Jenn Sander is a woman of no fixed abode, but she’s not homeless — on the contrary, the consultant has four flatshares in four cities.
There’s her two-bedroom penthouse in Vancouver, which she shares with a flatmate who divides his time between the Canadian city and Los Angeles. There’s the New York apartment: an open-plan pad in SoHo that she shares with the CEO of a not-for-profit firm. In San Francisco, she stays in a bedroom in the house of that same CEO. And in LA, she rents a four-bedroom house in Venice Beach with her Vancouver flatmate and a couple of entrepreneurs who also have homes in New York.
Formerly a London resident, Sander, 29, has removed the capital from her “rotation”, but a few times a year she stays at a warehouse in Bethnal Green, east London, leased by other young professionals. She doesn’t pay rent there, but has a quid pro quo arrangement with its occupants — they get free accommodation at her place when they come to New York.
Sander is often on a plane twice a week. “We’re a global tribe, an entrepreneurial network, and we basically move from place to place,” she says. “I have four house keys that I’ve been carrying around with me for the past three years. I’m not usually anywhere longer than a week.
“I share with groups of friends similar to me, who continually move between cities. We sign leases together, put money into our places and make them nice. If there’s a TED talk in town, we’ll put out extra mattresses — it’s a community. It’s definitely the start of something new.”
Welcome to the world of the global nomad, in which 1960s bohemianism meets digital capitalism, and young entrepreneurs try to have the best of all worlds: expanding their business, satisfying their wanderlust and avoiding the nine-to-five grind. Sander says the movement started in the tech industry about seven years ago, during the downturn, when entrepreneurs wanted to expand globally, but before Airbnb had taken off. “The tech community is tightknit, and started taking care of each other,” she says.
In 2013, she organised a sharing experiment in Bethnal Green: a nine-bedroom home that was leased by three permanent residents, with 17 beds for rotating guests. This was for beginner nomads, Sander says, who don’t stay anywhere longer than a few months. As they mature and crave more stability, however, they graduate into the “global time-share community”, a network of professionals who have a regular rotation of cities, but want the comforts of home.
Many nomads are devotees of the Burning Man festival, that modern-day Woodstock in the Nevada desert, where 70,000 free spirits erect a pop-up community for a week each year, and combine turning on, tuning in and dropping out with the world of LinkedIn.
Sander started working for Burning Man in 2013, and it fuelled her passion for “curating communities”. Many “Burners” belong to YesNomads, a 500-strong, invitation-only digital network for people sharing homes around the world. “People build experimental communities at Burning Man,” she says. “They develop a tight bond and want to stay connected. It’s a new kind of global citizenship, of people in the tech, arts and festival communities.
“My personal houseshare community consists of about 20 people from YesNomad who live as fluidly as I do. Global housesharing is about having your preferred network around you. It’s global engagement with a sense of family. We want to be around good people, grow our careers and organisations, and support and collaborate with each other.”
This is an ethos steeped in positivity and the philosophy of “post-nationalism”. “I have always wanted to be a global citizen,” says Sander, who grew up in Vancouver but moved to London when she was 18 and stayed there for several years before deciding to go nomad. “I am half east Indian and half British by descent. By nature, I feel connected to a lot of places. It’s to do with freedom and opportunity, flexibility and optimising your potential.”
It sounds glamorous, but rather exhausting. Sander disagrees. “Some people have nine-to-five, they come home on the weekend and they’re tired. They can’t wait for their next holiday. I think that’s strange. I don’t believe in holiday. A holiday means you’re taking a break from your life. I live a life of creativity and innovation. I’d never take a break from that.”
It can be impractical, though. Sander admits that she sometimes arrives in one city, only to find she’s left something behind at her other home, 3,000 miles away: “Amazon Prime is so useful.” She has also developed little tricks to make life simpler. She wears silk blouses and dresses because they don’t crease easily. Her suitcase has USB chargers and she carries a Mophie (external battery pack) to charge her phone.
She orders duplicate books, so she can keep one in each flat rather than lugging them around, as she doesn’t want to read from a Kindle all the time. And she keeps her best fashion in New York. “I don’t pack. I buy stuff I want to wear for a certain season that stays in my suitcase. It comes out, gets washed and goes back in.
“You must have duplicates of all your cosmetics,” she adds. “I have my Crème de la Mer in New York and Vancouver, and I use a brand of cosmetics called Stowaway, which sells online. It has smaller products that you can travel with and easily finish, so they don’t expire. I have a Clarisonic [skin brush] in each place, and Casper mattresses, so I’m comfortable. They’re delivered to your door and pop out of a box.”
“I lose clothes a lot,” says Julian Johnson, 36, a software entrepreneur who splits his time between London, New York and Nairobi. He owns a three-bedroom flat in Marylebone, central London, but stays free in his friends’ overseas homes; in return, he lets them stay at his place when they are in the capital.
