[ HTJ Podcast ] Talk with Robert O’Kruk – Digital Nomad Influencer

Hanna: Hi, my name is Hanna. And today, we will interview Robert. Originally from Canada, he has spent the last five years traveling the world and working remotely as a digital nomad. He runs a digital nomad forum with over 13,000 members and a professional Upwork coach. Upwork is the world’s largest remote work platform. Today, he gives us his view on key trends as we emerge into a post-pandemic world.

Company Podcast Intro: This podcast channel is about you; successful international entrepreneurs, successful ex-pats, successful investors- sponsored by HTJ.Tax.

Derren Joseph: Hi Robert, how are you today?

Robert O’Kruk: Hey, Derren, I am well. I’m happy to be chatting with you. How’s it going on your end?

Derren Joseph: Pretty good. It's been a while. Thanks for sharing some of your time, but could you please introduce yourself to those who may be watching or listening, could you please introduce yourself?

Robert O’Kruk: My name is Robert O’Kruk. I'm a Canadian born and raised. I spent more than three and a half years traveling the world and working remotely as a digital nomad. In the context, our conversation today, I ran a digital nomads forum. It's a 13,000 plus member Facebook group for remote workers and digital nomads.  And I'm a professional Upwork coach. Upwork is the world's largest remote work platform. So I kind of live and breathe the remote work and digital nomadism lifestyle and community. And yeah, that's a quick little bit about me.

Derren Joseph:  Fantastic. Thank you. And therefore, that means that you have some measure of authority and perspective as we jump off into this topic. So one of the outcomes, one of them, I guess, one of the apparent results of what's happening right now with pandemic and everything is the rise of remote work. And previously, it was seen as a fringe activity, but now it's part of the mainstream discussion. What are your thoughts as to what's happening right now? Keep it open.

Robert O’Kruk: Sure. So I think what's been interesting is that as someone who's been in this kind of world of remote work before all this COVID craziness was happening, it was very evident that it's kind of looking like it's some sort of like a hockey stick curve. And for people who aren't familiar with that means things are kind of ramping up, but soon we'll be, you know, crazily ramping up. And so people are already transitioning over the last few decades more and more into remote work. And COVID has just kind of accelerated the process. It's like throwing gasoline into the fire and speeding up something that's been happening in the background.

So for all the people who are already working on doing something on a computer, on the phone, for a while, then they're for sure having explored remote work at this point. For other people, though, who have been doing different types of work where they haven't been doing something that has traditionally been done remotely or can be done remotely, they've also been looking at, is there something I can do from home?  That's not usually what I would be doing, but yeah, just, yeah, that'd be my zoomed-out views. It's just sped up to something that's been happening anyway. But now some people don't have a choice if they want to earn a living.

Derren Joseph: Got it. I agree with that. And in so many ways, the pandemic has been a catalyst not creating anything new but accelerating pre-existing trends. And another trend, sorry that we've seen that has accelerated and has been what some of us would term economic nationalism. So over time, borders have not been getting more and more open, but they've been closing the opposite.

Robert O’Kruk: Yeah

Derren Joseph: That seems to be like some headwind in terms of the old nomad location, independent driver perspective of movement. How do you reconcile those two?

Robert O’Kruk:  I don't know if I've been able to reconcile them yet. It's been a concerning topic for sure. Because, you know, for example, where me and you, a man, were in Bali and Indonesia, and that's an entire large Island, fueled by more than 90% of tourists' dollars. And so that they don't have that income. Now the whole idea of this digital nomadism thing is that you can kind of bounce around and hop around and be where you want to. And you just merely logistically can't do that easily at the moment.

To be honest, it's a bomber, and I understand the reasoning behind it. People want to protect themselves and stay safe and healthy. But at some point what I'm wondering is, you know, people keep mentioning, you know, things going back to normal and then other people are saying, there is no normal, this is a new era or something new. And it's interesting because I, at the beginning of this, I was thinking, well, yeah, all the countries will just open back up normally, and things will go back to normal, but it's happening much more slowly than I anticipated.

And I am starting to have creeping concerns that the openness for travelers to enter into countries might be more restricted than it was before COVID, even after COVID, has officially entirely kind of gone on its way. So that's a real bomber, and I'm hoping that's not happening. I think what that will do is for countries that are open to having more or less restrictive kinds of laws about visitors, and this, of course, will then attract, I guess, the digital nomads and remote workers because people want to travel.

