My #DigitalNomad Horror Story

Photo credit: Henrique Ferreira, CC BY 2.0.

When I signed up for a work/travel program, I was promised an experience — but I got a nightmare.

There’s a subset of millennials who prioritize the kind of lifestyle best characterized by hashtags: #digitalnomad #wanderlust #officeanywhere #vanlife #locationindependent. This Instagram-friendly lifestyle has spawned a cottage industry of companies promising to help people travel while working remotely, such as Remote Year, Unsettled, Hacker Paradise and Outsite. 

I also love travel, and after a particularly difficult breakup, decided to try the #digitalnomad life. I researched the available options and decided to sign up with a company called We Roam (later renamed Wy_Co) because it had the best pricing on short-term travel. I elected to spend three months working remotely in Mexico City, Barcelona, and Split, with We Roam arranging logistics like housing and internet-equipped workspaces. But I wasn’t interested in We Roam just because they took care of the logistics. I wanted We Roam’s ready-made community of like-minded professionals traveling with me. I wanted to surround myself with new people and make new friends.

My story is part of a much larger trend. Flexibility including remote work and flexible hours is one of the top three concerns among the millennial workforce, according to a 2016 Deloitte survey. In 2017,the Nielsen Company reported that millennials travel more than any other generation  — with Gen Z closely following. Multiple surveys indicate that younger workers are traveling more for business, or blending leisure and work travel.

“We curate groups of professionals who have the ability to work remotely. And we get them in groups and kind of build out these itineraries where they can travel together in these communities around the world, stopping for one month at a time at different cities,” We Roam founder Nathan Yates told Marketplace in 2017. “We take care of all the logistics…and they pay us a monthly fee.”

Like many other remote workers, I wanted to “get away” while taking the important things (a source of income, a community, the internet) with me. That’s what a program like We Roam promised.

Already far from home, pursuing a career I loved in increasingly isolated cities, made moving overseas a reasonable risk — but still a risk. I wasn’t just paying $2,000 per month for We Roam to provide me with somewhere to live and work. I was also giving up my apartment in Washington, DC, making me quasi-homeless. I was selling most of my stuff, from sofa to mattress, and putting the rest in storage. I was securing a temporary home for my cat.

I started researching the trip last summer, debating how long I wanted to travel and going through what felt like a very superfluous “admissions process” with multiple companies. I spoke with former participants who loved the experience. People on We Roam trips shared photos of crystal blue water in Bali or Buenos Aires and sparklers waved in night skies at a party in Lima, or published Medium posts titled “Finding Home With We Roam.”

I successfully pitched my bosses on the idea in January. I used a PowerPoint-ready document crafted in part from tips provided by We Roam and Remote Year, such as “include the fact it doesn’t cost your employer anything.” I signed a contract limiting We Roam’s liability and paid a $1,800 deposit to hold my spot in February.

Then the problems started. Rather than connecting me immediately with my new “community,” the company kept me isolated from other travelers until three weeks before the trip began. I didn’t know any of the details about my housing or workspace. I started discovering additional fees I hadn’t planned for, from travel visas to vaccinations.

Abruptly, the company changed its name from We Roam to Wy_Co, alluding to “outside pressures” and potential intellectual property issues.

“The program represents itself as joining a community, which has not been my experience so far,” I wrote to my contacts at the company. “Better — or just MORE — communication about what is going on in the planning stage would be reassuring.”

But I pressed forward, in part because the contract didn’t give me an out.

I sold most of my belongings and moved with what fit into my Subaru cross-country to my parents in Kansas. The day after I got there, at the very end of April, I received two emails  — one from the company arranging travel for We Roam that mentioned the “end of operations at Wy_Co,” and then, after a delay, one from Yates with the subject “Urgent Message From The CEO.”

We Roam was shutting down, effective immediately.

Although Yates, in the email, pledged to try to get people their money back, his latest email update indicates he and the company’s co-founder are filing for chapter 7 bankruptcy.

A few of the other “Roamers” found each other after some detective work. Collectively, we’ve lost more than $100,000 — though it’s impossible to know how much money the entire group lost. Some people were stranded in another country. Some people are very bitter.

I lost my $1,800 deposit. I’d paid through Zelle, a person-to-person mobile payment service that does not provide any customer guarantees. Other participants paid through PayPal (which required a three percent fee for U.S. accounts) and were able to get refunded through its company guarantee.

Chelsea, another participant who works for a company in New York City and planned to join a trip to Serbia in August, told me she can’t afford to try again.

“I feel like I’ve been robbed, and I couldn’t even replace the experience because it’s not in my budget to re-book it,” she said. “I will never, ever sign up for a group trip like this again; I’m too gun shy after this. And that’s really a shame! Part of the reason I took a remote job was to do things like this — not just travel, but to meet like-minded people while doing it. I also feel incredibly stupid. Like, how did I not see this coming? But then again, how could I have? I checked the social media before signing up to make sure real humans were really on trips, and of course at the time, they were! I asked trusted friends and colleagues about the company. I had family friends with lots of contract experience read the agreement before I signed. I documented everything.”

I didn’t sign up for another group either. The entire industry has started to feel like a scam. But I kept my hard-won permission to work remotely, and am now living the #digitalnomad life domestically. There are no dramatic cliffs or ancient castles, but I do see people I know most days and I get to sleep with my cat.

Lessons learned: Look for customer guarantees. Connect with the community first and let adventure flow more naturally from that. Don’t make huge decisions to move overseas after a breakup.

We Roam’s founder, Yates, has still been posting #wanderlust and #instatravel photos on Instagram. I reached out to him for this story, but he did not respond.

Alicia Cohn is an editor and freelance writer currently working from Denver. Her cat’s name is Rocket.

Zelle reached out to us after this piece to note that although they do not offer purchase protection for transactions, they do offer fraud protection. In the event of a fraudulent transaction — e.g. a transaction not initiated by the customer — the customer would be protected. Zelle recommends only using its service with people you know and trust, such as friends and family.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Experience Series.

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