Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Neville Mehra, Principal of Nampora Consulting. Neville has been a full-time digital nomad since 2007, and now lives nomadically with his wife and child and helps entrepreneurs start earning money remotely. with their own digital business.
What was your inspiration for living and working nomadically?
My parents are immigrants from opposite sides of the world. So travel and interest in other cultures have been part of my life since the very beginning. As a kid, I used to spend summers visiting family in the UK and Ireland. I flew across the Atlantic before I was old enough to walk.
I’m very grateful for that. Especially now that I have a daughter, and I’m starting to understand how much love and patience and endurance is involved in traveling with children.
That said, I wasn’t going on any crazy adventures as a kid or exploring exotic countries. Travel was for visiting family, going to the beach, and maybe a trip to Disneyworld. I didn’t make it to New York City (four hours away by bus) until I was a teenager.
Still, I loved to learn about other cultures, and growing up around the DC area, I had friends and classmates from all over the world. Their parents typically worked for the embassy, or the World Bank, or IMF, and they would get sent on assignment to Washington. They spoke different languages at home, and ate all kinds of interesting food. I found it all so fascinating.
What factors inspired you to leave the stationary lifestyle and start earning money remotely?
At 17 years old I landed a summer internship in the I.T. department of a well-known Washington publisher and was assigned to my first cubicle 🤮 (actually, it wasn’t even my cubicle, I had to share that cramped cubicle with a couple of coworkers).
At the end of that summer I planned to finish the internship and go back to university, but my boss took me aside one day and told me that the company was growing and they needed to hire more people. They asked me to stay on and keep working there after the internship ended.
I was hesitant. My parents wanted me to focus on school, but how could I say no to a job offer?
We compromised. I went back to school in the fall, but continued working part-time. Eventually, my boss persuaded me to take a full-time job with a salary and benefits, even though I was still a student (and still a teenager).
In my first year as an employee, I got one week of vacation… that’s five days off over an entire year. They didn’t even give me all of the days at once, I had to earn them throughout the year (at a rate of 0.19 vacation days for every biweekly pay period).
It wasn’t just me. That was the standard policy. Somehow most of my coworkers seemed to be okay with the situation. Many of them didn’t even use all of their allotted vacation days! If they did take time off, they usually just drove to the local beach for a few days.
I squeezed every second out of those precious vacation days and fulfilled my teenage dream of backpacking around Europe. Of course, five days wasn’t nearly enough time for a trip like that…
Fortunately, I had worked so hard, nights and weekends — I even slept on the floor of that little cubicle — that I’d earned some extra “comp time”. I think I managed to take two weeks off in total.
I went to Belfast, Amsterdam, Paris, Dusseldorf, and Berlin. I probably spent more time on the train going from city to city than I did in any one place!
That first trip seems so ridiculous and rushed to me now.
These days when I travel, I like to spend months at a time methodically exploring a single city or region, so that I can get off the tourist trail and really feel what it’s like to live there.
…but at the time, that trip was the highlight of my life! I was 18 years old and traveling abroad for the first time without my parents. As soon as I got back, I couldn’t wait to travel again!
I spent the next year working (and still going to university) so I could earn a few more of those precious vacation days. That following summer, I went back to Europe and did it all over again.
That was my life for a few years: work for an entire year, go to Europe for a week or two, work for another year…
It’s kind of sad to admit, but for a while I viewed everything else in life as just the boring “filler” in between those trips.
I figured I had to be some kind of weirdo, because everyone else seemed totally fine spending most of their waking hours, during the prime years of their lives, sitting in the office or stuck in traffic commuting.
I wanted to be free. I needed an escape plan.
Fast forward five years and I was still working at the same company. Only now I had a negative vacation balance (I’d convinced my boss to let me take days off that I hadn’t earned yet). And I’d quit university. I didn’t bother formally dropping out, I just stopped registering for more classes.
I was still pretty young, but by that time I had already been making websites for nearly ten years. The first few were just personal sites I made for fun and practice, or half-baked business ideas that didn’t pan out. But some of the sites I created together with my friends were starting to gain traction and make money. We weren’t millionaires, but there was hope.
I quit my one and only corporate office job in November 2007.
The money we were making from our websites wasn’t enough to replace our salaries, but we knew that if we didn’t focus on building our own business, it was never going to take off. We borrowed some money to cover expenses while we tried to create “the next big thing”.
We churned through lots of ideas and attempts with only limited success. In the meantime, a funny thing happened. After quitting our jobs (my business partner quit his job the same day I did) we started getting offers for freelance work — from our old bosses, from former colleagues who’d moved on to different companies, and from other people in our personal networks who needed websites.
