Remote work has been growing in prominence for at least a decade, but it was the pandemic that really spurred a rise in so-called digital nomads—mostly youngish people who choose to live and work on the go from wherever they can get decent internet. With Nomad Development, Triangle-based entrepreneur Zach Milburn is looking to give digital nomads a place to land, for a while anyway. Nomad is starting with a tiny house community in our very own Raleigh.
Milburn first fell in love with travel while studying abroad as an NC State undergrad. After founding NCSU’s international business club, Milburn graduated with one goal: to not get a corporate job. His first gig out of college was ThinkHouse, a living-learning entrepreneurship venture with fellow Triangle entrepreneur and mentor Jason Widen that was a sort of “Real World” for entrepreneurs who lived together in a renovated Raleigh house for nine months. [Widen is a Founding Partner of Raleigh Founded and a former Download Q&A subject.]
Ultimately, Milburn moved on to other ventures, but it was with ThinkHouse that Milburn first realized that his skills and interests fit a niche in the growing tech ecosystem: many people had technical software skills and many people had construction skills, but not many people had both.
“I loved the speed in the freedom and flexibility of the tech stuff,” Milburn said, “and I loved getting in the dirt and dealing with people, building real physical things that you can see and you can walk through and you can smell. They’re both so cool. Over time, I realized that they’re completely siloed. Tech people often don’t even know how to interact with those in the construction space, and vice versa. They live in two different universes, and I was in the middle.”
Milburn decided to buy some properties—including a Hobbit Home Airbnb—to develop, renovate and rent amid a few post-ThinkHouse side hustles.
Eventually, he and his brother began developing what became LaunchLab, a software company that helped small businesses and startups get their digital footprint off the ground. LaunchLab began generating the kind of cash flow that would make his “house hacking” dreams a reality, and he began thinking up a new venture that would combine his passions for innovation and for construction: Nomad.
Here’s how Milburn hopes Nomad, which would cater to a digital nomad audience, would work. Users would subscribe to Nomad in order to have access to living sites across the country and the world, where they could stay from as little as a day to as long as a year.
Milburn, who has traveled to over 60 countries, said the remote and hybrid work trends resulting from Covid have led to an “explosion” of digital nomads. He doesn’t see this trend going away anytime soon.
“Covid brought the trend a decade into the future,” Milburn said. “Now, it’s not something I need to educate anyone on, everyone knows, and most people assume that this is going to become more commonplace. There are lots of arguments whether or not it’s really more efficient, or whether hybrid is better, and honestly, I don’t care. The point is there are people who want to live this lifestyle of remote work and have more freedom. They don’t want to be tied down.”
Last month, Nomad finished its first-ever prototype tiny home—which is kicking off Raleigh’s first tiny home community—off Rock Quarry road. Milburn envisions the Raleigh community as a series of these high-amenity tiny homes surrounding a “mansion” of shared resources.
“Even though we’re dealing with a space that has a lot of bureaucracy and red tape, we did it,” Milburn said. “We built our prototype. And I think that’s shifting a lot of people’s mindset, who thought that this was some impossible ‘pie in the sky’ idea. Now, they can touch it, feel it, and they can see that we can do this at scale, and that the world could really use something like this. And that’s very, very exciting.”
These communities would be replicated in cities stateside and eventually beyond.
Milburn hopes to replicate the tiny home on Nomad’s Raleigh land, but as an experienced developer he recognizes the steep capital and time investment involved with creating each property. In the meantime, Nomad is sustaining itself with its “Nomad Nation” subscription, which brings together like-minded digital nomads for weeklong events full of excursions and community living in co-working and co-living spaces across the country.
The events have a dual purpose. While sustaining the company financially to supplement the more than $1 million the startup has raised, the events also provide a source of “earned marketing” right in Nomad’s target demographic.
So far, Nomad Nation has attracted over 100 participants, which gives Milburn high hopes for interest in Nomad’s future developments.
“We’re getting more and more demand, and we want to take it more seriously and have cooler and cooler meetups and events,” Milburn said. “Eventually, they will transition into the people that live in our spaces. It has been really good, I like the building hype.”