I think it's something I've learned in the last year is it doesn't matter actually, where they just, the grass is always green, or they're living in the worst place, or they're bored of it or whatever. And this is another place they want to go there. So if you can't go to this place, cause the border is closed, and this border is open. And you know, we might see kind of a natural funneling effect happening from people in this lifestyle. I don't know that's where I'm at.

Derren Joseph:  Right? So you seem to be leaning towards the camp, saying, hey, this is the new normal. So don't expect a return to 2019 that may be in the rearview mirror. Right?

Robert O’Kruk: So, like, all I'd add to that is I'm not attached to either outcome. I prefer things to go back to the way they were in terms of being open, and in fact, I would like them to be more open and easier for people to go between countries. But as you said, what's going to happen. Nobody knows. I certainly don't know. I do have a preference, but who can say, right?

Derren Joseph: We don’t know.  So if it is, and again, we don't know, but if it is that things are less open than they were before, what should a location-independent person be doing to prepare for that?

Robert O’Kruk: Well, what they have been doing in the past when they want to travel. As a digital nomad or remote worker, if you're considering going to a new country, at some point for most people, there is a stage of research. Whether it is looking into the rules and laws and regulations about me from whatever country I have a passport from visiting this place, do I just show up and enter?

And they let me stay for one to three months or do I have to fill in some sort of form in advance. I think that this step is even more essential. Potentially in this post COVID era, especially if all of the tourism and kind of immigration laws, if these have all kind of changed or been jumbled about, we want to make sure we find out the current information to see, Hey, can I go there? And so some of the best ways for people to do that, sure, you can Google things, but Google is kind of this black hole of multiple information sources.

One of the easier ways, not necessarily the most accurate way either though,  is to maybe come into a Facebook group like mine. Where you can ask people who recently, even that day, or that week gone through the same border or steps that you're about to. If you're intelligent about collecting that information, you don't just listen to the first person who applies. You collect a few people's responses in real-time. That's arguably one of the easiest ways to figure it out without giving yourself a major headache to figure, or can I visit this country? What are the laws? That's what I would say.

Derren Joseph: Got it.  And so in a way, well, depending on how long this disruption lasts or whether it's more of a long-term thing, the whole idea of short-term tourism seems to be floundering. The idea of going around because by the time, you know, you got a test or quarantined for 14 days is not exactly a weekend trip. Like how it used to be, maybe, and another thing that I've seen is destinations. Again, this predated this pandemic destination. We’ve been getting a bit picky. The case study is like Thailand, right? They have been deliberately putting policies in place to discourage the so-called backpacker in favor of someone who is. I guess they use the term VIP because of VIP visas and stuff like that. I guess, higher-income earners. Do you see those two things as being a trend worth thinking about or observing?

Robert O’Kruk: Well, from a governmental perspective, I'm sure they need to be observing it from an individual perspective. See, Thailand is still such an open place. Still, other places, if they're going to choose to restrict themselves only to allow the higher income earners to travel or travel more easily than what we can assume will happen is. Therefore more of those people will be there, and less of the lower-income earners will be there.

And so I guess all I'll say is you need to check in and ask yourself what kind of people do I want to be around? Do I want to be around the full spectrum of income earners? Or maybe you're in business mode, and you want to take your six-figure business to seven figures, and you want to be surrounded by people who are crushing it, and then maybe that would be favorable for you. I have always enjoyed traveling, being surrounded by the diversity of people from all walks of life. And I imagine I would like to keep traveling in that way, but it's a question, ask yourself, who do I want to be surrounded by? And is this location somehow funneling or pulling a certain group more? So then another one.

Derren Joseph: Ok. Again, that point about diversity, and I know it's true, it's premature, but you’ve been observing this for a while. We’re saying that this situation has just, you know, accelerated specific pre-existing trends. And with that in mind, which destinations do you think would be more attractive going forward?

Robert O’Kruk: Well, yeah. Like specifically?

Derren Joseph: Yeah.

Robert O’Kruk:  Okay. Well, probably the locations that are already considered the biggest digital nomad hubs in the world. Such places like Medellin in Colombia, Bali, Chiang Mai, and a few other places in Thailand, Lisbon in Portugal. And you know, there's a handful of others. These are some specific examples of these places with huge tourism industries, regardless of the digital nomad. Because they don't know my thing's still not this massive, you know, economy changing factor when it comes to tourism, but it is becoming so. These places were already top destinations for digital nomads because of other reasons: the cost of living, quality of living in terms of beauty and geography, and things to do food and culture and infrastructure, basically reliable internet and whatnot. So that's all still there. If anything, things are now cheaper because there's no tourism, so everyone's fighting for tourist dollars. So the most significant thing will just be the rules.

