Interview with Entrepreneur & Telecommuting Event Founder on Building Community

Every year, I said one last trip, one last trip, one last trip. It wasn’t until pretty recently that I realized I don’t need to move back to the US to have stability and certainty in my life. It’s something I can have wherever I am. So instead of looking at an endgame, I look at having everything I need in the present, no matter where I am.
Johnny FD, Entrepreneur and Founder of the Nomad Summit

Johnny FD, born Johnny Jen, is a location-independent entrepreneur who’s been traveling the world since 2008 when the term digital nomad hardly existed. But through persistence, self-documentation, and community-building, Johnny blazed a trail for countless others who would eventually call themselves digital nomads. The ripple effects of Johnny’s career have been large enough that Chiang Mai, a once largely unheard of city in Northern Thailand, has become a major remote work hub.

“The digital nomad community is something I accidentally helped build,” Johnny says.

Today, anyone looking into the digital nomad or remote work lifestyle can find any number of guides, books, and coaching sessions to help them get there. But in 2008, Johnny didn’t have anything more than a worn-out copy of The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss and a serious desire to break out of the cubicle and follow his passions. Working a solid 9-5 for Honeywell in Southern California had gotten him clothes, furniture, gadgets, and a couple of cars, but it hadn’t made him happy.

“It wasn’t until I left that I realized what else was out there, and what else I was missing,” Johnny says.

The lack of a clear playbook for this new lifestyle led to a circuitous and character-building path across the map. Johnny spent the first years as a scuba instructor, traveling to Australia, Borneo, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean. He then settled into Thailand to study and compete in Muay Thai kickboxing. Both the scuba and Muay Thai communities challenged his perception of self, and fostered personal growth. He was hooked.

“Community can be something you join just because you happen to live in a specific place, and that’s what you’re born into, whether it’s a neighborhood, a religion, or a culture,” Johnny says. “But community can also be something you choose to join, or seek out, or build yourself.”

From Digital Nomad to Entrepreneur

At age 30, Johnny began the transition into entrepreneurship. Building his own location-independent businesses from the ground up, he sought out educational and networking opportunities, but found them to be limited. That’s where his blog began.

“From day one, I’ve been sharing my entire journey, hoping other people can follow it and feel more self-assured that someone else has done it,” Johnny says.

He wrote a book on his decision to leave the 9-5. He started hosting coffee meetups for other location-independent entrepreneurs. Little by little, he began building the community that he wanted to join, and he helped launch the nomadic careers of others in the process.

“Back in our home countries, we’re assigned these communities, and we have little choice of joining or building a different one,” Johnny says. “It’s very difficult to change. But as a traveler, we can go in and out of communities every time we hop on a plane.”

That community-minded approach extends to all the places he visits. As an English-speaking business owner, earning US dollars, and holding a strong passport, Johnny recognizes that he’s in a position of abundance compared to the average local in many foreign countries.

“Regardless of where you’re from, we all have certain privileges,” Johnny says. “We shouldn’t necessarily feel bad about it, but there are ways we can use our position to support the local economy.”

On an individual level, Johnny eats at locally-owned restaurants and seeks out locally-owned accommodation, eschewing larger chains and multinational apps that benefit a middleman. Collectively, such minor decisions can have a major impact.

Building Community Across the Globe

Years ago, when choosing where to host his weekly coffee meetups in Chiang Mai, Johnny scoped out the city to find a cafe that was both empty and accommodating to the group’s needs. Bringing 30 paying customers with him was a radical boost to the locally-owned business he selected. Recurring weekly meetups, combined with the natural marketing from the word of mouth amongst well-heeled tourists, was borderline life-changing for the cafe’s owners.

A little mindfulness goes a long way, and it’s a perspective that Johnny maintains no matter where he ends up. Currently, that’s in Sri Lanka, in a tiny town on the coast.

