PIERO TOFFANIN is a software developer. A year after he graduated from college, he was working a “normal nine-to-five job” but felt something was missing from his life. He convinced his wife to sell their possessions, start their own business, and hit the road as digital nomads. They traveled the United States in a camper for two years while coding to pay for expenses.
His tips for working remotely:
- Word of mouth is the best way to find work.
- It takes some time to adapt.
Podcast production by Podcast Monster
Graphic design by Alfred Boland
Lisette: Great! And we’re live. Welcome everybody to this remote interview. My name is Lisette and I’m interviewing people and companies who are doing great things remotely. And today on the line I have a real digital nomad in real life. And Piero, I assume, why don’t I have you introduce your name and tell us a little bit about your anywhere office.
Piero: Okay. So my name is Piero. My [0:26] is right now parked in the middle of the Sonoran desert in Arizona, United States. It doesn’t really have the typical look of an office that you’ll expect from a software developer. You’re really just parked anywhere that I can find some shade. I usually take my laptop on a bench or I sit near a rock. And as long as my batteries have some energy left and I can find some sort of reliable internet, wifi signal or 3g, then I work from there and I enjoy the scenery and it’s great.
Lisette: So is 3g enough for the kinds of things that you need to do?
Piero: It depends. Some types of work will benefit from having a higher speed internet but a lot of the tasks I can usually do with slow connections. Most of the work that I do requires me to often look up documentation line regarding the particular technology that I’m using. It’s in txt format. There’s no video. There is very few images. It is downloaded, don’t need much speed. Of course there are times where you need to talk to a customer and then you need high computer speed internet. In that case I will simply plan my route when I travel and try to be near a wifi hotspot that has higher speed internet.
Lisette: And where are you today?
Piero: We are in a van in Arizona, which is, like I said, close to the middle of the Sonoran desert.
Lisette: Okay. So it’s sunny there, I mean I’m seeing sun.
Piero: Yes it’s very sunny. Our temperature is wonderful, some 80 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s pretty warm. It’s kind of amazing, considering it’s still the middle of February.
Lisette: Right, well that’s Arizona for you. So why did you decide to do this? What was the reason?
Piero: Well I read about digital nomads as I was going to college. And I always thought it would be a cool thing to try. I actually didn’t get to do it until I graduated from college and I’ve been working a full year on my normal 9 to 5 job. One night I felt like something was missing from my life and I talked to my wife about possibility of leaving everything behind and selling our possessions and starting my own business and hitting the road then. So many people often say that it will be such a wonderful thing to do. A few of them actually embarked and do it. And so we thought this is the time we should do it. We’re not going to regret it. It’s going to be risky but it will be worth it in the end. I think it has so far.
Lisette: Okay. So you were both in a situation where you could do this kind of work or did she have to change or did you have to change? It seems like you are able to do it already. Is that right?
Piero: Correct. Yes.
Lisette: So you’re both [03:37] already.
Piero: Right. And I guess I am lucky in this regard because there are certainly many, many jobs that you simply cannot do from remote like I do. And so I feel very lucky in this regard. But like you know, the number of jobs that are becoming more and more easily outsourced from remote are increasing by the year, every year. And I think that there is a sort of cultural shift that’s happening, not just in America but all over the world where people are more comfortable working with people that are not physically in a location.
Lisette: Right. So when you’re travelling around and you’re talking to people, obviously, about what you’re doing because I’m sure tons of people are asking. Are you getting like a “wow!” or people like “oh okay, yeah I get it.” Is it still new to most people when you talk to them?
Piero: It is new to most people. I guess it’s more new in the fact that not only I’m working remote but I’m also moving very quickly from one place to another. So I usually get the “wow!” kind of comment.
Lisette: Okay. Wow, I wish I could do that too, that kind of thing.
Piero: Yes. A good number of them, I believe, they could do it themselves. But oftentimes people like the comfort of their home. They like the place they’re in. They simply don’t want to take the risk of embarking in such an adventure. You get a lot of wannabes and there are very few that I think take the extra step and actually do what they say they want to do.