Is it accessible for someone to get there? Can I fly? Can I book my plane ticket? Can I get to the border and get in without hassle? That will be the strongest factor at the moment because all of the other aspects of what makes a great place for remote workers, digital nomads, haven't well inherently changed, except I would say then. So I mentioned culture. Culture will be composed of both the locals and the foreigners and visitors who are there.

So if it's only locals, all of a sudden, and now there are no foreigners, and that's different because some places you traveled to in the world, there are a lot of fun because they attract people like yourself. So, for example, I'm an avid mountain biker. There are places in the world that are these, you know, mountain biking hubs. And that's a lot of fun. You get to hang out with all these people who are into the same thing you are, but at the same time, sometimes you want that diversity. So anyway, here are some thoughts on that.

Derren Joseph: Hmm. And what do you think about initiatives? Like Estonia, Bermuda, Barbados, this still kind of early days of ironing out particular possibilities generally. What would they propose to do? What are your thoughts on that?

Robert O’Kruk:  Like, and I guess so you're referring to, so for people who are listening, kind of these countries that are starting to offer potentially like these digital nomad visas are or passports even.

Derren Joseph: Yeah.

Robert O’Kruk: Yeah. Or you can kind of have your banking and taxes in a different country with potentially more favorable rules and laws. So ultimately, hopefully, you might reduce or minimize the amount of taxes you pay. Legally. I think this is like a global opportunity because I've heard people talking about this Estonia you residency now for a couple of years; I haven't met anyone, though. Who's blown me away and been like, Oh yeah, I did it. And this is how awesome it is. It seems like, as you said, all this stuff is still totally in these early days, kind of nothing seems concrete, at least from my experience perspective so far. Why is there a demand for it?

Absolutely. There's, you know, I'm fortunate enough to be my Canadian national, and you know, that's a great passport to have in terms of accessibility to travel and other countries.  But from a tax perspective. And there's certainly other countries with worse, worst taxation in Canada, there are other places that have better tax laws than what we have here. And so for myself and for other people in those countries where countries are, you know, taxing quite a bit of your income, we are actively always looking for. Is there a country I protest potentially could get a new passport in, could have a bank account, could file a corporation and legally have my income go through that country and pay less, less income tax,  legally.  Is there somewhere we can do that? And I know this is something you're an expert on. And the answer is yes if you make enough money and you want, you know, there are some things you have to do, you need to probably hire someone to help you unless you want to spend a ton of time researching things yourself.

So there is a group of us, a large group of people looking for something, maybe for those who aren't, you know, savvy seven-figure earners or more, of course, it's easy for them to hire someone. But if you're maybe in this like a, you know, high five figures or six figures in com, that's kind of like a little bit of a gap. And I would say these people, which would include myself, we are looking for a more favorable country when it comes to taxation and their loss.

Derren Joseph: Right. So I guess to kind of follow-through when you're saying, I would put them in like in two categories because there are immigration laws and then there's the whole tax and corporate structure sort of environment. So in terms of immigration, I'm thinking of what Bermuda and Barbados are proposing, which is like a so-called digital nomad visa or some equivalent thereof, which is an extended state permit. So rather than just go in for 14 days or whatever they say, stay for a year. So from an immigration perspective, we made that possible. Whereas Estonia and Portugal or whatever. Some of the other jurisdictions propose, well, yeah, we can have a conversation about staying here from an immigration perspective, but what we're pitching is using perhaps less Portugal.  Portugal, because what's yours is like a hybrid, but like Estonia.

So Estonia is saying, well, come and set up your company with us. And he resonates. He's a bit of a misnomer because we're not talking about immigration. So we are targeting people from within the EU or maybe an advantageous economy that can get the immigration stuff sorted on their own. What we're proposing is that you can bank with us, you can set up your company with us, and we have a slightly favorable corporate tax structure to make it attractive for you to do that. And then Portugal is kind of like the Estonian between Barbados, where they do give them along with state visas, and not just for Europeans, but for Americans, Canadians, Aussies,  Cubies, whatever. And they have some attractive tax structures that would incentivize someone to spend time there. So, I guess a lot is going on in that landscape. Portugal has been around for a while. Estonia has been around for a while, but they'll use the opportunity to kind of like to promote themselves in the midst of what's going on. Now, another thing that I wanted to get your thoughts on, right?

So, all right, remote work that, you know, most people, I would say most people don't have the luxury of working remotely. For most people, more or less constraint a specific location and time given what it is they do for a living, right? So there are people that I imagine are now seeing the opportunity and hearing the buzz about work from home. And have been dislocated, or have been negatively impacted by all the quarantine and social distancing rules and one to transition into a business wherein they can work remotely.

