The term “digital nomad” has become a bit of a buzzword over the last few years. It seems all you need to travel the world these days is a laptop and enough digital skills to keep the money coming in as you hop from one country to the next. Doesn’t sound bad at all.
But can you travel the world as a web designer and make serious money while doing it? Sure, you can get by on $700 USD a month in parts of Southeast Asia or South America, say, but you didn’t get into web design so you could penny-pinch your way through life. What if you want to add a few months in Australia, spend some luxury time in Singapore, or live it up in Sweden along the way? In other words: can you travel the world in style as a web designing digital nomad?
The challenges of working on the road
Okay, so the first challenge you have working on the road is having enough money coming in – at least to cover your expenses. As long as you’ve got a half-decent portfolio, it’s actually quite easy to get new projects coming in. The real challenge is breaking out of that bread-winning stage and getting to a point where you’re earning decent money. And there are a number of reasons this proves to be so difficult.
#1: The going rate online is way lower than you would like
Topping the list of barriers between nomad designers and decent money is the going rate online. There are select few websites where you can get half-decent paying gigs (and we’ll come to those shortly), but the vast majority come with pretty insulting budgets.
You can forget the likes of oDesk, eLancer, Fiverr and all those supposed “freelancer” sites. Peopleperhour is a slightly better option, if you’re still building up your profile, but you’ll see way too many budgets of $700-1,400 over there too.
A much better option would be Crew, which claims to have an average budget of $10,000, but I’ve found it tends to work out closer to the $4,000 region.
For genuine design projects with real budgets, I would recommend blurGroup, where you can find projects with four-zero budgets. There’s a downside to the better sites too: there aren’t enough of them and that makes them incredibly competitive.
#2: Firms with serious design projects want to meet you
The next problem you’ll find as a designer on the road is firms with serious design projects want to meet face-to-face. When a business owner puts tens of thousands on the table, they expect a little more than a Skype call from somewhere in Thailand as a point of contact. Chances are they’ll want a designer or agency in the local area they can meet throughout the design and development process. With that kind of money on the line, clients normally like to check in to make sure they’re happy with how things are progressing. This pretty much rules you out as a freelancing nomad.
#3: There’s still a stigma against freelancers
There’s no getting away from it; there’s still a stigma against freelancers. You’re seen as someone who doesn’t have a “real” job and your ability to be professional will constantly be questioned. Then, you have the fact that people always expect freelancers to be the cheap option – despite the fact it involves more work for you (admin, invoicing, etc.).
It may not be fair, but you’re seen as the cheap alternative, the budget option by businesses who don’t see the value in paying big money for a website. Those firms are largely out of reach as a freelancer, even more so when you’re traveling on the side.
#4: Working and traveling is incredibly difficult
Here’s the wake-up call that really hits like a hard slap on cold Monday morning: working and traveling is basically impossible. Sorry guys. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Traveling is time-consuming and tiring, no matter which way you go about it, and that puts a serious dent in your workflow.
And here’s the real kicker, the catch-22. Traveling is expensive as hell, meaning you have to work and earn more to cover yourself. So the more you travel, the more you need to earn. And the more you travel, the less you can get done. Hmm…
Of course, you can take the cheaper option of long-haul trains, boats, and whatever else; but these are even more time-consuming and tiring, which pretty much rules out getting anything done for the meantime.
#5: Finding work is a part-time job in itself
And just to kick your dreams while they’re down, you also need to find new projects in between all that traveling and catching up on all that work you’re behind on. Sadly, finding work as a freelancer is a part-time job in itself. Add that to the paid hours you work, plus the time spent traveling, and you’re left with about 35 hours of work to squeeze into each day. You don’t need to be a maths whiz to be a web designer, or realize those numbers don’t quite add up.
So that’s it, right? You can’t make serious money as a designer on the road.
Actually, no. That’s not it at all. You absolutely can build your way up to earning a decent living as a designer on the move, as more designers prove each year. It’s not easy, it may not be the fastest route to web designer riches, and you’ll question whether you’re doing the right thing on multiple occasions. But, if you’re serious about being a digital nomad then the travel will be just as important as the finances (if not more) and you’ll find a way to make it work.
And here are some ways to make sure the challenges we’ve looked at don’t hold you back:
Create a faster work process
You don’t have to ditch the custom designs completely, but it pays to find a way you can make the smaller projects profitable for you. Countless designers have adopted WordPress as their baby for quick turnaround times, enabling them to make smaller budgets work for them and this is something worth looking at.
We recently published an article looking at the best of Elegant Themes for using with your client projects. Check that out and see what kind of work process you can create around WordPress themes as a starting point.
Add to your skills/services
We also ran an article, not too long ago, about how you can increase your income by expanding your services as a web designer. Offer a more comprehensive package to prospective clients and you’ll not only be able to charge more, but you can use it to boost your portfolio and win bigger clients in the future.
Realize you’re not only a designer, but also a marketer
Fundamental to making it as a freelance designer is realizing you have to be a rock-solid marketer. To cut out the workload of constantly finding work, you need to market yourself correctly as a designer, so the work comes to you. These skills will also transfer into your design projects and what you can offer clients, boosting your payroll in the process.
Funnily enough, we happen have a post on how to market yourself as a designer, which gives you the low-down on building an online presence that brings the work to you. We’re good like that.
Team up with other nomads
Do you want to break away from that stigma that comes along with being a freelance designer working from exotic locations? Sure you do. And it’s not as difficult as you might think, either. You’ll meet plenty of other nomads along your travels and generally talented people in the places you visit. Team yourself up with a group with the talent it to help you take on bigger clients. You’ll not only be targeting bigger budgets, but also be more credible as a team, rather than a lonely freelancer.
Travel less, work more
Just because you’re on a mission to travel and work your way around the world, it doesn’t mean you have to visit a new place every few days. Slow down and let work be the priority. Stay places long enough to enjoy them in your free time and move on when the time is right (or your visa runs out). The whole point of becoming a digital nomad is to enjoy the freedom that comes with it – nobody says you have to move on to new turf every week.
Pick your locations
If you slow down on the traveling front, you’ll soon find you can use cheaper economies to your advantage and save up some money. You can get six months on a visa in many countries (with an extension) across Southeast Asia and South America, where your cost of living will be much lower. You can use this to top up your savings and splurge a bit in more expensive countries the other six months of every year.
So in answer to our question: yes, you can travel the world as a designer and make serious money.There are plenty of hurdles along the way and it can feel like slow progress at times; but, if it was easy, then everyone would be doing it and there would be nothing special about the nomad lifestyle. The most important thing is having the drive to make it happen – whether that’s the urge to travel or the professional drive for success. Better yet, it could be both. Because, if you crave it enough, you’ll find a way to make it work.
The most important thing is having the drive to make it happen – whether that’s the urge to travel or the professional drive for success. Better yet, it could be both. Because, if you crave it enough, you’ll find a way to make it work. And there are thousands of nomad designers out there, who are living proof a simple WiFi connection can take you just about anywhere.
Featured image: Flickr photo by Giorgio Montersino https://flickr.com/photos/novecentino/2340521934 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license