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Getting Started

Freelancing Abroad: How I Learned the Fundamentals

15 Aug 2019
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by Danielle Thompson
Founder @ Freelance Travel Network, Freelancer and World Traveller
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When I first decided to start freelancing abroad, I didn’t have much of a plan. To be honest, it all happened too fast to plan! I had just graduated from design school. I landed three new clients and was riding the high of proposal success. My application to TopTal – a network of the top 3% of freelance designers and developers – had just been approved. Everything was happening at the same time; I couldn’t believe it!

Without much more than a hard-working spirit and a desire to travel, I booked my ticket to Costa Rica.

freelancing abroad
Once I saw a few pictures of Tamarindo, I knew I had to go!
Photographer: Berti Benbanaste | Source: Unsplash

I was far from a seasoned freelancer at this point. There were a lot of lessons I had yet to learn before I could commit to the freelancer mindset. There were far fewer freelance advice blogs and the digital nomad community wasn’t as present online.

So, I went it alone. I tried. I failed. Despite all that, I learned what was most important to keep my freelance game working while living abroad and working remotely – and so can anyone making sure to stick to the freelancing abroad basics.

If you can tackle the principal elements of freelancing abroad with a confident attitude (and lots of self-love), you’ll be ready to figure the rest out as you go. After all, it’s about the journey, not the destination!

The fundamentals of freelancing abroad

Even though I hit the road without much freelance experience, I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. You’ll have more success and more fun if you get the fundamental elements sorted out first. It may sound like you need to have it all figured out to start freelancing abroad, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Instead of perfection, aim for organization.

Take a methodical approach. Break down your freelancing game and examine it piece by piece. Once you’re sure you have a handle on each aspect, you’ll be ready to take your freelancing abroad.

Settle into your skill and find a niche

The first step of becoming a freelancer is to believe in your ability to earn with your skills.

Without a skill, freelancing is like swatting aimlessly at a cloud of gnats above your head. You have no idea if you’ll get one, and if you do, you have no idea which one you’ll get.

freelance travel jobs abroad
Don't choose blindly – choose the work you'll love to do.
Photographer: Analise Benevides | Source: Unsplash

The same goes for freelancing – if you don’t have a defined skill or niche, you’ll swat for every job and often end up with freelance travel jobs you don’t like or know about.

With too wide of a variety of projects, you’ll spend lots of time researching how to do work you aren't an expert in or work with an industry you aren't familiar with. Every minute spent on Google is a minute lost from your vacation adventures!

freelancing abroad
You're definitely wasting some time if you're not specializing!

Taking on projects indiscriminately means employing a wide variety of techniques and processes. With a wide-spread method like this, it becomes harder to raise our wages, develop our skills, and pitch ourselves as experts.

We can’t build a reliable career if we don’t know where to start building. If we’re marketing ourselves differently each time and pitching proposals across a huge range of projects and industries, the results we see will be diluted. It becomes impossible to predict our success! When we experience wage instability, we feel frustrated and uncertain as to how to accomplish our business goals.

When you’re a generalist, you aren’t working develop an area of expertise and your income stays low.

That doesn’t mean we need to be experts in our niches just to start freelancing abroad. The key to getting settled in your skill is establishing self-confidence, self-awareness and a desire to improve (which are all aspects of the freelancer mindset). Once we accept and believe in the level of our skills, we create a strong foundation that can handle taking our freelancing abroad.

Find a few reliable long-term clients

It isn’t necessarily to have an army of clients before you start traveling while freelancing. However, a schedule packed-full of projects and a few reliable clients are very different things – and put us in different mindsets.

The main goal of freelancing abroad is to keep earning and growing a career while traveling the world. However, the journey becomes harder to enjoy when we’re in a scarcity mindset, which limits our focus automatically and powerfully toward our unfulfilled needs.

traveling while freelancing
Photographer: Boxed Water Is Better | Source: Unsplash

When we first land at our destination, we already have a lot to deal with. Being in a new country brings new challenges: there are foreign languages to conquer, exotic dishes to discover, and new cultures to connect to.

With all the excitement, the last thing we want to spend our time doing is distressfully searching for clients and panicking. It’s hard to enjoy our surroundings when we’re constantly worrying about our financial ability to stay where we are or continue traveling.

Before heading out to start freelancing abroad, try to lock down a couple of repeat or long-term clients.

The number of clients that will keep you comfortable while you travel depends on what your minimum livable wage is. Once you create your budget, you find the number of clients (that you work well with) to make up your minimum wage.

freelancing abroad
You don't need much to be happy while traveling.
Photographer: Tristan Pineda | Source: Unsplash

If you curate a great relationship with a long-term client in person, start speaking to them about your dream to become a digital nomad. Get in the practice of working remotely, reduce the number of meetings per week slowly, and encourage clients to stay connected with you using the most popular tools for freelancers.