Lisette: So what is the risk? What were the risks that you thought about before you left and maybe some that you learned while on the road?
Piero: Well the biggest two…well the biggest one is probably financial instability. You don’t really have a stable source of income because you are your own boss; you’re working at your own schedule. You have to find your own clients. That comes with a significant volatility in your income. And then the second big risk, well I don’t know if I should define that risk but it’s surely a downside, is that you have to leave a lot of friends and family behind, not in the sense that you’ll never see them again but you simply are not connected through them on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. You simply have to see them maybe whenever you go back to see them and that’s a little sad. I’ll be honest, I do miss a lot of the friends that I had in the places that I lived previously and I do miss my family of course.
Lisette: Yeah, and I actually read just recently that loneliness is really an issue for a lot of digital nomads that are on the road because when you’re travelling you meet people for a couple of days or a couple of weeks and then you’re off again.
Piero: Right. And true friendship needs time to develop. You make a lot of connections while you’re travelling. You’ll have new acquaintances and new friends but they’re not the same friends. You can’t achieve a certain level of friendship because you don’t give it enough time. A few weeks is not enough time to develop a strong, long lasting friendship, I think.
Piero: Unless it’s [07:01] then you keep on following up with them maybe if when you’re farther away. It’s just more difficult, let’s say that.
Lisette: Right. There are special cases, of course. Sometimes you just connect and it’s for life. Those things happen to, so I can imagine there’s a whole state of friendship.
Lisette: And how long have you been on the road?
Piero: It’s been 8 months and a half.
Lisette: That’s a long time. And how long are you going to go?
Piero: Well as long as we want to do it or I guess…we’re enjoying it so far.
Lisette: So there’s no end in mind.
Piero: Well let’s say we have a worst case scenario. Then we have…we plan for the worst and hope for the best.
Lisette: Right. But so far so good, it sounds like.
Piero: Yes. Like I said it comes with some downside and it’s a compromise in many aspects but I really believe that the pros outweighs the cons. I’ve really been enjoying it. It’s a new place every few weeks and there are so many people that I’ve met and so many new places I’ve discovered. It’s really great. I would encourage anybody who’s in the situation to actually do it and find the courage to break some of society’s expectations and embark in the journey because it’s really worth it.
Lisette: So what do you love about it so much? What is it that for you that just makes it totally worth it?
Piero: I really like the freedom that you get. If you don’t like a place, you move. If one day you feel like you’re stressed out, you simply reschedule your work around your own terms. You’re much more in control of your own life. It’s the feeling of “I’m in control. I don’t need to answer to somebody. Whatever I do becomes my responsibility.” It’s more responsibility, it’s much more risks, but it also comes with a big reward.
Lisette: And how do you…do you have one client that you work for? Are you finding clients as you go? How does that work for you?
Piero: Well what has worked for me so far is working through referrals and people that you meet in person. You will start by having one person that needs a job to be done. You do the job, the person likes what you’ve done and then they refer you to other people. And that seems to be working the best for me.
Piero: Yes. And there are a lot of market places out there where you can bid on projects and the work for random strangers. I tried that route and it just hasn’t worked very well in that regard because I think you’re competing with a global market force. So since there are no boundaries and you’re working online, not only you are bidding against a lot of other people but you’re also competing against people that live in places where they can afford to bid much lower than what you can.
Lisette: Much, much lower.
Piero: Which is good. That’s free market idea.
Lisette: Right. It’s true. I’ve had the same experience. I used Elance a lot for finding work and I had the same experience. You’re just competing against so many people and really well priced people, you think “oh man, if they can really do the work for that…” but you know, there are some downsides to that. There’s one thing that I read on your blog, when you said that “the hardest part about this was finding clients who want to work remotely.” And that really struck me.
Lisette: And so what is it about the clients? Why are they resisting? What do you run into there?
