Going Independent: A Guide to Becoming a Digital Nomad
This is not your typical "how to quit your job and work abroad" post. This is a comprehensive guide that discusses why and how I created a location independent lifestyle and highlights all of the challenges and opportunities that came along with that decision.
If you are seeking some casual inspiration on the digital nomad lifestyle this isn’t for you. However, if you are strongly considering this move but need a resource that gets into the nitty gritty of how to actually make it happen, then you are in the right place.
My story is the not so unusual case of an overachieving girl who looked like she had it all together but was utterly clueless for the better part of her 20s.
My resume is very impressive: a lot of shiny institutions, glowing titles, and picturesque skills. Everything has that cream of the crop feel about it until you dig beneath the surface where things were muddled and murky.
I haphazardly chose a major I had marginal interest in (Computer Science), then randomly decided to launch my career in a field I had zero interest in (Finance), then had what I like to call a quarter life crisis in my mid 20s when I was unquestionably adopting other people's beliefs and their versions of an ideal life.
So I developed and went through a soul-searching process that completely changed me because it surprisingly surfaced this free-spirited woman who wanted an uncomplicated, independent lifestyle that centered around being creative and indulging her aesthetic and intellectual curiosities.
Since then I’ve been slowly but surely using a carefully thought out roadmap to align my life with different elements of my vision.
One desire I had was to have complete freedom and flexibility in how and where I work: August 30, 2014 marks the day I made that happen (i.e. the last day I worked a traditional job).
Though I use the trendy term “digital nomad” in this guide I’m not entirely sure how much my life maps to the stereotypical image. So for purposes of clarity my nomadic experience has consisted of the following experiences thus far:
After quitting my full-time job I left New York and took a one-year sabbatical where I traveled around Europe/Eurasia and the US (spending about a 1-1.5 months in a different destination).
During this period I set up a brand consultancy and took on a limited number of clients (to keep income flowing but not disrupt the fun of travel). I also experimented with a number of other business ideas.
After a year I established Berlin as my home base (because it’s easy-going, has an outstanding quality of life, and my partner is German) but I spend about 25% of the year in and out of the states (mostly visiting close friends and family), and still travel to different places of interest at 2-4 week intervals.
I ramped up my brand consultancy and also launched this lifestyle blog to connect with and support like-minded individuals, create an outlet to express my ideas, and diversify my sources of income.
I am attempting to incorporate a rule where I take a minimum 2-week break in between trips because the downside of traveling this frequently is that it can be somewhat disruptive to your relationships, your work, and your health (which I’ll explain later).
Contents of This Guide
This guide is a patchwork of a dozen different emails I’ve sent over the past few years to family, friends, old classmates and colleagues, and even readers who want to know how (and why) I quit my traditional 9-to-5 to work independently.
It summarizes all the steps I personally took to get to where I am now. Though some of the recommendations are skewed by my professional interests, I believe much of the process is applicable to any industry you want to work in so long as you can do your work virtually.
1. Determine if this lifestyle is for you
It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon but it would be best to fully research what this lifestyle entails and whether it would work for you before embarking on the journey.
Being a digital nomad is not a new concept it’s just a phrase that became trendy with millennials. Previously people have been working from home or remotely so don’t think it’s all about hopping from one country to the next.
The best term to use is location independence which means the ability to do work virtually without having to be in a set physical location. Whether you work out of your local cafe or choose to set up shop in Bali it doesn’t make you any more or less of a digital nomad.
The pros are the freedom and flexibility of not having to go into an office (which is amazing) but the cons might mean less financial security, disruption to your normal flow of working, difficulty establishing meaningful connections with clients or colleagues, etc.
Just because it is a popular trend doesn’t mean you have to follow suit or define it as others do. During this step you should figure out what a location independent lifestyle would look like for you by answering questions such as:
Why do you want this lifestyle?
Do you want to travel or work from home?
If travel, how often do you want to move around?
Where would you like to live or travel?
What type of work would you want to do?
Do you want to work for someone else or for yourself?
How much money do you want/need to make?
Can you realistically hit your incomes goals with this lifestyle?
Do you have a spouse and/or children? How do they play into this?
Do you want to be alone or apart of a community?
2. Define and focus on your unique value
In order to become a digital nomad you will have to either find and work for a company who employs remote workers or start your own business (be it freelance/self-employment or a small business or startup).
I’m a broken record on this but I do believe that decisions you make in life (including work) need to be based on an overarching vision and set of principles you’ve established for yourself. One thing this clarity gives you is an understanding of your own unique value.
