Author: Jennifer Sutherland-Miller

The Realities of a Location Independent Life

This article is part 2 in a series about long term, open-ended travel written by Jennifer Miller, who has been traveling with her family of six for seven years now. Read the other parts below:

Ever since my friend Lea Woodward coined the term Location Independent almost a decade ago, there’s been a migration of sorts, away from fixed location careers to creative and entrepreneurial solutions that allow outside the box thinkers to create what appears to be the best of both worlds. Gone are the days when a dream to travel the world meant trading your place on the career ladder. Gone are the days when having a successful career meant landing a “good job” right out of college, working hard and loyally with company for thirty five years, and then getting a gold watch along with a solid retirement package on your way out.

Folks like Chris Guillebeau and Tim Ferris have furthered the romantic notions and fueled the belief that it’s entirely doable to tailor your work to your lifestyle, build successful, responsible, lucrative careers while traveling, volunteering, and tango dancing your way across continents. I have personal friends who appear in both of their books, and our life is testimony to the fact that it’s not only possible, it’s well within the reach of anyone with the guts and the determination to make the leap. The web is populated with a ridiculous number of blogs by people doing just that.

We get a lot of questions about how we manage our life. How it’s possible for us to make more money working 20 hours a week and traveling the world with our kids than we did working more than 40 hours a week for a big computer company you’ve heard of.

The answer is both easy and complicated

The easy answer:

We made the decision to change our lives and put in the hard work to make it happen, our way.

The complicated answer:

There’s not one answer, it’s a continual mosaic of the renegotiation of the terms of our life and income streams. We work with focus and determination. We’ve found the sweet spot of leveraging our existing skills in a new way. We got lucky, to an extent, because of the connections we had in the industry. It’s a continual juggling act. There are trade-offs, things lots of people wouldn’t be willing to do in trade for getting to live our lives in a way that lots of people envy.

It’s not as complicated or as simple as it looks

We’ve been traveling full time for closing in on seven years. We’ve worked from five continents. We started just following the market crash of 2008 and have more than replaced our previous career income. I’m 40, my husband is 42, we have four kids, ages 12-18, and all of the responsibilities and concerns that go with a bigger family. If it’s possible for us, it’s possible for anyone.

‘We get a lot of questions about how we manage our life. How it’s possible for us to make more money working 20 hours a week and traveling the world with our kids than we did working more than 40 hours a week for a big computer company you’ve heard of.’

If you’re considering making the leap yourself, here are a few realities to think through and weigh carefully. The things that are sometimes lost in translation when folks post those pictures of bikini babes with a laptop open at the beach.

It’s work

And here’s another thing: let go of the notion that you’re going to hit the road, start a travel blog, and magically have all of your financial needs provided because arm chair travelers love you that much.

No. That’s not how it works.

I have a handful of full time, professional travel bloggers in my friend set. Most of them struggle, rather seriously, to make ends meet. All of them end up making compromises to their travel style and plans because they “have to.” They work crazy hours, because really, if you’re making money based on the stories of your adventures, then you’re always working, aren’t you?

According to a survey of ProBlogger readers, only 20% were making more than $500 a month, and only 13% made over $1000 a month.

That’s $12,000USD a year. According to the federal guidelines, $11,700 USD is considered poverty level. While it’s very true that money goes further in some parts of the world, and a very rich life can be had on very much less than the standards set by the first world, it’s important to consider the realities and to understand the numbers if your plan is to quit your $60,000 a year job and live off of your blog.

Does it sound like I’m down on blogs?

Not hardly. I have one. I’ve even made good money, by ProBlogger survey standards, off of it, from time to time. Blogs are very useful tools, especially for establishing your niche expertise and for use as a clip file and a platform for attracting clients to your business, or for freelance opportunities. They’re often a very important part of a larger location independent strategy. They can often be one of several income streams that, together, replace the income of a previous job. Just don’t buy the snake oil salesman pitch that it’s easy, or that your travel stories are going to make you millions.

It’s not, and they won’t.

If you dive into a location independent career, either converting the skill set you currently have, or beginning an entrepreneurial venture, expect to work. There is no free lunch, and those of us making real money, the kind you can put kids through college on and save for retirement on, are working. The trick is to find the ways to work smarter instead of harder.

