Since 2009, I’ve been on a journey around the globe looking for adventure. Unfortunately, while adventure enriches my life, it doesn’t exactly pay the bills.
Luckily we’re living in an age where traditional jobs that allow for a couple of weeks vacation per year aren’t the only option. The prospects for self-employment and freelance work have never been better. Some people call it being a “Location Independent Professional” while others prefer “Digital Nomad.” The names don’t matter, but the fact you can do it (thanks in large part to technology) is what’s so amazing.
Personally, I have my irons in several fires:
– I oversee and manage a technology services company in Canada (negotiating contracts, managing staff, reporting, accounting)
– I’m involved with Too Many Adapters (writing, business)
– I’m a documentary / cultural photographer with Lightmoves Creative (photography, marketing, freelance)
Phew. And sometimes I even have time to climb mountains.
Here are a few programs and apps I use to make my work life possible from the far reaches of the globe.
Google Apps is essentially all the free Google Stuff you’re used to, like Gmail, Google Drive, Google Calendar etc, but for business. Among other things I’ll break down below, it means you can use your own domain instead of an “@gmail.com” address, which is fantastic. You’ll also get 25GB of storage spread across all of the Google products, and no ads in your face.
Cost: $5/month/user or $50/year/user
Dropbox is the most popular of the file-sharing services. You’ll get a bit of storage that will automatically sync across all of your devices, giving you access through a web browser, directly on your laptop, and via apps for your tablet and smartphone. The files on your computer will still be available offline should your Internet go out with a random power outage or a trip to the forest, and they’ll automatically update and synchronize when you come back online.
It’s easy to share a folder on your computer with another user (just right click the folder for options), giving them access right away.
I particularly like the “Camera Upload” feature which will automatically copy all of the photos and videos you shoot on your mobile devices to Dropbox. That means I can shoot a photo on my phone, and it will immediately and automatically backup on to the dropbox, and show up on my laptop in seconds. Phone takes a swim (or gets smashed to bits)? No problem as all of your photos are backed up… and no need to e-mail yourself copies of your photos anymore.
Free: 2GB Storage (earn more free space here) or $10/month for 1TB storage
Google Calendar is a no-brainer for the traveler. First off, it’s free (or included in your Google Apps), and works on the web and all your devices, syncing automatically. It’s easy to schedule meetings with other people (including recurring ones), and almost everyone already uses it.
Where it shines is how it deals with timezones. One of the things a location-independent worker really fears is missing a meeting on the other side of the globe. You can set the time zone for each and every appointment, including different start and finish time zones (for a flight for example).
When you arrive somewhere new, your Google Calendar will prompt and then automatically adjust to the current timezone for you. If you work between a couple of time zones in particular (perhaps Western Europe and the east coast of North America), you can set both to appear in your browser to make planning even easier.
The new integration with Gmail is making it even slicker. If you use Gmail and Google recognizes that an email includes an appointment, it’ll give you the option to add it to the calendar, or as I’ve seen recently, even automatically add it for you.
This seems to be rolling out bit by bit, so you may not see it right now, but it’s a taste of how things will evolve in the future.
Finally, you can share your calendar, and add other calendars. This includes your Facebook events, TripIt and more. More on that here.
While it’s great having all of your appointments in one place thanks to Google Calendar, sometimes it’s the actual scheduling of the appointment that’s the hangup. Are they free when I’m free? What time is that where you are? Do we need to schedule an appointment for a Skype call, just to be able to decide when our schedules are free to have our appointment? Ugh, seriously.
Calendly is a Google Chrome extension that sits in your Gmail window, and allows you to insert times you’re available right into an e-mail message. With a couple of clicks, I can let the recipient know that I’m available on Thursday from 2pm to 4pm and Friday 11am to 1pm and 3pm to 6pm.
When they get the e-mail, they can click the link, see the times in their time zone, and pick a slot that works for them. You’ll receive a confirmation, and it’ll automatically be added to your Google Calendar.
I find it particularly handy for scheduling people in that aren’t part of my main circle of contacts.
Free (Pro plan from $8/month)
Tripit is the travel organizer you’ve always wanted. It automatically scans your e-mails for any travel bookings (flights, hotels, car rentals, event tickets etc), parses the data, and puts it all in an easy-to-read itinerary with all the information you need in one place.
It’s all available in the app or on the website, and includes things like check-in times, important phone numbers, and booking numbers. Basically, all the stuff you actually care about from those stupid emails you’re sent whenever you book something.
The Pro version give you access to push updates and updates to your phone about gate changes (which has saved my butt at least twice), points tracking, notifications about flight refunds and more.
