Why you should care
Because who wouldn’t like to make a living on a four-hour work week?
It’s 9:30 a.m. on Monday morning when she strolls into the coffee shop. She’s around 30, and her shorts and Australia Bondi Beach tank show off a golden tan. As the barista greets her kindly with “same-same,” she flips open her laptop at a corner table, checks Facebook, adds a photo to Instagram and starts tapping away until friends drop by an hour later to ask if she wants to hike up Doi Suthep and then hit the pool. Watching her leave, I think, “She has the perfect life: minimal work, plenty of play.” That’s why I came to Chiang Mai, Thailand — to become a digital nomad like her, so I never have to work full-time again.
Spoiler alert: Actual digital nomads, or location-independent workers, do not toil one hour a day and then lounge by the pool — I know, because I am one. But selling that myth has made us improbable tourist attractions in Chiang Mai, as travelers and wannabe nomads flock to the city to see how we do it and find out if the lifestyle is viable for them. Once here, they become targets for “celebrity” DNs who increasingly recruit them to purchase their products — e-books, training videos, mastermind classes, life-coach services and more — and then convince them to sell the products in multilevel marketing schemes. That’s right: These DNs want to become the Amways of Chiang Mai.
People’s interest in living the digital nomad dream make them easy prey …
It’s a negative trend that’s darkening the capital of cubicle-free wanderers. A Reddit post by Nishant Agrawal, founder of nCrafts, told the world: Chiang Mai is becoming a pyramid scheme. “It’s a bunch of people selling each other s**t to supplement their income,” he wrote. “As a newcomer, it’s very easy to fall for it … nomad workshops, nomad conferences, nomad gear, nomad retreats … Buy my e-book. Live your dreams. S**t gold.” A 2016 study by the Utah-based nonprofit Consumer Awareness Institute confirms Agrawal’s low opinion of the industry. It describes multilevel marketing as “flawed, unfair and deceptive,” and “extremely viral, predatory and harmful to many participants.” Jon M. Taylor, who headed up the study, found that 99 percent of those recruited lose money, and a mere 1 percent profit.
Independent researcher Tom Knoll works with Chiang Mai University to analyze the social, environmental and economic impact of digital nomads on the region. He breaks it down for OZY. DNs develop a website as a meta platform, he says, creating a sales funnel that gets followers into workshops for training on how to develop the product. The final step is convincing them to sell the product from their brand. “This is how they all evolve,” Knoll says, “and it develops into a pyramid scheme.”
Obviously, some DNs provide useful assistance with their knowledge. Jesse Forrest, an Australian freelance copywriter and trainer at StartCopywriting.com who is based in Chiang Mai, says, “I don’t mind people who sell their expertise to digital nomads as long as they truly are experts with real-world experience who are offering value that can help others.” What bothers him are the 20-something “coaches” and “authors” selling tools on the topic of success “when they clearly don’t have much real-world experience.”
People’s interest in living the digital nomad dream — quickly — makes them easy prey. They want to be like Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, arguably the bible of the digital nomad. And pyramid schemes are especially insidious because they sell an easy way into location independence for people who “don’t want their parents’ lifestyle — the 9-to-5, 30-year mortgage, 401(k) retirement plan and a long vacation someday,” says Knoll. He sees tourists and expats flocking to the Nomad Coffee Club meetup in Chiang Mai, a weekly speaker series on topics pertaining to DN life and business.
The popularity of the DN lifestyle grows daily, as seen on the Chiang Mai Digital Nomads Facebook group, which has more than 19,000 members worldwide who may or may not be DNs and who may or may not have visited the city. A 2016 survey by FlexJobs found that 15 percent of millennials fit the digital nomad demographic. Of that group, 26 percent are freelancers and 18 percent are entrepreneurs — both technically DN eligible. And what did 70 percent of those millennials give as their reason for seeking flexible work options? The desire to travel — and that’s what DNs sell: the freedom to see the world while making oodles of money.
After Agrawal posted on Reddit, he expected a lot of down votes and harsh comments for outing Chiang Mai as a pyramid scheme. Instead, he was surprised by the support he received. The positive response proves to him that the community isn’t on board with the new marketing projects of its shady members. “I’ve made a good number of friends in Chiang Mai, a decent number of whom got sucked into the scheme,” Agrawal tells OZY. “They are genuinely good people with good intentions — just misdirected by people with sinister intentions. That made me angry.”
Some experts think it’s important for this first generation of digital nomads to leave a legacy that legitimizes remote work — one that is positive, supportive and scam-free. After all, according to a 2014 survey conducted by the London Business School, by 2020 that’s how half of us will be earning our living.