Piero: Well I think it’s the thought that if something breaks and you’re not here, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to reach you right away. If I need to go and show this product that you’re making to another person, they’re not going to be able to meet you in person so they might start wondering “where does this person live? Are you outsourcing maybe somewhere where we don’t trust it to be outsourced?” There are some barriers in that regard. A lot of job descriptions that you’ll find around will require you to be physically available in one location. I think that’s slowly changing but you have to give it time. I feel like in this regard we’re a little bit of pioneers, you could say, in this world.
Lisette: Yeah, which is interesting. The main barrier then is that they don’t know what you’re doing and that they’re also afraid that you might disappear, because I hear that actually. I get clients who write to me, not my clients but people who write to me on my newsletter and say “my freelancer has disappeared. I totally don’t know what happened to them.” And in fact I just had it happen to me on a team that I work on. The guy just stopped answering emails after six weeks of working together. Totally weird. It is an issue. I can see why people are scared of it.
Piero: Yes. There’s also a little bit of the whole trusting. I mean if you’re not seeing the person working, people start worrying like “are you actually working?” They’ve come up with all these tools that you can install on your computer, which are very creepy, where somebody will look at what keystrokes you’re typing or see your screen and make sure you’re actually working. I don’t know. I really think that if you’re having a healthy relationship with your clients, there should be the mutual trust that you’re going to do the work and they’re going to pay you. And if any part of that trust is broken, you just had a very unhealthy client-business relationship, which I do not like to have.
Lisette: Sure. I mean nobody likes that situation, I’m sure. There’s something about this results-oriented aspect that I want to talk about because that seems to be really a key, a crucial part about this remote working…I mean you have to deliver. If they can’t see you, then the only thing they can judge you on is your delivery. You’ve got to be on time and you’ve got to do the work.
Piero: Yeah absolutely.
Lisette: So basically you’re looking for clients that have that results-oriented mindset.
Piero: Yes. So “I have a project. I need it to be done. This is the deadline. Can you deliver?” And if I can deliver, I will say yes, and I deliver.
Lisette: Okay. And basically that’s how you build the trust.
Lisette: And then there’s also personality things I’m sure. You get along better than others, [13:54] to like more than others, so there’s that.
Lisette: I wanted to talk about the tools. Have you had clients actually say or suggest to do some of these tools that you’ve talked about like the screen capturing and the keystroke monitoring? Have you had clients ask for that?
Piero: No. The ones that I’ve dealt with, they haven’t. I’m just referring to things that I’ve seen. I’ve seen companies promote the use of these tools.
Lisette: Yeah I’ve heard about it too.
Piero: I haven’t had to use them. To be honest in my situation since I don’t have always reliable internet, that will probably be difficult for me to even allow the use of those tools because at times I may not have internet. They can monitor me but they’ll probably get a very laggy experience.
Lisette: They’ll be slowing you down. They don’t want that.
Lisette: Interesting. So what kind of tools do you use then to connect with the people that you work with? What do you use the most?
Piero: I like Skype for voice calls and definitely email. Those are the two main ones. Those are the two main ones when I deal with clients.
Lisette: And do you ever do video? Do you ever do video calls with clients or is it mostly just Skype voice?
Piero: We can use videos, depending on how much internet bandwidth I have available, if it’s high speed or not high speed, but yeah video works also.
Lisette: But it sounds like you tend to just do calls and emails, like the voice calls and emails, not video calls.
Piero: It doesn’t really matter. I mean sometimes video also works, like I said.
Piero: But it really depends. I really think that to communicate a message you don’t necessarily need a video feedback. But some people like it, so if they want to do it, that’s fine. I have no problem with that.
Lisette: Sometimes I just find if it’s a new client, it helps build the relationship. It makes it a little more personal to be able to see each other.
Lisette: Interesting. And then are you working at all with a team on a regular basis? Like do you have a regular team that’s like part time and then you’re finding other stuff in the meantime, or is it all new clients’ kind of all the time, job per job.
Piero: There are some recurring clients and then once in a while you get something new. And they’re usually projects that need to be delivered within a few months, so nothing that is too big. I think that’s also part of that idea that you don’t want to put too much work in the hands of somebody who is working remotely, probably because things could change. People could go places. So I’ve had mostly smaller projects, which has worked very well. I mean I do the work, I deliver, I get paid, and everybody’s happy.
