I have worked full-time for myself, in my own location-independent business, for the past 19 years. Yes, I’m lucky. Yes, I’ve been blessed. But I’ve also worked very hard to be able to have this lifestyle. And you can too!
I’d like to use my experience to help you start a business that you can run from anywhere in the world. After all, that’s the only way to be able to travel full-time, unless you’re retired (with money) or independently wealthy. If your goal is to travel more, without being tied to a mere two weeks of vacation a year, then this guide is for you.
How I Started My Own Business
I don’t want to spend too much time on my own story, but I do want you to know how I’m qualified to write about this topic.
I got a bachelor’s degree in 1996, and immediately went to work for a large company. I didn’t love it, though. I knew I wanted to work in web development, and at that time, web developer jobs were few and far between. I could see how the Internet was on the verge of exploding, though, and I knew it would be a viable choice in my career. So in 1999, I started building small websites for customers as my side hustle. Later that year, I found the e-commerce platform that has sustained me for over two decades. As I learned more, and as the platform grew, so did the demand for my skills.
In 2003, I quit my last “traditional” job, and since then, I’ve only worked in and on my business. So that’s almost two decades of experience I have, and that I want to share with you today.
OK, Susan, then How Can I Become a Digital Nomad?
There are really two ways to do this. You can get a remote job with a company, one that lets you work wherever you want. Or you can start a location-independent business that lets you work wherever you want.
Basically, you need some kind of income that isn’t tied to your location.
In this post, I’m going to address the business option. (I do want to write about more traditional jobs, but I’m saving that for a later post.)
What Kind of Business Can You Start?
Before you start a location-independent business, you need to decide what kind of business to create! This is where you have to consider a number of factors.
First off, what are your skills? Most location-independent businesses are going to be tied to the Internet. You can be a blogger who monetizes their website, which is a popular route that many people take. Blogging is also a bit over-saturated, and you’re going to have to probably work harder (and smarter) than you might have ten years ago, when there were fewer sites to compete with. But blogging is a great path if you commit to making it work.
There are other kinds of content creation too. There are people who literally make a full-time living on Instagram or Tik Tok. I don’t have the first clue how to do that, so I won’t advise you to specifics there, but it’s possible. It ties in closely, too, with being a professional travel photographer, another great option.
You can also offer your services online. If you have a programming background, like me, you can do coding for other people. Or graphic design. Or copywriting. You can be a virtual assistant, and help people with tasks like email marketing, Pinterest optimization, and much more.
I have written about some side hustle ideas over on my work website, so take a look there for additional ideas.
Now, you don’t HAVE to offer online services to be location independent, although it is somewhat easier. You could offer things to local communities, and simply move between communities. Think food truck, craft shows, or some kind of training that lots of people really need. The problem there is that you have to start getting new clients again every time you get to a new location, so keep that in mind too.
Just know that you can’t travel the world and simultaneously work a job where you have to go to a specific building to perform your daily tasks. You can’t be a waiter in a restaurant while traveling. You could work different jobs, one after another, in different locations, of course. You just wouldn’t be moving from one location to another while working the same location-dependent job.
That said, you can create a business that is tied to a specific location, and hire people in that area to do the day-to-day work, while you oversee the business at a higher level from wherever you happen to be that day.
And of course, keep your skillset in mind. If you aren’t a technical person, you can’t offer technical services – unless you’re willing to take time to learn. (And I truly believe that anyone can learn technical skills if they’re willing to invest the time.) Play to your strengths!
How Do I Actually Start a Business?
Once you have an idea, starting the new business isn’t that difficult. Just pick a name (and it can be your own – e.g. Jane Doe, Virtual Assistant) and start drumming up business!
Eventually you may want to consider incorporating your location-independent business, forming a limited liability company, or similar. Incorporating has benefits that include lower taxes, legal protections, and more. If you’re in the United States, read How to Choose the Right Legal Structure for Your New Business, or if you’re in another country, search Google for how to do this where your business is based.
You may also wish to consult an accountant and/or a lawyer for advice regarding this step. Also, this is optional; many people operate as sole proprietors, which means that legally their business isn’t a separate entity from who they are as a person. There’s nothing wrong with that, just make sure you aren’t missing out on important benefits of incorporation. In other words, do it because it makes sense, not just because you don’t want to learn about incorporating!
How Do I Find Clients?
Finding customers when you’re first starting out is often the biggest hurdle. Here are some ideas.
1. Create a Website
Most professional businesses have a website. It lends legitimacy to your offerings, and can also be a way for people to find you. You can build one yourself using Wix, Squarespace, or WordPress. You might also choose to invest some money up front and use a company like Fiverr and hire someone to create a website for you. Read up on search engine optimization or take an SEO course so you can learn how to get website in front of your potential customers in Google.
2. Build Your Social Media Profiles
Create social media profiles for your company and start promoting your services there. I recommend grabbing your business or personal name on any and all social media sites you can, just so you have them. But you don’t have to use all of them; it’s better to learn one platform, maybe two, and learn to use it well
If your business is image-based (such as a photographer, or a travel blogger like me) then Instagram can be a great platform. You only get one link in your profile, but if you use a service like LinkTree, you can expand that reach. Instagram doesn’t allow links in posts, but it does allow them in stories now. (It used to only be available to accounts with 10,000+ followers, but that changed in 2021.)
If your business is more traditional, or if you’re offering business-to-business services, then LinkedIn might be a better choice. It tends to attract business people and is used more in that community than for “fun”. Twitter still has a lot of traction, particularly for entertainment and politics. Also consider your target audience. If you want to market to younger people, consider TikTok. If you want to market to an older crowd, Facebook is for you.
3. Participate in Local or Online Networking and Business Groups
If you have a home base, look for local networking groups in your area. Businesses often work off referrals, so if you meet other entrepreneurs in different fields, they may have clients who also need your services and be willing to recommend you. Groups like American Business Women’s Association and Rotary Club are great examples. For more examples, check out this post by Insureon.
4. Ask Friends and Family to Spread the Word
Work with what you already know, too. Ask your friends and family members to spread the word about your new endeavor. They may mention it to someone who becomes your first client, or to someone who introduces you to your next business partner. You never know! But word of mouth is a great way to advertise, because people trust recommendations from people they know well, much more than online reviews.
5. Get Business Cards
Yes, business cards are still a thing! Especially when you’re traveling, because you never know when you might strike up a conversation on a plane or taxi or white sandy beach. They’re an inexpensive and easy way to help people remember to look up more information or contact you at a later date.
Expectations of Running a Business as a Digital Nomad
When most people start a new business, they start slowly. You probably can’t quit your existing job right away, unless you have funding of some sort, or enough savings to live on for awhile. In fact, the hard truth is, this often is harder before it gets easier. You may be working your side hustle at night or on weekends, while still working a full-time 8-5 job. But with a good plan and hard work, you’ll eventually be able to quit the day job and make your side hustle your actual career.
When you do have a location-independent business that meets your financial needs, then you can be free to travel. You still may have some restrictions, however. For example, don’t expect to spend months in locations where the Internet connections aren’t great, if your business requires consistent high-speed internet access. The Galapagos might still have to wait for a vacation!