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This post is brought to you by Heather’s favorite books on how to run a successful business: Essentialism by Greg Mckeown, Smart Women Finish Rich by David Bach, and The Right Questions by Debbie Ford.
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!
Heather left her life in the corporate lane after 25 years. Now she’s lived and worked in different 25 countries. She’s a wonderful example that it’s not too late to change your life and find freedom while still making a living. Check out her YouTube series about why and how to quit a job you hate!
Thanks for hanging out with us, Heather!
Table of Contents
Introduce yourself! 🙂 Who are you? What do you do for work? And what is your nomadic story?
Hi! My name is Heather Markel. I’m a Native New Yorker (from Manhattan, yes!) and gave up my apartment there in 2018. At that point, I had been traveling full-time for six months and realized it was going to be more than just a career break. Now I live wherever I am. Currently, that’s in New Zealand, where I got marooned during the pandemic. (Yes, I know I’m very lucky!)
I worked in corporate America, in the telecommunications industry, for over 25 years. My career spanned three companies and several different roles in sales, marketing, and customer service. I got frustrated feeling like my career was going nowhere. I couldn’t find any other jobs that excited me. So, I decided to have faith, take a break, and quit. I thought it would be for a few months, then back to “real life.” Four years later, I’m still a nomad. I make most of my income from my business coaching and freelance travel writing with Travel Awaits. I’m also beginning to teach other people how to prepare and budget for full-time travel.
After numerous international family vacations as a kid, I lived with a French host family for a month when I was 16. I became fluent in French because of them and got hooked on traveling and meeting people. I never felt like I could go too far in my corporate career because long flights and jet lag really cut into a one or two-week vacation.
Ironically, when I first quit and started traveling, I felt paralyzed. I could go ANYwhere, and it felt completely overwhelming. Since I had to be home for jury duty six weeks after leaving (!!), I chose Costa Rica. Several months later, I realized this wasn’t a career break. It was a way of life for me. I went to Europe, then came home, packed up my apartment, and took off into the world.
Since then, I’ve been to 25 countries. In 2020, I was supposed to see Eastern Africa and more of South America, but a few weeks after landing in New Zealand, well, we know what happened.
Please tell us the detailed story of how you started your business.
I got certified as a Professional Coach (CPC) in 2008. That’s when I realized how much I love helping people and what a gift coaching is. I also love travel and languages. I started out as an expat coach, creating The Expat Coach Association and The Expat Coach Directory in 2010. Eventually, I moved on to business coaching since I had so much experience in sales, marketing, and customer service. One of the number one issues I help my clients with is selling because there’s so much built-up fear and resistance around it.
I’ve loved helping clients double and triple their income. I work mostly with solopreneurs and small businesses. It’s been great that I had both these businesses prior to becoming a nomad because they can travel with me. I picked up freelance travel writing because I was blogging about my travels, so minus will be paid. I’ve had good fortune and motivation on my side – getting opportunities to write for Entrepreneur.com and, now, Travel Awaits.
Once lockdown came, I realized the question people ask me the most is how do I afford full-time travel? I put the answer into an eCourse called “How To Make Money Without A Job” and started a Facebook group for full-time travelers so that I can help anyone else out there that has a dream to travel full time but doesn’t know where to come up with the money to do it, or where to start.
What inspired you to start nomading? And how has nomading changed your perspective on life?
To be honest, I thought I might be “too old” or “too crazy” to be a full-time nomad. When I first started, I planned two weeks in Costa Rica, two weeks in Peru, and two weeks in Argentina. I pre-planned my first two weeks and then snapped out of it. I realized I wanted to experience “go-with-the-flow” travel and stopped planning.
On the day before my pre-planning ended, I had a meltdown. I was in a remote area of Costa Rica, trying to join friends, and found out it would be either expensive or dangerous for me to get to them. I almost caved. Then I decided to radically overhaul my approach to travel and woke up to the fact this wasn’t a vacation. My entire life changed from there, and I’ve had an amazing time.
