Digital Nomad Challenges

Life in Chiang Mai this week has been full of work and not much else. As our daily routine solidifies, the hours just melt away as we toil silently in front of our laptops while the city swirls on below us. So in this week’s life update I’m going to share some of the challenges we’ve been facing as we navigate our way towards becoming digital nomads. Do you work remotely? Are you a freelancer? Perhaps you can identify with some of these challenges.

Wat Ched Yot Temple, Chiang Mai

A brief progress update

As we’re at the very beginning of our journey towards becoming digital nomads, we’ll be sharing our first proper update and income report at the end of October (here it is!), once things have settled down. For now though I can tell you that we’re gradually covering our living costs and gaining clients and experience. I set myself a goal to earn at least $500 in September and I’ve already hit my target. Andrew has a big payout from his summer recruitment work coming in a couple of weeks which should cover the cost of our rent for the next six months; he’s also just been matched with his first online teaching client.

*2017 update: read our update on making a digital nomad living here

Chiang Mai With Love Street Art

We’ve also made progress on our huge list of blog tasks and I’m writing my way through a backlog of posts from Europe. We’re working on our video updates and gaining subscribers on our YouTube channel and we’re trying to learn more about affiliate marketing and how to make passive income. One huge advantage we have is being in contact with friends and fellow travellers who are on the same path as us; this means we have a support network where we can help each other and share information and contacts. We don’t feel alone on this journey.

Digital nomad challenges to date

We’re also learning that the path towards becoming digital nomads isn’t always a smooth one.

Tech troubles – I’m writing this post on my painfully-slow, four-year-old Acer laptop, which is currently raised off the desk by a chopstick-and-string contraption that Andrew invented to let air circulate underneath and prevent overheating. While this laptop has been a faithful Beast, tolerating years of being bundled around the world and plugged into dodgy power points, I fear that it’s finally on its last legs. I hope she can hold out until we have the funds to buy a new one.

Getting stuck in a bubble – since we left the UK in 2013 we haven’t spent many prolonged periods of time inside working. Even our bouts of teaching in Vietnam and Spain were in new environments; either outside in the Spanish countryside or in multiple schools throughout Hanoi. Now work means sitting inside in front of our laptops. Yes, we can set our own hours and work when we like, but it’s proving easy to get stuck in our bubble and not leave the apartment for an entire day. We need to find a balance between working and getting out and about in Chiang Mai.

Thai Boy making a Peace Sign

We met this cute kid on a break from work at a local cafe

Things not moving fast enough – we thought once we’d moved into our apartment we’d be off and sprinting towards a sustainable income. Turns out, these things take time. Searching for clients, writing proposals and waiting for payments – it can all be a frustratingly slow process. Andrew had to go through multiple tests, which has taken weeks, before he can finally get started with his online teaching. Sometimes it takes days for my freelance clients to get back to me or assign new work. It’s something we have to get used to and allow for in our schedules.

Learning our limits – finding out how much work you can take on is a learning process. How many articles can I really write a week without the quality dropping? How many hours can we spend scheduling on Pinterest or uploading photos to stock websites before we start to lose our minds? What are the most beneficial and productive uses of our time? I have a feeling we’ll be figuring this out for some time yet. Here’s a look at 8 things I’ve learned from being a freelancer so far. 

Massaman curry, a Northern Thai favourite from The Cat House, Chiang Mai

Negotiating – I am a terrible business person. This became apparent back in my London life when I’d sit in weekly management meetings scribbling travel plans in my notebook rather than paying attention to the profit reports, jargon and gobbledegook my boss was spewing out. I’m rubbish at deciding how much my time is worth, setting my freelance rates and negotiating deals. Just this week I had a pitiful negotiation where, in the space of 10 minutes, I let a client persuade me to cut my rate in half. If I’m going to make my freelance dreams work I need to get better at this. So in the second negotiation of the week, this time about blog advertising, we came prepared, rehearsed and with our pricings figured out. We felt like Apprentice contestants, but it worked!