Finding remote clients comes with a huge advantage, as they’re likely already willing to do everything 100% online. However, local clients can be just as awesome to work with abroad, granted they’re flexible and trust in you to deliver awesome work!

Remember that while keeping a few long-term clients in rotation gives you financial stability, we’re traveling and looking for new experiences. Keeping ourselves open to new opportunities and clients that we may cross while freelancing abroad will enrich our journey to freelance freedom.

Communicate often and manage expectations

Once we lock down a good client or two, we have the job security we need to keep learning, growing, and traveling. However, good clients are only half of the equation: we have to be attentive freelancers if we want to keep our client relationships strong.

freelancing abroad
Staying in touch will keep your clients happy and your trip stress-free.
Photographer: Paul Hanaoka | Source: Unsplash

There are countless miscommunications that can ruin client relationships. If clients aren’t sure when to expect your deliverables or which method of communication to use, they’re going to think you’re late, unreachable, and unreliable.

It’s even become a stereotype for some clients to think that remote freelancers are hard to reach and inconstant with their work. The good news is that it’s easy to prove them wrong!

It’s especially important to keep a clear line of communication with clients while we travel; we aren’t physically there in person to show them our work or swing by the office. Quick check-ins and updates reassure our clients that we’re working hard. Even short messages make our clients feel like they know what’s going on, what they can expect and when to expect it.

We chose to start freelancing abroad because we wanted more freedom! If we aren’t clear about what our clients can expect from us, much of our free time will be spent catching up to deadlines and fielding questions about our work.

If we communicate clearly about our availability, our travels, and our time zone changes, it’s much easier to stay on top of our clients’ expectations – regardless of where we’re working from.

Define your work hours

As freelancers, we know our work schedule is far from the free-for-all that people think it is. Setting our hours is the perfect way to show our clients that we’re serious. It’s a great way to establish trust with clients, though it does so much more than that:

  • Sticking to a schedule clearly defines our availability (and our unavailability).
  • It creates a boundary between our work and life that deters clients from calling/messaging us during our free time.
  • Clients will know when they can contact you and when they can expect a response, which keeps expectations clear on both sides.
  • It also gives comforts clients to know exactly when you’ll be working on their project!

Defining our working hours is also beneficial for freelancers. It saves our sanity by keeping us from over-working ourselves. When we clearly state our working hours, we can’t be liable for requests or rush work outside of those hours.

We don’t have to keep the same 9-5 hours as everyone else. Freelancing is about staying free – which is why we need to define our work hours. It keeps our free time free; it keeps clients in the loop, and it gives us the time and space we need to be productive.

Stay on top of time zones

Not only do we work with clients across different time zones, but our own time zone changes often when we freelance abroad. Communicating our availability is only effective if we’re straightforward about time zone changes as well.

Without getting too personal or in-depth, traveling freelancers should let their clients know their travel plans – especially if our freelance work goes overseas. It keeps clients in the know while we change time zones, although they usually need a bit of reminding.

freelance work overseas
Photographer: Luis Cortes | Source: Unsplash

However, it isn’t the client’s responsibility to work with our time zone changes. It’s the freelancer’s responsibility to stay on top of deadlines and deliverables regardless of their own or their client’s time zone.

Still, it’s hard to keep track of different time zones and what work is due when, where and to whom. Make it easier and use a tool!

Out of all the best tools for meeting deadlines in different time zones, World Clock is the most universally useful. Add all your clients’ cities to the clock. Give it a quick check any time you need to send an email or request more information.

It’s also important to plan with our clients’ time zones in mind. If we’ve proposed a deadline on Wednesday, we have to make sure we deliver it early enough to be read and commented on during the client’s Wednesday work hours. Otherwise, we’ll run into problems with our clients’ expectations.

freelancing abroad
Making sure to remember time zones AND a smoothie-sized dose of daily vitamins!

I like to schedule my deadlines by considering my clients’ time zones. I estimate the time I need to complete a project and schedule the deliverables. Then, I add an extra day to the deadline so when I finish my work at the end of the day, it still arrives to the client’s inbox for the morning.

Save room for the unexpected

Three years ago, I was still a freelancing abroad newbie. I was loving working offline and traveling to super remote places like Boca del Toro, Panama. I was staying so close to the ocean; it was paradise! I was pleasantly surprised by how amazing everything was. However, the surprises didn’t stop there – and they weren’t all good ones.

I opened my laptop and tried to send deliverables to a client. I had a Wi-Fi connection, but it was too weak to upload my work. I considered running around town with my laptop looking for a stronger signal, but I knew the chances were slim (and that I’d look like a maniac in the process).

I didn’t have any other options, so I mustered up my courage and told my client I couldn’t send the work for another two days.

