March 31, 2018
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Have you ever dreamed of working from your laptop in some exotic location? Our Instagram heroes make it look so easy and glamorous… frolicking about all over the world from the beaches of Bali to the cafés in Tuscany with their inspirational memes, making 7 figures while they sleep.
Well my Instagram is mostly filled with cat photos, and I’m definitely not even close to 7 figures, but my business is location-independent and I’ve done my fair share of frolicking — no doubt about it, it’s as awesome as it sounds. But I can promise you it hasn’t been easy and it’s not been all glamour and glitz.
Surprisingly, though, the best lesson I’ve learned along the way is that there are tremendous benefits to location-independence even if you don’t ever leave your hometown. But in order to share what I’ve learned and how I got here, you’ll have to bear with me while I start at the beginning and tell you a little bit about my personal story.
How I became “location independent”
It was around 2005 when I started working with bloggers. They didn’t care where I lived, they just wanted to work with a designer who could get the job done, and it was then I decided to make it my mission to become “location independent.”
I didn’t have the money to travel and the word “digital nomad” wasn’t even a thing, but like most entrepreneurs, I value freedom above all else and the seeds of being able to work from anywhere were planted.
I said no to more than one offer to merge my business with local agencies and that was hard for me. The paychecks and stability and benefits sounded so nice, but it meant planting roots and that just didn’t feel right.
As such, I didn’t do much networking in my community, I focused instead on building a referral network of colleagues, businesses, and bloggers from “out there in the world.”
Years later, I was grateful I trusted my gut. In 2011, I had the opportunity to live in Paris.
PARIS FRANCE, YOU GUYS. For three years, I went back and forth from my home office in Alaska to Paris, spending six months of every year there.
Paris became my home; I fell madly in love with the city. It changed me — and that’s the way it is with any brave decision you make from the heart. Being free to live a life filled with adventure is as wonderfully transforming as it sounds.
… And then became an expat
In late 2014, I was back home in Alaska and met my now-husband on an online dating site. Most people probably wouldn’t have even said hello nevertheless get involved with someone from the other side of the planet, but I knew that if he was open to a real relationship, the only thing standing between us was an airplane ticket.
Three months later, I went to meet him in Croatia and stayed 3 months. Yes, our first date was three months long… welcome to me. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
We got engaged, I returned to Alaska to sell my house and pack my bags and moved permanently. Because I could. I knew my business would come with me, having proved that during my time in Paris.
But it didn’t work out exactly the way I expected
What I didn’t realize is that in reality, I wasn’t as location-independent as I thought.
I had lots of local clients — they represented a big % of my income — but I didn’t think anything would change. Some had been with me for 10 years or more and they adapted wonderfully to working remotely with me while I was in Paris.
Because I wasn’t ever coming back to Alaska, and the brutal time difference (I’m now 10 hours ahead), a lot of them broke up with me. It was one thing for me to be gone for 90 days, quite another for me to be permanently on the other side of the world. And even though my business is still Alaska-based, I know a lot of biz peeps prefer to support their local economies.
It gets worse. I had secured (or so I thought), a $30k contract that I was sure would tide me over during my transition. I worked to get that gig for a year, I was told it was mine (I just needed to wait for grant money to come through), but at the 11th hour, they put it out to bid, changed their bylaws to give preference to a local business, and I lost it.
The final blow was when a client who was sending me lucrative, regular contract work closed her business and went into a completely different line of work.
None of this was personal, it was just business. But it was then I learned how precarious my situation was by relying exclusively on my network. And honestly, a perfect storm like this could have easily happened even if I hadn’t moved overseas… shit happens in business, and we take for granted that safety net of being able to go out and get a job-job as a worse case scenario.
So there I was. Living in a country where I could not go out get a job to pay the bills even if I wanted to (non-fluency, economy, legal reasons).
And, I couldn’t go out and network with people face-to-face and try to drum up business — which is still the easiest, fastest route to landing clients.
I was… screwed.
However. Here’s what saved me, and if you have freedom on your mind, take heed:
I had a $10,000 emergency savings account. Now, if you live in NYC maybe that doesn’t seem like a whole lot, but in Croatia — without a mortgage, or a car payment, or any debt whatsoever … it’s enough to pay the bills for many, many months.
All of these circumstances constituted an emergency. Instead of going into debt, or curling up in the corner sucking my thumb, I had a bit of time to get my feet on the ground, find some clients, and turn things around. If I didn’t have that, I’d probably be living in a cardboard box by now.
