Life as a Digital Nomad: How I Make Work Work

One question I get asked a lot from people who hear about my lifestyle or who come across my blog is how I make the financial side of things work. How do I support myself? How do I pay the bills? What do I do for a living?... 

I've wanted to write a blog post about it for a while, and after I got another lovely message yesterday from someone who stumbled over my blog asking, among other things, this question, I decided it’s time to put thought into action.  

First things first: Yes, I do work! 

Not full-time but I work enough to make more money than I spend (just). I've used savings to buy Josie (my van), but since then, I’ve been breaking even. I know that sometime soon I will have to start earning more again to save up for ‘rainy days’ and old age, but right now, I've decided to enjoy life a little longer and only work enough to cover my expenses.  

I guess that brings us to the next question: What do I do for work? 

I'm self-employed, working as a marketing freelancer, consultant and advisor. I have my own little business called High Tide. Usually, I work for several clients at the same time. I have a few clients that I do ongoing and regular work for, and on top of that, I do one-off projects for others as and when they come up. Over the past year, I've worked an average of about 15 hours per week (paid work), but this varies hugely - some weeks it's 25+ hours, and in others, only 5 or 10 (sometimes none at all). The low weekly hours are mainly my own choice. I have occasionally turned down work and could probably find more if I wanted to, but right now I value time and freedom more than money, so I've chosen to only work as much as I have to, to cover my bills. 

I kind of became a freelancer by accident.

About three and a half years ago, I felt like I had outgrown the job I had at the time and was ready for a new challenge. I didn't really know what I wanted to do next and I wanted a chance to find out what's out there. I decided to resign from my job so I could openly talk to people about looking for something new without having to worry about word getting back to my employer. I ended up taking on some short-term projects while I was looking for the next full-time gig – and then enjoyed the project work so much that it became permanent. For the first two and half years as a freelancer I was working full-time hours (sometimes more), often working for the same clients several days a week over many months or even full-time at times. At the end of 2017, I decided to scale back my hours, move into my campervan and become a true digital nomad.

My clients are usually small businesses and startups. 

They are businesses who either don't have in-house marketing resources at all or who have small teams with often quite young people who don't have a lot of experience yet. You can think of me as an ‘on-demand' marketing manager. Businesses come to me when they need extra marketing resources, strategic advice or simply want someone with more experience to support their young employees, but don't want to engage expensive agencies and don't want to hire a full-time marketing manager (yet).

I love my work! I get to work with lots of different people and am involved in many diverse projects. No two days are ever the same. Each client I work for has different demands, and I learn new things all the time which I can then leverage in my work for other clients. I've also noticed I'm pretty good at working this way. I'm someone who learns quickly, and I usually don’t need a lot of guidance or supervision which means I can add value to my clients immediately with little input from their end. I've also often found it difficult in the past not to get too emotionally involved with my work. As a contractor, I find it much easier to keep a certain distance and objectivity which benefits both my clients and myself. In other words, the freelancer working style suits me. 

I’m lucky because I can do a lot of this work remotely. 

I have to be in Auckland regularly (which is where most of my clients are based), but most of the time I can easily get away for 3-6 weeks at a time. I do have to make sure I’m within cell phone coverage and that I have access to the internet which does occasionally limit where I can go (New Zealand still has lots of very remote areas). But I think that’s a pretty small limitation to an otherwise awesome lifestyle :).

When I’m travelling, I mostly work from my van, but I also regularly work from cafes and libraries (free wifi…). I used to be one of those people who needed her own desk and familiar environment to be productive, but over the past year, I've really gotten used to this nomad working life. I can work from anywhere and be super productive. All I need is my laptop and an internet connection (and noise-cancelling headphones depending on where I am) and I'm good to go.  

When people hear about my work, one question I get asked a lot is how I find clients.

I get most of my work through referrals.

