For many with an entrepreneurial interest, Tim Ferriss’ book The 4 Hour Work Week was a milestone in business education.
While the ideas in the book weren’t always new, it popularised a number of concepts that spread like wildfire among business owners seeking both success and a lifestyle of their own design.
One of the key concepts was that of the Digital Nomad.
Put simply, a Digital Nomad is a business owner, empowered by technology, who works where he or she chooses. Their location of choice is typically somewhere with a significantly lower cost of living, but all the infrastructure needed to run a business designed as much around the desire for certain lifestyle as financial return.
It was a vision of working freedom that struck a chord with many, myself included, when I choose to follow Tim’s footsteps and spend three months in Buenos Aires in 2009.
We now know the number of employees choosing to work remotely has more than doubled since the late nineties. Although similar statistics are harder to find for the self-employed, the rise of both small-scale online outsourcing and freelancing (e.g. Upwork) and the myriad of tools that support these activities (such as video conferencing) strongly suggests the trend toward nomadic business ownership has only grown these past few years.
But what about advice firms? Is it possible to run your advice firm from the other side of the world?
Turns out we don’t have to ask the theoretical question. A number of firms are already doing it.
So what’s the secret? And how do you make it happen?
Dean Holmes of Absolute Wealth Advisers in Sydney was one of the first advisers I know who made the leap. Over coffee in 2014 Dean told me he was planning a move to London, and my immediate assumption was that he would sell his interest in the firm. Instead, Dean has presided over one of the most successful examples of how remote working techniques can actually foster better client engagement than traditional methods.
His recent talk at the XY Adviser event (delivered remotely of course), showed how this is becoming an area of greater interest for many advisers.
In Dean’s words, “A ‘Digital Nomad Adviser can definitely service their clients in a more flexible manner; benefiting themselves and clients. Those of us working in this space are doing so by leveraging technology; from simply using Skype for video calls and screen sharing, to more complex “apps” to manage relationships, communication and portfolios. We typically communicate more often with clients, simply by way of being able to do so from any location and being able to use the tech comfortably. That last point is the essential element.
“I think the real challenge is often within the advisers mindset. We think that clients need to see us in a large office with a view when, in reality, clients want us to be living our ideal life while we help them live theirs.”
Sarah Riegelhuth of Melbourne-based advice firm Wealth Enhancers is another adviser with special insight into this, having transformed a very successful traditional advice firm into an entirely outsourced model. WE now have over 25 staff operating outside of Australia, while she and her partner now live in the US.
“We moved WE to a flexible, remote work force a couple of years back, realising the benefit of using co-working spaces in place of expensive offices, and embracing technology wholeheartedly to bridge the communication gap”, Sarah shared with me recently.
“Our Gen Y members are just as busy as we are and frankly the option of having their coaching sessions online works for them. They also travel and move around, so the way we work allows us to advise members in other cities in Australia and overseas. We get more done, we travel more and we’re happier as a team.”
Another rationale for this being such a success is grounded in productivity theory. By both remote working and entering a different time zone, Dean and Sarah have been forced to “batch” work. Unlike the state of constant interruption many advisers live in, they need to engage clients when time difference allows, and undertake the work when it does not. It’s the enforcement of a core productivity principle almost by accident.
However, appealing as it sounds, being a Digital Nomad Adviser is not without barriers to overcome, the most obvious of which is the method of communication itself.
- Nuances of communication such as face-to-face interaction, eye contact, gaze, body language, and voice inflection are harder to detect if you are not familiar with the medium of video conferencing. You also need to know how to manage delays of visual and audio signals. Gaining a command of your chosen conferencing tool (whether Skype, Zoom, Suitebox etc. ) requires both training and practice.
- Equipment matters. A good microphone (I use the ATR 2500-USB and love it) and an HD camera positioned as close to line-of-sight as possible are a bare minimum investment. Other firms who have embraced it have taken it to another level with equipment and lighting. It’s not essential though. Most of the time all that is required beyond equipment is to avoid rear illumination, light the face and wear solid colour clothing.
- Obviously, a good internet connection on both sides is a must.
Beyond just the conferencing technology, there are four more areas to consider.
- Process is key. If your business is disorganised before going remote, it will only make the issue worse. That means having structure to the way you work, and a means for outsourced staff not in the same place to work the same way. An operations manual, ideally online, is highly recommended. A virtual team room like Yammer is perhaps the most evolved way of combating lack of physical team proximity, but can be a hard habit to adopt. I’ve found a ten minute check-in the morning and clear reporting each day a more flexible solution.
- Pre-planning your weeks, months and years in advance (ideally each January) is going to make the whole process hundreds of times easier than trying to work out what’s happening from fortnight to fortnight. Frankly any business, remote or otherwise, will make life measurably simpler by investing time in doing this.
- Time zones can present communication challenges. For example, there’s only a 3-4 hour slot where communication between most of the US and Australia is really convenient for all parties. Timeanddate.com has a fantastic tool for helping with this, and online booking tools like Calendly can help to avoid that week-long email conversation to find a suitable time. Pre-planning is vital with so few available hours on offer.
- Finally, different licensees can have different requirements around providing advice from overseas, with many insisting all parties must be in Australia to execute. Again, this adds weight to the need for advance planning for advisers who plan to make a quarterly return to Australia for in-person activities.
It’s a brave new world of advice, but with so many already taking the leap and challenging the separation of the professional and lifestyle worlds, the Digital Nomad Adviser is something I feel we’re only going to see more of in the coming years.
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