Stephanie Danforth’s path to becoming a digital nomad is an inspiration to anyone who would love to work remotely but doesn’t know how to get there, going from no experience as a designer to making a full time living as a freelancer in the space of two years. We asked Stephanie to tell us about her life as a digital nomad.
Please can you give us some background on who you are, where you’re from and what you do as a digital nomad?
Sure! (Heads up, it’s a bit long.) 🙂
I’m originally from Colorado Springs, CO. I met my husband, Nick, there when we were in high school. After we graduated, we moved to Austin, TX where we eventually got married. Shortly after we got married, we decided being settled just wasn’t for us. Nick had an idea to travel around the USA in a campervan, so we went for it! We spent 9 months traveling around in a home-brew campervan with our dog. It was awesome!
While we were living in the van, we realized that we had so much flexibility. We took a trip to Europe while we were living in the van to test out working remotely and loved it! After we got rid of the van, we jumped into being a full “digital nomad” and living out of just our backpacks.
When I started living out of my backpack, I actually didn’t have any online work. I decided to try freelancing, which was a huge success! I’ve now started a few different businesses, but I mainly work as a web designer and branding specialist helping creative entrepreneurs and chic brands.
What is a typical day like for you?
Tough question! Since I’ve been on the road for a while, I’ve started to love having routines. Most week days, I’ll get up and either get or buy a cup of coffee and then get started with work. Sometimes I’ll squeeze in a walk or a workout before that, but I’m usually too excited to get started on work that I can’t wait!
After working for a bit, I usually either wander out and get food or make something at home. During the week, I like to work on a more typical “9-5” schedule so I can spend time with friends in the evening.
What pushed you towards a nomadic lifestyle?
It was a really natural process for me! Honestly, my husband and I didn’t even realize that what we were doing and the way we were living was a “thing” until a couple years ago (right around when Nomad List launched.) We eased into the lifestyle very slowly.
I would say that wanting to experiment with how we were living and an urge to see places is what first pushed us toward a nomadic lifestyle.
What is the first thing you do when you arrive in a new place?
Usually find good food. 🙂 If I haven’t been to the country before though, I’ll pick up a SIM card in the airport.
What are your inspirations?
Anyone that is insanely positive, confident, and loves life.
What have been your favourite places so far and why?
This is always such a hard question!
I love Thailand overall because it checks the most boxes for me. In Thailand, I specifically like Koh Lanta and Chiang Mai. Koh Lanta has an AMAZING community of nomads and expats, and I also have quite a few local friends there. It’s a bit off the beaten path and is a bit quieter, which I love. Chiang Mai meanwhile is such a haven for nomads new and old, so there is always lots going on there! It’s such a fun city too.
I love all of the nature in the USA. Roadtripping and visiting a bunch of National Parks in the US was one of my favorite parts of living in a van.
I took a short vacation last year in Poprad, Slovakia and loved it! The mountains there are beautiful and it was a great place to unwind.
How did you get over the initial intimidation of taking freelance work as you were learning about graphic design?
I think I was motivated enough that I had no choice but to just push past it. I was also so excited to start freelancing that even though I was intimidated, the excitement overtook the fear!
What should you look for in a good client?
I look for a few different things. First, I always want to make sure that they are able to communicate well. This looks different for every project, but I look to see how quickly they respond and how much detail they are able to provide. If they seem like they’re in a rush or like they don’t quite know what they want, then I shy away from working with them.
I also make sure to gauge how committed they are to the project. I want to know that they have clear goals (which usually means deadlines) so I know that the project will get completed at a good pace and is less likely to get drawn out.
I also try to gauge how comfortable they are with my price range. If it’s a stretch for them, I think long and hard about working with them.
Beyond that, I usually don’t work on projects unless they interest me! When I first started out, I would take almost whatever I could get, but I’m much pickier now.
How has your lifestyle evolved during your time as a nomad?
I think the biggest thing is that I find I now focus my life much more around people than around places. After so many years on the road, I’ve found that the travel is just not as fun anymore unless I’m either traveling to see friends or traveling somewhere new with friends.
How has your lifestyle affected your relationships with people back ‘home’?
It was quite weird for a couple years, especially because the travel and lifestyle wasn’t “cut and dry” when I first started working while traveling. Not many people were living the way we were living, so it was hard to navigate what that meant for friendships back home. At first it felt like I was still really tied to those people, but then eventually it just tapered off.
It may sound bad, but I think traveling for so long now has really showed me which friends from back home I’ll continue to be friends with for a long time.
It’s been a bit hard on some friends and family, but I see it as no different than if I were to actually move to another city. It’s always hard to leave friendships, no matter how you cut it!
What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?