Taking big risks is awesome, but it’s not smart to risk everything. I was smart enough to know that I needed more than one safety net to weather the hard times to have longevity in business.
Being able to travel while you work is not the same thing as location-independence
Now I know.
But, being able to travel while you work is awesome in its own right. If you’re interested in learning how I was able to bannish excuses and save enough money to pull it off, all the details are here.
Being Truly Location-Independent Means Having A System For Consistently Attracting Clients
The difference for me between traveling and working and being truly location independent means not relying at all on any particular local market.
At first, when I was getting my bearings here in Croatia, I experimented with getting “gigs” on crowdsourcing sites and freelance sites like UpWork, and that was enough to tide me over and keep the electricity on. But, it was a total dead end.
Competing on price, and selling services as if they were commodities, was neither personally satisfying nor a way to grow a business. I didn’t want to be hustling to get gigs all the time, I wanted to do the work I was meant to do, be paid well for it, and get dream clients coming to me.
This meant I had to re-think things. I needed to put all of the things I know about online marketing, websites that convert clients, and building a brand to work for my own business.
First, I needed a strategy
It started with…
Who did I want to work with?
I thought deeply about my dream customers — who they were, what they were like, what they did for a living, what they stand for.
What I know best are business owners like me. So I decided to niche down… rather than “anyone who needs design,” or a niche I was less familiar with, I started focusing on solo professionals or businesses with small teams who offer a service to clients they must find online. Just like me.
This means coaches, consultants, writers, marketers, and all sorts of creative professionals — even other designers! All of these groups, because they conduct and market their businesses online and are location-independent themselves, were a perfect fit.
People who are also location-independent are more comfortable working with people who aren’t necessarily right down the street from them — they’re more concerned with finding the right person to work with, and they start with search (Google, or Pinterest) or social media to find those people.
Even though I target these groups, I also work with authors, bloggers, and traditional businesses. Narrowing down and defining a niche doesn’t mean nobody else will ever reach out to you, it just means you’re more likely to get noticed by the people you’re purposefully trying to attract.
What problem can I solve for them?
“Design” is my core competency, but selling design is a tough, extremely competitive business when you’re competing in a global market. Anything I can do, a person in Bangladesh working for $500/month can do too.
So I had to figure out what problems I could solve for them that would be most valuable. I needed to become a specialist. I needed to get rid of my laundry list of “the things I do” on my services page and get very good at solving specific problems for a specific type of customer.
I immersed myself in learning everything I could about improving website conversions, how to attract clients online through branding. I applied those things to my own business and started helping others do the same — sometimes for free, or for introductory rates. This was my strategy for getting known for a thing, and to get people coming to me.
Those problems I identified became central to my content strategy. I write about the problems business owners like me face online: how can we use our websites to convert site traffic into customers? How can we get visible on social media? How can we compete for our customers’ attention? How can we build a brand that attracts clients we love?
Where do they live?
The next question I had to tackle was — where do they live? My personal network is largely in Alaska and the pacific northwest, but there are time zone challenges there. While I love my west coast peeps, they have to be comfortable working via email. And there’s nothing about that I’m not comfortable with if they are, but my ideal scenario is having the ability to hop on a video chat. I think being able to talk with people face to face is crucial if you want to be location independent. We have to do everything we can to make it personal and human.
Because I start my day very early (like, 4am), it’s a challenge for me to meet in the evenings because my brain is mush by then.
It took some mental twisting to accept the fact that I’d need to think beyond my personal network. I worried quite a lot about missing opportunities, but I always preach that whenever you think that way, it’s just fear standing in the way of what we SHOULD do, which is niche down and get clear about how we want our business to be.
So I decided I’d need to target the east coast USA, England and other English-speaking Europeans.
In practical terms, this means when I post to social media, or I pin something to Pinterest, I have to calculate the optimal posting times — not to where I am, but where my customers are.
By doing that? In the last year or so, I’ve landed mostly clients from the east coast USA and Europe.