It’s (sometimes) harder work than you’re doing now

If you dream of traveling and working as you go, then be prepared to spin a whole new set of plates that you haven’t ever had to: time zone differences, connectivity issues, billing challenges, payment and business money management challenges exacerbated by your expat or nomadic lifestyle, to name a few. Be ready to be up at 2:00 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday for those regularly scheduled project management calls at 9:00 a.m. EST. Be prepared to plan your whole day around finding adequate connectivity for that radio interview or collaborative video call. Be prepared for the logistical challenges of managing clients who might be scattered across multiple continents. Be prepared to bite the bullet and spend more money on hiring the help you need to manage the details and then maintain those working relationships.

Unless you’re able to take your existing job on the road and keep the current organizational structure of your company, you’re going to be redefining your work life in such a way that makes you the CEO, secretary, billing department, and sales and marketing, in addition to project manager.

Here are a few tips:

  • Set hours: In whatever timezone makes sense (that’s sometimes NOT the one you’re in)
  • Get up early: My current schedule involves getting up at 5:00 a.m. and working hard and fast until 8:00 a.m. when the rest of the family stirs. These are my most productive hours
  • Hire someone: A virtual assistant worth her salt is a huge productivity enhancer. Mine has allowed me to take on almost double my work load in the past year by passing off the tasks that don’t require my personal touch. I tried virtual VA services, like Fancy Hands but ended up hiring a real person. In my opinion, one person who understands how you think, your business model, and your vision is the best option. If you are looking for one, send me an email and I’ll share mine as she still has a few openings.
  • Set goals: Business and personal, annually and by the quarter.

Setting off on a one year RTW journey is entirely different than becoming location independent. The former has a beginning and an end and you often check out of any real work for the time you’re traveling. The latter is about remaking your whole life and career around a new set of priorities. The first could be considered an extended vacation. The second is more like going back to a school (of hard knocks) to start all over again in the career world. That’s hard work.

Balance is a challenge

Anyone who is self employed will tell you that the biggest downside is that you are the bottom line, and you can’t really “go home” and leave work at work. There are phases of life when you’ll find yourself working every waking moment, far more than 40 hours a week. If you bend toward the “workaholic” then you might find it hard to unplug. Conversely, if you lack the discipline to work from home three days a week, then location independence may not be for you. No one is going to get you out of bed and insist that you clock in.

‘Of course there’s not a “right” way to do life, but it is worth spending some time considering why you’re making the leap to location independence.’

The other kind of balance that bears consideration is your inner mental balance and your ability to be where you are at. I’ve noticed a trend among the location independent that we know, especially those who make their livings through some sort of marketing of their lifestyle, via blog, freelancing, or social media of some sort, to be tied to their phone even when they are not working.

Of course there’s not a “right” way to do life, but it is worth spending some time considering why you’re making the leap to location independence. If it’s because you want to travel more, blend the exotic with the mundane and experience life in other places and other ways, from other mindsets, then it might be worth intentionally unplugging from time to time. If you’re traveling with a partner, or kids, it’s worth considering the time and experience you share with them as well. It’s very easy, in this lifestyle, to be bodily in one place but mentally, emotionally, or socially somewhere entirely different, which is kind of missing the point, isn’t it?

It takes a while to find your groove, and there’s no one answer to the question of balance. For our family, we find our best work-life balance comes when we reserve mornings for work (and schooling) and afternoons for life and adventures. We aim for about twenty hours a week.

Working at the beach is (largely) bullshit

We’ve made many a conference call from the beach, to be fair. But in most of the world you won’t be taking out your machine to expose it to salt, sand, and potential theft at the beach. It makes for a great photo, but it’s not a daily reality. Every single successfully location independent nomad that we know has a serious and structured work plan, and it rarely happens on the beach. You’ll need to find quiet, connectivity, and brain space conducive to accomplishing a lot in a relatively little amount of time. It goes to reason that if you’re expecting to cut your work time in half, you’re going to need to amp up your productivity, right? Part of that is working smart and outsourcing what you can. The other part is working hard with the time you have.