Being a nomad has changed my life perspective by waking me up to the fact that I bought into the wrong model for most of my life. Now I realize it’s completely crazy to work away the best years of your life, banking on having enough money and health, and even reaching retirement age. That just doesn’t make sense to me anymore. I also realized I don’t need so much stuff, which radically cuts down on expenses, and that working for fulfillment beats working for a paycheck.
I’ve learned so many lessons, like karma, trusting your intuition, and building self-confidence. I’d have to write a novel to tell you all of them, lol! I’ve learned so many humbling things, especially traveling in South America and Africa. I’ve learned about wealth and poverty, how the past has shaped the present, and that the people of a country are very different than the government of a country.
What are the 2-3 favorite places where you’ve lived/traveled to and why?
Cape Town, South Africa, Patagonia, and Northern Argentina, and all of Peru. 2019 was my first time ever in South America and Africa. They completely blew my mind. The colors, languages, and how differently people live and the animals made me so happy.
Also, having read about all the dangers of many places I went to that year, I learned that the people of a country are very different from their government and met many kind and wonderful people. I also learned more about history than in any classroom and began to see how much wealth was stolen from the southern hemisphere the further I went. A big wake-up call, as was visiting townships and squatter camps in South Africa.
When I went to Cape Town, I felt like I was home, even though I had never been. I had a visceral connection with the land and the people. I learned what it’s like to notice the color of my skin and also what it’s like to be truly welcomed and accepted. This was also the first time in my life that I experienced open conversations with people of color about slavery, apartheid, and racism. It was the beginning of a huge education in awareness that I want to continue.
Argentina was full of beautiful people, and I especially love the yerba mate tradition. I met so many new friends sharing a mate – it’s a drink, but it’s really an experience. Patagonia has these rolling hills that are indescribable, and the north has rich colors in the mountains.
Peru was someplace I was nervous about going with all the warnings about kidnapping. I landed at 11 pm, and my taxi driver left me alone in his car to pay for his parking ticket. Every bad thought went through my head, but I had the most wonderful time. I met wonderful friends almost every day. The food there is amazing, and there’s so much rich heritage and fascinating people. Seeing Machu Picchu was an experience in itself. It’s touristy, and yet, there are moments when you feel like you’re there alone. I couldn’t believe the buildings are still standing after all this time. It’s a combination of architectural ingenuity and earthquake resilience.
I have to sneak in an honorable mention for Easter Island. I feel like it’s a place I would never have gone if I hadn’t quit and gifted myself time to travel. It’s so far away from New York City. It was epic, and so much about it boggles the mind. I definitely believe the alien theory for how the Moai were transported! 😊
What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about nomading?
I have a lot of advice!
Make sure you’re running towards something, not away. Especially if you solo travel, you’ll meet “yourself” so many times on the road. You need to have the courage to do the personal work it will bring your way.
Trust your intuition; it will never steer you wrong. Even if you can’t understand why you feel what you do with a person or a place, don’t question it; just follow your intuition. That intuition can come in the form of a feeling, a voice in your head, or a pain in your body, to name a few. You’ll get very aware of how intuition shows up for you. The important thing is to listen to it. (Did I say that enough times? Lol.)
Now is not the time to default to introversion. When you travel, you need to force yourself to, at the very least, smile and make eye contact with passerby. If you eat out, and someone at the next table next to you invites you to sit with them, say yes. I wrote a whole article on how to make friends while solo traveling the world because I know some people worry about how to do this when they’re a nomad. Traveling solo ends up being the best way to meet people because they often come to you and want to include you in what they’re doing.
I was afraid of going to many places when I started, and sometimes, even when I traveled. News headlines and government website warnings led the way in my (often wrong) perceptions of places. (On that note, make sure, if you’re American, you sign up for the STEP program, which is really helpful about critical warnings, like Covid).