We hadn’t set out to build a digital agency or a consulting company, but that’s what ended up happening. We were able to pay back the loan ahead of schedule and start paying ourselves.
But what about my freedom? And travel? Instead of a job and a boss, I had a company to run and clients to serve. I was even more tied down than before. Eventually I came to the realization…
Although we were based near Washington, DC, we also had clients in New York, Chicago, and Miami. Obviously there was no way we could be in all of those places at one time. But if I could do work for a Chicago-based client from our office in my house, then why not from Bangkok, or Barcelona, or anywhere else in the world with WiFi?
On October 15, 2012, five years after quitting my job, I moved out of my house in Maryland, said “see you soon” to my family, and took off on an adventure around the world. The original plan was to travel for six months and then decide what to do next.
Over eight years, 50 countries, and more than 300 stops later, here I am!
So much has changed in that time — both in my life (I got married and we have a baby) and in the world as a whole (remote work has become much more common, and of course there’s the pandemic).
What unexpected challenges and hurdles have you encountered so far as a digital nomad?
I would say that the perennial challenge for us as digital nomads is finding the right balance between routine and adventure. As a teenage backpacker, the goal was to pack in as much as possible. To visit as many cities and countries as you could, and to say “yes” to everything, until your money ran out and you needed to go back home.
It’s tempting to do the same thing as a digital nomad, especially in the beginning. I think most of us go through a period where we bounce around the world, crossing new countries off our bucket lists every few weeks. As if we’re making up for all the time we spent stuck in one place before.
But that’s not a sustainable way to live.
Travel is disruptive to routine. That’s what makes it so refreshing. But it also means that, the more often you travel, the more you end up sacrificing healthy routines. Things like exercise, reading and learning, and certain kinds of “deep work” (like writing) that benefit from having a set routine. Of course you can do all of those things from anywhere in the world. It just takes more effort and willpower to keep them up.
Over time, most of the digital nomads I know have settled into a pattern of traveling less often and spending more time in each place. This makes it easier to preserve healthy routines, to explore each place more fully, and “amortizes” the hassle and disruption of travel over a longer period.
Has any aspect of the lifestyle and career been easier than expected? Is there anything that you thought would be difficult but, in reality, hasn’t been?
I remember back in high school (late 90’s), one of the guys I knew went to Vietnam. To say he came back obsessed with the place would be a major understatement. He couldn’t stop talking about all of the exciting stuff he had seen and done.
I was confused.
Back then, a trip to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower would have been a crazy adventure to me. Vietnam might as well have been another planet as far as I was concerned. How could you possibly go somewhere like that? And not speak the language? Isn’t it a communist country? The war! Don’t they hate Americans?
These days, I have the opposite perspective.
A few years ago I went to Vietnam. I spent about a month there, traveling solo. I had a great time, but it wasn’t exactly Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition. It barely even registered as an adventure.
I haven’t been everywhere (yet), but I feel like I could go anywhere and just figure it out. No language? No problem. Need a visa? Okay, I’ll get one.
What character traits would you say are the most important or essential for successful digital nomads?
Marie Forleo has an expression, “Everything is Figureoutable”.
I think that’s the exact attitude you need to have as a digital nomad. Things aren’t going to go perfectly according to plan, but that’s okay, you’ll figure it out.
If you were starting over from scratch today, what would you do differently?
Start sooner. Spend less time worried about trying to “make it” and just take life day by day.
What would you say to aspiring digital nomads looking to get started on a similar career path? Any other words of wisdom or cautionary tales?
“Digital Nomad” is not a job. It’s a lifestyle choice. Like being a working mom.
So don’t fall into the trap of thinking that there is only one way to become a digital nomad. Lots of people seem to think that to become a digital nomad you have to build a dropshipping business, or become an Instagram Influencer, or a travel blogger.
There is no set path. All you need is a way of making money that doesn’t tie you down to one specific location. That could be a remote job, freelancing, or an online business.
If you do decide to build an online business, here’s some advice from my own experience:
Coming from a more technical background, my approach to business was what I would now describe as very product-focused. A product-focused approach is to first make something and then think, “who can I sell this to?”
That approach probably worked 50 years ago, but not anymore.
The alternative, and what I would recommend to people reading this, is to take an audience-focused approach. Start by deciding who you want to help. What market or group of people do you understand better than anyone else? Who do you have access to? Where can you be an insider?
Understanding the unique needs of a particular group means that you are in a much better position to create a product or service that meets their needs. And, even more important, it means that you will know how to reach them when it comes time to sell your product or service.