Coping with fear – there are always going to be moments in life, especially in the small, dark hours of the morning when fear invades. Working for yourself and trying to claw away an income online is tough. Our full-time jobs back in the UK and our teaching gigs since we left have been much more straightforward and risk-free – you put the hours in, you’re guaranteed to get paid. Not so with freelancing and working remotely. When things aren’t working out, when jobs fall through and you have to start again from scratch it can be really scary. I know the key to success is conquering these fears when they arise and ploughing on, but sometimes that’s simpler than it sounds.

Traditional Thai dancing at Chiang Mai's Saturday Night Market

Balancing passion with money – so, our bank balance is currently in worse shape than it’s been for years. Payments are coming in and we will be back on track and hopefully making money in a couple of months’ time but for now, we’re doing anything we can to make money. This means that paid work comes before blogging and my goal of getting volunteer work in Chiang Mai has been put on the backburner, at least for another month until things stabilise. We cannot spend every spare scrap of money we have travelling around Thailand or booking trips to new countries. After years of doing pretty much as we pleased, we have to learn to balance our passions with work.

Digital nomad challenges, Pinterest Poster

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This whole digital nomad project is a learning process for us and we’re happy to be sharing our journey with you; we hope you find it interesting and perhaps a little bit inspiring. Do you work for yourself or do you come up against similar challenges in your work? Do you have any advice to share? Please add your thoughts in the comments below.

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21 thoughts on “Digital Nomad Challenges

    • Thanks Stefan 🙂 Yes, Thailand is such a great place for a base, it’s just what we need after an expensive year in Europe and the USA!

    • Thanks James. At the moment it feels like a slow process but hopefully things will settle and our income will stabilise over the next couple of months. Hope you guys are doing well too 🙂

  1. As you know it’s our goal to work remotely in the future- I’m already a ‘things aren’t moving fast enough’ kind of person so I think when the time comes to grow our online income I’ll find that extremely frustrating.
    Well done on achieving your income goal for September already- I think you’ll smash your future goals with ease 🙂 take care and keep enjoying Chiang Mai!

    • Thanks Hattie! At the moment it feels like we’re putting in a lot of hours for not much gain but hopefully that will change as we gain experience and clients. It will certainly take a lot longer to build our savings up again than it did when we were teaching 🙂

    • Thanks Graham, glad you can relate. I enjoy it if I’ve been stuck inside all day yet have achieved a lot but on the days where I just can’t seem to get much done I find it really frustrating! Yes, I am freelance writing at the moment, the pay isn’t great right now but I’m hoping I can increase my rates as time goes on.

  2. Sounds like you’re doing a great job, keep it up! 🙂 How would you suggest getting involved in the recruitment work that Andrew did back in the UK? We’re in Hoi An right now and worked in HCMC for nine months too, but we’re heading home soon and would be interested in doing something like that! We currently teach English online through Topica, easy and reliable money each month! Take care and loving your updates! 🙂

    • Hi Charlene, thanks for the support and for mentioning Topica, Andrew will check that out. Andrew got his recruitment work through the language centre we used to work for in Hanoi, so perhaps you could offer to do the same for the centre you worked for in Hoi An? Glad you’re enjoying the updates!

  3. Glad to hear you guys are settling into life in Chiang Mai nicely, but yes, digital nomad life is not without its challenges! If you’ve felt like Tony & I have dropped off the face of the planet this year, well… now you have a good idea of why!

    We were lucky that when we came back from our travels in June 2014 (how is that already over 2 years ago???), that we were able to hole up in Toronto & Minnesota for about 9 months and live rent free with my parents and focus on getting our sources of incomes and client bases established. Since these are our homebases in the US and Canada, there was not pressure for us to balance work with exploring and travel, and so we didn’t have to feel guilty about devoting all of our energy and attention to getting our businesses up and running. Plus, we were able to build up a nice savings buffer again before heading out on our travels and were already making enough money consistently by the time we made it to Mexico to know that we would, at the very least, be able to break even here if not save money. I am really really grateful that we were able to do that, but even still, now that we’re here and have been doing this for 2 years now, I find it hard to balance work with travel (not to even mention blogging!). Everyone I talk to who is self-employed seems to struggle with the same thing, to be honest, and I guess I have to remember that 2 years is actually still early days and that we are still in the “working really hard & figuring it out” phase of things. Hopefully as we get more experience under our belts we’ll be able to keep raising our rates and cut back on hours so that we have more time for fun (exploring routes for passive income wouldn’t be terrible either!)!

