4 vital moves before you quit your job to become a digital nomad

I just had a classic day.

I got up at 6am (ouch!) and did a workout on the rooftop terrace of my hostel in Cartagena, Colombia. As the sun rose and my sweat patches expanded I got an amazing view of the sun rise over the old Spanish fort that guards the city’s harbour.

After breakfast and a shower I went back up to the terrace, plugged in my laptop and started work. A 30 second commute from my room to the rooftop table! Here’s the view from my office/gym:

view over Cartagena Double-Barrelled Travel

I spent two hours doing some writing then sank two hours into a paid freelance article for a client. After lunch, I spent a further 3 hours on the article to finish it off. One more hour was spent doing a blog and some admin and then it was cocktail o’clock with tapas for dinner at the nearby square where a wedding was taking place!

Life now; and life then

Eight hours of work – five of them ‘real work’ and three of them doing the things I love like writing and blogging and sketching.

Compare that to my old job as a BBC World News Producer in London where nine hour+ shifts were the norm. Two hours were spent in the fun and terror of putting out a live broadcast, with perhaps four hours spent panicking and working my arse off and the rest going on Facebook and doing other forms of ‘research’. Then an hour on the tube to get home in the dark or in the early morning if I’d done an overnight shift.


The BBC in London... I may miss you sometimes, but mostly not

The BBC in London… I may miss you sometimes, but mostly not

 The more days like today I have working on the road, the more I shudder at the thought of getting what I suppose you’d call a proper job again. I love working for myself and am proud of the company Carmen and I have created together – Red Platypus – that brings in heaps of freelance work these days.

I have become a digital nomad – and it rocks!

Becoming a digital nomad

Yes, some days it gets pretty full on. You have too much work to do and not enough time to do it when the idyllic beaches just outside your hostel door are beckoning. But most days I get my work done and then enjoy the sights and sounds and tastes and smells just as much as the next traveller.

All around the world people just like us are binning their 9-5s, picking up a laptop and hitting the road to combine a career with a backpack. There are hubs of like-minded working travellers everwhere like this place in Bali – Hubud – where we’re hoping to get to next year.

 All we need is wi-fi and we can work anywhere. 

And so can you – it just takes a bit of planning and some good old fashioned elbow grease.

Looking back, I think there are four things we did before we started travelling that have set us up with what we have right now. And here they are; hopefully you can learn from them.

Cartagena fort Double-Barrelled Travel

View overlooking the river and fort from our hotel in Cartagena

4 things to do before you quit your job to freelance:

1. Save a lot of money

 This is vital. If you’re thinking you can just book a plane ticket, fire up the laptop and let the freelance work roll in like the breakers off Hawaii, then good luck to you.

No matter your present day job and how hot your ambition to become a digital nomad is, the more prudent course of action is to stash as much dosh in your bank account or mattress as humanly possible. Carmen and I even cashed in all the pennies we had collected over nearly five years living in London – 120 quid I think it was.

You need money to travel. You need money to support yourself as you build up your freelancing business. You need money for when the cheques don’t clear or the work dries up or the client can’t pay on time or any of the billion and one work problems that can arise when you’re on an overnight bus to Cusco.

Carmen and I left the UK with US$30,000 in savings in May of 2013 and we still have a decent chunk of that cash intact. The freelance work we started getting in January of 2014 initially supplemented the savings and as it expanded it is now our primary source of funds.

We would estimate saving at least $50 a day per person, for six months travel. That amounts to around US$9,000 each. But this is a minimum; it helps to save more.

So even if the worst was to happen and all our freelance work dried up we still have our savings as a back up. The moral of the story is that the ability to freelance is not a good starting point for travelling. Cold hard cash is. If you need some tips for how to cut back your spending and save more moolah then Carmen has some tips here.

Getsemani hotel Cartagena Double-Barrelled Travel

Save money… so you can work anywhere

 2. Leave on good terms if you can 

I left the BBC and haven’t looked back since. It was a very, very tough decision to make. I loved working there and still love the people I worked with and for. There was nothing wrong with the job. It just wasn’t right for me anymore and I felt there was more I can do. But even as I shut the door I left a window open.

I have a full list of contacts for the BBC Newsrooms so that if I’m ever caught up in something crazy or see something totally unique I can get in touch and offer a report or a picture or some footage. Hey, it may never happen but it’s an option. Plus, my bosses said if I ever want to come back I can. The option is still there and it’s nice to know there’s a net somewhere down underneath the tightrope I’m treading now!

