Welcome to Location Independent Success Stories!
In this series, I’ll be introducing you to inspiring men and women who are using their unique skills and talents to live the location independent lifestyle of their dreams.
This week, I’m pleased to introduce you to Michelle, a freelancer who has recently made a home base for herself in the tropical island paradise of Koh Tao, Thailand.
Michelle Vogel is a freelance copywriter and content marketing strategist. She also writes for her own blog, Mishvo in Motion, about her adventures in travel and freelancing. When not writing, she can be found singing, spending time in nature, or eating olives in bulk.
First, please tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s your background, and what are you doing now?
Hello, I’m Michelle aka Mishvo (my nickname is a combination of my first and last names). I’m 27 and originally from Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
My background is in the social sciences and specifically in behavior change/social marketing in public health. I have a BS in Psychology from UGA and MSPH in International Health from Johns Hopkins.
Now I work as a freelance content marketer and copywriter, and I also still do some public health qualitative research and analysis as well.
How often do you travel? Do you have one city that you consider a home base?
I traveled a ton in college and right afterward. My first big trip was when I moved to Sydney as an exchange student for five months in 2010. Then when I graduated college, I moved to Thailand to teach English for a year and spent time traveling in Asia and Europe after that with the money I had saved while teaching.
I haven’t traveled as much in the past three years as I would have liked–I spent time earning a master’s degree and pursuing that path for a little while before returning to travel as a lifestyle.
Now, I would say my home base is Koh Tao, Thailand as I moved here in December without a return ticket! I’m going on a family trip to Israel in March which will also serve as my visa run and will return to Thailand after.
How do you typically choose your destinations?
I like tropical destinations, beaches, the sea, nature. I love places with interesting geology like Cappadocia in Turkey.
I love places that are wondrous or magical in some way.
In terms of places to live, my preference is for smaller cities over big cities or metropolises. I like to feel a sense of community and find big cities overwhelming. Plus, they don’t have enough nature for me. Big fan of nature.
When did you realize you wanted to become location independent, and what were your reasons behind that decision?
I realized it after I graduated from grad school, quit my understimulating research job, and was in a pretty dark place. I was unemployed and wasn’t excited by any opportunities I had been applying for in my chosen field of public health.
I was getting rejected over and over and over from all these public health jobs and was feeling stuck and unhappy.
I started taking on little freelance writing jobs here and there just to make some money (and have something to do) and then with a lot of self-reflection and support from my therapist and boyfriend at the time, I just said one day:
“Okay, getting a full-time job isn’t working right now but freelancing sort of is. I’m gonna try that full time.”
I was always drawn to the idea of including travel in my lifestyle but thought it would be as a full-time international public health practitioner. But turns out public health wasn’t the right fit.
What were some of the first steps you took toward achieving this lifestyle for yourself?
My first step was making a freelancer website. I used my own blog and projects as well as some work I had done for friends in my ‘portfolio.’
The next thing I did was cross-post on my personal Facebook page and Instagram listing my remote skills and asking my contacts if anyone needed work done. I got my first big job that way.
I wanted to save six months of emergency savings before moving abroad, so I lived first at my boyfriend’s and then with my parents for about a year total to save money before finally moving abroad this past December.
Of all the places you’ve lived and worked so far, which one was the best suited for people living a location independent lifestyle and why?
As a ‘digital nomad’, I’ve only lived in Thailand so far and would highly recommend it.
It’s affordable (although not as cheap as somewhere like South Asia), the weather is warm, the culture is warm, the food is good, there’s robust tourist infrastructure, there’s WiFi, the beaches are beautiful…
Tell us about your work. What is your primary source of income?
Content marketing, or strategizing, writing, and managing content on businesses’ blogs, has been my primary source of income.
It’s also my favorite type of remote work because I enjoy being involved in a project long-term; I like to get to start out with a strategy and goals and build up the blog over time to help businesses draw in leads and pick up sales.
How did you get started doing what you’re doing?
It really started with that one Facebook post. I’ve also used lots of Facebook groups for copywriters and digital nomads to find work, like the Cult of Copy Job Board for example, as well as a site called Cloudpeeps.
What does the average workday look like for you?
At this point, there is no average anymore!
I spent my first year of freelancing living at home with my parents to save money and during that time I basically worked normal hours 9-5, five days a week. I had a few client calls a week and otherwise spent time researching, strategizing, writing, and editing.
Because of the time difference here in Thailand, I end up on calls in the early morning or late at night so I’ll work in the morning and night and leave the middle of the day open for other things.
Like for example, yesterday I worked until lunch, then went snorkeling and watched the sunset on the beach. It was excellent, I can’t lie.
If someone else wanted to follow a path similar to yours, what advice would you give them?
My best advice would be to keep your day job while you build up a client base.
Unless you’re just super lucky or well connected, it’s going to take time to get to a place where working for yourself is financially sustainable.
