If you work on the road, either in pursuit of a lifestyle business, or just because you like to travel, your tools are what allow you live “freely.”
I’ve been working from the road on and off for more than three years — as I write this piece, I’m sitting on Senggigi beach in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, where I’ll be getting my scuba diving certification in another two days — and in that time I’ve come across some useful tools. In order to provide value to folks out there thinking about freelancing online while they travel, I’m going to cover a few different categories of those tools.
I’ll talk about tools for productivity, communications, and of course, travel itself, but first a note on a general misconception about businesses you can run from the road.
The cost of location-independent work
A lot of people fall in love with the idea of working while traveling — with the idea of work you can do from anywhere and a lifestyle that lets you work from anywhere you happen to be. People find it romantic. This might be because they hate, or just want to change, their job in an office, because they’re dissatisfied with the city they live in (even if they like their job), or because the idea of working from the road and seeing new places excites them.
If you’re thinking about trying to work from the road as a nomadic freelancer, a quick note of caution: It can be an extremely difficult, unstable, risky, and stressful lifestyle at times. Just because you can sit on a beach and write for your blog or do work for your clients doesn’t necessarily mean your life is all sugar and spice.
Although you set your own schedule and work when you want to, you sometimes, or often, must work insane hours on your clients’ schedules. For example, if you’re traveling through Indonesia and your clients live on the West Coast, you might be up on Skype with them at 3 or 4am your time. Of course, you will always be the one up at 3am, not your clients.
When you work from the road, sometimes you won’t work at all during the day. Sometimes you won’t work for a few days in a row. Conversely, sometimes you’ll work for 18 hours in a day without more than a break to pick up food and a beer.
And, sometimes, you’ll have to scramble harder than you’ve ever scrambled in your life to find new clients and new work, all in order to maintain the location-independent lifestyle you want.
If “nomadic”-style work, or work you can do anywhere, sounds good to you despite these challenges, I can suggest some tools to help get you started (or improve your existing workflow).
Productivity tools for nomadic freelancers
Astrid: Astrid is great for managing your to-do lists and small teams. It allows you to set up as many lists as you want, designate priority levels and due dates, and assign tasks to people. You can enter comments to have a task-specific discussion, and it has mobile applications for iOS and Android. The free version is insanely robust, and I personally prefer Astrid to larger platforms like Basecamp or MyIntervals.
Evernote: Although it’s not an app to manage your work actively, I use Evernote to store everything. Receipts, ideas, lists, pictures. I primarily use it for storing and sharing receipts with team members, and it syncs across all devices imaginable. Evernote is doing some pretty cool stuff lately with aggressive expansion into Asia, including Taiwan and Korea, and I expect it will continue to get better as it develops.
Freshbooks: I’ve played around with probably close to a dozen time-tracking and invoicing tools, and this seems to be the best one. Not only does it have a time-tracking function, it lets you send invoices to people (integrated with Paypal), track your time on a specific project or task, and give your clients the ability to log in and track your time in real-time if you do work on an hourly basis. Freshbooks will let you brand your invoices with your own logo and color scheme, and it also compiles basic financial reports to give you insight into how your business is doing.
Dropbox: Most people know and already use Dropbox — I use it to coordinate blog posts across multiple blogs, store files for different projects and clients, and share large documents with my team. If you haven’t already registered your .edu college email address to get more space for every referral you make, you probably want to do that right now. Occasionally, I will save interviews, audio files, and case studies in a team Dropbox folder to share with and educate my small team of people.
Communications tools for nomadic freelancers
Skype: Of course.
Google Voice: Allows me to send free text messages and make free calls back home from anywhere with an internet connection as long as I’m in front of my computer. You can send free text messages to the US from anywhere abroad with the Google Voice application installed on your smartphone.
Talkatone: Allows me to make free calls to anywhere over wifi or 3G. Since my phone is on a Taiwan 3G network, this comes in handy when I need to conference or speak with people in the US or other countries while I’m out and about. Talkatone is doubly useful if you have Google Voice installed on your smartphone.
Whatsapp: This is the primary free “texting” app that I use, and is the most popular free texting app throughout most of Asia. Although Line is also super popular, and Kakao Talk is the most ubiquitous texting app in Korea, I find Whatsapp to be simpler, more elegant, and faster than others I’ve tried. You can even record and send an audio file to people if you’d rather communicate something by voice.
Swype: Swype is the best keyboard input method for freelancers on the go, hands down. Instead of typing words one by one, just drag your finger across the screen. Swype will recognize the patterns you’re typing and produce the words you want. While it’s sadly difficult to install, and is still officially in Beta, it will transform your nomadic freelancing lifestyle. I use Swype to answer emails and organize my to-dos (in Astrid) from cabs, buses, and sometimes while walking around. Get this. Right now.
Uberconference: I’ve played with a ton of different conferencing tools and services, and this is definitely the best, sexiest, and most functional conference call tool out there. Outside of having a great user interface, Uberconference helps you see who you’re conferencing with by pulling all of their publicly available social media updates into your browser — super handy for anytime you’re conferencing with your team, or with someone new.
HelloFax: Never worry about sending a fax from the road again. HelloFax lets you send and receive faxes via email. Because I hate faxes, this is one of my favorite tools ever.
Stitcher: Keep yourself up to date with podcasts from home without taking up space on your phone or tablet. Stitcher lets you stream most podcasts (and most regional radio stations in case you’re feeling homesick). I recommend subscribing to Radiolab and Planet Money for brain food on the go.
Travel tools for nomadic freelancers
American Express Starwood Preferred Guest Card: The best credit card and loyalty program for frequent flyers and travelers — I’m getting my $190/night room with a beach view in Lombok, Indonesia for $25/night thanks to my AMEX SPG card.
InsanelyCheapFlights.com and Kayak.com: The sites where I’ve had my best luck finding great airfare. If you’re going to be doing a lot of domestic travel in a country that you haven’t visited before after you make your international flight, you might also consult Wikipedia’s list of low-cost airlines, which is conveniently organized by country.
Priority Pass: Gets you access to at least one airport lounge in most major cities, along with free showers, free coffee, free wifi, and sometimes free booze. If you have, or have been thinking about getting an AMEX Platinum card for yourself or your business, Priority Pass membership is included as a perk.
Regus: Outstanding virtual office space, and free wifi in more than 1100 locations worldwide. Note: Regus Gold membership, which includes business lounge access, free wifi, and free coffee in just about every Regus center throughout the world, is included free with TripIt Pro, a useful service on its own. Keep in mind, you can pop into any Regus center with a Gold Membership for a coffee and some wifi anytime you want.
Question of the day
Do you know of other useful tools for nomadic freelancers? If so, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below. [Check out Matador’s community of successful and aspiring nomadic freelancers at our new media school, MatadorU.]