on.
And yeah, I also have the blog – Become Nomad – I have a little bit of time now so I try to do a little bit of podcasting and blogging, but that’s very much a hobby. So that’s very much what I do on the career side.
Basically, this article I wrote for myself as a guide for when I feel lost. This is kind of where I structure my life in a way, so it’s a very specific personal case study. It’s surprising to hear other people find value in it. I guess what I was trying to do was tell people “don’t read the article but try to build your own version of it.”
If you’re going to get on the road you’re going to need to set a few rules and routines because if not it’s going to be too overwhelming, too many decisions. When you get too much freedom, it can work against you in a way. That’s my favourite article but I’m surprised that someone is reading it.
I’m careful about two things. One is to say to other people “this is the way to live this lifestyle” because I think we’re all so different that each of us should build their own article and your article basically is going to be totally different from mine because you have another mindset and so on and you don’t want to copy paste someone else’s routine, because that’s not your routine. It’s not the optimal thing for you.
And also in the general broader sense, I’m a lot more careful to advise people to actually jump on this lifestyle.
When I look deep into most digital nomads, most of them are in the first year. You ask yourself why are most people in their first year and why people who are the leaders of the trend, like Tim Ferris, living in San Francisco and don’t move.
I follow a lot of bloggers and a lot of them have these blog posts like “I just bought this house and I decided to settle down” and they keep on blogging but they’re located in one place. And the reason is, I don’t see the lifestyle as sustainable. Many people are in the first year because everyone is leaving this lifestyle.
I can actually count on one hand the number of people I know who are actually practicing digital nomads with a longterm principle of moving between locations. So, I’m also very careful of advocating this lifestyle because I think it’s not sustainable for the vast majority of people.
That’s kind of a point when you dive deeper. You see a lot of people leaving it. Everyone who is in Chaing Mai will say they are a digital nomad but if you look at their lifestyles they’re actually in Chiang Mai for years, that’s their base and they don’t move a lot. So they’re kind of expats in a way.
And I’m saying it only to say that that this lifestyle is very difficult and not so sustainable so I’m also not recommending people to do it.
On the first things to do upon arriving in a new place
Currently my routine in a new place is that I give myself a week to understand if I want to stay.
The idea is, sometimes you don’t know if you have a good connection to a place until you walk in the streets a little bit and then you can decide.
I guess the deal breaker for me would be, is there a co working space or not? Because ,if there isn’t, I’m simply not going to go because of my lifestyle. Once the coworking part is settled, then I get to the accommodation.
I check accommodation to see what are the options, what are the prices, are there the things that I’m looking for, usually air bnb, booking.com, a place with a little bit more interaction or a place I can rent for a month, so it keeps on changing.
Then I also try to build my routines, find the place where I walk in the morning and so on, it’s very important for me to do a morning walk in nature.
The social side is incredibly important when you travel alone. I also have a list of resources that I use on the social thing, like the culture theme, to meet people and so, to be hosted and get hosted. Meetup.com to go to meetups. I’m a member of a closed location independent entrepreneurs community called the Dynamite Circle that I use to meet people while traveling.
So there is like a list of things I use to actually meet people while traveling which is very important. There is a checklist in a way. It’s kind of funny because you mark these on the checklist and when you’re done you start over in a new place. It’s a kind of a never ending, meaningless circle. But yeah, that’s basically the routine.
On meeting local people
The vast majority of my interaction is with local people because, first of all, I think it’s more interesting when you travel to a country to know local people.
Second of all, my week looks like a local’s week. So I work in the week and then I take the weekend off. So, basically, I have to adjust myself to people who are doing the same as I do so and local people are the best for that.
Thirdly, I’m not that into digital nomad hubs. Most digital nomads are very much focused on hubs like Chiang Mai or Barcelona or whatever.
I was recently two months in Minsk in Belarus, two months in Kishinev in Moldova. You know, places like that where you don’t even see a digital nomad in your entire stay. I’m not really looking for the company of fellow digital nomads or expats although I think I should do more of that because these are more of the relationships that stay with me in the long term because these are people with the same mindset.
I also like the special places that are very un-touristy in a way. For some reason I enjoy them more. You know, the weird places, you could even say that something is wrong in a way. Like Moldova or Minsk or whatever. So, I enjoy those place more but they are not hubs, they’re not meeting points for nomads.