Now, when you, when you explore that space, that becomes a minefield. Because every time you turn on YouTube, and you're watching a 30-minute video. He gets six or seven people pitching at you. Whether it is drop shipping or coaching, or high ticket selling and stuff like that. What do you see as the genuinely attractive opportunities for someone looking to transition into remote work versus what is kind of overhyped and probably not what it appears to be?

Robert O’Kruk: Okay. So you already touched on some of the bigger ones. Like some of the ones that I would say are not what they appear to be, and I'll back this up by saying, some people make great money in these niches, but in general, it seems to me that it's a tiny percentage. And so these would include things like yes, drop shipping, multi-level marketing, affiliate Marketing's kind of getting in there.

Amazon fulfills Amazon FBA. Okay. These are some pretty hot topics that you'll see Ads for. When you start looking toward remote work, people describe these, Oh, it's so easy to get into you make lots of money. One of the things all those are going to have in common is, at some level, you're an entrepreneur, and these roles are responsible for everything. And entrepreneurship is amazing, but is it the logical call for someone looking to make a manageable first step or small first step into the world of remote work? Maybe not. If you've got that fire in your belly,  well, you got this genius idea for an app or something. Great. Build it. If you're spinning tires, you're like, ah, I don't know what to do. It might not be helpful to spend more time and money-spinning tires, even further, trying to figure out a half flashed out an entrepreneurial idea. It's based on someone else's model. We just mentioned a few, though. So if you were just saying, don't be an entrepreneur, for now, there are two paths I often see for people.

One is remote work with a regular employer. Okay. So this could be literally like a company.  Mcdonald's, like they get a million customer service emails, could hire someone. We would call them a customer service representative or a virtual assistant may be to answer those emails. Okay. So that's going to be done 100% remote, and that's going to have lots of things in common with a regular job in McDonald's. If you're there flipping burgers, going to have low pay, you're not going to have great benefits. The work's probably not very rewarding, you know? So those jobs are there, they're there, so you can already do crappy jobs remotely. Okay. It would be like the easiest step is if you're in a crappy job and can do a crappy job, we shouldn't do this but just compare Apple stuff. And then that will scale to good jobs. You know, there'll be interesting remote work in niches you find personally interesting in interest in.

So, for example, I'm very much into yoga and meditation. I will get a lot more fulfillment out of any work I do, whether it's as simple as answering customer service emails, or as complex as building a website or designing a poster or something more challenging with a specialized skill set, finding that for a yoga business. Well, no matter what I'm doing for them, I'm going to like that a lot more than doing anything for McDonald's. So traditional companies working remotely for them is one path; it's utterly legit because it's just another job.

But the big difference here is you can do it remotely. So that might be pretty advantageous if you've never worked remotely. The other path is kind of the freelancing route, and that's kind of the area that I help people out with a lot and freelancing just saying, Hey, I have these skills, whether it's the same things I can build websites, I can design posters. I can answer your customer service emails, you know, any of these things that you could do, and then find a business owner to pay you for doing those things.

So remote work platforms, the biggest one right now it's called Upwork. For example, it's basically like Uber, Uber connects drivers and passengers, or Airbnb connects properties and renters. So Upwork connects businesses and freelancers, and it just has this app and website where you can message each other, and the money handled there, and it makes it easy to connect. And this is another very legitimate avenue because you know, there's no get rich quick here.

There are no shortcuts. There is fair pay for honest work. You’re still trading time for the money and usually work on an hourly or fixed price basis. You're delivering something tangible each time. So these paths, you know, freelancing in any capacity or doing it through remote work platforms, is fantastic. And so is working remotely for regular companies. These are the more kind of, and I would say, honest, ethical, straightforward approaches compared to many other get rich remotely or earn money online, work from home opportunities.

Well, if they're worrying themselves like that, that's probably a red flag. If it's just regular work done remotely to some degree, that will be a good starting point. Now the challenge then with working remotely for a regular employer, or then as a freelancer, is how you get hired in either case, right?

Derren Joseph: Hmm. I got it. Okay. So I think that that's a pretty comprehensive overview.

Robert O’Kruk: That was a lot.

Derren Joseph: These that exist right now and for those who intend to transition what they should be looking for and the elements, you know, the platform like Upwork, what tends to work, what doesn't tend to work. So yeah. Thank you. Thank you very much. I appreciate it. I think this is exactly what we're looking for.

Robert O’Kruk: Thanks Derren.

Derren Joseph: All right. Great.

Video recorded on February 31, 2020

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