I’ve been working online since 2004 and in that time, I’ve had some pretty cool offices.
One favourite was a studio on the top floor of what some know as the Austin Graphics building in Owen Sound, with a walkout to a rooftop deck that overlooked the city harbour. The building itself was over a hundred years old, complete with 14-foot ceilings, exposed brick, (drafty) original windows and an old freight elevator.
Another place I loved for entirely different reasons was the SuiteSpots space just down the street. Everything I possibly needed to get my work done was right there, from printing to bottomless freshly ground coffee to other fun people to chat with when a break was in order. Of course, even when I loved my office space, you have to escape it sometimes.
I often went for lunch and never came back, choosing instead to work downtown in one local coffee shop or another for the afternoon. The crew at the Ginger Press made fun on a few occasions of my strange ability to completely tune the world out. “How can you possibly get anything done with all this chatter?” To which I say, “Years of working from home with kids and a dog.”
In fact, having some commotion and background noise helps me work. That’s turned out to be a really good thing, since my office these days might be the passenger seat of a moving car, a hammock in a campground, or a beach chair. Over the years, it became clear that my clients didn’t actually care where I was working from, so long as the work was getting done.
And there’s the caveat: if you want to be a digital nomad and work online from anywhere, you must be able to stay connected. That’s priority number one, everywhere we go. If you can’t stay online and get your work done, everything else goes away. No more digital nomad for you.
Here’s what’s in my virtual office, to keep me connected wherever we are:
Communications & Staying Connected
I’ve had my Mi-Fi portable hotspot for years, and it’s starting to show… it’s getting a little beat up around the edges, but it still works!
Free wi-fi is always nice and I’ll use it for large uploads or downloads, but the personal hotspot gives me a more secure connection. When I first got it, cell coverage here in Canada wasn’t great outside urban areas, and you couldn’t use it in the US without paying huge roaming charges. Back then (circa 2012 or so), I had it on a plan.
Now, you can get an unlocked mi-fi for under $75 (I paid $200 for mine!) and switch out the SIM card, making it portable between countries. Coverage has been great over the last few years. I’m inside Fundy National Park in New Brunswick right now in dense forest and it’s working just fine.
This handy app helps you find WiFi hotspots near you and, unlike the similar WiFi Mapper, doesn’t crash as often.
Skype is my primary phone these days. Given that Canadian cell service is among the most expensive on the planet, I decided recently not to renew my $90/month Virgin subscription and just use VOIP. I’ve had a New York Skype In number for years; it gives American clients an in-country number to reach me at, and rings through to the Skype app on my phone. At time of writing, a Skype In number will cost you about $63 Canadian for an annual subscription, but you can’t yet get a Canadian number. For calling to landlines, I buy prepaid credit $14 at a time.
Unlocked Cell Phone
We have several, which has come in handy when traveling in different countries. Keep your old cell phones! You can always pop in a prepaid SIM card and tether off it as a temporary solution when you’ve just arrived somewhere new.
It’s not my favourite, but I get why people use it. We used WhatsApp while we were in Nicaragua to stay in touch with family back home. Cell provider Movistar gives prepaid users as much free access to Facebook and WhatsApp as you want, so it was a no-brainer. However, I can’t see it ever being practical for work unless the company you’re trying to communicate with has already adopted it. Some of our family and friends couldn’t figure it out and with other apps like FaceTime and Messenger out there, it really wasn’t worth the frustration for them.
This is another one I have mixed feelings about, but I’ll use it when asked. GoToMeeting is great… when it works. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. I hopped on a meeting last week only to find that my audio input wouldn’t work. It worked with every other application, but GoToMeeting just wouldn’t pick it up. I called in from the same device to GTM’s number for the meeting, and the person on the other end said it sounded like I was calling from the moon.
Getting a start on the work day in Nicaragua, June 2017.
We switched to Skype and it was crystal clear. Same device, same settings, same accessories.
This happens about 25% of the time I use GTM. If you need to use it for work, I highly recommend being 10 minutes early for every meeting, testing your equipment and having a backup plan.
Tools for Creative Digital Nomads
Canva for Work
I’ve been using Canva since it was launched, and then Canva for Work since the beta launch in spring 2015. This is one tool I use almost every day, for creating everything from minigraphics to charts to print posters and social content. It’ll cost you about $13 USD per month (recurring monthly charge), which gives you access to premium free content and features like Magic Resize, unlimited storage, and custom palettes and fonts for your brand(s).
