Meet the ‘nomad’ Entrepreneurs who live their life on the road

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Though the term ‘digital nomads’ has been around for 20 years or so, it’s only today that we’re really seeing it take off, thanks to technological advancements including cloud technology which makes it possible for individuals to work from home or ‘on the go’. The number of businesses adopting flexible working policies to support this new way of life is also on the rise, and it’s predicted that by 2020 the UK will hold one of the lowest desk-to-worker ratios, with just six desks for every ten workers and nearly a third of people who will no longer work from a traditional office. 

It’s not hard to see why people would want to work in this way; it brings a greater sense of freedom and the ability to achieve a better work/life balance (take a quick look at Instagram’s Explore page and you’ll see young professionals pursuing their careers from their laptops on the beach). It also gives budding entrepreneurs more opportunities than ever to start a venture without having to fork out on physical premises.  

Nomadic living is becoming just as popular as the cost of living continues to rise, making places like London almost out of reach for many people. Canal living is particularly ‘trendy’ at the moment, with a rise in boat numbers to over 34,000 licensed boats in the UK from 2017-18. 

On the flip side, the life of a nomadic entrepreneur can be isolating. When you spend your life constantly on the go, it can be difficult to network and figure out a way to take your business to the take next level, without having to many too many compromises. The great news is you can still live a nomadic lifestyle, or be a digital nomad, by broadening your horizons and gaining exposure through events and pop-up stalls, rather than invested in a permanent location. As a company that’s helped start-ups and SMEs to raise brand awareness through such events, we were curious to hear nomadic entrepreneurs’ experiences first hand. Here, three of them share their stories, challenges and thoughts on the rise in ‘nomadic businesses’. 

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Jeremy Freedman, CEO of Global Nomadic

Tell us about your business, when it was founded and what it does.

My company offer international volunteer and internship opportunities to students and career-breakers, either looking to further their career, do something new and different, or give back to the country they are visiting. 

We are a marketplace platform which enables applicants and project partners to communicate directly so that applicants get all of the answers they need directly from the source and make an informed decision, and our project partners can easily find amazing people to come and help them achieve their goals. We have placed over 10,000 people on projects abroad.

 

What is the size of your company and how many employees do you have? 

We employ 3 people.

In what ways would you refer to your business as ‘nomadic’?

Right after my business was started, I put on my backpack and went to visit as many non-profit organisations as I could in Latin America, Asia and Africa, travelling initially for 18 months. I met many new partners personally and it was such a great success that I continued my travels for several years more and ran the business from the road. Wherever there was WiFi was my office and I was one of the very first digital nomads, without even knowing it.

I am now living with my family in Thailand and continuing to run my business from the beach in between school runs!

What do you enjoy the most about running a 'nomadic business'? Why did you decide to travel and work rather than investing in physical premises?

I love that I work for myself and have complete freedom. We can travel wherever we want, and spend as much time as I can with my kids.

 

What challenges are there when running a nomadic business?

The patchy internet is the bane of my life! Trying to make an important call can be very frustrating. The time difference can also be challenging when arranging calls with Europe or the States. The most challenging, however, is the regular power outages, which often happen in the evening. We can literally do nothing as we lose all light and WiFi! However, it is good to be able to switch off, even when you are forced to.

Does your nomadic business reflect your lifestyle? For example, do you also not have a permanent/traditional living location?

Yes! I love the freedom it affords, and now that I have my family with me I feel much more stable.

 

Do you think 'nomadic businesses' are on the increase? If so, why? Have you seen a rise in competitors?

Yes, when I first started my company almost no-one travelled with a laptop and finding WiFi that works was rare. Now the internet is everywhere and you can get online in most bars, cafes and restaurants. There are also work hubs popping up across the globe, outside of large cities.

 

Tell us a bit about your customers

Our customers tend to be early to mid-twenties, starting out on their career and looking to get out of their comfort zone, gain some new experience contacts and friends. We also are placing more and more career breakers in their 30s and 40s who are looking to do something new and different whilst giving back.

