This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren Juliff, a digital nomad and travel blogger at Never Ending Footsteps. Additionally, she runs a course on how to overcome travel anxiety and offers a mentorship program for new bloggers.
What was your inspiration for living and working nomadically? What factors inspired you to leave the stationary lifestyle and start earning money remotely?
I consider myself an accidental digital nomad.
In 2011, after five years of working on building my savings, I graduated from college, quit my job, and decided to take a year-long trip around the world. At that time, few people were working remotely as they travelled, even fewer were publicising what they did online, and the term digital nomad had not yet entered the public lexicon.
I started a travel website several months before leaving on my big trip, with the intention of using it to document my adventures for friends and family. I never expected it to become a source of income for me, but several months after my blog went live, I began to pull in a small amount of money each month.
With the realisation that I could travel in inexpensive countries without needing to dip into my savings, I decided to do exactly that. Ten years later, I’m still travelling regularly, have transformed my travel blog into a six figure business, and adore the freedom and flexibility it brings to my life.
What unexpected challenges and hurdles have you encountered so far as a digital nomad?
I run a travel website, so the pandemic has been quite the hurdle! Pre-COVID-19, the vast majority of my income stemmed from travellers making bookings through the affiliate links on my blog. When the global population stopped moving, my income fell by 90%.
I’ve struggled with the lack of a consistent community. One of the benefits to being a digital nomad is the ease with which you can find others who are doing the same. Often, I can turn up in a brand new city, find a Facebook community for digital nomads in the area, and hit up their next event.
The problem with having nothing but digital nomad friends, however, is that nobody sticks around for long. You’ll find yourself connecting with somebody incredible, then saying goodbye a month later and now you need to start again from scratch. When you’re forever meeting new people then moving on, the conversations can be superficial and repetitive. I found myself wishing I could spend time with friends who have known me for a decade rather than continually answering questions about where I’ve been and what I do.
It took five years of location independence for me to finally figure out how to maintain a work-life balance. That’s something most digital nomads struggle with.
With a finite amount of time in each destination I was visiting, I felt an enormous amount of pressure to see as much of it as possible. The only problem with that was that I was also trying to work 50 hours a week on my website. Trying to balance both of these desires meant that I was forever burnt out, from work and travel.
I’ve struggled to remain healthy as a digital nomad. When you’re changing accommodation every few days or weeks, it’s difficult to find a gym that will let you join for just three days. When you’re staying in hotels and guesthouses, you’ll rarely have access to a kitchen, so that means eating solely in restaurants for years on end. Finally, the lack of routine and consistency in your life can negatively impact your mental health.
Do you have any personal anecdotes or stories about the hardships you’ve faced as a location independent worker? How did you overcome them?
Several years after becoming a digital nomad, I began to experience panic attacks. Every day, for months on end, and for no discernable reason, I would find myself breathless with chest pains, drenched in sweat and losing my vision. It happened everywhere: at restaurants, in museums, on the streets, or in the apartment I was staying in.
In fact, there was only one situation that could soothe my anxious mind: visualising a life in which I was no longer a digital nomad. The moment I began to think about a hypothetical life in which I had a fixed life in a long-term apartment, with a consistent set of friends, a routine, home comforts, and more than one pair of pants, I’d feel a sense of calm wash over me.
The solution was to stop.
I signed a rental agreement on a sunny apartment in Lisbon, Portugal, and spent the next 18 months working on improving my mental and physical health. Simply having access to a kitchen and a gym helped me to shed the weight I’d gained from travel, and the stability I gained from living in one place enabled me to improve my mental health. I had the time and headspace to practice meditating, pick up hobbies I couldn’t pursue while I had bees on the road, and experiment with my diet in order to learn which foods impacted my anxiety.
Having that pause allowed me to put together a strategy that would enable me to travel again, but this time with healthy coping strategies crammed into my backpack. For me, that means renting apartments for months at a time instead of moving every few days. It means staying in places that have a kitchen so that I can cook healthy meals instead of eating nothing but restaurant food and snacks. It means prioritising going outside every day and exercising, instead of spending weeks sitting in front of my laptop from dawn until dusk.
Has any aspect of the lifestyle and career been easier than expected? Is there anything that you thought would be difficult but, in reality, hasn’t been?
In the early days of my career, I used to lie awake at night, worrying about money.
My thoughts revolved around where I would find my next freelance writing gig or what I would do if my readers lost interest in my blog. I was worried the advertisers I was working with would find somebody new to spend their budgets on; somebody who was offering lower prices. A single Google penalty could obliterate years of hard work, obliterating my income overnight.
It took several years to learn I had a larger safety net than I’d anticipated.
In reality, the actual amount of money I need to live on is little, as long as I’m prepared to live a simple (and at times, uncomfortable) life while my finances are low. There have been times when I’ve rented a small, basic room with a local family, lived off of street food, and managed to keep my total expenditure below $500 a month. With my skill set and experience, there’ll always be plenty of freelance writing gigs on offer, even if they’re only paying a pittance.
