Digital Nomads In 2017: Possibilities & Challenges
It was 2015 when I got my first writing gig. It was uncompensated and for exposure, naturally. At the start, I would have never guessed how sick I was gonna get of the word "exposure". People, I cannot pay my bills in exposure. Nevertheless, I stuck with writing and earned my money teaching English as a second language.
Fast forward a year and a half. It was November 2016 when I got my first paying client. I was so impressed with myself! I started feeling able to believe that I really could only do writing and live off that! But even so, I was hardly making anything. Still, I was making more than "exposure" ever did.
This past year, I have gotten so many different clients, jobs, and gigs. This year I also traveled to and through seven different countries on four different continents. Without even realising it, I became a digital nomad. And because I kind of fell into that definition without ever having defined it for myself, I wasn't always sure which was the "right way" to do things.
Doing It For The Exposure
It was one thing when clients and small businesses offered gigs to freelance writers, saying they would give them exposure. Normally, these businesses genuinely couldn't offer anything else. In some instances, they could but weren't interested in shelling out any extra cash for written content. Which is fine. Lots of freelancers would love to just have the experience to put on their resume. It makes them look good. It's basically a nice little interning opportunity. After a while, I stopped doing gigs for the exposure because I had my fill. I was ready for the real clients. Clients who would pay me in cash for my work.
But people had gotten clever. They wouldn't outright use the word "exposure". Instead, you had to read between the lines or investigate further to see that these were not money-making opportunities at all. Empty promises from start ups who tell you that they'll start paying you ASAP. Clients that tell you they are looking to expand soon and, if you stuck with them, you'd have the opportunity to really cash in. I've seen Tweets from people who are cheerfully inviting writers to come work for them, but then respond with "Paid?" when they get a DM asking about how much the position is paid. Like I've said before, it's not a crime to not pay people. But it's important to be up front with that fact. Because otherwise, it's just wasting people's time who could be looking into other, paying opportunities.
When I first started out, I had no idea where to find clients. My very first writing gig for a business came from becoming a brand ambassador for an Instagram page I liked. Then, I began looking through Twitter with certain keywords. I landed on a couple different Twitter pages that would regularly post writing gigs. The first one, Writing Gigs, was regularly monitored so I would be able to benefit from it the most. The problem soon arose that most of those gigs were for exposure. And I needed paying clients. Yes, a few of my paying clients did come from Twitter, but it was like finding a needle in a haystack. Writing Gigs basically just posted Craigslist ads linked from the writing gig section of Craigslist. And more often than not, those Craigslist posters wanted as much writing done for as little a price as possible. Typical.
I began branching out from Twitter. I stumbled across a website that posted filtered Craigslist ads called Write Jobs. The ads they posted were each handpicked and thought to most likely be legit and pay decently. The website also had a Twitter page, the second one I followed, but I didn't often check it out because it didn't post as often as Writing Gigs. The website had an optional upgrade which went through an even more thorough filtering process. This process showed the highest paying gigs they found on Craigslist's writing gig section. I've now mainly outgrown those jobs as well, but it's still nice to be a part of that upgrade because I regularly receive their emails in my inbox with a dozen writing-themed jobs.
The website that really took my writing embers and turned them into a blazing fire was Upwork, hands down. Of the people I've spoken to who use Upwork, you either love it or hate it. I'm in the first category. I've accrued many long-term clients from that platform. I've also found quite a few excellent freelancers who could help me out in areas that I don't do well in, like resume creation and graphic design. Upwork is definitely a learn-as-you-go process, but it helps when you kinda look at it as a game and not as work. Lots of people get bummed out because you basically bid for jobs against other potential hirees when you use Upwork. You try to make it look like you have the required experience needed for the gig while also sounding pretty fantastic. Like you're the best choice out of all of the others. But what exactly do you think interviewing in the real world is really like?
Finding Working WiFi
One of the most important things is finding working WiFi. For me, the working WiFi has to come with comfy nearby seating and a working plug for my laptop. If it's only a mix of those two things, I'm bound to be miserable. I need to be checking emails, documents, social media (for work, of course...), and be easy to contact. Without WiFi, my whole game falls apart.
Temporarily Ditching The Laptop
Just because my life revolves around my laptop doesn't mean it has to constantly revolve around my laptop. I mean, I want to experience life beyond the screen. I've been to many beautiful places this year. And it's so crucial to be able to find a place that's gonna be safe enough to stash my laptop while I go off exploring. Honestly, this isn't a super huge deal for me since I am a serious homebody. But I would at least like to have the option. That if I left my laptop unmanned for a few hours and came back, it would still be there along with my other stuff. Hostels are nice and cheap, but they're not always the best way to leave electronics chillen.
