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This post is brought to you by Michelle’s favorite book – The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah, and her phone because Google Maps has saved us all abroad!
This is the latest interview in a series featuring digital nomads talking about their lives and lessons (click here if you want to be interviewed). The goal is to help demystify the process of making money online, wandering the world, and living an unconventional life!
We relate to Michelle’s story on so many levels! From discovering that exploring the world is where we belong to also feeling that nomading can be slightly disorienting at times, we can relate! Be sure to check out Michelle’s blog Full Time Explorer to read more about her travels.
Thank you for hanging out with Freedom Is Everything, Michelle!
Key takeaways from Michelle’s interview:
“I don’t think I could go back to working a normal 9-5. I love being on the move. I love experiencing new things. And I love the work culture in Nepal. Work is something you do because you need to survive. It doesn’t take over your life. It’s by no means perfect because stuff rarely gets done on time (if at all), but it reminds me to stay balanced. As an American who worked in NYC for eight years, it’s hard for me to slow down or even look away from work at times. I think New Yorkers have an unhealthy obsession with work, and being overseas keeps me grounded.”
“One of the things I wish I knew sooner was how to use Facebook groups. I never really understood them or the value they add to communities. In most countries, you can look up “country /city name expats” and find a whole community of people living there. Having friends across the world has been so important to my happiness abroad.”
“I used to work in the fashion industry, and comparing yourself to others is practically a sport. I’ve started comparing myself only to who I was yesterday and who I’d like to be tomorrow. It’s been the most liberating thing, and it’s allowed me to better myself as a person and to be more confident with who I am.”
Introduce yourself! 🙂 Who are you? What do you do for work? And what is your nomadic story?
Hi! My name is Michelle Della Giovanna, and I’m originally from a small town just north of New York City. These days I’m living in Kathmandu, Nepal. I also spend some of the year in South Carolina with my mom and my sister.
I currently have a myriad of jobs in the freelancing world, but my two main careers are as a travel blogger at Full Time Explorer, freelance writer, and a Pinterest strategist. If you’re wondering what a Pinterest strategist is, you’re not alone. I help bloggers drive traffic to their websites by using Pinterest. I’m really good at analyzing data and finding trends. It’s an unusual job, but I love that I can do it from anywhere.
I’ve been nomading for between three and four years now. That seems crazy when I think about it, but I quit my 9-5 job in New York City, put my stuff in storage back in 2017, and started traveling the world. I didn’t intend to be a nomad. I just wanted to take a year off to do all the things I never had time for before. I realized how much I really love seeing the world and experiencing new cultures, and I accidentally became a Pinterest strategist somewhere along the way!
What inspired you to start nomading? And how has nomading changed your perspective on life?
I was headed towards a conventional life when everything I was working on seemed to wrap up all at once. I had a job with a company that filed for bankruptcy. I was using the money I made from that job to invest in my own business, and they owed me a large chunk of change when they went under. That forced me to close my own business a few months later. At the same time, I was going through a breakup and moving out of my apartment. It just felt like the perfect time to stop and take a minute to reevaluate what I was doing with my life. That led me to travel.
I started a travel blog along the way because a friend told me I could travel for free if I wrote about the places I went. That’s not true at all, but I love writing and taking pictures, so travel blogging became a passion. I used Pinterest to drive traffic to my own blog and realized most people didn’t understand how to do that. Later, I was able to monetize my talent for Pinterest and make it into a job.
Now, I don’t think I could go back to working a normal 9-5. I love being on the move. I love experiencing new things. And I love the work culture in Nepal. Work is something you do because you need to survive. It doesn’t take over your life. It’s by no means perfect because stuff rarely gets done on time (if at all), but it reminds me to stay balanced. As an American who worked in NYC for eight years, it’s hard for me to slow down or even look away from work at times. I think New Yorkers have an unhealthy obsession with work, and being overseas keeps me grounded.
Please tell us the detailed story of how you started your freelancing business.
My freelancing business started completely by accident. I was managing my own Pinterest account, and I was in a few Facebook groups where travel bloggers can ask questions to other bloggers. At the time, I really sucked at travel blogging, but I was great at getting people to visit my page through Pinterest. A lot of people would ask questions in the forums for how to use Pinterest, and I would comment with advice. One day, a woman asked me how much I would charge to run her account for her. She hired me after a few emails, and she became my first client.
I continued to help answer questions in different blogger forums, and a few more clients trickled in here and there. After a while, I got a referral from a well-respected blogger. With the extra clients that came from her site, I was fully booked and had to stop taking new clients.
What is unique about the way you travel, and what advice do you have for someone that wants to travel with a similar style?
