Many are attracted to the traveling freelancer life. Does that include you? Do you sometimes think, “I could be a digital nomad. I could lounge around in fancy hotels, fly first class and work two- hour days with a Mai Thai in one hand”?
I hear you. I sure could.
The thing is, the digital nomad life isn’t some drawn out hotel commercial. It is probably nothing like how you imagine. What digital nomad put in their travel mags and Instagram is just as filtered as the baby pictures your friends fill your social media feed with. The digital nomad life isn’t heaven. It isn’t hell. It’s a life. Nothing more or less. Like any life, it has its ups and downs. It might be perfect for you. It may not be. That’s not for me to say.
Instead, this article is about making you aware of some of the realities of setting up a freelance life on the road. It will discuss the things you need to know – like what you should do before you leave, what you can expect, and how you can make things easier for yourself.
In that way, if you’ve already decided to take the plunge, you’ll do so better prepared. And if you haven’t, maybe you can get a more honest picture on which to base your decision.
1. It probably won’t make you rich
First off, it is unlikely you’ll end up with stacks of cash. Sure, you might. There are a lot of digital nomads out there that are rolling in it for obvious reasons. After all, you’re making developed-world money and paying developing world prices and you could theoretically pay people in these countries yes to help you out. At the same time, there is a lot of temptation to go see that temple, hang out with these people or try that restaurant.
And unless you’re a real workaholic it will be hard to be productive as a digital nomad. Add to that that you won’t have an office and routines are hard on the road and you can see why you might struggle to work long days.
For that reason, if what you want to do is get stinking wealthy, this might not be the right life for you. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a better work-life balance or want to get a wealth of memories and experiences, then this is it.
2. More independent jobs (and people) are better suited to the travelancer life
You’ll quite often be on the move, switching time zones or dealing with unexpected issues like power outages or flaky internet. This will make it hard for you to keep regular office hours. So, if your job or your clients need you to often be available and reachable, it will be hard to do on the road.
Similarly, do you need to ask a lot of questions? Do you need regular emotional support when you work? Then this isn’t going to be an easy life.
But if you are capable of taking an initial set of instructions and then coming back a while later with a finished project, then this is the life for you.
3. You need a great online portfolio
Think you won’t spend much time online? Think again. As you’re no longer meeting people face-to-face your digital presence is more important than ever. So you’ve got to invest time into building a good online face.
Personally, one of the best moves I made for my freelancing was this website. It has made it easier for me to approach clients and for clients to approach me. It is well worth the time I invest in the articles I write.
Want to build a portfolio? Here are a few things to consider:
- Get your own domain. If you don’t have your own domain and instead use one of the free domains like ‘wordpress.com’ people will notice. They’ll think that you’re not taking yourself seriously. So why should they?
Start doing projects that you can put on there. Find opportunities. Write articles. Take part in competitions. Don’t reject cool work because it doesn’t pay well. Get involved anyway if it’ll look good on your portfolio. In the long run, awesome projects can impress clients and you’ll end up earning whatever you lost on the project many times over. If your CV is particularly sparse, then do some work for free, just as long as you can put your name on it.
Your portfolio isn’t just about the words. It’s about the pictures, the design, the layout and everything else. We’d like to think these things don’t affect us, but they do. We think beautiful people are more trustworthy. We are more likely to buy Heineken because the ‘e’s look like smiley faces. The color of a website influences how likely we are to buy the product. Sure, these differences are small, but in the long run they still make a huge difference. So invest some time there as well.
4. Networking is even more important if you’re a travelancer
A good portfolio is a great start, but it isn’t enough. As you’re not going to be meeting clients face-to-face, shake their hands and look them in the eye, it will take more work to build relationships.
For that reason, it’s vital that you stay on people’s radars.
So reach out to clients that you haven’t spoken to for a while. Join groups where there might be work opportunities. Put your information up on boards. Talk to the people you meet. Find ways to reach out.
Don’t just network for work either. Stay in touch with your friends and loved ones as well. These people can offer advice, support, and places to stay as you jet set around the world. Sometimes, if they’re aware of what you’re doing, they’ll even be able to get you new clients!
So stay in touch. Remember, as Harvard Psychologist Shawn Achor said in ‘The Happiness Advantage’, while relationships help you through the rough bits that’s not where they’re built. You build relationships during the good times. So celebrate happy happenings with people. Congratulate them on their successes and share your own.
This will help you make sure that they’re there when you need them.
5. There are digital nomad communities
These are filled with helpful people. They’ll answer your questions, offer up suggestions, tell you about experiences and even hang out so that you don’t end up too lonely.