The other aspect of balance that bears consideration if you plan to live nomadically is how much and how fast you travel. It’s really difficult to find time to work consistently when you’re moving forward quickly. We’ve found that, for us, spending a month to three months in one place between periods of forward motion helps us to keep the balls in the air with our work projects. We call these periods of settledness a “base,” and we use that stationary spot to explore from on afternoons and weekends, and as serious office space every morning. Think realistically about how much time you need and how much stability you need to deliver quality to your clientele.

Tips for choosing a base:

  • Consider connectivity: Obviously, connectivity is king when you’re working remotely. Thailand was surprisingly great. New Zealand was surprisingly terrible and expensive. Most countries have places that are workable, and others that are less so. Do your homework.
  • Consider comfort: It’s easier to work productively when your other needs are met comfortably. For us, this means a house with enough beds for all six of us, an adequate kitchen, and walking distance to our daily needs as well as something fun (like the beach!).
  • Consider cost: Traveling slower is cheaper than traveling faster. Settling into a base is less expensive than staying in hostels or hotels. Establishing your base in a particular location in the off or shoulder season is a better deal than during high season. Hiring household help at $5 an hour (or whatever the local rate is) is a smarter use of resources than spending your precious work time on menial tasks when you bill out at $50 or $100 an hour. Think about the economics of your base and adjust accordingly.
  • Consider your interests: Choose a place that inspires you, a place that you’d like to go deeper in, a place that has the amenities that matter to you: language classes, great food, kite surfing, a ski school, whatever it is that feeds your passion.

    Points of failure

    If your career is truly location independent, chances are that means that your primary tools for developing income include a cell phone and a laptop. Do yourself a favor and invest in quality tools. Making do with less than the ideal will increase your frustration and reduce your productivity. These tools will also be the biggest potential points of failure for your career infrastructure.

    What if they are stolen or lost?

    What if they are damaged?

    You’ll want layers of contingencies for that sort of emergency so that you’re not all of a sudden up the proverbial creek without a paddle. External back up drives are obvious. Don’t store them in the same bag as your primary machines. Cloud back ups done regularly are also a good option; however, where internet connectivity is less than optimal they can be prohibitively slow or very costly when paying by the MB for data. The use of services like Evernote, Dropbox, or Google Drive, to name a few, increase your odds of not losing large amounts of important data if the worst happens.

    Think ahead.

    Consider insuring your expensive pieces of equipment. We had a Macbook Air fall prey to a kid accident (a glass of water was dumped into the keyboard), but because we’d added the $20 “contents of the vehicle” rider to our RV insurance, we had a brand new machine, restored with a Time Machine backup, within three days. Consider carefully the kind of equipment you need to work effectively, and invest the time, money, and maintenance into a professional set up.

    Consider some things a business expense

    Traveling long-term with our careers in our backpacks means that we are not always the budget travelers that we aspire to be. Hostel internet often sucks, and common rooms aren’t great places to have a tete-a-tete with a Fortune Five Hundred CEO. We often spend the money to stay somewhere with the privacy we need to get work done and connectivity that caters to business travelers, not bloggers. If it is an expense that allows you to develop income, then it’s a business expense. You’ll want to invest in the best possible cell service package in a country. Sometimes we invest in two or three different ones to ensure adequate coverage as we travel around. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money.

    Be prepared to fly to a client if necessary. Our primary contacts know that if a job requires it, we will fly in and make a several week face to face visit to solve a problem when they need it. It’s been done in the past, and as a result, those clients are comfortable with our shifting locations because they know that their needs come first. On the flip side, understand that as a location independent contractor, you’re not going to land every single job. Sometimes location independence is a deal breaker. Be prepared for that and learn to work with clientele who are a good fit for your philosophy and lifestyle. You need not be all things to all people.

    Does it sound like I’m trying to dissuade you from your dream of living and working anywhere and everywhere?

    Definitely not!

    I’m a firm believer that anyone who has the desire and determination can find a way to create a location independent career. We know teachers, musicians, jugglers, bloggers, geologists, microbiologists, psychologists, writers, software developers, hospitality and service professionals, editors, chefs, people in the insurance industry, artists, mechanical experts, carpenters, and lots of other people who have found ways to take their shows on the road.

    The only limits: your creativity and determination!

    So tell me, what’s your plan for creating location independence?

    Check out the following for more on working abroad and creating a location independent lifestyle:

    Manifesto - replace broad expectations with nuanced realities

    Photo credits: Alexander Mak, Iakov Kalinin