    All to say that it’s definitely a process and you definitely have to be courageous and keep believing you will be successful. I’d say that since you’re already bringing in money and aren’t exclusively living off savings that’s a really great sign and that you’re definitely on the right track. Onwards & upwards!

    • Hi Steph, nice to hear from you; I can definitely see why you haven’t had time to blog much! It sounds like you’re both doing really well work-wise, you were really sensible building things up so early on in your journey. We wish we’d started working online much sooner in our journey too. Luckily for us, Andrew still wants to teach so if we get stuck he can always go back to that and we’ll have at least one good wage coming in wherever we are in the world. Andrew is hoping that the online teaching works out, he’s just starting that properly this week! For now, we’re plugging away 🙂

  4. This is a great post and sounds almost exactly what Andy and I will be doing in Cambodia when we finish our travels in about 5 weeks! I’m planning to hopefully freelance and be a
    Digital nomad whilst Andy turns his hand to teaching English.

    The challenges you talk about are things we’re kind of expecting, but it’s good to hear we’re not alone and reassuring to hear you’re overcoming them. Sounds like you’re doing great.

    I have a question for you…how did you manage blogging whilst on the road and how frequently did you post? I’m really struggling with this due to tech and time constraints. We’re only on the road for 6 weeks this time so trying to fit everything in and still find time to blog is hard!
    Tanya Korteling recently posted..India: Integration and assimilation – MumbaiMy Profile

    • Hi Tanya, sounds like you have an exciting journey ahead too, you’re definitely not alone in your quest to become digital nomads 🙂 I do find it hard to balance blogging with fast-paced travel, I’m still working through articles about our summer trip to Europe. I have always managed to publish at least once a week though; I keep a journal as I travel and then when I’m based in one place for a while I go back and write up old stories. It is hard though! Where will you be based in Cambodia? Sounds like you have a great plan for working/teaching.

  5. ‘Sounds like you’re finding your feet in your own way! Living as a digital nomad isn’t easy as it’s still a new way of earning a living. The key to success is diversification!

    When I first came to Berlin, I worked as a freelancer for a while, before landing a lucrative gig as Head of a Corporate School! That was a while ago now, and I came with savings so I didn’t have to worry too much about paying rent, finances, tax, etc. And anyway, Berlin in those days was peanuts!

    You’re both determined to make it, and you will. It will just take some time and a little bit of push in order to get your foot in the door. Once you’re in, you’ll be in clover!
    Victoria @The British Berliner recently posted..Should you visit Bratislava, or stay at home and not bother!My Profile

    • Thanks Victoria, it’s great to hear from people who’ve tackled the same challenges and made a success of it. Hopefully over the next year in Chiang Mai we’ll be able to build up a constant income and guarantee that we cover our living costs with a little bit to spare!

  6. Thanks for sharing this honest post about the realities of establishing a life as digital nomads.

    I don’t freelance, but as you know I work for our site and I can totally relate to the hours on the laptop. I have been known to look up and realize I have not gone out of the house in 3 days. It just sucks you in and it’s not good, but sometimes it’s just necessary to get it all done in a timely manner.

    I used to have an Acer – been there, done that.

    One day at a time!
    Patti recently posted..How to Navigate the Medicare Maze ~My Profile

    • Hi Patti, glad we’re not the only ones who struggle to leave the house sometimes! It can be satisfying when you get lots done though but some days I just find I’ve put hours in but somehow gotten nowhere! Oh well, yes, definitely one day at a time 🙂

  7. Oh Amy… we feel you! Although you guys are still a bit ahead of us in the earnings, it is a constant game of chess with time/ travel/ work/ sightseeing, etc. Hang in there. You’ll make it work, just as we’ll make it work, because we want it more than anything else! Keep fighting the good fight.
    Rhonda recently posted..It Starts with a DreamMy Profile

    • Thanks Rhonda, it definitely helps knowing that there are other people like you on the same journey 🙂

  8. Pingback: Our First Digital Nomad Report - Our Big Fat Travel Adventure

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