Lisette: Right. And really it doesn’t matter at all where you are, as long as you have the wifi you need to do the job that needs to get done and that you’re able to communicate with the people that you’re working with. And it sounds like you are pretty good about figuring out where to go for the wifi you need, or has that been difficult on the road?
Piero: No. It has been fairly straightforward. I really think that if you tried to do this 10 years ago it would have been much more difficult because wifi was just getting spread around as a marketing thing to attract customers in different places, but nowadays they don’t even advertise. You can pretty much expect to find 10 different access points in any place that has some type of urban development.
Lisette: Right, especially in the US.
Piero: Yes, that’s definitely the US. What has been a little tricky has been finding wifi that is reliable. Oftentimes you will find the wifi and it will work but maybe it will get interrupted or it will be overcrowded. And so then you’ll have to go and find some other place.
Lisette: Is that kind of a constant frustration or have you gotten used to it by now? You’re like “okay.”
Piero: It was frustrating at the beginning, especially coming from after having worked in universities and places where they have very high speed internet. Now all of a sudden you’re just dealing with at times dial up speed. It has been a little frustrating at the beginning but you adapt to it. If one day wifi doesn’t work, oh well let’s see if my phone tether is of higher speed. No? Okay let’s go find a Starbucks, go grab some coffee.
Lisette: Right. Okay, and there’s also one thing that I saw. It was a tweet that you sent out that I love. You said “people become workaholic so that they can buy things that make them happy. How about just buying time to enjoy things that they already have.” And you talked about minimalism a lot too, and I’m a big fan. When I moved to the Netherlands I had one suitcase and I was so relaxed. It was so relaxing to own nothing. I was shocked actually. I don’t know if you had the same experience or what is it that you like about the minimalism?
Piero: Well there is just less that you have to worry about. You have less to pay for to maintain it. Let’s say you bought a very nice house. It’s a great feeling at first. But then as you realize that you might have to pay a heavy mortgage on it and then you might have to pay for house insurance and you’ll have to hire somebody to clean it because you’re working fulltime, then all of a sudden I think you really start to feel the pressure that you have to keep on going and move on with whatever you’re doing in life just to support what you build with so much effort. So you could say it’s almost a perpetuating cycle of giving up your time to buy things that will make [20:01] the same things require you to work even more to maintain them. It’s a vicious cycle, I really think. The more you work, the more money you make. And then with more money you can buy more things and then those things require even more money, which require you to work even more or if anything they don’t allow you to work less, which I think should be a goal for everybody. If you’re lucky enough to have a very good income, you should think about ways to take a time off, not about buying more things.
Lisette: How much do you work on a typical day?
Piero: Around 5-6 hours. I really try to be productive and put in as much as I can but after the 5, 6 hours I call it a day and I relax.
Lisette: And by relax, what do you do? I mean you guys are travelling all over. Are you hiking and camping? What kinds of things do you do?
Piero: We like to hike a lot. The US has so many national parks so that we [21:02] prefer nearby them or there’s little state park trails like we like to go to. Otherwise, I like to read. In my field you have to stay updated. So I usually read technical manuals, which I consider that a relaxing activity, surprisingly.
Lisette: I totally understand, yeah.
Piero: It puts my wife to sleep but I enjoy reading technical manuals. Otherwise, I like to cook so I will do that. I’ll do some physical exercise or I will find a nearby martial arts facilities since I practice some martial arts and I’ll go and meet people there and practice. That’s the typical things that I do, I could say.
Lisette: Sounds ideal. Sounds like a lovely way to live actually.
Piero: It is.
Lisette: Have you ever encountered somebody that was totally not into this? They were just like “I would never do such a thing.” Have you ever had a negative reaction to what you’re doing?
Piero: Yes. We’ve encountered the people that simply say, they listen to the story and then they say “oh I could never do that” because maybe “living in a small popup tent, I don’t have all my space I need” or most are they don’t like to travel from one place to another so quickly. “What if you in a place that you don’t like? What about leaving your friends?” It’s not for everybody. This way of living is not a formula that works for everybody. It depends on each individual. But I think many people will probably find it as an awesome way to discover themselves.
