How the gig economy lets freelancers become full-time world travellers

How the gig economy lets freelancers become full-time world travellers

Mark Williams talks about the life of a digital nomad

Digital nomads don’t have many possessions. I know that because four months ago, I crammed my entire life into a hand luggage-sized backpack, ready to hit the road and become one myself. And then did it twice more, because the bag wouldn’t close the first two times. 

I don’t like the term ‘digital nomad’ – it sounds like a failed attempt to sell Wi-Fi-enabled camping gear. But I do like the lifestyle very much. 

It’s a way to spend your whole working life travelling, while maintaining a tenuous grip on reality and building a freelance career at the same time, and it’s the most rewarding move you could ever make. 

Digital nomads are freelancers who work completely remotely from clients, holding meetings through Skype or Google Hangouts, and winning new jobs on the road. 

Digital nomads work in all manner of industries. If, for example, you’re a freelance web developer, a graphic designer, a marketing guru, or like me, a copywriter, chances are you could make your living with only a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection. This means there’s no need for a permanent base – so why work from home? 

If it sounds tempting, the only real question is deciding where you’re going to go. 

My journey began in the decadent Thai capital of Bangkok. It is ranked the world’s fourth best freelancing city by NomadList, a useful resource comparing thousands of destinations for itinerant freelancers. 

I’m not entirely sure how a smelly and noisy Bangkok has beaten cities like Lisbon, but that’s for another day. 

Then comes the task of finding work. My first, and still most dependable, source of work is Upwork – the freelance jobs marketplace connecting freelancers and potential clients through an eBay-style bidding system. 

It is definitely the easiest way to find a gig for freelancers new to the game. 

It works like this: a potential client posts a job they need doing. This can range from web development contracts offering £10K+ to Punjabi translation gigs paying by the dollar. 

Freelancers can then send over their cover letter and rates to the potential client, who will assess each individual’s profile (CV) and previous client ratings before selecting candidates for an interview. 

It is not particularly difficult to catch a potential Upwork client’s attention in the copywriting industry, or, I presume, in any other industry either. 

Although they’re often inundated with 40 or 50 bids in a day, the majority are generic copy-paste messages cobbled together in broken English. Winning the job is just a matter of letting your personality shine through. 

Once you’ve bagged the first one or two, interview offers come thick and fast. 

My current Upwork gigs are varied, which keeps things interesting – a part-time PR contract with an online pharmacy, a weekly advice column for a graduate news website and regular marketing copy for a chain of BMW dealerships. 

A good network of contacts is, of course, crucial to winning the best gigs, and I’m lucky  to have a friend at a digital marketing agency  in Leeds. 

I plastered requests for freelance work all over Facebook before I left employment, which led to a monthly freelance contract creating social media content for the agency’s clients. And now I have an additional contract crafting web copy whenever clients need a new site. 

The money’s not bad, either; in a good month, I’ll earn close to my previous salary after tax, but work around half the hours. Most of which are on a beach. 

But it’s not all fun and games; there are all the usual challenges of independent working to deal with too. 

I have no idea when my agency friend will next win a new client and pass the job to me. I have very little control over when I’ll be paid; a client might process a £400 invoice tomorrow or in six weeks’ time. 

Then there’s the constant distractions of backpacker life. Staying in hostels is cheap and fun, but everybody else is there with the sole purpose of being absolutely sozzled at all times, and it’s not particularly conducive to work. Still – that’s better than sitting alone in a home office. 

Spending your working life in the further-flung corners of the world also means that you spend  a lot of time wandering around holding your iPhone aloft, desperately searching for that elusive Wi-Fi connection. 

I try to minimise this time by taking careful note of a hostel’s reviews before I book it (people love to complain about rubbish Wi-Fi), or researching the best coffee shops/cafés/bars to work in before I arrive. 

There is the odd downside, but it’s a reasonable price to pay for working wherever and whenever you want to. I planned to visit the party island of Koh Pha Ngan – a tropical paradise in the Gulf of Thailand – for four nights. And found myself still there three weeks later. 

You rarely need any special equipment to become a digital nomad – especially not in copywriting. 

I use Slack, a group chat tool, to communicate with my team at the pharmacy, and Upwork time tracker software to log my hours. 

OneDrive is a brilliant way to store, share and access your files through the cloud, while Google Drive comes with a very capable word processor and spreadsheet in case you find yourself on a PC without Microsoft Office. 

They are all free, and my ultra-lightweight, £170 laptop is more than powerful enough to get the job done. 

In short – combining solo work with solo travel is every bit as fulfilling as you might imagine. 

When there’s nobody to dictate where you go and what you do, you’re free. Although, you are never actually alone, because so many other people are doing the same thing as you, which beats being in the office on a Monday morning