Getting Paid For The Work I Do
So I learned to say no to gigs for exposure. But since I've been getting more success, there's a new problem. Test gigs. People asking for work before they pay then ditching. Claiming their PayPal isn't working for some reason. Dancing around the word "exposure" in fancy ways even though that is what they are planning to "pay" you in. Look, I am experienced and reliable. This is my profession and I'm just trying to be as professional as possible. I don't want to hear excuses about why payment can't happen.
If you want me to do it, pay me to do it. It's as simple as that. For other digital nomads out there, be wary of people trying to get the most product for the littlest price.
Not Knowing Anyone Else Who Does What I Do
I currently live in South Africa. I'm originally from the States, which is where most of my friends are. But I also have quite a few scattered across the globe. And yet, out of all of those friends, none of them do what I do. Not a one. It can be frustrating at times. Not having someone to just vent to about random freelancing problems is the worst. I feel like if I tried to talk to my friends about it, they would just look at me like "Oh noooo, you have to sit in a comfy chair in your cozy house all day and be on your computer to work? With nobody breathing over your shoulder? That must be awful."
But honestly, there are days I wish I did have someone to chat up next to me and sip tea with. And sometimes I am seriously so physically unmotivated and mentally spent that all I want to do is binge Netflix or play video games all day until my motivation trickles back to me. It's hard being on your own and always being on top of it. Because even though I have a full week to do certain tasks, I oftentimes end up doing them the day of. I am human, after all. Procrastination is a bitch.
I'm super grateful to have recently become good friends with my graphic designer who currently lives in Sweden. She's done all my graphics for months ever since I found her on Upwork. She is truly a kindred spirit. Without her, I fear I might have gone mad. Because she also knows the difficulties of motivating yourself, putting on pants, and making the monumental decision of whether to leave the house today or not.
Finding Co-working Space
This has been a year of trial and error for me. Plenty of trial, and oh-so-many errors. Miscommunication, missed deadlines, and faulty equipment has really kept me on my toes. In late October, one of my clients was gracious enough to send me to a WordPress conference in Cape Town. I learned so much and was able to network with other entrepreneurs. I was ecstatic for this opportunity, and told my partner that I was so stoked to meet other freelancers because I had never truly met one before. My partner gave me a look and said "Yes, babe. None of them have, either."
At that point, I didn't have my own website (though I do now). I could barely keep up with all the acronyms and SEO jargon flying around at the conference that everyone else seemed to understand. And, most embarrassingly, I had never heard of the term "co-working space". It was the last speaker of the last day of the conference who clued me in. He was a digital nomad like myself. And he mentioned in his talk how great a co-working space in Cape Town he had found was. I was completely lost. Co-working? Working alongside people you don't actually work with? I mean, it made sense for people who lived like us. But wait... what?
I mentioned to my partner how baffled I was by this term. He responded by being surprised I had never heard of it. He also pointed out that I wouldn't even like those sorts of spaces, since I preferred being alone. He was absolutely right. But I didn't actually want to go to one. I just wanted to know more about how they worked and where they existed. Turns out, my partner had a hand in creating one in Barcelona, Spain. I tracked down the conference speaker from earlier who told me there are at least three in Cape Town alone, and more all over the country.
"Wait, so, you've never heard of co-working spaces?" he asked me. He appeared to be as confounded at that information as I was about his information. "And... How long have you been a digital nomad?" I stuttered through my answer, feeling quite flustered. But I learned fascinating new information. Co-working spaces come in different shapes and sizes. They're big, office spaces with plenty of desks and chairs within. You can oftentimes rent them month-by-month or day-by-day. You can go in when you want and leave when you want. There aren't really any set desks or offices for anyone, so you can setup where you feel like it. Some places are more flexible than others. Some spaces are more comfortable and relaxing than others. You just gotta feel them out for yourself and see what ends up working for you, if you're into it.
Requesting Payment Upfront
I've only just recently requested my very first upfront payment. I generally don't request them since I do a lot of work through Upwork, which has been a consistently safe platform for me to use. But this is a super valuable tool to use: the confidence to ask clients for down payments for their project/s. There can be many different reasons (or even none at all) for requesting for payment up front. But if you have a solid resume and glowing recommendations, why not go for it? You're going to be getting the money anyway. And better sooner than later, in my book.
