Digital nomad interview: Dr. Willy Portier, online entrepreneur

This interview is part of my series of interviews with digital nomads.

Dr. Willy Portier left France, his country of birth, in 2006 at the age of 25.

For the past 17 years, he has lived in China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Dubai and visited 50+ countries, all while working online.

His story is inspiring for anyone who’s interested in lifestyle design.

He’s accumulated a lot of experience over the years and shares some of his life stories and interesting advice for aspiring digital nomads in this interview.

How did you become a digital nomad?

digital nomad Willy Portier
Long-term digital nomad Willy Portier

My background in France was in Internet business and a few months after arriving in China in 2006 I began working as an SEO consultant.

This activity became a web agency as I was hiring more and more people, but my goal was from the beginning to do it all online: find customers worldwide, hire people in other countries and have no physical office.

Now in 2022 it sounds like a classic business, but in 2006 people were thinking I was crazy to try running a business 100% online.

I built it this way, so I could be free to move when I wanted and where I wanted, even before the concept of a “digital nomad” ever existed.

From 2006 to 2010 I was a “light” digital nomad, because I was setting the foundation of my company, so I would be able to work where I wanted. I was not travelling very often (mostly for a few months in the summer).

However, in 2011 I moved to Kuala Lumpur and my future wife had to leave the country every 30 days. I had to get out every month and I was taking the opportunity to stay one week in a different country in Asia each time.

From that moment I started to get used to working while travelling, in hotels or restaurants, as I had no other choice. This “intense” digital nomad life lasted for 10 years until Covid-19 hit.

How do you make a living working from anywhere?

I was running a web agency, so I was creating corporate websites, E-commerce websites and online marketing for my customers worldwide.

For the past few years, I have been focusing more on my own projects.

A few years ago I launched Concerty with a friend. The service allows visitors to know about upcoming concerts in their city and around the world.

It includes a lot of information about artists’ tours and unique features like setlist prediction using AI.

My last project is PhDData, a website related to research, as I have a PhD.

What’s your favourite thing about this lifestyle?

I hate routine, being bored and doing things I dislike, which is the life of most people, unfortunately.

Being a digital nomad helps me do what I want when I want, so it is rare that I do things I don’t like.

If I really need to, at least I can choose the place and the time to do it at my convenience. For instance, write a boring report to a customer in a nice restaurant with a sea view.

Often I was flying between 3 or 4 different countries in one week due to my activity without planning at all, just according to the feeling or people I needed to meet. This feeling of taking a plane like I was taking a taxi was truly incredible.

What has been your biggest challenge?

I was running a few businesses + doing a PhD in Artificial Intelligence in Beijing + travelling often for my activity.

At some point, it was too much and it became difficult to manage.

It was at this point that I decided to pause my web agency to focus on my own projects and my PhD while travelling. And then Covid-19 hit when I was on a trip to Myanmar/Laos/Thailand in early 2020.

Eventually, I came back to China and I didn’t take a plane this time. On the one hand, it’s hard for me to not travel anymore for 2 years despite the fact that I was taking 100 flights per year before.

On the other hand, I could focus on my PhD and, as I could save a lot of time.

Last but not least, I became a father, as I had more time for that 😉

How many hours a day do you work on average and how do you stay productive while you travel?

When I began my journey as an entrepreneur in 2006, it was probably 80 hours per week.

That included a lot of R&D to learn how to do business and feature new services to offer to my customers.

With experience over the years, it was reduced to 40-50 hours per week when I was an “intense” digital nomad. Nowadays I work 30 hours a week.

The best way to be productive while travelling is to have a good team to be able to outsource the tasks in an efficient way.

Today I spend most of my time giving instructions to my team or checking tasks on my mobile phone from anywhere.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give someone who’s starting out as a digital nomad?

digital nomad interview with entrepreneur Willy Portier

During my journey as a digital nomad, I was often thinking about which kind of life it is (the pros and cons).

I created the concept of “kicking ball syndrome“. Imagine you are playing with a ball and each time you are kicking it, you need to run after it to kick it again and again.

It becomes boring and unsafe, because you never know what will happen to your ball and you can lose it and stop the game.

Many digital nomads are just kicking the ball every month, representing revenue to pay the bills and continue the game of travelling.

Every month the game can stop because the revenue isn’t stable, and even if it is stable, it is usually not enough to be sustainable in the long term (for example, if you start a family).

In my own experience, for many years I made an average of 2,000 EUR per month with huge variance.

It looks good in the short term to work and travel at the same time, but soon enough you realise it will be difficult to continue a life like that in the long term.

And here is the “kicking ball syndrome”: you continue to live in acceptable conditions, but you don’t feel safe each month.

In the end, you understand that living as a digital nomad with a little business as a freelancer to pay the bills and continue to travel is not a long-term strategy.

That is the reason why I decided to create a scalable business, so I can be financially independent. It’s why I began as a “light” digital nomad at the beginning to balance lifestyle and serious work. And when I created something sustainable enough, I could finally create an “intense” digital nomad lifestyle.

What are your plans for the future?

I’ve stayed in China for 2 years due to Covid-19. But in a few months, I will go back on the road!

The plan is to move to Europe for 2 years, living in different countries (Italy, Germany, Spain, Romania, etc.) for a few months each. My goal is to pass on the love of nomadic life to my 1-year-old daughter.

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