I have a home base in Kathmandu and South Carolina. I’ve realized that traveling nonstop and living out of a bag was too exhausting for me. It worked well for a year, and by the second year, I just felt drained. I wanted a place to unpack my things and feel at home. Being a nomad can be disorienting, especially as a freelancer, because no paycheck is ever guaranteed. My income varies every month so having a home base gave me a feeling of stability. Now, I can travel whenever I want while still feeling grounded.
What are the 2-3 favorite places where you’ve lived/traveled to and why?
Nepal is my favorite place I’ve been which is why I live here now. Kathmandu is a dusty, chaotic city that few people love, but the people here are some of the nicest I’ve met in the world. I really enjoy the culture and how people take care of each other. There are over 125 different ethnicities in Nepal, so it’s impossible to get bored. There’s always something new to experience or learn, and I love that.
I spent two months in Thailand, and as a nomad, I really enjoyed the ease of staying there. It was easy to get around, there’s good internet, and the beaches are beautiful. It’s also insanely cheap, so you can enjoy yourself on a very small budget.
I only spent one week in Singapore, but I could see living there. It’s a little on the expensive side, but I love how modern, clean, and safe it is. I also appreciate their attention to sustainability and building a city that embraces nature. Singapore made me feel like I was 20 years in the future, and I loved that about it.
What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about nomading?
One of the things I wish I knew sooner was how to use Facebook groups. I never really understood them or the value they add to communities. In most countries, you can look up “country /city name expats” and find a whole community of people living there. Having friends across the world has been so important to my happiness abroad. I have a group of girls that I love who are all expats.
Making friends with locals is easy, but having someone who understands the weird struggles of living somewhere foreign is key because you can relate to each other on a different level. And if you’re a shy person, just put yourself out there. I can’t even tell you how many people I’ve literally said “Do you want to be my friend” to, and they’ve just laughed and said, “Oh my god! I wanted to ask you the same thing!”
Something else that I wish I knew sooner was that no one cares that I’m American. That sounds weird, but I was really scared that people hated Americans before I started to travel. People rarely care where you come from as long as you are respectful to the culture and place you are visiting. I wish I had left the preconceived notions that the world is a scary place at home. I’ve been welcomed into every place I’ve visited with open arms. That really surprised me.
As a woman, what should other people who identify similarly (and who haven’t traveled much) know about traveling/nomading?
As a woman who has traveled solo extensively, I think it’s important to always be aware of everything around you and to do your research before visiting or living in a place, but not to get held back by fear. I would say that 98% of the time, I’ve felt really safe traveling alone. The other 2% was just the annoyance of being hit on repeatedly.
I’m actually amazed at the amount of men who have shamelessly hit on me within seconds of meeting. This is something that never happened to me in the U.S., so it took me a bit off guard. I found that taking boxing classes made me feel more confident traveling solo. I would highly recommend a self-defense class to any woman. I’ve never needed to use it but knowing that I can defend myself puts me at ease when I’m on the road.
What is one of your favorite travel stories/experiences?
One of my favorite travel stories was when I went trekking to Mera Peak in Nepal. It’s a high-altitude trek that goes up to 6,461 meters. We got to high camp (5,800m) during a white-out snowstorm. It was crazy. We couldn’t see anything, and our tent was set up on the side of a cliff. I had terrible altitude sickness and couldn’t summit the peak in the morning, but when I woke up and looked out of the tent, the view was absolutely insane. The Himalayas stretched as far as the eye could see. It was stunning.
Since launching, what has been most effective to acquire/retain clients?
I was lucky enough to get my first client by accident, but Facebook groups were the best way for me to attract clients. I never once posted that I was a Pinterest strategist looking for clients, and I never ever spammed places with self-promotion. I would just look for people who needed help, and I’d answer their questions in full with details on how they could do it themselves. After a while, I had a reputation for giving good advice that worked, and the clients I did have backed up my claims. I didn’t mind giving the advice away for free because the people who would do it themselves probably couldn’t afford a strategist, and those who could afford to hire me didn’t want to take the time to do it themselves.
After I had a good reputation, I was recommended by a well-respected travel blogger. Her recommendation was like gold. I still manage her account to this day, and she still recommends me on her website (although I haven’t been able to take new clients because I’m fully booked these days).
For someone interested in becoming a freelancer in your field, what’s the best advice you would give? And what books, podcasts, thought leaders, or other learning resources do you recommend?
The best piece of advice I could give is really simple. If you work hard and can back up what you do, clients will come to you. I’ve never had to hunt down clients or convince people to work with me. I work really hard for my clients and give them my absolute best each month. I have a proven track record with numbers that can back it up, and because of that, people recommend me, and clients come to me. If you don’t have any clients, build up your own page first and use that as an example to show others.