Do you ever see yourself taking the business off the road/river and permanently settling down in a traditional space?

I settled in London for 3 years before moving out to Thailand, and whilst I enjoyed the variety of being in a big city, I think the beach suits us much better. We are now quite settled in Thailand and not looking to move in the short term.

Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs or businesses that want to take a similar approach to you?

Just do it! It might seem scary at first but you will realise once you arrive that it is not so difficult. Life goes on in the same way on a beach in Thailand, as it is does in London, and you soon find your rhythm, friends and work/life balance. 

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Sue Cotton, Proprietor of The Herb Boat 

Tell us about your business, when it was founded and what it does

I started my business in 2012 after moving onto my narrowboat to embark on a different way of life. I sell herbs in all forms; dried, plants, teas, essential oils, incense, gin making kits and a selection of spices. I trade outside directly from the boat and online.

 

What is the size of your company and how many employees do you have?

I am a sole trader with no employees. It would be difficult to recruit staff to a truly nomadic business where the premises are also my home.

 

In what ways would you refer to your business as ‘nomadic’?

I trade by having a “Roving Trader” license from The Canal and River Trust which allows me to trade anywhere on the canal system, within certain rules; the main one is having to move every 14 days (or less) to a new location; truly nomadic. I am not permitted to move backwards and forwards in a small area. Also, I live, and keep all the stock, on board.

 

What do you enjoy the most about running a 'nomadic business'? Why did you decide to travel + work rather than investing in physical premises?

I enjoy the freedom of a nomadic lifestyle, being able to move from city centre to village to rural isolation and trade where and when I want. I didn’t want the commitment or responsibility of a land-based business or the physical tie to one place.

 

What challenges are there when running a nomadic business? 

The main challenge is the weather, though trading online helps even out seasonal variations in takings. Moving constantly makes it hard to establish a customer base but again the internet helps. I have very limited storage space and getting stock and supplies delivered is challenging without an address.

 

Does your nomadic business reflect your lifestyle? For example, do you also not have a permanent/traditional living location?

I live a nomadic lifestyle on the boat, without any permanent land-based accommodation. The business was established to fit in with and fund my lifestyle.

 

Do you think 'nomadic businesses' are on the increase? If so, why? Have you seen a rise in competitors?

There has been a significant increase in canal-based traders recently, mainly artisans, crafters and artists. Mainly people say they want to escape from “the rat race” and some find maintaining a boat based business cheaper than running land-based premises. Most of my products are unique, so I have no direct competition.

 

Tell us a bit about your customers

My customers are young and old and come from all walks of life. They are cooks, gardeners, witches, gin makers, tea drinkers, anyone and everyone; I try to sell a diverse range of affordable products, something for everybody. They may find me by accident when I moor up in their town or they may attend a boat festival where I am trading. They are often loyal and return to buy online or attend canal events specifically to find me. They are the best part of my business.

 

Do you ever see yourself taking the business off the road/river and permanently settling down in a traditional space?

No, never. I would only leave the water if my health deteriorated. I have no interest in running a 9-to-5 land-based business.

 

Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs or businesses that want to take a similar approach to you?

My advice to anyone considering a boat based business is do it! It is a great lifestyle, with lots of support but consider the weather, the lack of storage space and remember a boat requires constant, often costly, maintenance. Living on a boat is very different from living in bricks and mortar, and more physically demanding.

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Barry Teutenberg & Sandra Walsh, Founders of The

Home Brew Boat

Tell us about your business, when it was founded and what it does?

The Home Brew Boat was launched in the spring of 2014, selling all you need to make your own beer, wine cider and spirits, and has since established itself and become well-known on 'the cut'. We've traded at a range of festivals each year from Liverpool to Linslade, spring to early autumn each year, as well as trading from the towpath at opportune times. There's also a website customers can buy from, wherever we are. Additionally, having been a professional photographer for 35 years, Barry offers a range of 47 waterways-related Greeting Cards for sale.


What is the size of your company and how many employees do you have?

The Home Brew Boat business is run solely by Barry. I provide a supporting role, mainly social media marketing.