“Today, when I went surfing, at the surf school—it’s a literal shack on the beach where I rent my boards—the owner asked me how he could create a YouTube video,” Johnny says. “So I grabbed his phone, I shot him a three-minute video, and then I said this is how you upload it. Now he has a YouTube channel. There’s a lot of things where it just takes one person, who has grown up in a place where we’re used to tech, to be able to share a skill. Maybe now he’s going to share that skill with his friends, and that’s going to get passed around the community as well.”

The Nomad Summit

That sort of logic is what led to Johnny helping to create the digital nomad community. Early on, the few meetups that Johnny could find were all taking place in bars—a setting more conducive to backpacking travelers than business-minded remote workers. The desire to network and share skills led Johnny on a path that culminated in his creation of the Nomad Summit, an annual meetup akin to a global convention for location-independent workers.

“Starting the Nomad Summit, I had never heard of any other big meetups like that for digital nomads,” Johnny says. “I just had this idea of hey, if somebody got together and rented a proper conference room with a projector, and seats, and a microphone, maybe we could share the skills we’ve picked up along the way, and maybe we could really learn from each other.”

Johnny floated the idea to a few of his peers, and got a lot of resistance. But when just one other person seemed receptive, he set out on his scooter through the streets of Chiang Mai to find a location that could match his ambition. He put down the deposit himself. That first year, he allowed attendees to attend on a pay-what-you-can donation; the concept of a digital nomad summit was untested, and he had no idea who would actually come, or what price to charge for it.

At the first Nomad Summit, 100 people showed up. Each year it grew, and, in the process, built the reputation of Chiang Mai as a hub for the 21st-century idea of location-independent work.

“The biggest one we had was 400 people,” Johnny says. “My original idea was to keep growing it bigger and bigger, but I realized at 400 people it was impossible for everyone to meet each other. So we started focusing on quality over quantity, and we now limit them at 300 people, just to make sure we can focus on the networking and getting to know each other.”

The Nomad Summit has now expanded to outside of Chiang Mai. Last year it was in Playa Del Carmen, an up-and-coming digital nomad hub. The next one will take place in Tbilisi, Georgia, another city with ideal credentials for a remote worker’s temporary base.

“When I first went to Tbilisi, the first thing I thought was that this place is amazing,” Johnny says. “The only thing it was missing was community. That’s why I decided to have the next Nomad Summit there, so I can bring that community.”

Over the last decade, Johnny’s done a lot to build the digital community. He’s also seen it change significantly.

“In the beginning, all of the nomads I met were owning their own business,” Johnny says. “Now it’s 50-50, where 50 percent of them work for a company or freelance, and 50 percent of them run their own business.”

The early days of the digital nomad craze were dominated by risk-takers and trailblazers, self-marketers and entrepreneurs. But over the years, steady remote work has become more popular, more accepted, and easier to obtain, especially in the age of COVID-19. Today’s location-independent workers are teaching English online, freelancing creatively, or working remotely in tech jobs. Overall, Johnny’s seen a trend in the idea of location-independent work becoming more nuanced and fluidic.

“There are going to be a lot more remote workers,” Johnny says.

He’s seen trends emerge in his own approach to location-independent work, too. Instead of compulsively hopping from country to country, he’s staying longer and longer in each place. It allows him to get to know a city, a neighborhood, a community, and enjoy some of the benefits of greater stability at the same time. It’s a trend that’s spread to other digital nomads and remote workers, many of whom are looking to Johnny’s career to take notes on where it’ll end up.

“The endgame is something I’ve thought about a lot,” Johnny says. “After a few years traveling, I thought, okay, I’m in for one more year, and then I’ll settle down back in the US. Every year, I said one last trip, one last trip, one last trip. It wasn’t until pretty recently that I realized I don’t need to move back to the US to have stability and certainty in my life. It’s something I can have wherever I am. So instead of looking at an endgame, I look at having everything I need in the present, no matter where I am.”

Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog
Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.

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