So don’t burn your bridges when you leave your old job. Down the track they may need a freelancer to tackle some work for them and a known entity who left on good terms is a better contender than the person who told everyone to jump off a cliff! Even if you want to say that I reckon it’s more important to leave with dignity. 

Before you become a digital nomad take care of the home front – it will always be there!

Me hard at work in the mosh pit, the big open plan newsroom at the heart of BBC's New Broadcasting House

Me working at the BBC. I may return one day… or I may not… but at least the option is there.

3. Set up paid work or a business relationship

When Cortez reached the new world he sank the ships he and his men came in. The story goes that the idea was to motivate them – the only way through was forward.  But you don’t have to be so bloody-minded.

Set some work up before you go, or tell people who you know hire freelancers that you are available.

I have some old school friends who run an investing website and a few years ago one of them got in touch and asked if I was keen to do some writing for them. I said no, I had the BBC job grinding my gears, but I kept them in mind. Fast forward to when our trip was approaching and I got in touch with them and asked if they still needed writers. The answer was a resounding yes and I have been doing loads of work for them ever since.

And when you’re on the road be open to opportunities. Carmen picked up a new client when we simply stayed at her house in Oakland through Airbnb!

Our fellow travelling companion and friend Kristin was previously the Creative Director of a big Chicago design firm. She resigned to travel the world but picked up some freelance work before she left, designing some logos for a friend. She now designs for us too – goes to show there is a snowball effect when you work as you travel!

So sift through your contacts and your skills and see what you can offer to people before you fly away. You never know who may need you to do what – plus it puts you in the frame of mind to jump on any chances for work that can crop up on the road.

4. Back up everything you do

For work I use this computer (don’t laugh!):

Old dell computer Double-Barrelled Travel

It’s a Dell laptop from 2004 that I bought for US$40 from a pimply kid in Portland in 2013! It’s a relic of a bygone age, so obsolete that it can’t even load Airbnb! (Thankfully I have Carmen as my travel planner, and she has a much better laptop.) However, my computer is built like a battleship so I have no worries throwing it in my backpack and shoving it in the chaotic holds of overnight buses or budget airlines.

It may be old, it may draw some ill looks from Apple wielding hipsters with pubic hair beards, but I value it. However, I don’t trust it. Not one bit. I fully expect the blue screen of death to come at any second.

So I back up EVERYTHING I do. Before we left I made sure I brought along a stack of USB drives and set up the Google Drive stuff. We also have an external hard drive and whenever we travel I make sure to pack the storage drives in a separate bag to the computers so if one is stolen or lost then all is not lost.

Note: I wrote this blog on the 23rd of August. On the 24th of August I bought a new Macbook Air! Winning… my first computer that I can actually fit in a backpack…

Dave in Mac Shop Cartagena Double-Barrelled Travel

If you’re going to freelance and travel then you need to come up with some survival plans for if and when the worst happens – your computer dies, gets stolen or lost with your bags for three days… because if you’re going to advertise the ability to work from anywhere you have to be able to work no matter what.

Set yourself up with a fail safe system just in case – nothing worse than having a deadline and no way to meet it!

But above all embrace the chaos – you volunteered for this remember!

I got told by an old Royal Navy hand once that before action in the Falklands war his mates used to say ‘you shouldn’t have signed up if you can’t take a joke’ to anyone that was scared.

Gallows humour no doubt, but also very true. The biggest challenge for me these days is finding a way every single day to balance all the competing needs and desires I have. I write every day, exercise every day, see something new every day and create something every day. But I also have to work every day.

Sometimes the work cramps everything else, but that’s life. I enjoy the challenge.

And sometimes we run into problems – yesterday the hotel Wi-Fi didn’t work, neither was it working in the cafe down the road, and after wasting an hour hunting a place down we had to sit in 40 degree heat all day, sweating our boxes off trying to meet a deadline at a noisy hostel that had intermittent Wi-Fi.

But at least those days are few and far in between the blissful work periods. 

I found that in the beginning balancing work with travel was steep learning curve. But more and more I’m finding ways to make the scales even and live up to my unofficial motto:

Find a way or make a way – then have a gin and tonic as the sun sets over the Caribbean Sea. 

Sunset over the Caribbean Double-Barrelled Travel

This view makes all the hard work worth it

 Are you looking to work as you travel? Do you have any more tips to add?

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About the author

Dave is the co-founder of Double-Barrelled Travel and has been nomadic since May 2013. When he's not busily working on a novel, he can be found exploring a war museum, sailing a yacht (unfortunately not his own), or hiking up a mountain.

4 comments on “4 vital moves before you quit your job to become a digital nomad”

  1. Pingback: Digital nomad life in Chiang Mai - Double Barrelled Travel

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