In what ways would you refer to your business as ‘nomadic’?

We continuously cruise the Inland Waterways of England Wales, on our narrowboat, with no fixed abode.


What do you enjoy the most about running a 'nomadic business'? Why did you decide to travel + work rather than investing in physical premises?

The thing we love best about running a nomadic business is the flexibilityof (mostly) working around our life rather than life working around our work! Also the ability to reach a wide-range of customers both on and off the waterways. We get to network with other floating traders too, along the canals or at the floating festivals. We've had a few businesses floating around (excuse the intended pun!) since we relocated from New Zealand to England in March 2013. I re-trained from a 35-year career as a midwife, to a holistic life coach from 2011 to 2013, and ran a moderately successful online coaching business until October 2016. I also built up a face painting business from 2014 through to 2017.

Having experienced two six-month journeys on our previous narrowboat in 2009 and 2010, we planned to relocate completely to UK to continue exploring the Inland Waterways, and also to be available for my parents. One of the main advantages of the businesses we set up, is its adaptability. Not being tied to one place, physically, is incredibly liberating. We did initiallyinvest in a physical premises in Gisborne in 2011, knowing the plan was to sell up (house and most possessions), move to England, buy a narrowboat, and do our best to earn enough to live a simply. That retail unit continues today. The business Barry founded was called 'Ezimade', and sold home brewing equipment. Having established relationships with suppliers in New Zealand, it was easier to do so in England - as most stock is actually sourced from there. 


What challenges are there when running a nomadic business?

It can occasionally be challenging getting stock to the boat, as obviously there's no physical address. But generally it works well and our suppliers are aware of the complexities. The courier service across the country now makes posting products relatively simple. Understandably we can only stock a limited range of products on a 60 foot long and six foot ten inches wide narrowboat, that we also live in 365 days of the year!


Does your nomadic business reflect your lifestyle? For example, do you also not have a permanent/traditional living location?

We have no other physical home than our narrowboat.


Do you think 'nomadic businesses' are on the increase? If so, why? Have you seen a rise in competitors?

There's a vast range of people setting up and running businesses on boats, and a (mostly) supportive community to call on to seek and offer advice. 


Tell us a bit about your customers

About 50% of customers are boaters who, like us, are looking at ways of living on less. Many people return to us either at festivals or via the website, to replenish their supplies. We've got a Facebook page where we interact with customers.


Do you ever see yourself taking the business off the road/river and permanently settling down in a traditional space?

Would we return to living and working on land? And swapping our narrowboat for a house? Not a chance!


Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs or businesses that want to take a similar approach to you? 

The most successful businesses seem to be those that have done their research, who adapt according to what works and what doesn't, those who embrace social media well, and crucially who have either savings or alternative ways of making money when times are tight. Trading solely from a boat is generally weather dependent, which affects income, and the time spent in particular areas is subject to certain rules and conditions.

I began working on a self-employed basis earlier this year, for a company called Ad-extra which builds and manages Google Ads accounts. Such work is location independent, which is ideal. We've also worked for Calendar Club UK the past two winter seasons; initially for others, latterly in our own franchised store in Lichfield. Barry continues website sales during the twelve week season, and this year, if all goes to plan, I can blend my Ad-Extra commitments with Calendar Club.

What we can take from these entrepreneurial nomads is that it definitely is a lifestyle and not a fad. If you don’t consider yourself and your work ethic to be fair weathered - then take heed of their advice and just do it! It might be scary to disregard a physically stable life as you knew but with WiFi around every corner and cloud technology more unwavering than a storm, anything is possible. Whilst the internet can help nomadic businesses overcome seasonal dips and problems securing a loyal customer base, what better way to understand what they want by asking them and encouraging an open and honest conversation in person? If you decide to take your business on the road, we would advise not forgetting to get yourself out there with pop-up events and market stalls to increase your physical exposure.

 

By Craig Pannozzo, general manager of Gazeboshop, a supplier of gazebos and marquees. Since its beginnings in 2005 the company has helped hundreds of businesses prepare their stands for indoor and outdoor events.