Digital Nomading as a Writer & Media Strategist (Sarah Lempa’s Story)

Sarah Lempa portrait

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!

Sarah Lempa shares our love of Bali where she’s been hanging out during the pandemic. Her work as a digital nomad includes writing for well-known publications and creating media strategy for growing companies.

Thanks for hanging out with us, Sarah!

Table of Contents

Introduce yourself! 🙂 Who are you? What do you do for work? And what is your nomadic story?

Hey there! I’m a writer and creative media strategist originally from the United States. While I was born and (mostly) raised just outside of Chicago, I lived in Minneapolis for 5 years before I left the U.S. to build my location-independent career online in 2018.

In my writing, I cover the joys (and challenges) of travel, mental health, and solopreneurship. My work has appeared in Business Insider, VICE, Create & Cultivate, Seeker, and SUITCASE Magazine, among others. I’m also a creative media strategist, meaning I help brands build their online presence through social media, email marketing, ad campaigns, and all things digital. You name it; I can help.

I’m currently in Indonesia, but I’ve called multiple countries home (including Australia and various parts of South America) and have ventured across 6 continents along the way. When I’m not staring at the cool glow of my laptop, I’m probably jamming out to groovy beats or toiling with some other creative hobby like photography.

Sarah Lempa portrait

What inspired you to start nomading? And how has nomading changed your perspective on life?

Whew, what inspired me to start nomading… where to start. I’d say primarily my love for travel and knowing that I was not going to fit in with the “normal” career path that many choose to take in the United States. There’s nothing wrong with it, it just never felt right for me. I spent my college years living in fear of the thought of being stuck between a desk, hounded by bosses, boxed into a structure that wouldn’t let me fully be myself.

Nomading hasn’t just changed my perspective on life — it has completely formed it from the ground up. The singular most important thing to come out of my travels actually has nothing to do with business or the career concept of digital nomadism; it’s all about humanity and what I’ve learned about other cultures. I could write a book on this topic (and hope to someday) but for starters, I’ve come to realize how most humans want the same things regardless of where we come from and how we communicate.

The difference is, each culture has their own harmonic dance when it comes to communication. Some extroverted, others that keep their feelings to themselves. It has been so interesting to notice these subtle differences from country to country and realize how our environments make such an impact on the way we share (or don’t share) with others. It has really helped me understand people better. We’re all the same strange gift, just in different wrapping paper. And I have a lot of love for humanity despite our inherent flaws. 

Please tell us the detailed story of how you started your freelancing business.

When I was still in college, I made a travel blog so I could start writing stories to share with my friends and family. Once I realized there was no way I’d thrive at a 9-5 job, I transitioned that website into listing myself as a “creative marketer”, which was super vague but the best I could come up with at the time.

My first few clients came from existing jobs in the restaurant industry, along with connections from my university and scholarship. I joined a student-led design consulting group, which gave me access to a few local startups and small businesses. I also worked in two restaurants at the time to pay my bills, so I asked one of the owners for a meeting to talk about her marketing strategy. She agreed on the spot to pay me extra for some social media assistance. I was constantly reaching out to people, asking questions, studying the movements of those who inspired me.

Soon enough, I was working with 2-3 small businesses during my senior year of college on super basic marketing initiatives. I leveraged YouTube videos and articles online to hone in on my skills. It took a lot of trial and error to improve my work, but luckily, I’ve always had a knack for writing and social media — so a lot of it came naturally. 

When I graduated and push came to shove, there was no other choice but to run with it all (literally) and try to grow. After building success on Upwork and winning some longer term contracts, I had scaled my business to the equivalent of a full-time salary just 6 months after graduating. I’ve come a long way since then, and it hasn’t been easy. When I look at my first few articles and projects, I realize how much I’ve grown.

What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about nomading?

Expect the best, but have a fallback plan in the event of the worst. When I left the U.S. with hopes of making this all work, I only had about $3,000 to my name. And to be honest, I didn’t really have a fallback plan other than couchsurfing. I was fortunate enough to accelerate my business in just the right the knick of time. I’d highly recommend getting a few projects in the pipeline before you jet off, even if they’re super small.