So get involved!
- Check out the global groups, like the facebook’s Digital Nomads Around the World and Create your Nomadtopia or Reddit’s Digital Nomad subreddit.
Check out the local groups. These will generally have such names as ‘expats of’ or something like that. These can give you invaluable advice about the city you’re planning to move to. I’ve found apartments, gotten tips on how to travel, and discovered what to do on a night out here.
6. It’s much harder to do some things from the road
You don’t have a fixed address, you often won’t have residency and bureaucracy in many countries is an utter nightmare. So, make sure you get your life sorted out before you head out.
Make sure you:
- Get yourself a second bank account in a different bank (even better, in a different country). That way if one gets blocked, you get robbed, or one doesn’t work in the country you’re in you’ll have a backup.
Incorporate your company or find some other way to avoid having to fork over serious money in taxes.
Get insurance while you still have a fixed address. You never know what’s going to happen out there.
Get your shots. Nothing quite crimps your freelancing as getting yellow fever or another preventable disease.
Set up your Paypal and link it to your bank account. Most companies prefer paying through this site. In fact, quite a few flat out refuse to work with somebody who they can’t pay that way.
Check that your passport and your driver license aren’t about to expire. Get them renewed if they are – even if it’s a year away. Many countries won’t let you in if you less than six months on your passport. Also, get an international driver license so you can drive anywhere.
Invest in the cloud. Set up your laptop so that you automatically upload everything that matters there. Things get lost, break or get stolen much faster while you’re on the road. In this way, you’ll at least still have all your data when that happens.
Get at least some of your skills you’ll need learned. Sure, it might be tempting to do it on the road, but it’s a lot easier when you’re in one place and your day isn’t full of unexpected events and surprises.
7. It isn’t for everybody
Some people thrive as digital nomads, while others struggle. You have to have the right personality for it. A good predictor of if you’re the former or the latter is how ingrained your cultural values are. The more ingrained, the more you’ll struggle.
Not sure what I mean with that? Answer the following questions for yourself:
- Do you think your country is the best country and all other countries should be the same or do you often question the way your folk view the world?
Are you more mainstream or would you consider yourself alternative?
Do you like to do things one way only or are you flexible and adaptive?
Do you dwell on problems and let them swell or do find it easy to let things go?
Do you adhere closely to the values of a political entity, a church or a personality or do often doubt people’s ideas (including your own)?
The more often you answered the former, the more you’ll probably struggle. The more often you answered the latter, the easier it should be to embrace the travelancer life.
Other things to consider:
You’ll have to give up on the materialistic lifestyle. You only have so much space in your bag and need to pack efficiently for the digital nomad life. It also means surrendering many creature comforts you’re used to.
No more high-grade coffee. No more fantastic food delivered to your doorstep. No more calling up some handyman and having them on your doorstep two hours later. Sure, you’ll run into these things every so often (and appreciate them when you do) but they won’t always be there.
Then there’s the uncertainty. Will you get that visa? Will you be able to use your bank card? Will that client you’ve never met come through with the job or their payment? Will you like the new place you’ll arrive at? Being a digital nomad doesn’t just mean moving to a new place every so often. It also means that you’re going to have to deal with a lot of new things and ideas – even on those days you don’t want to.
And things will go wrong. In many countries, you’ll find certain aspects of life aren’t organized as well as back home. The internet will go down, the water will get turned off and the bus will be late. That’s just how it is. Don’t get me wrong. It won’t happen all the time. But it will happen and you’ve got to be able to avoid having a heart attack every time it does.
So make sure that you’re ready for them and you’re willing to adapt. For those who don’t bend will break.
8. Until you do it you won’t know what it’s like (so go and do it)
Wow, that’s quite a shopping list of warnings and negatives, isn’t it? Don’t let that frighten you. This piece is naturally skewed towards the negative because that’s what you need to know. You don’t need to know about all the good things that can happen. In fact, not knowing about them will probably make them more enjoyable when they do!
Also, note that just because you might not be the perfect digital nomad right now doesn’t mean you can’t become one. As long as you’re willing to adapt and embrace new practices, you’ll do fine. You might even end up becoming a better person for it!
More importantly, just because you become a digital nomad doesn’t mean you have to stay one. If it doesn’t suit you can give it up. There’s no shame in that. Some people like orgies, some people like missionary. Some like spice and others prefer salt.
The thing is, you will only find out what you like by trying it. For when you don’t then it will remain a fantasy. And a fantasy will always beat reality and ultimately lead to regret for the things you haven’t done.
So find out whether the reality suits you and give the digital nomad existence a try.