Jason Vander Griendt, 42, brings in about $2 million in annual revenue in a solopreneur business powered by a loyal team of contractors. And he does this while traveling the world, with his home base in a private residence in the Four Seasons Toronto. He’s visited 60 countries since he started his business, JCad International, which produces 3D CAD files of products and parts, and a sideline, Render 3D Quick, which creates photorealistic digital representations of real estate. He founded JCad as a side hustle in 2006, while working in a corporate job until he was sure he could replace his salary. JCAD now brings in 30% of the revenue, with Render 3D Quick, founded in 2013, generating the rest.
Vander Griendt is part of two trends that put him on the bleeding edge of economic change. For many years, he has run a million-dollar, one-person business—also known, in U.S. government parlance, as a “nonemployer” business with no employees except the owners. He relies on more than 50 experienced contractors, some of whom have their own teams, in countries around the world, paying them about 4x market rates.
The number of million-dollar, one-person businesses has grown every year in recent history, with 43,012 breaking into the $1 million to $2.49 million in revenue category in 2019 (the most recent year for which Census statistics are available), up from 41,666 in 2018. A super-efficient 2,553 made it to $2.5 to $4.99 million in revenue, and 388 made to $5 million in revenue and beyond.
Vander Griendt is also digital nomad, a trend accelerated by the pandemic. Within the U.S., 16.9 million U.S. workers currently describe themselves as digital nomads, up 8% from 2021 and a whopping 131% from 2019. These are workers who “work and live remotely, from anywhere in the Internet-connected world,” as described in the 2022 Digital Nomads Report by MBO Partners, a provider of back-office services to independent workers, and prepared by Emergent Research.
Some of the digital nomads are self-employed freelancers and entrepreneurs like Vander Griendt. About two-thirds are workers who were allowed to work remotely in the pandemic.
What’s driving the trend? One early but continuing source of inspiration for many—including Vander Griendt – is Tim Ferriss and the lifestyle he described in The 4-Hour Workweek, published in 2007. “Tim Ferriss was ahead of his time,” says Miles Everson, CEO of MBO Partners.
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The pandemic also played a role, with technology improving rapidly and more companies embracing remote work. Pent-up demand to get outside of the four walls inside which many of us spent the pandemic also played a role.
“So many people want to travel now that the pandemic is over,” says Steve King, a partner in Emergent Research. “With a lot of people coming out of Covid, we are seeing the continuation of the interest and in getting out and doing things. Almost all of them are telling us they will do some international travel, but most are more domestically-oriented in terms of time spent over the course of a year. One of the subsegments growing most rapidly is ‘van-lifers’—people in RVs and vans. Most digital nomads are part of the slow travel movement.”
That could be a harbinger of things to come, with Gen Z and Millennial workers making up two-thirds of the digital nomad workforce, according to Everson. “If you think of your workforce planning as a company, understanding how you’re doing to embrace and inspire digital nomads has to become part of your core strategy,” says Everson.
What remains to be seen is if tax laws will catch up. It’s complicated for employers to pay taxes if employees spend part of the year in other countries or even other regions within their own countries. “Companies are only now starting to figure that out,” says King. Beyond this, immigration laws often cap visits to other countries at three months, he says.
Despite existing constraints, Vander Griendt created a lifestyle that is all about freedom. “I don’t have a schedule,” he says. “I do what I want. I can do it when I want, where I want.” (You can learn more about his philosophy by watching the replay of this free community event at the New York Public Library that I moderated with him and two other like-minded entrepreneurs recently and in these two articles on Forbes: “How To Think Like A Million-Dollar, One-Person Business Owner” and “He 3-D Printed His Way To A Million-Dollar, One-Man Business.”
On a typical day, he rises at 8 or 9 am. Then he devotes an hour to answering emails that came in overnight (unless they were already answered via automated templates he uses to streamline communications). Vander Griendt, not one to follow industrial-era constructs like team meetings, avoids them, instead writing to any contractors he needs to reach by email, and then sending finished work to clients. “Then I have coffee, relax, go to the gym,” he says. “I go to the spa and steam room.”
During the week, he reads three books a week, highlighting his favorite business books on his Instagram account (@jasonvandergriendt). Some of his all-time favorite picks, in addition to The 4-Hour Workweek, are A Few Lessons for Investors and Managers by Warren Buffet, How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki.
He finds that living in an apartment based at a hotel is ideal for an entrepreneurial lifestyle, given the constant influx of other businesspeople. “It’s a good place to meet like-minded people,” he says.
He has also spent considerable time finding and developing relationships with his contractors, mostly sourced on the freelancing platform Upwork. He typically tests them with a small trial project, that will take about five minutes, something along the lines of “Put this on the left side. Put this on the right side. Make this blue and make this red.” If he gets the project back and they have followed the instructions, he’ll entrust them with a more advanced, paid project.
Over the years he has run his business, he’s traveled to Eastern Europe and around the world to meet the contractors and their families. In August, he traveled to London, Italy, Greece, and Turks & Caicos, combining business and pleasure on a trip that allowed him to meet contractors and a customer.
All of his main contractors have started their own businesses, often employing other contractors in their countries. His relationships with his team, which includes many contractors who have been with him for years, transcend the usual outsourcing relationship.
When Vander Griendt found out that one of his contractors, who lives in Ukraine, had to work at night because the local power station was bombed and there were restrictions on using electricity, he purchased a generator for his team member. When another had to move to an apartment after his home was destroying in a bombing—and then the apartment got destroyed, too—he paid his contractor’s full salary for a month, as a bonus to help out, so the contractor could get settled into a new place to live.
He has gotten to know his contractors so well he’s put them in his last will and testament. “During covid I thought that if I ever went unexpectedly while young, there would be a lot of people who rely on me who all of a sudden have no source of income,” he says. “That’s not fair to them so part of my estate would go to them equally. They’ve done so much for me so it’s the least I could do for them during their transition into doing something else.”
Those strong relationships have helped position his business for growth. Sales tripled during the pandemic, while his marketing costs dropped. “When Covid hit, a lot of my competition closed,” he says. “We were all working remotely. We didn’t have to close down. Competition on Google dropped like crazy. They all shut off their Google ads.”
He also runs his business by the Pareto Principle, staying aware that 80% of the results come from 20% of inputs. He pays close attention to this when getting a customer inquiry, asking himself, “Is this one of the 20% of customers who give me 80% of my revenue—or waste 80% of my time?”
The sustained success of Vander Griendt’s business is a good sign for other digital nomads who want to live free of the constraints of the past and embrace the freedoms that the internet continues to bring—whether they work for themselves or someone else—and are looking for company from fellow nomads. As Everson says, “This population is only going to continue to grow.”