This is the first part in my series about freelancing. I’ll be answering your questions about finding clients, getting paid, and building your brand/business. Since earning more money is a big motivator, I’ll start with that.
To back things up for those just tuning in: Two years ago I quit my corporate job to start a travel company without much in the way of savings or a plan. One year ago after falling $21K in debt, I had started supplementing my income with freelance presentation design (i.e. making PowerPoints look good) and things had really started taking off. Fast forward to today, I’ve officially established a presentation design agency, hired two full-time contractors, paid off my debt, and now generate over five figures monthly in revenue.
And the craziest part of all? I don't have a website or any work publicly displayed online.
While half of my income is from contracts with large corporations and agencies, the other half stems from Upwork. For those who don’t know Upwork is a freelancer platform where you can bid and be awarded projects from clients all over the world. They didn’t pay me to write this post (promise!) but they were a key player in my success and will be mentioned often.
How much have I earned on Upwork since I started 1.5 years ago? $105,439-- $86K of it from this year alone.
Update 1/3/18: I ended the year with $101,448 made in 2017 off Upwork and $129,048 total earnings from the site.
(Disclaimer: Don’t get confused and think that I am taking home all of this money. I pay my designers, taxes, and Upwork [they take a 5-20% percentage.])
The first thing I want to talk about is your money mindset. Not having a stable and secure income was one of the most terrifying feelings starting out. I’ll never forget the morning, six months in, I looked at my earnings and realized that I wasn’t just surviving, but thriving as a freelancer. I literally ran around my place screaming, "I DID IT. I'M GOING TO MAKE IT!"
Here are some money mindsets to think about as a freelancer:
The biggest reason most people quit Upwork after just getting started is that they either get no work from being priced too high or low-paying work from bad clients. Specifically for Upwork, follow these pricing steps and you’ll likely see much greater success.
Well, that’s it for Part 1. Next week, be on the lookout for Part 2!
Don’t let the title fool you; it hasn’t been easy and I couldn’t have done it without some serious support. So I begin this post by giving a hearty THANK YOU to those who helped me out along the way.
With that said, I struggled for the first seven months.
A bit of backstory for those who haven’t read Part 1: At the end of June 2015, I quit my job working as a project manager / graphic designer for a Fortune 100 company to start Courting Adventure and work as a freelancer. When I’m not taking amazing people on tours through Asia, I design presentations for executives, agencies, and startups.
Winter is a notoriously slow season for most freelancers. In January, I was in the middle of a dry spell. My bank account was empty and my credit cards were near maxed out. I was borrowing money from family and friends. It had gotten to the point where I had mapped out new Life Plans A-E, most of which involved getting a full-time job. I can work for a year or two at a new job, save up, and try again. I was thinking of giving up.
Five months later, I have secured several long-term freelance contracts, acquired a number of repeat clients, and am currently now making double what I made at my previous job. I relocated to Bangkok, Thailand six months ago and travel out of the country on a monthly basis, researching and designing new trips for 2017.
Being on the digital nomad path has certainly not been a smooth ride. Let’s take a closer look at (frankly) how I screwed up and how I turned things around.
Not Enough Savings, Too Much Travel
This was my biggest mistake, that I briefly mentioned in Part I. I had quit my job with about 3K in the bank and no credit card debt. I would recommend starting with 10K, with 5K being an absolute minimum. This low amount of savings was quickly wiped out by problem #2: expensive travel. A silly move on my part, I had two trips lined up immediately after I quit my job—a week in L.A. and about 10 days in Iceland. Iceland by itself cost over $3K—by far the costliest trip I’ve ever been on. Although I quit my job due to timing more than anything, in retrospect I should’ve stayed on for a few more months.
Not A Clear Enough Vision
I may have seemed prepared on the surface, but I was largely winging it. My plan was to run a travel company and do freelance design work on the side. But I did not have solid, tangible goals in regards to how I will grow my business and generate a sustainable income through it nor did I accurately calculate how much money I needed to be making monthly. Now I have my finances mapped out and there’s no surprises.
And if you’re curious, here it is for reference:
Recurring bills: $225
Living expenses: $750
Miscellaneous expenses: $150
Debt Repayment: $500+
Anything I make over the top three categories gets plugged into the bottom two categories.
In regards to Courting Adventure and freelancing, I’ve started mapping out monthly goals to grow both ventures and am working on a comprehensive marketing strategy to bring my services and trips to more potential customers. I’m also working on building a team of kick-ass folks to help me as I take on bigger contracts and expand in the future. (With that said, if you are a graphic designer who can take on PowerPoint/Keynote, please contact me!)