What digital tools do you use for your work/business?
All of my clients have Tailwind for Pinterest so that I can manage their accounts. This allows you to spend a few hours scheduling pins for the entire month. I also use Canva for pin/graphic designs. For my travel blog, I use Keysearch for keyword research. Other than that, I use a lot of excel sheets to keep everything organized!
What scale is your business at today, and what are your future goals?
My Pinterest business is a boutique-style business. I’ve thought about scaling it, but I like the number of clients I have. I intentionally keep it small so that I am in direct contact with each of my clients and we have one-on-one relationships. This might make my business less lucrative, but I’ve really embraced the Nepali way of working to live and not living to work.
On the other hand, I am working to scale my travel blog. Right now, I’m still building content that is unique and shows people that there’s a lot more to Nepal than the major cities. My blog is my real passion, and it gives me so much flexibility to travel and do whatever I want, whenever I want. It doesn’t feel like a job to me, even though it takes a lot of work. I’m hoping to be the number one resource for travel within Nepal.
Due to covid, my blog only receives about 6k – 9k views a month at the moment. I’m hoping that will jump above 25k easily when travel resumes. Right now, it’s only making about $100 a month, but it leads to a lot of freelance jobs that pay well. In the future, when numbers return, I’m hoping to make $1,000 a month off of advertising and affiliates.
I don’t make a ton of cash, but Kathmandu is an inexpensive place to live, so I can keep my business small and live really comfortably. I’m able to pay all my bills, travel, eat out, and save a little each month! Honestly, it’s a pretty good life!
Tell us about your content creation journey and share some of your favorite content that people should check out!
For me, creating content starts with an idea of something I want to go do. For instance, if I want to go on a specific trek in Nepal. Then, I head over to Keysearch and see what keywords I would like to rank for that relate to that trek, and I make a giant list. Next, I come up with some ideas of blog posts to write for that trek that I think would be useful for my readers. Last, I head out on my journey and enjoy my travels while taking notes and photos that correlate to the blogs I want to produce when I get back!
If you only had a few minutes to live, what are the most important life lessons you would share with the world?
The life lesson I would want to share with the world is that you’d be surprised how little you really need to be happy. I think (at least in the U.S.) we get really caught up in owning things, and we spend a lot of time working to pay for them. The truth is, you can work a lot less and be a lot happier because those things that we buy aren’t that important.
What do you travel with that you couldn’t imagine traveling without?
I hate to be the person to say it, but my phone! I always get a local SIM card, and it makes travel so enjoyable. I can get completely lost exploring in a city and know that Google Maps will get me back to my hotel. Without my phone, I think I’d be afraid to venture too far or off the beaten path, but with it, I feel so comfortable.
As a hiker/trekker, I’m also a huge fan of anything from Eddie Bauer. I think they make items that are great for travel. Almost all of my hiking gear is from there, and I’m always really happy with the items for the price. My Microtherm down coat is probably my favorite, especially for traveling in cold destinations. It folds into a pocket so it doesn’t take up much room, but it’s so warm!
What’s your favorite book and why?
My favorite book tends to change every so often, but right now, it’s The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah. It’s about the author who buys a house in Morocco and all of the interesting cultural experiences he has while renovating it. It’s extremely well written and laugh-out-loud funny. It reminds me of why I love to travel and see new places. It’s a must-read for expats, nomads, and travelers.
What small change has made a big difference in your life?
Not comparing myself to others. I used to work in the fashion industry, and comparing yourself to others is practically a sport. I’ve started comparing myself only to who I was yesterday and who I’d like to be tomorrow. It’s been the most liberating thing, and it’s allowed me to better myself as a person and to be more confident with who I am.
What is your philosophy on being happy and/or finding meaning/purpose in life? And any recommended resources for people navigating this journey?
For me, being happy means making other people happy. It’s so easy to get caught up in the world of “me me me” and doing stuff for ourselves, but I feel happiest when I’m helping others. Maybe that’s something as simple as showing people where to travel or recommending a small hotel that I love on my website, so other tourists stay there, raising money for something I’m passionate about, or providing well-paid jobs for people who need it.
Lately, I’ve been really focused on sustainability, and I’m amazed at how small everyday choices can do good or harm. For instance, buying an organic shirt means that I know the person growing the cotton isn’t breathing in chemicals or polluting the towns nearby. For me, it’s just a shirt, but buying that shirt allows someone to have a job where their health isn’t put at risk. Thinking about other people’s happiness has really made me a happier person. It’s cheesy, but I think if we all focused a little more of our energy on others, we’d all be happier.
How can people learn more about you and your work?
My blog: www.fulltimeexplorer.com