Juggling Multiple Time Zones In My Head
Okay, so if it's 10 P. M. here, that means it's 4 P.M. in Florida. Oh wait, no, the times have changed. So now they're seven hours behind instead of only six... But wait, what time is it in California?
Shortly after I have this thought process, I just end up quickly googling "PST now" to double check. I have clients in Florida, New York, California, and Oregon, just to name a few. So while I go about my normal day waking up around 8 or 9 and getting moving, I also have to think of when clients and colleagues will be available to collaborate with and contact. By the time most of my productivity has gone down for the day here, I can expect one of my clients to be around on Google Hangouts because she has just gotten to work in West Palm Beach.
Perfecting The Art Of Communication
I love bragging about how efficient I am at communicating. This is also why I only take clients that I know I will enjoy working with on a long-term basis. When clients have a project for me and want my thoughts on it, I am there. When they need ideas for social media marketing strategies for the week, I am there. When they need me to sign something and send it back to them, I am there. I pride myself in being easily accessible because that shit is priceless to me. I like to think that if I make myself available to them, they will make themselves available to me.
So when I have a question or an idea I would like to pitch, I will be heard. I don't want to make the mistake of appearing lazy or unmotivated on a job. It's hard enough that my clients normally aren't able to see me or hear me on a daily basis. So I like to step it up and ask to be added on Google Hangouts so we can chat. I always check my email notifications and get back to them in a timely manner.
Feeling Less Drawn To Social Media
This one might sound a little depressing, but I promise it's not. It's been a while since I've really been into the social media scene. I check my timeline and feeds regularly but rarely post. And since I've begun freelancing, it's even more sparse. Because when that thing that is for fun becomes a thing that is for work, it's seen in a different light. Or maybe that's only me. I just know that social media no longer has that allure for me. I'm not glued to my phone for hours, scrolling and double tapping and clicking. I check it to stay up to date on a few things and to clear my notifications, but that's normally the extent of it.
Personally, it's hard for me to draw the line between "leisure activity" and "research for work" whenever I'm on Instagram or Facebook. I feel like I'm constantly in limbo, trying to see what my friends are up to while also scoping out ways I can make my content creation more relatable, current, and dynamic. It's really hard for me to find that "off" switch and punch it. Because even when I'm solely on social media for fun, I'll still see something that I want to share with a colleague about work. And I know I'll sound like a spoiled Millennial for saying this, but so be it.
Keeping Track Of Week Days
It's one thing when you're an introvert who doesn't enjoy leaving the house, and it's another thing when you work at home and don't regularly leave the house. And it's a whole 'nother thing when you're both. I am Exhibit A. I love working from home and being a digital nomad. As an introvert, it's the picture of perfection. I can binge watch Netflix when I want, hang out with my significant other for as long as I want, sleep when I want, and head out when I want (on the off chance that that happens) every single day. I feel like it's rare having an occupation that allows for that. But that is the beauty of working from home.
The downside of that is keeping track of schedules. For sanity's sake. I can go three days without having a clue of what day it is. Sometimes I don't even remember it's Tuesday and I just call it "Day 2" because that's how one of my colleagues writes out the social media calendar each week. Days are just numbers and the numbers all blend together. I'm sure this is beyond unhealthy to not even remember what the name of today might be, but it's kind of refreshing for me. It's my own little bubble where week days all blur together gracefully. As long as I have a relaxing weekend, I'm good. Day 1 will come around and I will happily launch myself back into the gentle chaos of working from home.
Taking Care Of Myself
When I am in it, I sometimes get lost in it. I don't feel the time go by and I end up forgetting to sit up straight, take a break, or eat. I am thankful that my partner and I live together because he helps motivate me to do those small tasks. But when I am killing a project, I want to stay put until I complete it fully. Unfortunately, that can easily lead to feeling burnt out. And then I end up unwilling to return to work for hours on end. I'm not sure how I would manage if I lived alone, but I'm sure my hair would be a wreck 24/7 and I'd be living off junk food since it's quick to get and easy to stash next to the computer.
Work should never be your life. It's so important to have a healthy balance. Working at home is no joke because it means that, sometimes, you eat, work, play, and work out all in the same place. I try to do at least half of those activities outside of the house whenever I can. Because I'm not just a digital nomad who works from home, I'm also a hardcore homebody. And it's just not good for anyone to be at home all the time. So if you're considering freelancing or becoming a digital nomad, just be aware of the pros and cons of becoming one. It's not all fun and games, I assure you, though it is definitely quite awesome!