I’d been using freelance sites for years with moderate success. This time around I focused on Upwork. Even though presentation design is a niche field, I still narrowed my job search even further:
In addition, make sure you’re getting paid your worth. I’ve talked to so many people that charge less because they’re afraid that they won’t get hired otherwise. Recently I increased my hourly rate by $10/hr and you know what happened? I’ve gotten hired more often and now have potential new clients coming to me with work.
Now that I’ve taken these steps, business has been booming.
Another big source of my income recently has come from friends referring me for projects that either weren’t a good fit for their skillset or they were too busy for. In return, I pass other projects on to others—which resulted in one person landing their dream job working remotely for a Bay-Area startup. Share the love and keep on networking!
Life is Good
Last month I hit a career milestone I’ve been chasing for years: my work now comes at a regular enough pace that I no longer have to hustle to find new clients every month. I cannot even express how much of a relief that is to have payments directly deposited weekly as a freelancer. I also get to work with some of the biggest names in the tech industry, which is both awesome and bolsters my portfolio, making me look more valuable to potential clients.
Being a digital nomad can be tough sometimes—the abundance of all-nighters, the financial uncertainty, the 4am Skype calls. It takes sacrifice, perseverance, and constantly being on the grind. However, I’m very happy with the lifestyle I’ve designed and wouldn’t change it for anything. I wake up each day excited and challenged. Here’s to an even more productive and fulfilling Year 2!
Keep an eye out for Part 3! I promise to bring it to you much quicker. Also, if you’re someone who is living a remote lifestyle, please hit me up! I’m looking to interview a few people to gain other perspectives for the next part in this series.
This is the first post in a series about life as a digital nomad: how I became a digital nomad, weighing the positives and negatives of this lifestyle, the different ways others have done it, and how you can achieve the same location independence.
2015 was a crazy year for me. I made it to 12 countries across four continents. I went on a dizzying amount of adventures. Played with colors in New Delhi during Holi and had water fights with cops in Bangkok during Songkran. Rented a car with three people and drove around the entire country of Iceland. Got put in a headlock during a disastrous date in Seoul. Spent the night at a castle in the English countryside and a multi-millon dollar villa in Phuket. Petted kangaroos and ran from emus in Australia. Plus Italy, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, China... I have never had so much fun in my life.
I did all of this while making roughly $25,000 USD in 2015, a little more than half of what I made the year prior. Let me give you low-down on how I made this happen. Long story short: it involved some pre-planning, parental love, credit cards, and a lot of luck. I assure you, it was not all glamorous.
How It Happened
I started 2015 off with the desire to make the transition from renting my cottage in Boise, Idaho, to becoming location independent. I had been working remotely as a creative project manager for a Fortune 100 tech company, but had mostly been limited to working in the U.S. as that was where a majority of my clients were based. In February I caught a lucky break—I became the company’s interim lead project manager for the Asia Pacific Region. I packed everything in storage and was off less than a month later.
Arriving in China after a vacation in India, my goal was to spend each month in a different locale in Asia. This was quickly derailed as due to the controlled Internet situation in the country, working in China proved to be unfeasible. So I headed to Thailand for about five weeks, with a visa run/work laptop repair jaunt to Singapore. Then it was off to South Korea. I liked it there so much that I ended up staying a second month. In-between I took a week long holiday to Europe.
At the end of June, I parted ways with my job, wanting to follow my passion of starting a travel company. I headed back to the U.S., where I spent the summer visiting friends and family and went on a fiscally irresponsible, yet totally amazing trip to Iceland.
In September, I headed back to Chengdu, China, making it my home base as I bounced between Australia, Indonesia, South Korea (again), and a few more trips to Thailand. At the end of November, I ran my first group trip, which was incredible. Shortly thereafter, I returned to China where I’ve been since then.
How I Did It
Sometime in the next week, I will discuss further about the positives and negatives of being a digital nomad. It can be a long, lonely road… it’s definitely not for everyone. But for me, it’s the lifestyle of my dreams.
I never went on many travels as a child. Texas for family, California for more family, and Florida for the convenience. Junior year of high school, a club I belonged to was going to a conference in New York City over Thanksgiving break. I didnʼt want to go, Iʼm ashamed to admit it. I was scared. But my mom
scrounged up money for the trip anyways and told me that I would have the time of my life. And I did.
It opened up my world just enough for me to know I wanted more. I ached for the distance. And thatʼs what I got when I was uprooted from Atlanta, Georgia, to live in Boise, Idaho, my senior year of high school. I fell in love with Boise, a city that has snow-capped mountains and sand dunes, fixed gear bikes, a burgeoning art scene, and of course, the best fries Iʼve ever tasted. But what struck me most was the mindset of the people. My Idaho classmates were always daydreaming and discussing where theyʼd gallivant off to once they became adults. They were hungry for adventure. It was around this time I caught the disease. Wanderlust. It got worse every year. I fantasized about traveling constantly. Every upcoming semester in college was spent secretly debating between continuing on with school or moving to New Zealand to become a hot air balloon pilot.
