From Malaysia to Belgium — My journey as a digital nomad
My journey to where I currently am in life right now is paved with wonderful experiences. In today’s post, I would like to share with you my story, my motivations, and what I have learned so far.
Starting at the very beginning, I was interested in the internet while still in primary school. I owned my first computer at the age of 10 and immediately got down to learning how to build websites. That first encounter was what introduced me to creating content that would translate into a ranking for search engines. From writing blogs, I discovered ways of driving traffic to a website. You either had to pay for advertisements or by learning how to utilize SEO.
In 2007, I came across the first SEO ebook (by Aaron Wall) being sold online for somewhere between USD$79 — USD$99. As a student, I could not afford the purchase, so I wrote to the author and asked if he was willing to share the knowledge with me for free. Turns out the guy was cool and he sent me a copy free of charge. And that was how my love affair with SEO began.
The book taught me the very basics of what is needed in utilizing SEO, while also including more advanced stages like how to build a reputation online via other websites mentioning my site. It was pretty simple back then because SEO has certainly evolved a great deal ever since.
Fast-forward a few years later, I built my own website which talks about my interest in marketing and SEO. I also utilized social media to discuss these topics. At the time, I was employed by a multinational corporation in Malaysia while also running my own global SEO team on the side. To build my network, I traveled to the US quite a bit to attend conferences.
An Unexpected Opportunity via Twitter
One day, I received a direct message on Twitter from an individual who had been watching my online profiles. He indicated that my skills matched what his company was looking for and that they were interested in hiring me.
My first thought was of course that this might be a scam. But after a lengthy research, I found the company, which was based in the US, to be legit. I applied for the position and was put through three rounds of interviews via video call and heard back from them within a matter of days, congratulating me on being hired.
The lesson to be learned is that if you are interested in working for American companies, there is a good chance of being noticed by simply being active online. That of course goes without saying that your online presence should be a positive one. Also, this depends on your field of work or industry. Marketing and engineering are two such industries which could qualify you for being noticed online via social media. Linked In, for instance, is the most basic social media platform that a professional should own because sharing a public portfolio demonstrates the level of transparency you have as an individual.
The company which I was employed by in the US, allowed me to work remotely, as did the CEO and staff of the finance and human resource department. So even though I was working from Malaysia, there were company trips and I also traveled to the US for meetings with my manager from time to time. I was 26 years of age, single and without many commitments, and I was earning good money and able to see the world at the same time.
The Road to Silicon Valley
The opportunity in the US opened up many new avenues. As a freelance consultant, I was now able to start my own enterprise company in Malaysia which then led me to attend numerous conferences and connect with countless different people from around the world, including individuals from Silicon Valley and the startup scene.
From meeting other digital nomads such as myself, I learnt about a new initiative by the Estonian government that offers e-residencies to foreigners. An Estonian e-residency basically allows individuals to gain access to European financial institutions, without having to physically live in Estonia. What this entails is the ability to open your own company and a European bank account.
I took advantage of this piece of knowledge because I find their financial systems to be more secure as compared to their Malaysian counterparts and the fact that business accounting is less of a headache with the availability of their online services. However, the most important reason as to why this idea resonates with me is because Estonia is part of EU. As an entrepreneur, it is important to have transparency in annual financial statements and I find having an EU registered company gives me a higher level of credibility when dealing with global companies.
If you are interested in doing this for yourself, I have listed a step-by-step guide on how to acquire an e-residency in Estonia . You may apply online.
Back to the story, I spent three to four years consulting for a number of American and European companies which comprised mostly of startups. By then, I had spent a significant amount of time traveling and soaking up different cultures from around the world, and this led me to the decision of migrating out of Malaysia.
I started asking the companies which I consulted for, if they would be interested in hiring me full time and offering me a work visa in their country. Due to the fact that most of these companies are startups, they did not have large enough funds to sponsor a work visa for a foreigner. One day while I was in the Netherlands, I received an e-mail from PieSync that tried to hire me in the past. They were not successful in hiring me previously because of a conflict of interest with another client I was working with. This time around, they wanted to meet up with me face-to-face in Belgium. Since I was nearby, I took a 3 hour bus ride to them and what a fruitful meeting it was for me.
They not only wanted to hire me as a full timer, they also agreed on getting me a work visa so I could work and live in Belgium. All this fell into place in 2019 after the company got acquired by an American company called Hubspot, which is the company I am currently employed by, here in Belgium.
Long term career in SEO & Marketing
Now in case you are interested in learning more about what it is that I do that enables me to work and travel as I have, I am an SEO Specialist. If you have read my past blog posts here, you should already know what it is but in case you are new, SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. Being an SEO Specialist means I help companies rank higher in online searches. For example if you are in the business of selling vacuum cleaners, and you need my help, I will come in and advise you on what kind of content or blog you may need to write on your website, what other websites you need to associate with to get a mention from them and other strategies on raising your rankings in Google. The idea is to increase your online reputation as a top vacuum cleaner dealership and in turn, translate that into a higher number of leads and sales.
For as long as the internet exists, humans will always need the knowledge of SEO and the help of SEO Specialists. SEO is beneficial for both businesses and consumers alike. While businesses can boost sales, consumers use SEO for the fastest solution or satisfaction for their queries or problems. Being an SEO Specialist is financially rewarding because it is a highly sought after skill.
In some ways, you can say I even apply SEO on myself. This website for instance, is an extension of my Linked In profile. As a freelance consultant, I need to market myself in a transparent way, in order for potential clients to get to know me before deciding to hire me. In other words, increase my own ranking so clients can put me at the top of the pile. Think about how you can apply that to your own online portfolio.
Digital Nomad: Work & Travel
If it has been your dream to work and travel at the same time, bear in mind that there is actual work involved. Even if you are able to log on to your Zoom meetings from a beach somewhere on a tropical island, you might also have to log in to a Zoom meeting or reply to an email at three o’clock in the morning where you are. This may lead to lots of power naps in between video calls, as evident in this post . Napping is indeed a business strategy.
Being a digital nomad will allow you to broaden your horizons. You will discover that sitting at a desk from 9–5 daily might not necessarily make you more productive than a person who replies emails from home for four hours a day, while lounging around in his pyjama pants. The main idea is to reach your KPIs while still maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
My best experience as a digital nomad has to be the time I spent at the Mokrin House in Serbia. Mokrin House is a different kind of co-living, co-working space for entrepreneurs and digital nomads to rest, network, while still getting work done. You can check out the pictures and me raving all about Mokrin House here. It is a modern getaway in the middle of a rural village in the north of Serbia, made for people who want to escape their mundane work environments while also boosting their creative energies. So you are both productive and re-energized, while your needs are fully taken care of by the staff.
In a nutshell, if you are looking to travel for travel alone, my advice would be to look up a travel group for your first time. After your first rendezvous, you will have learnt the tricks of the trade, and you might be more comfortable venturing out on your own. On the other hand, if you are looking to travel while working, in other words, becoming a digital nomad, you may want to join some groups, like the one I initially joined called Hacker Paradise. It is a group of digital nomads who get together and travel to a location for a month or two and then switch to another location for the next two months or so. You can choose which region to travel to but always research thoroughly before you go off with any group to any location. I have written my review of Hacker Paradise here in case you are considering it but having a tough time deciding.
I share a lot about SEO, working abroad, working according to different timezones and other topics about being a digital nomad right here on this blog. So if you have a particular question, you may simply type it in the search box and find the topics that suit your queries. Otherwise, look out for my next blog where I share more valuable experiences and knowledge.