Updated: Jun 28, 2018
On June 5th 2018, we had a chance to sit down and chat with Christopher "Chris the Freelancer" Dodd and Denise Lazaroo after they responded to our invitation to visit Biliq Bali. In the following few days, I tried to condense the interview into a blog post with the same format as our last article. However, I found the conversation so insightful and candid that the best way for our readers to enjoy is by presenting it in its raw format with minimum redaction.
Follow the interview here as we talk about how to become a digital nomad, their favorite places to work remotely, and why leaving your job without having a side hustle first is a bad advice.
Hansen (H): Hi Chris & Denise, thanks for doing this. To start off, can you tell us how you began your journey as a freelancer slash digital nomad?
Chris (C): Back in 2015, I found out about this guy called Pieter Levels who is the founder of Nomadlist. I read an article about him being a digital nomad and I was really interested in travel, but I didn't want to continuously travel if it meant sacrificing career growth. I found out about this while I was dating Denise and I asked her if she would be interested in doing this digital nomad thing with me and she was like "sure!" (laughs) - well what did you say?
Denise (D): Well I said let's look into it first and see how viable it is.
C: We just so happened to be going on a trip to South East Asia at the time. We went to Chiang Mai, Thailand which is one of the best cities for remote work. It was a short trip, about nine days or something. We both agreed that it felt comfortable and homey here. At that time we had just signed a lease for our apartment back in Australia, so we had to go home.
D: The trip to Chiang Mai was short but it kind of struck a chord with us and I thought we had to make this happen and from there we started moving our lifestyle towards a remote one.
C: For me I was already convinced. Going there (Chiang Mai) I was asking "could I see myself doing this for the long term" and the answer is yes. That trip became another confirmation for me. Denise at that time was in sales and marketing - so she transitioned into digital marketing. I was a student in accounting and I was just learning to code.
H: So you learned to code in order to support this lifestyle?
C: Yeah. I did a thought process of what I could do, realistically, that could set me up within a year. Chiang Mai became a benchmark in terms of if we were to live in Chiang Mai for a year, what is realistic in terms of earnings for us to be able to live in a place like that.
D: Because of the lease, we had to stay (in Brisbane) for a year. Both Chris and I got a (full-time) job, and in March 2015 we booked a ticket to Bali for January 2016. So we literally had 8 months to set ourselves up for a remote lifestyle.
C: We were going to leave regardless... We gave ourselves a deadline.
H: So you left in January 2016, have you been home since?
D: Yes, twice. We try to go home once every year.
H: During the time when you're home, have you ever thought to yourself "Well it's nice to be home, I think I'm gonna stay."
D: Yeah, over the last two years we have done a lot of travelling. For me I'm a very family-focused person - I miss my family. So when we went home last, we were going to stay home. We were gonna try... But it was hard.
C: It's very hard. It's a hard thing to explain; to me it's about the vibe. Put it this way - most people who live in Brisbane are there by consequence, not by choice (laughs). It's not like Bali or Chiang Mai where people choose to be in these places (in terms of foreigners). So people have a different attitude in these places, and that's what I like to be around. It's the vibe, more than anything.
H: If you could choose 3 cities in the world for digital nomads, what would it be?
C: Hmm, my top five - sorry I know you said three - but my top five would be Chiang Mai, Bali, Koh Lanta - only because I like the coworking space there (KoHub), Las Palmas De Gran Canaria, and Playa del Carmen.
My top five places to be a digital nomad are Chiang Mai, Bali, Koh Lanta, Las Palmas De Gran Canaria and Playa del Carmen.
H: Great list. I'm sure our readers will find that helpful. I have a question which sounds a bit cliche. If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
C: I wouldn't tell myself anything really. Just because all these things need to be learned. My general advice to anyone is risk management. If you could start a side hustle while you're at your job - whether it's freelancing or an online business - and that gets to a point where you have enough income to live off that; then you could take away your day job and start travelling. That's to me is the safest way of doing it.
There are people who have just quit their job, come out and kind of said to themselves "I'm just gonna make it happen". I hate that advice because to me it's not gonna work for most people. It took us years to make it happen; we didn't just leave Australia and that was it.
D: Yeah I took on two jobs. I was working full-time and did freelancing on the weekends just because I knew it was gonna take me adjusting going from a full-time job - having that safety net - to not having one and freaking out. I would much rather know that I got a couple of clients before leaving home. It's about de-risking and planning, really.
H: So the advice would be, don't quit your job without having a plan. What would you tell people who are going to leave their job to travel and find work along the way?
D: To be honest when I hear people saying that, I was like "Why?". If you know you're not ready to leave and you got a lot of loose ends, why do that. You can buy yourself time - like a month. You can get two clients in a month, it's possible.
C: Or if you saved up enough money that you could live off for one or two years, then that's probably enough time to make it work. So it's either savings or income - the money has to come from somewhere, right.
To me the safest way to become a digital nomad is to find a side hustle (whether it's freelancing or an online business) while you are on a full-time job. Once it grows to a certain point, then you can take away the day job and start travelling.
Jessica (J): That's a very wise advice. I think too many people think that they could just leave their jobs to travel and make it work.
C: I think if you wanna travel, that's fair enough. You should just travel and not try to work.
D: Some people could. But yes, I think (working remotely) is not a lifestyle for everybody.
H: Have you ever felt that, as a digital nomad, having to work on the road takes out the joy of travelling?
D: Not for me. I think it's hard for me to not work (laughs). I'm really grateful that I have so much flexibility - my clients are great - and I can work in any environment.
C: I'm very fussy. The more boring the set up - the uglier, office-y, desk and table - the more productive it is for me. (Laughs)
H: We are down to our last question. So both of you agreed that Chiang Mai is your favorite spot to work remotely. My question is what would it take for Bali to propel itself into number one destination for digital nomads?
C: I think Bali is always gonna be different to Chiang Mai. Actually, Bali is number one for me now; and it's because I want the extras - I call it the extras. In Chiang Mai, there is little nightlife. There's no beach. It's not a creative hotspot. I'm moving into more creative pursuits rather than the regular digital nomad lifestyle now; and Canggu and Bali is great for that.
On the flipside, Chiang Mai is great in terms of infrastructure; you can get fast internet everywhere. Everything's easier - you can walk to the coworking space. It's just super super convenient and safe as well. It's more chaotic here (in Bali) but that makes it more exciting.
Thanks Chris and Denise for the insightful and fun conversation. Do check out materials from Chris the Freelancer and Denise Laz at www.christhefreelancer.com and www.deniselazaroo.com