Once I was clear about those things, I created a branding toolkit
- I redesigned my website and focused on speaking directly to my ideal customers (rather than just “here’s all the stuff I can do”)
- I created a graphic style for my social sharing graphics and pins that I felt would stand out from everything else I was seeing
- I created a content strategy — I got clear about the topics I’d write about, those things that help my dream customers AND relate to my service offerings
- I set up an email marketing program and created some opt-in freebies and some welcome email sequences
- I did an audit of all my social media accounts and made sure I was using the same photo, that my cover images matched my website and my social sharing graphics, and I made sure my bios were all consistently communicating what I do and for whom
All of that took a lot of time. I’m not here to tell you I did it in 30 days — it took months and months of chipping away at it. Sometimes it’s hard to show up and work toward something when the reward is months or even years away, and it’s super hard to do this work for yourself (I enjoy doing this for clients exponentially more!)… but I know without the tools to build a brand, clients will not seek you out. The only way to get past “hustling for gigs” is to build a brand.
Then, I needed a system for getting visible with my dream customers
I knew that meant I needed to create content, to build my audience on social media, and to make sure my content was discoverable in search.
I decided that blogging was a great place to start because it’s what I enjoy and I don’t yet have the skills to produce awesome videos or Instagram photos. I started with what I know and played to my strengths.
I decided I’d use Pinterest to get traffic back to my blog, but my first attempts at using it were a total failure. I really focused on this and learned everything I could, and eventually, that paid off. I started out spending tons of time pinning my content manually every single day, and once I got the hang of how it all worked, I started using automation tools like Tailwind to help free up my time and boost my reach. It’s my #1 source of traffic right now, and I’ve landed amazing clients who find me there.
Then I set up a schedule for sharing on Social Media. At first, I did everything manually because I didn’t have a whole lot of content, but once I had enough blog posts, I experimented with automation tools to free up my time there too. After tons of research, I finally settled on Buffer for content curation and SmarterQueue to post my content for me. (Get a double-length free trial by using my link.)
Each week, as I find little pockets of time, I participate in activities that will grow my audience and my reach on social media. That means engaging and following people on Twitter and participating in Facebook groups. I’m very focused in these activities and I limit how much time I spend because these things can easily become a time suck. If what I’m doing won’t help me grow my audience, I know that would be time better spent writing and scheduling emails or drafting blog posts. In the last three months, I’ve doubled my following on Twitter (and I’ve been on the platform since 2007!). My audience isn’t huge or anything yet, but I’m consistently heading in the right direction.
So, right now my system is to blog at least once per week, then to promote that blog post, and to email my list once a week.
And as that system has become more automated, as I’ve gotten better and faster with producing and promoting the content… now I can add more things to my system. Right now I’m working with a colleague on a joint venture webinar and that’s a completely new thing for me! I have lots of other plans, but for now, that’s enough. One thing at a time.
The Unexpected Benefits Of Location Independence
In a nutshell:
- Working with clients truly you love rather than just people who live in your geographic region
- Doing the work you’re really meant to be doing
- Having a marketing system that opens up new opportunities
As you can see, these things can benefit you even if you never leave the comfort of your hometown.
Now, I no longer rely entirely on referrals, but it still plays a big role. Everything I do to market my business is moving toward not relying on them at all.
This means not only having freedom from a reliance on my local or personal network, but freedom from needing direct referrals from anyone — even clients. (I love love love those, and I always want to give the best service I can so they trust me to refer others to me, but I realized counting on those still keeps me dependent on other people, and that means I’m not in full control of my own income.)
I’m shooting for true freedom.
With a marketing system in place, my website traffic for this month alone was more than the entire year of 2016 (the “perfect storm’ disaster year). As my audience grows, as my traffic grows, as my email list grows (and I won’t lie, it’s taken a lot of hard work) — I now have new opportunities to grow my business in new ways.
That means expanding into digital products as well as services. Diversifying my income is now my plan for creating even more financial freedom and security regardless of where I’m working from. The possibilities are endless for online entrepreneurship, how exciting is that?!
Without a marketing strategy, without a system for getting visible with the right people, none of that would even be possible. Now? I’m on my way. I am not even trying to make it happen overnight (which is not possible anyway), I’m applying the same discipline I did when I saved money for travel… bit by bit I’m taking consistent actions that will get me there.
Best of all, as my own business grows in this new direction, the better I am able to help my dream customers do the same. It turns out there are lots of people out there who are catching on to the fact that the world is wide open to them. If your dream customers live in Silicon Valley and you live in Manchester England (as is the case for one of my consulting clients), all you need is a strategy, a system to follow, then to take action, show up consistently, persevere and apply plenty of patience.