It’s not the glamorous depiction of location independence you’ll find on Instagram, but if everything falls apart, I know I have this option to fall back on. Once I realised that, I stopped worrying about money so much because I now knew I would always be able to find a new income stream and an inexpensive city to base myself in while I worked on it.
Meeting people has also been easier than I expected. These days, you’ll find remote workers scattered across the globe and connecting with them is simpler than ever. There are Meetup groups and Facebook groups for digital nomads in many cities around the world, with events held regularly. I worried I’d be lonely as a digital nomad, but the reality is, I now have friends in many fascinating destinations and I visit them regularly.
What character traits would you say are the most important or essential for successful digital nomads?
In order to succeed as a digital nomad, you have to be adaptable and comfortable with change. Your surroundings and situation will alter on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, and for some people, that lack of stability can be stressful. If you thrive on new experiences and transforming situations, that isn’t going to negatively impact you as much.
It’s important to cultivate patience, in both work and travel. Not only does it take time to get your business off the ground and pulling in profits, but things can regularly go wrong on the travel side, too. Long bus journeys, cancelled flights, culture shock, and dealing with scams can all conspire to make you lose your mind. If you’re able to relax, breathe, accept what you cannot control, and shrug off the stress, you’ll be better prepared for life as a digital nomad.
If you’re resilient, you’ll be able to better cope with the downsides that come from digital nomad life. Sometimes there’ll be a Google penalty that will wipe out your income overnight, sometimes a competitor will copy your business model and poach your customers. If you can accept that these things will happen, prepare yourself for any worst case scenarios, and roll with the punches when they’re coming your way, you’ll be able to spend your time on pivoting to something new.
If you were starting over from scratch today, what would you do differently?
I would concentrate on building a stream of passive income from day one. For me, having a passive income allows me to live a lower stress lifestyle. If you have a source of passive income, you’ll be able to take a month off to work on your mental health without needing to worry about money. You can take two weeks offline in that cool travel destination to ensure you’re not distracted from the experience by work. And you have the freedom to pursue new business opportunities without needing to spend every waking hour on your current project. Quite simply, it gives you a far greater degree of control and flexibility over your life. It took me five years to decide to focus on building up my passive income, and I should have been doing so from day one.
Additionally, I would ensure I slowed my travels down rather than giving into my fear of missing out. In the early days of my career as a digital nomad, I would race through new cities and countries in an attempt to see as little as possible. In Europe, I once spent time in 11 countries over the space of a month! It was far from enjoyable, and I ended up exhausted, frustrated, and stressed, having seen very little of the places I visited.
By spending months in a country — instead of days or weeks — I’d be able to fasttrack my business success. I’d have had more time to work on projects, while also having more time to explore the places I was in. Additionally, slow travel is more affordable and healthier (in terms of lower stress levels, being able to rent an apartment with a kitchen, and being able to get a short-term gym membership).
What would you say to aspiring digital nomads looking to get started on a similar career path? Any words of wisdom or cautionary tales?
It’s so important to prioritise your health as a digital nomad, and I often see others failing to do so — eventually, they reach breaking point and burn out.
It’s tempting to fly to an inexpensive country, sample all the fried street food and cheap beer, spend all day working on your laptop and most evenings partying, and before you know it, you’re burnt out and having a panic attack on the streets of Bangkok.
Don’t feel guilty over taking time off from your business to see the destinations you’re travelling through, and likewise don’t beat yourself up if you spend more time working than exploring. It’s tough to find a true work-travel balance, but it’s important to accept you’ll always wish you had more time for both.
If the industry you’re in lends itself to passive income streams, concentrate on building those up above all else. When you have money consistently coming in, it will allow you to take time offline to fully immerse yourself in the destinations you’re travelling through, which is most likely why you decided to become a digital nomad in the first place.
What were some strategies that originally helped get your business or service off the ground, and what were some of the challenges you faced during the early days regarding brand visibility?
I was determined to stand out from the crowd, so as soon as I entered the community of travel bloggers, I was searching for a way to be different. I wanted to be known for something, so I studied what everybody else was focused on and experimented with doing things differently.
In particular, I focused on sharing the realities of life as a digital nomad, at a time when there were nothing but glowing write-ups of the lifestyle. I wrote about how travel isn’t always wonderful, shared the many rookie mistakes I made, and published stories about everything going wrong. And when every blogger started taking press trips and having their travels sponsored, I took a vow to pay for everything myself.
While this helped me build a successful blog that’s based around a strong brand, it initially provided a challenge when it came to marketing my business. So much of social media success involves putting a filter on your life and sharing nothing but aspirational scenes and positive experiences. As somebody whose business revolved around disasters and publicising the downsides of location independence, my posts rarely performed well.
While social media used to be an integral part of my business, I found that, like a lot of people, spending excessive amounts of time on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook was affecting my mental health. Running my own business gives me the control to pick and choose how I work, so I moved away from social media to focus on search engines instead.
Now, the majority of my traffic, and income from said traffic, comes from Google.
I concentrate on publishing some of the most detailed travel guides on the internet, in order to rank first in Google, and build my audience that way. Once visitors are on my site, I ensure my articles are as engaging as possible in order to keep them on the page, convince them to subscribe, and transform them into regular readers.