In order to distinguish yourself from the multitude of digital nomads, freelancers, entrepreneurs and other self-employed folks in the category you decide to operate in, you need to know why you are special and build on that.
In my case I wanted to work for myself on creative projects that linked to my values without completely discarding my professional background. So there were two things that I built a business around:
First, my background is brand marketing centric but it is very diverse so I have a broad perspective and skill set. I've worked for several different brands, in a variety of industries, across almost every marketing function (from analytics to sales to branding) in both digital and traditional roles.
Second, my point of view is based on my personal motto of simplicity and beauty. I believe in "marketing minimalism" or creating messaging and campaigns that are simple, intuitive, and honest.
I am also fascinated with the field and philosophy of aesthetics and try to incorporate this into my work as I think creating thoughtful and beautiful experiences is one of the best ways to connect emotionally with consumers.
My wealth of experience and unique angle led to me setting up a brand consultancy with simplicity at the core of how I advise the businesses I partner work.
3. Identify the services you will (and will not) provide
You won't have the capacity or capabilities to do everything so take the time to honestly evaluate your skill set and determine a narrow scope of work for yourself. Identify the field and function and then a niche consumer category you will target within that.
I also think you should clearly state where you won't play so you aren’t tempted to waste you (or your clients’) time by taking on jobs that are not suited for you.
In my case, I knew that digital branding and content strategy would be my functional area of focus. From my work experiences with both large and small brands I saw this as one of the most critical business needs.
These are areas where brands truly struggle to get right because categories are oversaturated, technology is evolving rapidly, and it’s difficult to develop a powerful online brand presence that stands out and makes money.
Being a strategist also takes a unique combination of analytical, creative, entrepreneurial, and organizational skills and I was lucky to have acquired these over the past 10 years (those random early career decisions came in handy).
I also only accept clients within the lifestyle categories (e.g. fashion, luxury, design, beauty, etc.). I prefer these industries because they are aligned with my aesthetic interests but they also tend to be where some of the most exciting digital marketing trends are born.
This industry also presents me with exciting marketing challenges and forces me to evolve my skills (given how crowded the space is).
4. Test your assumptions about your skills beforehand
Find a way to quickly create something based on your skills and try to sell it. This will be an easy way to gauge demand for your work. It will take some testing and learning to understand where you can add the most value in your niche.
Before quitting my job and launching into independent work I did all kinds of experiments to figure out how I could make money such as creating branding, marketing, and content management templates and selling them through different platforms.
I also joined an upmarket freelancer site and within a few months became one of their top consultants and generated tens of thousands in income.
I no longer have to rely on these tactics and my approach may not be relevant depending on what you want to do. For instance you may not want to start a business but prefer to find a company that is open to employing remote workers.
The point is that unless you have a reservoir of funds to live off of (which is also an option) it will be less stressful if you already know how you can generate an income before you quit your current job.
5. Know your worth and get your rates right
The great thing about the test and learn process is that you can get a sense of the rate you can start off commanding, as your livelihood depends on being in-the-know about your value.
Pricing yourself or services is a bit like being a fashion brand. Do you want to be a Burberry or a Forever 21? It’s up to you to decide based on your niche and services but make a conscious and strategic decision about it.
My initial approach to pricing was to convert my full-time salary into an hourly rate and use that as a baseline for my consultancy rate. Then I gradually started increasing my hourly rate until it was the best reflection of how I valued my time and work.
That said it got to the point where I had an extremely high hourly rate (in the triple figures) and even when doing business with large cash-rich corporations, speaking about projects in terms of an hourly figure vs. value delivered was confusing and off-putting.
Except for special circumstances I now charge flat fees for service packages. This allows me to charge according to the value I deliver.
None of my clients have ever questioned my rates (except one who was cheap and I did not accept any work from them again). Most professionals or businesses looking for quality work will understand that you get what you pay for.
6. Build a personal brand for yourself
Once you've tested the waters and are ready to move forward take a week or two to get the basics of a personal brand in place so you can market yourself and/or your services professionally and legitimately.
It doesn’t matter if you are going to start your own business or try to find remote work with another company, you will likely face a lot of competition.
A location independent lifestyle is high in demand and there are many people trying to make it work. You can put yourself at an immediate advantage just by clearly communicating your value and designing an attractive online presence.
7. Establish a roadmap and start executing
Now it’s time to ramp up your momentum and move into execution mode. You know what you want to do but will need to outline tangible milestones and be clear on how you are going to accomplish them.