Even though I was hardly making any money when I left the U.S., I had a website plus a few simple projects and work samples under my belt already. Know what skills you’re planning to monetize and come up with a plan of how you’re going to market yourself.

Also, consider your mental health. It’s a massive adjustment to suddenly be baseless, and even though it’s incredibly liberating and soul-freeing, it takes time to adapt. I ended up having to take a break from my rapid-fire travels because of massive anxiety outbreaks, but it helped me learn what type of life structure works best for me — and turns out it’s a balance between travel and having a base. Stay connected to your family and friends, and pay attention to how you feel. Travel is not a race.

Sarah Lempa interview

If you’re a woman, person of color, and/or LGBTQ, what should other people who identify similarly (and who haven’t traveled much) know about traveling/nomading?

Traveling alone as a woman comes with its limitations, intimidations, and extra bullsh*t, but honestly, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. These are never reasons to back down.

You do have to look out for yourself a bit more and there are bound to be some uncomfortable situations regardless of where you are. Do your research about safe areas and trust your gut with people you meet. And definitely read up on the culture in each country before you visit — the way you’re treated will vary depending on where you go. The very few negative experiences I’ve had due to being a woman alone abroad are extremely miniscule in comparison to all of the incredible, life-changing joys I’ve had.

If you had debt/student loans when you started nomading, how did you handle or think about this and what advice would you give to other people with a similar situation?

I still have some student loans that I’m paying off. I’ve definitely felt that pressure before — but there’s no way I was going to let life pass me by for the sake of a freakin’ loan.

My payments were pretty low when I first started building my career since I wasn’t making much, but I’ve gradually scaled them up as I’ve increased revenue from my freelancing business. I grew up without a lot of money, so I was quite good at pinching pennies and making things work back when I didn’t have a lot. You should NEVER let student loans hold you back from pursuing what you really want to do in life. There’s almost always a way to balance them. My current student loan strategy: Put that shit on autopay and forget about it.

What are the 2-3 favorite places where you’ve lived/traveled to and why?

It’s extremely difficult to pick, but I’d have to say my top three favorite countries are…

Vietnam. The hectic yet organized chaos that permeates Vietnam’s cities is electrifying, and the nature is unreal. The people are some of the kindest I’ve encountered, and the food is delicious.

Colombia. I’m convinced that Colombia’s Caribbean coast is what dreams are made of, between the untouched beaches and bountiful places to eat fresh ceviche and empanadas.

France. I feel like you either love or hate Paris, and I’m one of those people who absolutely loves it. I could walk around those romantic city streets during any season, pretty much pretending I’m Owen Wilson in “Midnight in Paris.”

I’m also madly in love with Indonesia, Australia, Japan, and Morocco — but for travel experiences I’ve picked these three.

Sarah lempa in Vietnam

What is one of your favorite travel stories/experiences?

One time I befriended a trio of old Lebanese men on the street in Paris, and they invited me to dinner at one of the best restaurants in town. They told me I’ll forever have the friendship of “the three musketeers”. It was awesome. No idea where they are today, but I sure hope they’re living their best lives.

What scale is your business at today and what are your future goals?

I have 3-5 clients at a time, several of which are on long term contracts. I’m also always in contact with various publications, pitching new stories and working with editors at a handful of outlets to get my stories published. I earn roughly the same as my peers (more than some, less than others, I assume) at similar career levels in the United States. It was pretty crazy to go from a broke backpacker to a full-fledged solopreneur in a matter of months! I’ve loved the journey.

My future goals are always evolving, but I’d really like to take my writing to the next level by writing a book eventually. I really enjoy working with my clients on an ongoing basis, so I’m excited to see how we’ll keep growing together. I’ve toyed with the idea of starting an agency or some type of program to help others create a career that’s custom made for them. I also offer one-on-one consultations to folks who are looking to cultivate a similar lifestyle and career. Honestly, I change my mind all the time, but I have a good feeling about where it’s all going.