Finally when I was nineteen and approaching my junior year in college, I became determined in my resolve. I was going to study abroad. I took the required language classes, worked like mad, and in March of 2010, I went on my first international flight to take classes at Hosei University in Tokyo, Japan. I had always wanted to go Japan as it appealed to my shameless love of anime and arcade games. My mind was blown over those next five months. Japan was beyond anything I couldʼve fathomed. Soaking in a natural hot spring at a rural town as the night exploded with stars. Dancing at a six-story club in Shibuya until the sun was high in the sky. Waking up to the majestic Mt. Fuji filling up my hotel window. Walking past the blooming sakura trees and the languid Kanda river on my way to class every day.
At this time, my mom left Idaho for her own adventure in China. Without her there, I didnʼt know how I could go back home, but eventually it was time. I took up a job managing a hostel, dutifully completed my degree, vowing that as soon as I graduated, I would go and see the world. And one week after I graduated in May 2012, I took off by myself with a one-way ticket to Amsterdam and a vague idea
of what I was doing.
Four months later, I weaved my way around Europe and Asia– a whirlwind trip through eleven countries. I came out of it with countless new friends and my mind bursting with memories of what I saw, ate, and experienced. Walking through bustling cities and cozy towns, getting purposefully lost on winding roads, in hidden passageways, through undulating green hills and vast blue seas, cold rains and warm breezes. It all made me come alive.
Finally it was time to go home, but after a scant three days, it was off to Bangkok. I said goodbye to Boise and started a new life in Thailand with only the items in my backpack. A chance e-mail to well-known travel blogger Johnny Ward garnered me a job as a writer and admin for several of his sites. A meeting at a hotel bar turned into the opportunity to work with a private investigator. Life in Thailand was challenging for me, but finally it was beginning to feel like home.
Seven months after relocating there, everything unraveled and it was back to Boise. This was 2013. I had $20 in my bank account, a maxed out credit card, and only sundresses in my suitcase. Through the incredible help and generosity of my friends I was given money, a coat, and a place to stay. Over the next couple of months I scoured the Internet for work, and in what I can only describe as divine intervention, I stumbled upon the perfect job working as a graphic designer for a Fortune 100 tech company. And the best part of all? It was remote.
Over the next year, I worked my way up the company, becoming a project manager. I made my way to Japan and China over the New Year. When I returned, the longing to live abroad again grew stronger.
In May 2014, I was lying in a hammock at a party, lost in my thoughts. It was time for a change. Absentmindedly, I looked on Craigslist at vacation rentals abroad, something I occasionally did for daydreaming purposes. I saw a summer rental in Tokyo listed at the same price as my home in Idaho. Suddenly, an idea was born: what if I lived in a new city every month, traveling and working?
I had no idea how I'd make it happen, but I soon became obsessed with the notion. I spent sleepless nights earmarking flats on Airbnb. I gave myself a target date of March 2015.
Things started falling into place. A ticket to India in March was glitch priced unreasonably low. I began talking to my boss about working abroad for a longer stint. Fortuitously, an opportunity opened up for me to temporarily fill in as the lead project manager in the Asia Pacific region. I jumped on it and in less than a month, I was off.
The next four months were a dream come true. Playing in the color clouds during Holi on the hectic streets of New Delhi. Battling with police officers, armed with water guns, during Songkran in Bangkok. Spending the night in a castle in the English countryside with members of Nomadness Travel Tribe, looking and being treated like royalty. Being moved to tears by the spiritually infused architecture in Italy. Staring in complete awe at the Hong Kong skyline at Victoria Peak. Drinking soju and dancing alongside locals to popular K-Pop songs on the playground in Seoul.
When my temporary transfer was over and it was time to go back to the U.S., I took the terrifying step and submitted my resignation. After tasting the nomadic lifestyle, things could and would never be the same for me.
As sort of a symbolic kickoff, I took a road trip around Iceland, taking in the unparalleled natural beauty as we traversed volcanoes and glacial lagoons. Upon my return, I got to work out of my dad’s apartment in Atlanta, bringing Courting Adventure to life. In September, I left for China to stay with my mom, as I prepare to set up an official home base in Asia.
As of October 2015, this is where I’m at. And this is Courting Adventure— a place where I will candidly talk about traveling, sharing stories about where Iʼve been, where I will go, and how others can join me.
Ever since that first trip to New York City, my inspiration for travel has never ceased. Stories from people in passing, photos of places I never knew existed, and thoughts of Tokyo in Spring. They are the fuel that sustains my wanderlust, and now in part, my whole being.
Yeah, I could do this for the rest of my life.