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I Tried to Become a Digital Nomad. I Failed

It's not all picture-perfect Instagram posts.

If you’re hoping to become a digital nomad, there are a few not-so-obvious challenges you should be aware of. Perhaps you’ve pondered how to travel without breaking the bank, much like I did a few years ago.

So let me tell you about my humble beginnings as a digital nomad and the fantastic money-making schemes I tried to pull off. Tried being the operative word.

If you’re hoping to wander the world and get paid and you’re desperately dreaming of being a digital nomad, read on. 

Let’s Start From the Beginning

For many years, I worked as a graphic designer and always dreamed of traveling. I wanted to work remotely, a concept that used to be referred to as “workcation.” But I didn’t want to limit myself to just one annual vacation; rather, I aspired to constantly explore the world while still earning a living. Every return from a vacation was a challenge for me. It always felt too short, leaving me yearning for more, but time constraints and limited PTO held me back. I didn’t want to merely check off popular tourist destinations from a to-do list; I wanted to immerse myself in local culture and connect with the people who call those places home.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and working remotely became the norm, I packed my backpack and set off for Thailand, where I continued working as a graphic designer for European-based companies. 

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But once I arrived in Bangkok, the not-so-pleasant reality swiftly brought my optimism crashing down to earth.

It wasn’t as inexpensive as I anticipated. The prices I remembered from my vacation in Thailand a year earlier were lower than the ones I encountered upon my return. Many hotels and Airbnbs had suspended operations, causing the prices of the ones remaining open to skyrocket. The unsettling cost prompted me to embark on a new quest for additional income, all for the sake of living in those picturesque places where I could peer out the window at the views you typically see on postcards.

However, it wasn’t just about the stunning views. As a newly minted digital nomad, I quickly realized that if I wanted to combine work and travel, I would also need a comfortable space to work.

The Thai island of Koh Lipe was not what I had in mind when I set out on this journey. It is an exceptional destination, perfect for relaxation; however, weak Wi-Fi made it impossible for me to conduct video calls. I moved into a humble bungalow, and it wasn’t long before I craved a shower with warm water, and found myself wishing for air conditioning and an ant-free environment.

I spent many days there watching YouTube videos about how to earn passive income, where creators assured me that I could easily make $400 in a day or $5,000 in a month. Proudly showcasing their dashboards, with earnings growing faster than ivy on a fence, it gave me hope.

Dreams of Passive Income vs. the Harsh Reality

Since the $3,000-per-month dream rentals were far beyond my budget, I decided to seek passive income to help sustain my digital nomad lifestyle. First, I set up an Etsy shop, offering up my graphic designs. “Cha-ching!” I thought, imagining the raining coins. When my Etsy shop didn’t rake in thousands, I embarked on a bold drop-shipping mission, where I figured I could find local suppliers and sell their wares on my online store. I would make a commission, and the supplier would handle everything for me–they would pack and ship the product to the addresses I specified. Having a store without the burden of maintaining a warehouse seemed like a win-win. And yet, the profit concoction did not brew as expected, leaving me with more “drop” than “shipping.”

Still eager to find a passive income solution, I set my sights on Shutterstock, hoping to capture users’ hearts with my stunning photos. But nothing happened. Maybe I was missing something, or maybe I was doing something wrong.

And Then Suddenly, Everything Changed

While still on Koh Lipe, I began searching for an apartment on Phuket, Thailand’s largest island. I knew it was a beautiful place with good internet. Although the Airbnb spot I reserved only featured ghastly photos and approximately zero reviews (no wonder the modest rental cost), it turned out the apartment was actually not only comfortable, but surprisingly charming.

Then a brilliant idea struck me. As a tenant who frequently changes apartments–and a graphic designer–I knew what people wanted from a temporary living space. So, I offered the landlord my staging and photography services in exchange for a month of free accommodation. The landlord agreed.

The moment I revamped the property’s images and polished the description, reservations began flooding in. And with them, I discovered a new source of income—and a way to put my skills to use.

Each week, I spent time scouring Airbnb listings in need of some TLC. I offered my services in exchange for a discounted nightly or weekly rate, thereby enabling me to save a chunk of change on accommodations and further fuel my dreams of being a digital nomad.

Soon enough, the possibilities became endless: I could go scuba diving, buy a brand-new drone, or just relish being in an apartment with air conditioning with no ants in sight.

I managed to fail my way all the way to success. And I learned this: you don’t have to hit a bullseye, all you have to do is get on the board.