Lessons learnt from my first nine months as a digital nomad, and freelance writer and editor.
When I left the UK in early January for Bali, I had just one goal: to make the digital nomad lifestyle sustainable. I knew from pretty early on last year that I did not want to return to London and conventional full-time employment once my travels were over, nor did I want to continue backpacking and living off my rapidly diminishing savings pot. I needed a sustainable and reliable income stream that would cover all my living costs, while allowing me to be wherever I wanted in the world. I’m now on my way to meeting my goal, so if you are curious about, or keen to become, a digital nomad freelancer or entrepreneur, here are a few bits of advice:
1) Digital Nomadism is a horrible phrase and no one likes it, but it’s all we’ve got.
Everyone hates the phrase “digital nomad”, but we all use it anyway as there isn’t really a better alternative. I occasionally use “location independent freelancer” but that sounds just as bad. I’m not very good at describing what I do, it normally comes out something like this: “Oh, me, right I’m kind of a freelance copy and content writer. And editor. Book editor. I’m a digital nomad (while making sarcastic quote marks with my hands) which I know sounds really wanky, I’m sorry. But it means I can live and work anywhere, really. Sort of, anyway”. I clearly need to work on my elevator pitch.
2) Earning money is easy, creating a sustainable income stream is hard.
This is by far the biggest lesson I’ve learnt. At the beginning of the year my focus was on finding paid work in whatever form, which actually turned out to be pretty easy, or at least not as hard as I thought it might be. One of the main benefits of working from a space like Hubud (see below for many more reasons) is that you have access to a pool of people who need help with things; you just have to put word out and be willing to work fairly cheaply to begin with. What I’ve found much harder has been keeping a stream of work flowing, while simultaneously working on existing projects. I’d heard about “freelance anxiety” but wasn’t prepared at all for it. The buzz from getting a new client tends to evaporates within a few hours, to be replaced by worry about where the bit of work after that is going to come from. It’s been tough, and pretty much the steepest learning curve I’ve ever been on.
3) Good co-working spaces are worth every damn penny.
When starting out the temptation to not spend anymore than you strictly need to is very strong, and co-working spaces can seem like a frivolous expense, especially with so many coffee shops offering free Wifi. However, the one piece of advice I would give to anyone wanting to make the transition to freelance work is to find a good co-working space (*cough* Hubud *cough*), even if you don’t use it everyday. When abroad, becoming part of a (slightly) settled community is key to getting out of the holiday / travelling mindset (nothing will kill your productivity quicker than becoming friends with a group of people going off on adventures everyday). But, most importantly, it puts you around people who are doing, or have done, a similar thing to you. You have people you can ask for advice and learn from, people you can run things by and brainstorm with. And that is pure gold. Many co-working spaces also offer talks and skill shares, which can be a great way to learn for free, and accountability and mastermind groups such as Tribewanted (it was taking part in Tribewanted Bali that really kicked my earning up a gear this year).
4) Don’t lose sight of why you are doing this.
No one leaves their comfortable lifestyle and reliable job in London to work the same long hours, just sweating a bit more. Burn out is just as possible in paradise as it is in a big city, and it can also be very easy to get sucked back into nine-to-five hours, even when you aren’t being productive. There is no point doing it if you’re not, on occasion, going to leave your desk at 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon to visit a waterfall, or make the effort to travel north on a Friday afternoon to watch dolphins play in the rising sun on Saturday morning. Yes, you have to work damn hard to make this all possible, but having done that you need to remember to take advantage of it, and most importantly, enjoy it.
5) Balance your big idea with immediate income.
I saw a lot of people arrive at Hubud with a big idea, but then end up falling back into their old line of work, albeit as a freelancer, to bring money in. My best advice for those wanting to become a digital nomad is to figure out the quickest and easiest way of generating income straight away with skills you already have, while setting aside a day or two a week to work on your “big idea”. It can be hard to be creative when you have the prospect of having to go home hanging over your head, yet equally you don’t want to end up stuck still doing the work you were hoping to escape from. Try to find a balance between the two.
6) Base yourself somewhere cheap, at least to start with.
As I said at the top, building a sustainable income stream is hard and will take longer than you think it will. Do yourself a favour and base yourself somewhere with low living costs while you get yourself off the ground. This takes the pressure off a bit, as you don’t need to earn very much in order to meet your expenses, and it means that you don’t have to live like a hermit for a year or so.
7) Starting to freelance from scratch is doable but bloody tough.
I started off the year offering my services as a freelance book editor and book consultant, drawing on my six years of experience at a literary agency, and this was definitely the easiest way to bring money in. Yet what I really wanted to do was copy and content writing, but was initially put off by the thought of starting with no previous experience, and a fear that I just wouldn’t be able to do the work. However I did a few bits and bobs of copywriting work for free for a few people around Hubud, and then for very little money, and gradually managed to build up a small portfolio of work. It hasn’t been easy, and doubt and fear about my abilities are always waiting in the sidelines, but I am getting there. It’s been tough but I’m so pleased I took the risk as it is the work which I now enjoy the most.
8) Set a routine.
Yes, there is no point working nine to five just because, but equally you do need to have some sort of schedule in place if you want to actually get any work done. I’m not productive when I don’t have a routine, and learning to create and then implement one, has been one of the most valuable skills I’ve learnt this year. If you’re moving around then it’s worth re-evaluating your routine at every location to check that it is the best one. I’m staying at my parent’s house for the next couple of weeks, and have drawn up a schedule built around a three hour gap in the middle of the day for a long, leisurely lunch and afternoon walk (my favourite part of the day!). In Bali, I aimed to finish my work by 3.30pm so I could make my favourite yoga class most days.
9) Learn to get up off the mat quickly.
And finally, the one that been’s toughest to learn: how to get up off the mat quickly. Becoming a digital nomad freelancer or entrepreneur you are going to have some really, really shit days. You will get negative feedback from clients, you won’t win the pitch, imposter syndrome will bite, and there will be times when it all just gets a bit much. But you need to not let yourself be defeated for long. I don’t think a few years ago I would have been able to make a go of this lifestyle, I would have let the tiny knocks knock me out. I’ve had to toughen up, and not let the punches go any deeper than they need to.
So if anyone is thinking about becoming a digital nomad, or starting to freelance I hope this helps. I’m sure there will be just as many lessons to learn over the next nine months as there have been so far!