Almost all of the clients I've worked for so far have been referred to me by someone I've worked with in the past or have some other professional connections with. I'm touching wood as I say this, but this is something that's somehow just always worked out. Whenever I feel like I need more work, something somehow pops up from somewhere without me really needing to look for it (I hope I didn't jinx it just now!!!!).

However, before you go and quit your job thinking getting work as a freelance will be easy, there are a few things you should know. I think there are very specific reasons why it has worked so well for me so far: 

  1. First of all, I live in New Zealand. Not only in NZ a small country (less than 5 million people), we’re also famous for our close-knit communities and ‘everyone-knows-everyone’ culture. 

  2. I’ve been a part of the startup scene in Auckland since my University days, and the startup community is an even closer community within a small country. 

  3. Before I started working as a freelancer, I was the Marketing Manager for an organisation called The Icehouse which is all about helping people start and grow businesses. The Icehouse is probably the biggest and most well-known business network in New Zealand. Having worked there not only means that I got to meet lots of smart and well-connected people, but it's also a very powerful brand to have on my CV.  

  4. There are not a lot of ‘all-round’ marketing freelancers like me in New Zealand. There are lots of designers, developers and other creatives and technical people or freelancers who focused on very specific parts of the marketing mix (social media, content developments, SEO, etc.) but not many who offer all-round strategic and executional marketing support. And as a one-woman-band, I can offer much better rates than agencies which makes me a really attractive option for many businesses.

 So as you can see, getting referrals might be a bit easier for me than it would be for others who live and work in less tight-knit and/or more competitive environments. In addition, I like to think I'm pretty good at my work (at least that's what clients say) so that should help with referrals as well :-)

I love the freelancer lifestyle. But it's not without its challenges.

The biggest challenge for me is the unpredictability of work, and through that, income. One thing I had to learn is that you never know if you have work until you actually have it. And that you have to be responsive and available when you're clients need you no matter how busy you already are.

It's happened to me a few times now that I discuss and plan work with clients and we agree on a timeframe, but then the project gets delayed for whatever reason - sometimes just for a few days but other times for weeks. This past winter, I thought I had lots of work lined up to keep me busy during the colder months. I even committed to housesitting jobs close to Auckland so that I could be available. And then the client had to delay work. It ended up being a good thing because it gave me time to work on my book, but you have to be prepared for that. My number one rule is to never count on money coming in until I've actually done the work.

On the other hand, if one of my clients gets in touch and needs something done, I always get to it as soon as I can, especially if it’s urgent, no matter what else I had planned or how much work I have already done that day. As a contractor, you need to be available and responsive. And somehow, my clients always all seem to need urgent work done at the same time ;-)

I have weeks where I have a lot of work and others where it's very quiet, and often I don't know how busy a week will be until I'm halfway through it.

To anyone who is considering this lifestyle, I would always say you should have at least enough money saved to be comfortable with not having any work at all for at least a month – but, of course, that also comes down to personality and how important financial security is to you. 

My other two main challenges are having to be in Auckland regularly which sometimes means lots of driving (and high fuel costs) and that I need power and internet to work which can be a challenge when living in a van. But so far neither of these have been huge issues.

Of course, you also don’t get any paid holidays, sick leave or other benefits but that is just something you have to consider when calculating your rate.

I think the other big thing to consider is that the freelancer life can be lonely. This has never been a problem for me, mainly because I'm very good at spending lots of time on my own. However, I've heard from other freelancers and contractors that they sometimes find it hard to work on their own so much, to motivate themselves every day and that they miss the frequent human interaction that most general employees have every day with their colleagues. 

If you're considering this lifestyle for yourself, I'd recommend thinking about these potential challenges carefully and to have a plan for how you will deal with them before you dive in and quit your job.

For me, these challenges are pretty insignificant compared to the advantages of being a digital nomad.

 I love the freedom and flexibility of it as well as the diversity – both in terms of the project I work on and the people I work with – and I can’t see myself live and work any other way at this point in my life. 

 

I hope this post helps answer some of the questions many had about how I support myself financially and what life as a digital nomad is like. Feel free to reach out if you have any further questions.