One of the articles that I have in the blog is trending locations for digital nomads. I just gathered all the information there about the locations. I kind of decided I wanted to travel to more hubs and mingle a little bit more with digital nomads. In the beginning I didn’t and now I’m trying to mingle a little bit more. So I’m kind of experimenting on this.
The problem is that most of the local people I meet are through AirBnb if I stay with them, or at the coworking space. I started to understand that I don’t really have a preference.
On similarities between places
The minute that you travel for a very long time, you see that most of the world is the same. It’s not like in the beginning when you go to a place and you’re like “whoa, that’s new.”
You start seeing a lot of similarities between places. What I’ve seen now in Malaga, I probably saw in about ten other places. Things that would be new to me when I started traveling.
On spending time at ‘home’ each year
It’s very important. First of all you’ve got to see the family. One of the biggest disadvantages of the nomadic lifestyle is that you don’t have a lot of quality time with the family. So just for that reason it’s critical.
That’s the main reason. In Israel, if I wouldn’t have family, I don’t think I would go back that often. But the main reason is the family. So is it really important? No. Not the place itself. It’s important because of the family and it’s actually pretty cool to go to a place you know that you feel really really comfortable.
If you asked me where my home is I’d say Israel. It’s the only place I can somehow identify as a home, even though I’m not there the vast majority of the year but it’s home because the family is there. I would stay a lot less if I didn’t have a family.
But then again you also have all those administrative things where you have all the medical checkups and you have your business things because I’m registered there and everything so a lot of the time when I go there I also take care of the mail and all the things I have to care of with the authorities and the banks and so on. So everything is there. I think it makes sense from time to time to go to where home is, let’s say, and just get your stuff together.
On the challenging things about day to day life
The major thing it would be for most people and that’s why they stop is the element of loneliness, I don’t have it a lot. I have to say because being alone does not mean that you are lonely, you know?
This is something I understood recently. I kept on saying loneliness but then I was thinking “I’m not really feeling lonely, I’m just alone.” But I guess that this is one of the biggest things that I’m trying to figure out now, the element of how do I find either a partner or a community where I go?
For me the struggle is, I’m not even sure it’s that possible. For various reasons. It’s very hard to find a person who is exactly in the same mindset and the minute you do you’re gonna make some concessions, by definition, because there are two of you.
For me it’s very interesting to look at the past and see that there were a lot of nomadic tribes. Basically, communities that were travelling together. Now this trend of being a digital nomad is kind of “you’re on your own.”
So that’s one thing, the second thing is of course making money and sustaining yourself. This is always difficult especially if you’re starting a startup. By definition, if you’re a digital nomad, you kind of have to get by on your own. You no longer have the shelter of the company, the 9-5 and so on. You have to become some kind of an entrepreneur, somehow.
It’s a lot tougher than being in a company. The companies have it all set up and you have to build your own thing and this is definitely not easy. So, this is the second biggest challenge I think and it’s always there. The minute you’re an entrepreneur you have good months and really bad months and it keeps on changing all the time.
Other than that, it used to be the internet and then I just decided there is no way I am not doing coworking, so coworking was a major upgrade in my life.
On what makes a good coworking space and why they are important
I don’t know why but on the personal and emotional side when I worked from home, from a hostel or whatever, I felt bad. There is something in your soul that is kind of screaming “hey you’re alone” but if you’re in a coworking space then you get your desk and the internet and everything and the coffee and you feel like you’re part of some kind of a community.
It doesn’t really exist in a way, but you see a lot of people in front of you working, it gives you motivation and it makes you feel like “hey I’m kind of productive and I’m working in an environment with productive people.”
Other than that it’s basically a lot of your social life. You’re going to speak to people there, they’re kind of your coworkers by definition and it gives you the initial leverage that you actually know people and not be in the situation of going ten days with speaking with anyone. So, for that reason they’re pretty critical.
I think it also improves the efficiency and makes you a little bit more focused and gives structure to your day as well. On Become Nomad I have an article called the Advantages of Coworking, I think it’s also one of the first results on Google and I have a lot of reasons there on why it’s important.
I think for everyone, not only digital nomads but especially digital nomads if you’ve just arrived to a place and don’t know anyone, it’s the perfect thing to give you a social life and stability which is very important instead of trying to hunt for good wifi in a coffee shop After some time it just burns you down.