Since launching, what has been most effective to acquire/retain clients?

Of course, your performance and portfolio are incredibly important — clients want results. But honestly, open communication and truly just being myself has been one key way to acquire and retain clients. 

When you really care about a client’s business, they’re going to feel that. I’ve had many of the same clients for years now, with plenty of short-term projects peppered in between. Communicate with your clients; check in with them frequently; make sure their needs are met. And it’s a two-way street: Make sure your needs are met too.

In regards to acquiring new clients: I’ve gotten many inquiries based on my personal social media, so I think having a strong online presence and personal brand is super important. I’ve also been honored to receive countless referrals from past clients, friends, and other word of mouth situations — solely from people being like “hey I know someone who’s pretty cool who might be able to help you”. And I’m so immensely grateful for that. I’ve been saying this for years: The hardest part is getting started.

For someone interested in becoming a freelancer in your field, what’s the best advice that you would give? And what books, podcasts, thought leaders or other learning resources do you recommend?

Cam has already mapped out tons of amazing technical advice across his content — but I’ll add my two cents here. Things are going to be murky as hell when you’re first getting started, but it’s so important to try as many things as you can to figure out what you’re best at and feel the most passion for. I went from thinking I’d be a graphic designer to a coder and then I finally landed on what I do today… and I’m still evolving. I’d recommend getting started as a “side hustle” before you leap into it full-swing, for a better chance of success.

Browse freelance work sites like Fiverr or Upwork and see what’s out there, and what makes you excited. Run with it. Preferably to another country.

In regards to books, podcasts, and thought leaders — honestly, I stumbled upon a lot of inspiring people on social media who I then followed and studied closely to figure out how I could do it all too. It’s funny, because I actually reached out to Cam way back when, feeling inspired after a mutual connection told me about his nomadic career change. We later crossed paths in Bali and had a laugh over our initial messages on Instagram and how it had all unfolded. Life is wild like that sometimes, and I love it.

Sarah lempa photos

What digital tools do you use for your work/business?

I pretty much live on Gmail, Google Calendar, Slack, and the Sticky Notes desktop app on my Macbook. I’m meticulous when it comes to my organization and I really like things to be simple. No bells and whistles for me.

What small change has made a big difference in your life?

Putting my phone on airplane mode overnight and not turning it on until I’ve had breakfast.

Tell us about a deep passion of yours! What has your journey been like and what advice/resources would you recommend for someone interested in learning more about this topic?

I absolutely love portrait photography. I have a Canon T6i with a few different lenses, so in my spare time I really like to create and try various shoot ideas. I’m always chatting up my visual arts friends about their process, lighting, and how the magic comes together. Sometimes I model for photographers, so I get to learn through them too.

To hone in my skills, I’ve been doing a lot of self-portraiture because it feels empowering AF and an amazing way to get into a creative flow state in total solitude. If you’re interested in this too, I’d recommend making a mood board of all the photography that makes you excited. It could be on Pinterest, Instagram, whatever — just putting it all in one place gives you some serious inspiration.

If you only had a few minutes to live, what are the most important life lessons that you would share with the world?

I have so many but they’d take me hours to delve into. So, I’d definitely pull a Nike and say “just do it”. And that applies to everything — reaching for a new career, telling your crush you’ve got the hots for them, skydiving in Norway. You name it.

Sarah profile

What’s the best purchase you’ve made under $100 in the last 12 months?

I bought some snazzy blue light-blocking glasses to protect my eyes for all of the hours that I’m staring at my laptop. I ordered mine online from Barner, but there are tons of brands out there.

What is your philosophy on being happy and/or finding meaning/purpose in life? And any recommended resources for people navigating this journey?

I love this question but I feel like it would end up being a whole separate interview for me!! So much to think about!

How can people learn more about you and your work?

Hit me up on Instagram @travelempa or check out my website —  where you’ll find all of my services, publications, and a nifty little FAQ section too.

 

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