I was terrified because they were my only full-time client at the time, and they made up most of my income. However, I had another surprise in store for me when I told them I’d be late: they were totally fine with it. They even wished me a relaxing stay!

traveling while freelancing
As if you could have a bad time traveling while freelancing here!
Photographer: Angel Silva | Source: Unsplash

Even when things don’t go according to plan, communicating often creates a back-up reserve of trust and understanding. By keeping our clients up to date with our work and our movements, they feel a sense of security. They know that we’re working hard and focused on their needs because we tell them so.

When something unexpected happens, we can rest assured that the strong client relationships we’ve built by communicating well will withstand the surprises!

Set up systems for smooth sailing

Freelancing abroad runs much more smoothly when we have processes that we’re comfortable using and repeating. After all, we’ll experience plenty of inconsistency during our travels. We don’t need it in our freelance game as well!

If we don’t have organized freelance processes, we’ll waste time scrambling to find clients, finish work and prioritizing the wrong tasks.

Systems are what help us build consistency in our careers. Once we get familiar with a freelance process, we should create a system to replicate that process, making it easier and faster to do next time.

For example, let’s take the onboarding process. We introduce ourselves, thank them for joining, then slowly teach them how to use our service or product. Once we onboard our first client, we can go back and analyze the work involved in the process. We can break it down into steps and create a template that we can use every single time we need to onboard a new client.

automate freelancing
Photographer: La-Rel Easter | Source: Unsplash

When we outline a system for a particular process, we take the mundane operational tasks off our to-do lists. Our system reminds us what task comes after the other automatically. We can even save message templates and send emails automatically.

Our weekly planner opens wide up when we stop using it to remind ourselves of tasks that can be easily streamlined – which means more time for discovering, playing, and beaching!

Connect to the digital nomad community

Before I started freelancing abroad, I was a secret agent freelancer. I didn’t tell anyone what I was working on. I didn’t like to go into detail about my job or my projects with anyone. I felt like a lone wolf and I was determined to do it all on my own.

However, as soon as I started opening up about my work, I saw a great change. People I just met were asking to work with me. I was getting praise from my peers, which made me feel confident enough to take on higher-level tasks and higher-paying jobs. Every part of my career started to bloom.

That’s when I realized: we can’t do it by ourselves.

When we sign up for freelancing abroad, we’re signing up for new adventures and new challenges. We want to reach a new level of freelance freedom! To become our new selves, we have to join a new community that believes in our journey and supports our growth.

freelancing abroad digital nomads
Connecting with the digital nomad community makes our journey better in every way.
Photographer: Vaida Tamošauskaitė | Source: Unsplash

I started attending digital nomad meet-ups in every new city I traveled to. I met new friends. I learned new solutions. I heard new advice. It seemed that every person I connected to had something to show me and all of it was helpful.

Tapping into the digital nomad community gives us a new resource to rely on when we need help and advice. Freelancing abroad gives us a lot in common as we face the same challenges.

The benefits of joining the digital nomad community don’t stop there. I’ve met some of my best friends at coworking spaces abroad! It’s a great place to meet like-minded people while you’re in a foreign country, which is great for combatting the psychological effects of working alone.

Connecting to our fellow freelancers can even provide new job opportunities. We’ll find new ways to collaborate, new projects to start, and trusted professionals to count on.

What to focus on while freelancing abroad

Freelancing abroad is a complicated lifestyle. There are plenty of concerns that we juggle every day, from personal to work to even government-related situations. Let's make it simpler by breaking down what we've learned to apply to our freelance game:

  1. Finding your niche will help you find work more easily and develop the skills that you'll really need to promote yourself.
  2. Land a long-term client before you hit the road so that you're guaranteed steady income while you're traveling.
  3. Communicate as clearly, honestly, and as often as possible to keep clients updated no matter where you are.
  4. Set boundaries for your working hours so you keep a balance between your task list and your bucket list.
  5. Keep track of any time-zone changes from you or your clients (p.s. there's a remote tool for that).
  6. Take note of the systems and work processes that work best for you, then re-use them whenever possible to streamline your work flow.
  7. Join the digital nomad community and find resources you didn't even know were out there!

These are just the basics, of course, but I have no doubt you're going to be amazing. Once you've got the basics down, you can start to grow your freelance career in ways you'd never imagined!

freelancing abroad
Photographer: Brooke Lark | Source: Unsplash

The best tools for freelancing abroad

Before you go rushing off into the world, you have to make sure your bag is packed. The same goes for your briefcase which, for freelancers, is totally digital! Still, freelancing abroad will go muuuch more smoothly if we've got the tools we'll need at our disposal.

I've prepared this quick takeaway of the most essential tools for freelancing abroad. These tools will help you focus on the basics and get your business running better than ever – no matter where you're doing business from!

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