On staying healthy on the road
I guess there are some things that you can do which are easier to do when you are in a stable place like going to the gym. Depends on what kind of digital nomad you are. If you’re in Chiang Mai for six months, everything is cool, but if you’re moving between locations you have to be very minimalistic in your routines, also your fitness routine.
The good thing is that you walk a lot because you want to get to know a place so that’s pretty cool. I’m trying to be a bit more minimalistic on the side of exercise. I’ve started to exercise in public parks, you know, those outdoor gyms. That’s pretty fun. For me it looked like I was never going to use one of them but now I’m kind of telling myself “look, you can’t really go to a gym, you don’t know where they are, you don’t want to commit to a longer period, it’s a mess and this is super easy.”
Food is kind of challenging because if you move between locations you don’t really have the routine of cooking that much. It’s important to find a good place for lunch. And I want to work on this as well, the cooking side. I didn’t integrate it into my routine but I really want to, it’s one of the things on my wish list.
On discovering great food
It keeps on changing. Depending on where I am. So now I’m in Malaga and they have a lot of crazy seafood which is super cheap, so now I’m gobbling up on shrimps and stuff like that which normally I don’t have the option to do.
I’m basically tescatarian, I don’t eat meat and I don’t eat chicken or whatever. I have this rule that if it screams when it dies I don’t eat out of a little bit of empathy. It’s a bit of a bummer for fish, I’m pretty sure they don’t like dying either but I stop my empathy at some level. So some people tell me I am very compassionate, other people say I’m a monster.
It’s a little bit challenging because you can’t eat a lot of things. I’m always trying to go more on the local cuisine. I really like Romanian food, for example. When I was in Romania I really enjoyed it. Some places are not that fun on the food, some places are really great, it’s always changing.
On not having bad food experiences
The minute you get meat off the menu then the amount of exotic things you can eat are a lot less. If it’s a fruit or a vegetable I’ll eat it, even if I didn’t try it before, without thinking twice about it. The thing is, after some time you can’t be that surprised. The world is becoming incredibly global. After travelling for six years and switching every two months, It’s not likely that I’m going to see something that new.
Even when I’m in Malaga, it’s going to remind me of another time when I ate a lot of seafood. The idea is the world is becoming so global. To go to a place and be like “woah it’s so exotic!” doesn’t happen as much as it used to because everything is converging. You have the pizza you have the McDonald’s and rice places and so on.
On whether new places still can still spring surprises
Some of them do. That’s why I told you before that I’m not so much into those digital nomad hubs because those will probably not surprise me and that’s why I’m trying to find those weird places.
Malaga’s actually not that weird, I’m here for some personal reasons. That’s why I recently went to Belarus, which is a dictatorship and I went to Moldova which is a country in collapse.
Basically it’s facing a huge corruption problem. Those are the places that are special. You know, you see yourself in front of Lenin’s statue and stuff and you’re thinking “ok, that’s pretty new, I’ve never done that.” But that’s the price you pay. You have to go more faraway places and those are the places where your social life is not going to be that amazing. But you can see things that actually surprise you.
For example in Malaga, I’m not that surprised. I have to look deep to find the places around Malaga that are interesting. For example, this weekend I saw a ferry that went to Africa and I took it to a city called Ceuta which is basically a Spanish city surrounded by Morocco. That’s pretty cool. You’re like “what, that’s weird a European Union city inside of Africa that has a lot of fences around it.” So you find those places but you have to dive a little bit deeper and try to figure out where they are?
On taking conventional holidays
Only recently I started and not so successfully. No, I’ve been one week on holiday in the last six years. If you asked me if I have one week that I can say I didn’t work at all, it was last year, for the first time which is quite sad but also pretty cool.
I can’t complain. I keep my weekends very sacred and, when I have an opportunity to do something cool or meet someone cool, I can take two days or one day off. But basically no, holidays I don’t take that much and I’m working on it.
I kind of made the decision last year that every quarter I want to take one one week of holiday where I’m totally disconnected from work and I’m working hard on this. This is a big goal for me for 2017 to actually have four of those. I call them ‘weeks of disconnection’.
When you’re a digital nomad it’s kind of confusing because everyone thinks “eh, you’re traveling,” and now when people ask me, I respond “I’m not traveling.” What I’m doing is, let’s say I’m coming to Prague, I have a game. My game is to become just like you, someone who is local in Prague as soon as possible.