I don’t even feel I’ve gotten there yet. It’s incredibly hard.
So instead of having to live with your parents for a while like me, just keep the job that gives you financial stability while you work at freelancing on the side.
How much could someone expect to earn when just starting out? How much do you earn now?
A good first goal is $1000 a month. A good second goal is $5000 a month.
I think I’m somewhere between $3-4k a month on average and have $5k months every now and then but seriously, it’s feast or famine out here.
I want to be at that $5k a month or more on average for every month.
Do you have other income sources as well? What are some of the other ways you earn a living?
I make about $300 a month off my blog but really want to increase this. I want my blog to eventually be my main income source.
I’ve been toying with the idea of getting some local work here on Koh Tao just to spend less time behind a computer screen but haven’t pursued anything yet.
In your opinion, what is the hardest thing about living a location independent lifestyle?
There are a lot of things, it’s hard to pick just one! Here are a few…
1) Loneliness. You meet a TON of people traveling around like this but it’s harder to form deep friendships that stand the test of time. And it’s even harder if you’re looking for a serious romantic partner.
2) Forming a routine. It’s hard when you’re moving around a lot or constantly in new places to form a routine and stick to it.
3) Focusing/finding the motivation to work with all the distractions around. Like for example, I was invited to go lay out at the pool today, go to karaoke tonight, and then to a Latin dance party on the beach. I’m almost grateful for not-so-great weather days here sometimes because then it’s less tempting to go outside and do fun stuff with friends!
What are some of the things you like about it the most?
- Having the freedom to manage my time the way I want
- Having the ability to live in an actual tropical paradise where I can go swim in the sea every day if I want to
- Getting to meet people from all over the world
- Being surrounded by backpacker and nomad culture where people are simply enjoying their lives instead of being miserable and feeling stuck trying to pursue a lifestyle that doesn’t fulfill them
How did becoming location independent change your relationship with travel? Do you do things differently now?
I don’t think so. I’ve always preferred slow, long-term, solo travel over fast-paced holiday travel or group trips or something.
Like I moved to Australia for five months solo, moved to Thailand for one year solo, lived in England for three months solo, Peru for two months solo, and now back in Thailand.
The nice thing now is I don’t have an end date when I’ll run out of money and have to go home to work like before.
Do you have any great money-saving travel tips to share?
I recommend signing up for and using travel rewards credit cards to earn points while you’re still in your home country. I paid for my one-way flight to Thailand this past December with points from my credit card I had been accruing for over a year.
One trick I use while abroad is to only take out the amount of cash you have budgeted for the day/week/whatever and don’t spend more than that.
I also recommend drinking less alcohol and if you’re in a country where it’s cheaper to cook and you have access to a kitchen, do that instead of eating out.
What do you think are some of the necessary traits or skills someone should have if they plan to pursue a location independent lifestyle?
Being internally motivated is key. I think this starts with knowing what you want, then acknowledging it, then having the perseverance to pursue it even through any setbacks.
You need to be someone who makes things happen, not just dreams about making a lifestyle change.
Productivity is a major challenge for many digital nomads. Share with us one of your best tips for staying motivated and getting sh*t done.
The best thing I’ve found is to just follow your body and mind’s natural rhythm.
Work when you’re feeling energized and go do something else when you’re not.
Other things that have helped me at times: getting out of the house and going for a walk or running errands when you hit a mental roadblock; using a stand-up desk to work; drinking caffeine.
Do you have any location independent role models who have helped you or motivated you to achieve your goals?
They remind me constantly that it’s possible to live this lifestyle long-term and to actually make money freelancing and/or blogging–because honestly some days it feels really impossible!
What’s one of the most valuable purchases you’ve made for your business–something that wasn’t necessarily expensive, but provided you with a lot of value?
Freshbooks has been a pretty excellent investment for staying organized when it comes to invoicing, payments, time tracking, and expenses.
Tell us about one of the biggest mistakes you’ve made and how others can avoid it.
I try not to regret anything in my life, but taking out student loans to attend grad school is not something I would do over again.
The emotional and physical burden of the debt kept me from leaving public health sooner and pursuing content marketing and blogging instead.
It made it harder for me to hear myself and what I really wanted.
I wouldn’t recommend anyone go to grad school unless their earning potential in the first year post-grad is equal to or greater than the amount of the loan (something my economist ex-boyfriend taught met) AND they are fully emotionally prepared for the burden of debt.
If trying a non-traditional (e.g. location independent) lifestyle is something you’re curious about, don’t knowingly put yourself in debt first.
Take the time to figure out if that traditional career path is what you really want before making such an enormous financial commitment to it.
Finally, if you could offer your younger, less experienced self one piece of advice for this journey, what would it be?
A friend once said this and I’ve been thinking about it a lot:
Trust the timing of your life.
Have more questions about Michelle’s freelancing experience? Ask away in the comments! Have your own story to share and want to be featured in a future interview? Shoot me an email!
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