Free Stock Photo Sites
My favourite right now is Pexels.com, which has a decent selection of high quality photos. Wikimedia sometimes has what I’m looking for, and it’s easy to sort out images based on permissions. Pixabay is definitely worth checking out if you need images for ads or blogs, as well.
Tape-a-Call Pro on iPhone
There are plenty of call recording apps out there, and lots of them just aren’t reliable enough to use for work. Tape-a-Call Pro has served me well. A word of warning: don’t forget to merge calls! There’s nothing worse than getting through an interview and realizing your recording app didn’t work. One you know how it works, though, it’s easy to use and hasn’t failed me yet. Right now it costs $13.99 in the app store.
Don’t bother with the “Lite” versions of these call recording apps. You don’t want it to cut off during a call. Here’s a demo by the guys at AppStoreReviewer so you can see how it works:
QuickTime for recording Skype calls on Mac
If you’re using Mac, QuickTime will let you do audio, video and screen recordings. You’ll find it in the “Other” bucket in your Launchpad.
YouTube Audio Library
If you’re using music in your videos, make sure it’s royalty free, or give proper attribution! There’s no excuse for using music without attribution, especially for client projects–it’s just asking for trouble. YouTube’s free audio library is dead simple to use and lets you sort by mood, duration, genre, instruments and more.
Storage & Large File Transfer
Google’s G Suite Business plan helps me keep client files organized, share with collaborators, and control user settings for team members. At $10 per user per month, it’s worth it just to have the unlimited storage for a freelancer, especially if you’re working in graphics or across multiple client accounts. The calendar integration is great; Google Calendar pretty much runs my life now.
Unfortunately, there are things Google’s suite just won’t do; Google Sheets in particular is still very much inferior to Microsoft Excel. For that reason, I end up creating a lot in Microsoft Office and simply storing in Google Drive folders.
I’m told that in the US, Amazon Prime is all about the free/fast shipping. That doesn’t mean much to me personally, but the unlimited photo storage and Amazon Prime Video are great! It’s $10.99 per month on the recurring billing plan, and it gives me a place to store photos in the cloud until I’m ready to edit and get them uploaded to Shutterstock or other stock sites. Prime Video is a bonus, since we don’t have TV while we’re traveling.
External Hard Drive
In addition to backing up to the cloud, I back up on a “Passport” external hard drive from WD. My kids tell me you can use it to expand Xbox One storage, too. Keep it in a padded sleeve while traveling and you shouldn’t have any trouble.
One of my clients uses WeTransfer Plus, so I’ve had the opportunity to use it on occasion. The main features allow you to send and receive files of up to 20 GB, store up to 100 GB, and password-protect your files, for $12 USD per month.
I don’t use DropBox much at all anymore. It was the preferred game in town for large file transfer, but it became really pricey. Yes, it allows you to move and store much larger files, but 2TB of space is overkill for me. The free version gives you almost nothing anymore, and the paid versions start at $21 CDN per month (with discounts for annual payment upfront). If you’re working in video or sharing a lot of presentations or large graphics back and forth, this might be an option for you.
Other Tools to Make Life Simpler While Working from Anywhere
Quickbooks makes invoicing and tax time a lot easier. One feature I’m holding out for is the ability to accept credit card payments from users in other countries; currently, I can only give this option to Canadian clients. Otherwise, Quickbooks has everything I need to efficiently run the back office, including a mobile app for on-the-go updates.
I LOVE this site that lets you compare and rank cities by all kinds of cost of living and quality of life parameters. Looking for somewhere safe for women? You can filter for that. Is great nightlife or clean air quality important for you? There’s are filters for those, too. You can also search by climate, cost of rent, internet availability and more.
The list updates as you adjust the filters, making Nomad List a great place to kill time and dream about the possibilities, if nothing else.
Find private office rentals, co-working spaces, public spaces with free wi-fi and more on the WorkFrom site. You can choose places that are quieter, offer food, have outdoor space, etc. A must-try if you travel frequently and like to work in urban areas.
What’s In Your Virtual Office?
Being a digital nomad has its challenges, but the after-work time is a constantly rewarding adventure. There’s a look under the hood at what it takes to keep my business going, wherever we happen to be! What are the tools and apps you can’t live without? Leave yours in the comments.
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