And that’s basically what I do, you know, I just want to have your frikking routines and I want to take weekends off like you. That’s my game. Am I travelling? No. I’m basically a local wherever I am and I switch between locations every two months. That’s what I do and that’s basically how I look at it. So no, holidays I didn’t do enough and I’m working on it. I think I got confused also by the idea of “hey I’m traveling, I’m on holidays all the time.” But no actually, I’m not.
On breaking his own rules
I break the rules all the time. Something that sucks about myself, my discipline is very low. However, I forgive myself very fast as well. Lots of people who read my article told me “woah, you’re amazing” and I’m like “no I don’t follow them them all the time.”
Staying longer? No. Not because I have strong discipline but because of the visa, you get three months. I never felt the urgency to stay more than three months, it never happened.I guess that this is simply generated by my fear of breaking the law.
If you would tell me “look you can stay longer” I don’t want to know what would happen but currently in this situation every country allows me to stay 90 days out of 180, this is what keeps on pushing me around and I’m very grateful for that, to be honest. This is kind of a limitation that makes my life a lot better and I love those kinds of limitations because usually it’s like “I can’t stay, oh bummer” but for me, this is what keeps me going. I’m very thankful for whoever created the rules!
I had a funny incident in Israel because, this time, I had to stay longer because I had a lot of administative things, I registered a company and so on. I stayed for the first time since I started for about three months and five days. And it was funny because I remember a moment in Israel just before my flight, let’s say 92 days after I arrived,. I’m walking and then I got a little bit panicked because I told myself “woah I’m here 92 days…” and then I’m like “wait” it took me about five or ten seconds to tell myself “it’s ok! You’re from here you can stay more than three months!”
On places he particularly loves
There are a few places. This ties in with what I told you about not deciding where I’m going to stay until I’ve stayed there for a week, because you never know.
Let me use an example of a place that surprised me for the worse. London. London was always my dream. When I was a child I used to watch English tv and so on. When I landed in London I told myself “dude you’re at risk now because this is probably going to be the first place where you’re going to fight to find a way of prolonging your stay.” So it was a huge disappointment.
I made a mistake, I hadn’t figured out at that point that I don’t like big cities. London is huge. The minute I went to places like Guilford, Cambridge and Portsmouth, just in the end, then I realised “damn, this is where I should have stayed!”
It also has to do with the money. Back then it was a lot more expensive than now because the pound was very strong. I felt kind of miserable on the scarcity mindset, you know, because the costs were so high. So that’s an example of something that wasn’t as I expected.
Some of the places I really felt good in. Galway in Ireland. Zagreb in Croatia which was a super weird surprise because everyone had said it’s a boring city but for some reason I totally connected, I stayed the full three months there which is something I never do, the full three months in one place.
Salonika in Greece, that was also great. Minsk in Belarus was also fun. There are some place you connect to and you don’t even know why. There is no real pattern. The only pattern that I have is that I prefer places with not that much population. For me, I’m going to do my best not to stay in a place with a more than one million population. This number is kind of a deal breaker for me, it’s too much. But you keep on being surprised.
Those are my favourites. I also like Bogota in Colombia but I’m not sure I would like it as I liked it before.
For example I was in Buenos Aires in 2003 and that was the best city of my life, you know. I was sure I was going to retire there. Then I went back in 2012 as a digital nomad and I didn’t like it anymore. I was trying to figure out why and with time I understood that it’s not the city. You’re not connected to the stone, you’re connected to your situation in the city.
So, in 2003 I was backpacking. I was doing a long backpacking trip in Patagonia and then I went to Buenos Aires and I was like “woah this is so great after weeks of backpacking,” I think I had two girlfriends there, all my trekking friends were there, they all came to Buenos Aires at the same time. So that was like a crazy, crazy period of my life.
Then you go back in 2012, two girlfriends are married, you don’t know anyone and you work. Everything changed. And then you understand, the city is not important, it’s your situation and more than anything, the people that you know in the city as well. And also, it’s not that new because I’ve been there so I kind of knew all the attractions and so on. There are some places I like to come back to but the idea is that things change.
Huge thanks to Eli for some extremely insightful answers. Please check out his website – Become Nomad – and check out the Facebook page too. If you’re interested in the startup world, you should also drop by StartupBlink.
All photos were kindly provided by Eli.