I feel at “home” pretty much any city that I am familiar with and have a friend base in. I still feel pretty at home in Austin, but not so much in Colorado because so many of my friends and family have left. Chiang Mai, Koh Lanta, Beijing, and Melbourne are the other places that feel like “home”.
Has anything ever scared you as a digital nomad and how did you deal with it?
There’s been lots of trivial things that have scared me (like flight delays, plans going wrong, etc.), but I think the thing that has scared me the most is times when I’ve felt alone, anxious, or depressed. Those have always been the hardest times.
I dealt with it by confiding in people I trusted, choosing to be positive even in situations where I felt the opposite, not worrying, and making the most of my current situation.
Do you prefer to travel slowly or quickly and why?
I’ve been starting to lean more towards traveling slowly, but I also really like quick trips every now and then. I think when I travel slowly it allows me to be more productive and get stuff done! I often travel quickly when I’m trying to see and catch up with a lot of friends in one trip.
Can you tell us about one or more of your favourite moments as a nomad?
The time I landed my first freelance gig was one of my favorite moments! That really empowered me and gave me hope that I could do it!
What have you found challenging about the digital nomad lifestyle?
Kind of what I was talking about earlier, I find the most challenging things to be mental – feeling lonely, anxious, or depressed. Now that I’m conscious that those things can cause problems for me, I know how to avoid them, but it didn’t feel that simple or easy at first.
How do you choose where to go next?
Wherever friends are or wherever friends want to go!
What do you expect to be doing in ten years?
No idea. With how fast technology is moving these days, I could be working from Mars for all I know!
What are the main aspects of your personality that have allowed you to live as a digital nomad?
Being able to go with the flow. I actually found this really hard at first, so it’s definitely more of a learned skill, but I’ve found that to be crucial!
Do you have any daily routines or habits that you always stick to?
I try to have a bit of time to myself in the mornings (if I don’t wake up too late!) What I do in that quiet time changes everyday, I’ll often journal, meditate, read my Bible, or read a good book.
Do you take holidays? If so where and how?
Absolutely! I’ve actually found it to be a very necessary thing! I love working and I spend a lot of time working, so I sometimes need time away to refocus. I try to go somewhere chill and where I can’t really reach wifi. Somewhere where all I have to think about is what I want to do that day and what I’m going to eat! This usually ends up being a beach or somewhere in the mountains. Occasionally I’ll take a vacation that is a bit adventurous and go hiking or backpacking.
How do you stay healthy when you are on the move a lot?
I’m pretty conscious about what I eat, which is probably the biggest factor. I eat vegan, which makes it much easier to make decisions about food.
I find having a consistent work out routine to be pretty difficult (especially if I’m working on projects that I love, because all I want to do is work!)
I’ll often fit in yoga, running, or basic at home workouts throughout the week.
Are there any places you would recommend against traveling to? If so where and why?
Hmmm… I’ve spent a lot of time in rural China which definitely is NOT nomad friendly! I only go there because I have some good friends that work at an non-profit, otherwise I wouldn’t go there.
What is an issue that you feel especially passionate about?
I’m especially passionate about ethical fashion. There are so many people that are basically enslaved and forced to work long hours in awful conditions.
It’s a very “hidden” issue in many ways, because it’s rarely in headlines and it’s easy to forget about it! I’d love to see more people that aware of their purchasing power and choosing to buy less, buy higher quality, and buy things that were ethically made.
What is the best food you have eaten as a digital nomad?
Chipotle, Thai food, French bread, and Ethiopian food
I made an awful decision to eat some sketchy looking tacos in Mexico and ended up having food poisoning for about a month!
How have your friends and family reacted to your lifestyle?
At first everyone thought I had somehow come into a great sum of money and was just constantly on vactation. lol. Slowly but surely people have realized that I actually work a lot (probably more than most people)!
Most everyone thinks it’s an amazing thing. They’re impressed that I’m able to live the way I do.
Has being your own boss made you more creative? If yes, how?
Yeah! Since I’m able to call the shots, I feel like I have the power to do and try whatever I want! It empowers me to try different things in my business. And with the pressure to keep my businesses afloat, I’m motivated to find creative ways to get things done.
What are the creature comforts you can not live without?
A hair dryer. My hair is a hot mess without one!
Please can you tell us about any other inspiring digital nomads you have met?
I find my husband pretty inspiring! 🙂
Also a friend of mine, Loukman. He’s constantly starting new things and is a straight up hustler!
Many thanks to Stephanie for taking the time to answer our weird and wonderful questions! Please check out her personal website and her design studio. If you’re interested in learning about how she built a successful freelancing career, you can take her course about freelancing on Upwork. And for more envy-inducing photographs, check out her page on Instagram.