While I appreciate Tripit and how it keeps all my itinerary information together, Google Now is also doing a great job of keeping things like flight information (including updated gates!) and hotel bookings readily accessible and updated while I’m on the move these days, as long as I have data access when I land.
Free (Pro $49/year)
Skype is the standard when it comes to calls and video chat via the web. Free video calls are what it’s best known for, but you can also make free audio calls, and even calls to landlines and mobile phones around the world (for a fee).
It’s the most popular of its type, which means that most people have accounts (even if they might not remember their Skype handle), and calls can be made from a computer, tablet, smartphone, or even an Xbox. I don’t like it for messaging though as it seems like the notifications don’t always come through.
Free (with paid options and plans)
Google Hangouts is Google’s messaging platform, so if you have a Gmail account, you have Google Hangouts. It features individual chats, group chats, and audio/video messaging. You can share photos, but not other files.
In the work environment, I can have individual chats with each of the members of my team, as well as different group chats that have notifications disabled but I can keep an eye on from time to time. Searching is possible for the chats (through Gmail), though it could be 10x better considering Google cut its teeth in the search game.
The best part of Google Hangouts is the group video chat, with screen share. You can get up to 10 people together on a video chat, and even record it or broadcast it live if you’re hosting an event. If you forgot your pirate hat for your video call, they can even help you out with that too.
What I’m less fond of with video chat on Google Hangouts is that it seems to really push the CPU, and that means if you’re on battery power, it’s might not last as long as you’re used to.
Free (also included in Google Apps)
Rapportive is a Google Chrome (or Firefox) extension that automatically pulls photo and LinkedIn / Google / Twitter profile information for you on a column beside your Gmail. It’s a great way to get an idea of who you’re conversing with, particularly if you haven’t met in person before.
I find that it’s a good way to get a idea about what someone is about when you’re sent a cold-call-type e-mail out of the blue. Is this person legit? Is their Twitter just full of cat photos?
Most don’t think enough about data security, particularly when it comes to our businesses, banking and general login info for the web where a good portion of our lives now reside. Your Internet communications aren’t as secure as you likely expect they are, but fortunately the solution is easier than you think.
A VPN (virtual private network) will help secure you and your work while connected to unsecured (open) Wi-fi access points. These are those ones that you often find in hotels, airports, coffee shops all around the globe.
Our pick is Witopia, which we’ve used in dozens of countries around the globe.
Read more in depth about VPNs in our article 5 Reasons You Should Use a VPN While Traveling.
Cost: Starting at $49.99/year (save 15% here)
Managing passwords, credit card details, and other important information can be tricky, especially if you need to share it.
The open source Keepass is hardly elegant, but it does the trick. Think of it like having a master database of all of your important logins, banking info, and ID information, hidden behind one very secure password.
The beauty with Keepass is that if you put the database in your Dropbox, it will sync with your mobile devices, and you can share it with other trusted individuals. And this is where it’s worth its weight in gold. Fortunately, it’s software and weighs nothing (it’s free!)
You always need to be tracking where the money is going in your business, and we do that with Quickbooks Online. It’s the Quickbooks that many are familiar with, but with an updated (much slicker) interface, and access anywhere with an Internet connection, even on mobile (it’s in the cloud!).
This means I can check on what’s happening with the business from the other side of the globe, something that used to involve being emailed an exported QB file and a bunch of other painful steps in years gone by.
There are other cloud-based accounting packages available, but Quickbooks Online was an easy switch since we’d used the desktop versions for years before hand.
Finally, Google Drive / Google Docs. Like I mentioned above, it’s free or included in your Google Apps account. At its core, Google Drive is much like Dropbox, as a way to share files and folders up in the cloud. It integrates with Gmail, but not in a way I particularly like, and I actually find Dropbox a little slicker and faster for sharing some things.
But Google Docs, which allows you to create documents, spreadsheets and presentations is slick. You can think of it like a more stripped down version of Microsoft Office, and one that includes real-time collaboration.
That means that you and your team can be working on a document or spreadsheet at the exact same time, with no worries about things like versioning problems popping up and causing problems. You can actually see where their cursor is, and the cells and paragraphs fill as they type. It’s magic!
There is an offline option available as well, but I’ve had mixed success with it. It shines most brightly when you have a connection to the net.
What apps do you use to run your business while traveling? Let us know in the comments below.
Still interested in learning more about becoming location independent? Check out our article “9 Lessons Learned From Running a Regular Business from the Road” and our book “Hammocks and Hard Drives: The Tech Guide for Digital Nomads.”