For example, though I made a very spontaneous decision to quit my job (get the details here) I ended up in an unusual position where my employer wanted me to stay to help transition. I still had a few months between the time I put in my notice and my last day so I launched this plan:
within 3 months consistently secure 2-3 clients per month (to accomplish before I left my full-time job)
within 6 months build up enough credibility to demand a premium rate reducing the amount of time I needed to work to achieve income goals
within 9 months my consulting income should match what I was making at my full-time work
within 12 months diversify my income from consulting work with other new business ideas
In the spirit of transparency these were stretch goals and even though I eventually hit these milestones I didn’t meet any of them at the exact time specified. However, I had some savings to weather the ups and downs and, to be honest, wasn’t afraid of hitting rock bottom because I insisted on having this lifestyle.
The nomadic life sounds exciting but there are going to be some serious challenges throughout your journey. Having a plan is no guarantee of success but it allows you to map out your journey so you can gauge progress and be aware of what is needed to reach the next level.
8. Design a routine to stay on track
Once your goals are in place incorporate them into a daily routine to ensure that you are being diligent and disciplined. The routine I put in place for myself while I was still working full-time was simple:
First, I'm an early riser and like to get up by 6am. I would spend two hours in the morning everyday (including weekends) working on my goals before heading to my full-time job or whatever weekend activities I had planned.
This allowed me to spend 14 hours a week on building my consultancy without interfering with my full-time job or having to work late.
Second, on Sundays I’d chart out my to-do list and calendar for the entire week. If anything ad hoc came up I'd pencil it in but mostly my weekly professional agenda was set.
Third, when it came to my full-time job and consulting work I set a clear precedence that I don't believe in "fire drills", "face-time", and "overnighters". I refused last minute requests and declined attending unnecessary meetings or taking calls without a clear agenda.
This efficiency kept me from feeling overwhelmed juggling both consulting and full-time work. Sometimes being firm (and maybe even slightly irreverent) surprises people but it almost always commands respect. I am not suggesting you act like this but I do encourage you to stay true to your goals and routine so you can accomplish your vision.
Finally, aside from working on the client projects I separated each day of the week into other tasks to support my business (i.e. Mondays send out pitches, Tuesdays update social channels, Wednesdays evaluate progress against goals, etc).
I underestimated the extent to which I would struggle creating an ideal schedule for myself (especially while traveling) so how I shape my routine now has and continues to evolve.
Be aware that in the absence of a routine, frequent travel can be extremely disruptive to your work efficiency, your relationships, and your health (such as exhaustion from sitting on planes for hours and switching time zones).
9. Get organized with a go-to set of reliable tools
You will want to be as efficient with your time as possible especially if you are starting a business while still working for a company full-time. This means being extremely organized and knowing when and how to leverage external resources to assist with certain tasks.
10. Let your network know what you are doing
The one thing that I consistently don’t do (and probably won’t start) but can’t ignore the benefits of is networking. Even though I did not do this I believe you will go further in the beginning stages by getting the word out that you are planning to become a digital nomad and tapping into your network to uncover opportunities.
Sometimes I struggle unnecessarily because I like to do my own thing without letting others know – it’s a weird personality quirk. However, if you are like me you can definitely make this work without shouting on the roof top so it’s ok if you would rather keep your plan under wraps for a while.
That said, you’ll have to eventually get comfortable promoting yourself in one way or another. My way was to share my ideas …
11. Become a thought leader in your category
Find ways to broadly share your ideas and perspective so you can start to be seen as a thought leader in your space and use that status to drive new business opportunities.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to start and promote your own blog and build up a social media presence. This blog, albeit relatively new, has taken my business to an entirely new level mainly because I’ve gotten organic press or had posts go viral which helped me rapidly build up a decent following.
As a result people find me here or through my social channels instead of me having to constantly source new business. In fact all of the projects I’ve worked on in the past 6 months – from brand partnerships to big client contracts – have been because of this blog.
Had I known that blogging and spreading my ideas online would have this kind of impact on my livelihood then I would have prioritized it earlier in my journey.
12. Don’t forget about the logistics
I won't dive too deep into this because there are different considerations for each person but don’t forget about: taxes, healthcare, banking, and retirement. These areas aren't as straightforward for people who are self-employed.
On top of that if you are based internationally most of the year, as I am, then there are a whole host of other issues that you need to sort out.
Freelancers Union is a great platform to join and jumpstart your research on these topics.
13. Access more digital nomad resources
Take inspired action by reading more features on this topic or signing up to access my collection of over 30 articles for digital nomads, remote workers, and independent consultants, that will help you along the way. Good luck on your journey!