Lisette: Yeah. I mean when there’s no reason to go back home, I mean I would say for people in their early 20s especially, if you’ve got programming skills and you like to travel, then there’s no excuse. You got to go. You got to do it since you can. I think our internet connection is a little wacky. Can you still hear me? Oh there we go.
Piero: I can hear you.
Lisette: Okay. What advice do you have for others then who want to do this? If you had to start it all again and you were going to go back to the road, what advice would you give yourselves? Are you there?
Piero: Lisette, I think the internet is being a little slow.
Lisette: It is. I can hear you now though.
Piero: Okay. Could you repeat your question?
Lisette: My question is if you have to go back and do it all over again, what advice would you give yourself before hitting the road?
Piero: That is a very good question.
Lisette: Would you say like “have more money saved up.” I don’t know. I’m just [24:11]. I don’t know anymore, like “go for it.” I don’t know.
Piero: I have a very good advice I will give to my old self, or my young self I should say, and that is to really consider the weather as you travel south. When we started the trip, we started up north, around the Midwest, so the area, that if we just stayed here during the winter months it will be all fine, but it turns out that not all southern states are not created equal, and we’ve been in a few states, for example in Louisiana or Mississippi where the winters are actually fairly cold.
Lisette: You were thinking “sure” and it’s pretty cold there.
Piero: Right. And so that really made us think like “okay, not all southern states get really warm during the winter time.” That would have been something nice to know ahead of time and we didn’t even think much of it. But we learned.
Lisette: Right. These are things you can learn on the road. And are there any resources that you use regularly like a website you go to or digital nomads. I know there’s the digital nomads’ website, but I mean are there things that you check now regularly while you’re on the road?
Piero: Oh yes. I usually read the hacker news on the Y Combinator website. I think it has a very great collection of links that the technology community shares. I usually read that at least once a day.
Lisette: Okay. Yeah it’s a great website. My boyfriend sends me links to that website constantly. I don’t scan them myself, I will say. I guess my last question then is if people want to learn more about you and they want to contact you and hire you, if you’re a client and you need developing skills, what’s the best way to get in touch with you?
Piero: Email is probably the best. And you can find my contact information on my personal website, which is pierotoffanin.com. Otherwise, I’m on Twitter, if you look me up.
Lisette: That’s where I found you, yeah.
Piero: Okay, yeah. I usually try to answer to everybody that tweets to me. So that’s another great way to get in touch. Yeah, so email, Twitter, Skype.
Lisette: So basically if they have your name, they can find you on the internet.
Piero: Yes. So if you Google me, I shall have the whole front page to myself.
Lisette: Awesome. Okay, and then I’ll just say it for the last thing, is there anything that I missed necessarily? I was just trying to guess on some of these questions. Is there anything that I missed about the digital nomad lifestyle that maybe you want to tell people about?
Piero: I’m trying to think. I think you’ve been pretty thorough with it. I don’t have anything on my mind.
Lisette: Okay, great. Well then it’s been really a pleasure to talk to you and I wish you and your wife lots of luck and fun on your journey. It sounds like a wonderful adventure.
Piero: It is. And thank you for the opportunity. It’s really great to be able to tell my story and let people know that this kind of lifestyle is possible and it has some rewards if you’re the type of person that could benefit from it.
Lisette: Right. So just decide, like do you want to be on the road? Do you love travelling? Do you have mad programming skills? I mean you don’t even have to have necessarily programming skills, though that does really help.
Piero: Right, exactly. There’s many other professions that can do the work from remote – writers, accountants, designers – you name it.
Lisette: Right. Video editors, all kinds of things. Although that one’s probably a little more difficult because of the [28:06].
Lisette: Thanks so much. And I’ll definitely be in touch to follow up.
Piero: Okay, perfect. Thank you, Lisette.
Lisette: Until next time everybody. Be powerful.