“I end up not wanting stuff and not having lots of things. I can go for weeks with one carry-on. All you really need is a laptop, a toiletries bag, good shoes and jeans, and you’re sorted. If you run out of T-shirts, they’re not expensive to buy.”
Johnson has lived like this for four years, ever since he discovered the nomadic community at Burning Man: “It altered the course of my life.”He has a network of 20 friends who are welcome to stay at his flat in London. “I have someone in my flat now from Ibiza,” he tells me over the phone from Tulum, Mexico. “It’s almost like a rotating hotel. There’s an understanding that if I’m in Ibiza, I can stay with him.
“These are exceptionally creative people engaged in interesting projects, some of them non-profit. I travel for inspiration, for networking, for new ideas. Plus, you just get to see the world. It’s constantly exciting.”
Yet he admits that there’s a downside. “You meet people who are compelling, and start a relationship with someone who lives on the other side of the world. I’ve spent a lot of time conducting relationships on WhatsApp and Facebook, and sometimes I’m not sure how real that can be.”
Johnson grew up in Kenya and was sent to boarding school in South Africa from a young age: “I got used to boarding planes and saying goodbye to people I love”. When asked where he considers home, he’s not sure. “That’s the hardest question to answer. I don’t know if I have somewhere that I think of as home, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Home in my heart is Africa, where I grew up. Home as an adult, I don’t know.”
Johnson doesn’t want to be a nomad for ever: “Hopefully, in 10 years, I’ll have met someone, we’ll have kids, and I’ll move to Africa.”
Sander agrees that the nomadic lifestyle can be tough on relationships. “We meet so many people, we almost have too much choice,” she says. “Something really good might come around and people still wonder if there’s something better. But I never feel alone. I receive love and support from my friends.”
Like Johnson, she would like to settle down and have children eventually. “I cannot tell you where. It could be New York, LA, London, but it won’t be Vancouver. That’s my secondary home.”
Yet Vancouver is where her business is registered, and she must spend six months of the year in Canada for tax reasons. She doesn’t require a visa to travel to the USor Britain, as she operates primarily out of Canada, has international clients, is promoting global business and never stays too long. Annual health insurance covers her abroad as long as she is not outside Canada for more than a month.
Other practical matters: one of the co-sharers usually takes primary responsibility for the running of the flat; Sander is in charge of the Vancouver condo. Bills are paid by PayPal or Venmo. Homes must have high-speed broadband and a big table for work, meetings or dinner parties. If someone leaves the share, Sander picks up another flatmate from YesNomads.
Security is not an issue. “It’s a trust economy — not like Airbnb, where 15 people are coming through. It’s a closed network, but friends of friends are welcome.” There seem to be no petty squabbles among nomads. “We are professional, we’re business people,” Sander says. “I’ve never experienced any conflicts, besides someone leaving the balcony door open when it rained.”
“People don’t stay long enough to get annoyed with each other,” says Jo Vidler, 33, creative director of Secret Productions, which organises festivals. She has flatshares in London, Bangkok, LA and Tulum, where she works on the Day Zero festival. “People don’t get stuck in their ways and are respectful. And you’re out every night, anyway.”
Her east London flatshare — the one frequented by Sander — is a warehouse with three beds and a few mattresses. Her flatmate, Brooke, works in film and has flatshares in LA, Abu Dhabi and Dubai; other nomads also come to stay. “My house is transient,” Vidler says. “People have their own keys, and go to and fro. We have a secret agent who stays with us, an international correspondent, a festival organiser, artists. My family complain that they never get to see me, but they know I’m a free spirit.”
Bohemian their lifestyle may be, but global nomads are not cash-strapped Jack Kerouacs — Johnson estimates that he spends up to £10,000 a year on air fares. “You have to have a certain level of liquidity.” Yet Sander insists her lifestyle makes economic sense: it’s cheaper than hotels and renting several flats on your own, and she can write off some costs as business expenses. Being nomadic can be good for business, too: “Often people make time to have meetings with you because they know you’re only in town for a week.”
Does she ever get homesick? “When you get to this level of transience, homesickness becomes a craving for where you feel like being next. It’s a bit like Burning Man. Certain things don’t last for ever, it’s about being appreciative of what’s next. I’m in New York for 10 days now, and I’m really going to live it up.”
Pack your bags
To find a network, get involved in the tech, festival and entrepreneurial worlds: Burning Man (burningman.org), Summit Series (summit.co), Thousand Network (thousandnetwork.com), TED talks (ted.com) and SXSW (sxsw.com) are good starting points. Get advice from the nomad community at nomadforum.io,makingitanywhere.com or secretnomads.com.