Monday, February 4, 2008

Working Remotely: The "Get Real" List.

Every once in a while a post shows up on Digg or elsewhere about how to work remotely. Often it will be phrased like "How to work from the beach".

After reading these lists, I can't help put wonder... "do any of these people have any idea what they are talking about?"

Most of these articles are nothing more than recommendations for various online applications from flickr to mozy to zoho - which in my opinion have nothing to do with your ability to work remotely or not.

My Credentials
I lived in Cerro Punta, Chiriqui, Panama for 14 months. That's up in the mountains... in Central America... where most people don't have telephone service... or refrigerators.

How To Really Work Remotely
(from the beach or wherever you want)
The ability to do this has nothing to do with online applications. Here are the seven requirements that I needed:

1) Laptop
A laptop is the tool of choice for a number of reasons. It is easy to transport to your destination. If the power goes out, you still can work (and hopefully it will come back on before your battery dies).

2) Battery Back-Up / UPS / Surge Protector
With a laptop, the battery back-up portion may not be as critical - but you definitely will want to have all of your hardware plugged in to quality surge protector. Surges happen.

3) Data Back-Up
Your business likely depends upon your data. Get an external drive and make sure you are regularly backing up your data. As a second step, an internet based back-up can't hurt. But with a slower Internet connection (or even a fast one) this may be a slow way to recover your data in case of a catastrophe, and thus I wouldn't recommend it as your only back up.

4) Internet
The Internet itself, not the online applications, is your connection to the outside world. Depending on your specific usage, the speed and reliability required will vary. You may also wish to secure two means of connection, as the reliability may be less than you are used to. I was able to secure a cellular based service (advertised at 256K, but more like 56-128k down/15k up), and also a wireless service (1MB up/down). The cell service was slow, but cool that it basically worked country-wide (yes, even at the beach). Between the two I was able to have very reliable service and even good enough quality for VoIP phone calls.

5) Phone number
You (likely) need a phone number that can follow you wherever you happen to be. I used Packet8's VoIP service for my business line. This meant I could simply plug my little VoIP box into my router in Panama, and all my incoming / outgoing calls went through my TX number. Skype also worked pretty well.

6) A local relative / friend
Mail still needed to be picked up from my PO Box. Checks still needed to be deposited in my Bank account. Having a trustworthy person that you are able to turn these simple, but important, tasks over to will be a huge help. There are mail processing services available, but not in every city (or even state). Having clients send mail to an address in a different state might make them uncomfortable.

7) A business / job that does not require your physical presence
In the end this is the one that didn't work out. My line of work lends itself to remote work extremely well. Even when I am local, in person contact is very limited during the course of a project. The problem that arose was the initial phase of acquiring new projects. I would get leads, perform the initial interviews & evaluations, compile a proposal and even get the proposal accepted. But then many clients would want to meet face to face to sign the contract. Obviously this won't be true for every business, or geographical location, but for my principally Texas based clients this became a sticking point.

So that's what worked for me. For 14 months. In a cloud forest in Central America. And amazingly I didn't need any online applications to do it!


  1. Excellent post! I totally agree with you. However, don't be so harsh on on-line apps. They actually make your life a lot easier! My personal fave is Wrike. It lets me and my team replace email, which is great.

  2. Takhisis:

    Not trying to slam on-line apps. There are a number that are very good and that I use on occasion.

    All I'm saying is that they really aren't necessary, let alone the "key", to working remotely.

  3. Agreed. The first condition is the Internet itself :)

  4. I enjoyed this post... thanks! I am in a major city in Argentina and *still* not satisfied with my Internet service options... any suggestions on finding cell/satellite or wireless-based solutions?

  5. I love Cerro Punta! I went several times while I was in Panama for Peace Corps. I lived in the mtns, and I went analog the whole time. Notebooks. Yeah. I missed my laptop.

  6. You can tack on Google Voice to your VOIP for free voicemail transcription. In addition, I found that iTalkBB is a rather affordable option compared to other services. You should take a look and see if they fit your needs.

    Regarding postal mail, online postal mailbox such as Virtual Post Mail (for which I am affiliated with), can help you manage your mail without troubling your friends. I would recommend moving all bank and credit card statements online so you never need to receive paper statements. Virtual Post Mail lets you choose your own custom mailbox number and allows you to view and manage your mail online without ever having to forward them. If you would like to try and test out our service, you can contact me for a trial service.