Finally, pack WAY less than you think you need. If you’re a nomad, you’re probably carrying all that stuff on your back, and it will be too heavy even with just your underwear. Seriously, you will never be able to get your bags light enough. Also, you can’t know, till you get someplace, what you really need. For instance, in New Zealand, I didn’t realize how strong the sun is and so bought a much better hat and some sun-protective clothing. In Chile, I was freezing and needed a warmer sweater.
I do my best to donate something for everything I pick up. Second-hand stores are both a great place to donate and a great place to restock and save a ton of money.
What is one of your favorite travel stories/experiences?
I have met some of the most wonderful people in my travels. I’ve also been treated with great kindness by local people I met. One of the stories that stands out to me is from my time in Cape Town, South Africa. I took a city bus trying to reach one end of the city. I ended up choosing the wrong bus. I figured that out when we reached the last stop. I asked the driver what to do. I suggested I get an Uber. He said I would be mugged if I got off his bus. So, instead, he drove me back to the nearest transfer point.
Once there, he made everyone else get off the bus and wait for the next one. He then stood at the transfer point with me until my bus arrived. He ran over to it, got on board with me, and told that driver where I wanted to go. I asked his name, which he told me, but he refused to give me his manager’s contact information. So, I wrote the bus company and told them what an amazing kindness he had given to me. I hope he got a raise.
What scale is your business at today, and what are your future goals?
When I was living in New York City, my coaching business was at or over $10,000/month. The strange thing I’ve learned from traveling is that I don’t need as much. I’m even ok with fluctuations in income because I’ve done a great job creating the right budget and sticking to it. I earn anywhere from $2,000 – $5,000 a month from my overall business portfolio. I’ve also become a whiz at saving and cutting costs. There have been months in the pandemic that I was under $1,000, but so were my expenses, so it all worked out.
My blog has grown from a few sessions a month to 1,000+. Not enough to get on Mediavine, but hey, it’s been great growth nonetheless!
I think the key thing to remember if you want a nomadic life is that flow is essential. Your life will be completely different than it is in corporate or full-time. You have the option to go to great places, spend all your time indoors and work your tushie off and keep earning $10k, or you can enjoy the world in front of you, cut your costs, and worry about money less. That’s the option I’ve chosen. I know I can tap into more money when I need it.
My future goals are to do more public speaking and write a book. I plan to return home for a few months once I have the vaccine, see family I haven’t in over a year, focus on the book writing, and then take off next year to see some more of this amazing world.
Since launching, what has been most effective to acquire/retain customers and scale your business?
For me, there are a few ways that have been impactful. I love meeting people, so relationship-building is the number one way that I get clients. I use that skill in a few other ways, too.
I really enjoy public speaking. Before Covid, it was my number one path to sales. Now I do webinars, Clubhouse calls, and podcasts, trying to get scheduled on other people’s podcasts to get more well-known. My blogging and writing also help, and I have a YouTube channel with great content and information about my services and products. Being featured in a New York Times article last year was also helpful!
What I teach is what I do – each of us has a specific way we’ll be successful with sales and marketing. What works for you may not work for me. As I mentioned, I focus on relationship-building tools like speaking, community building, networking, etc.
In terms of scaling, I’m in the process of market research to create some mid-level programs to help people with the various aspects of full-time travel.
Tell us about your content creation journey, and share some of your favorite content that people should check out!
I started out not liking videos at all in my entrepreneurial evolution. Eventually, I got more comfortable on camera, and once I completed a year of travel, I decided to try and share some experiences on YouTube.
When I realized so many people have this pre-conception that nomads are all wealthy, and you have to be rich to travel, I created my YouTube series, “The Inspired Nomads.” In it, I interviewed many other people who, over 40, left a stable job to travel the world. We talk about ways to afford the travel and the experience. I really enjoyed the series and got to interview Nadine Hays Pisani, who’s famous! She was awesome. (She wrote “Happier Than A Billionaire” if you didn’t know who she is.)
Eventually, I decided to put some effort into learning how to use YouTube more effectively. In January, I started a series about my travels in New Zealand, and, last month, added a new series on quitting your job, and up next, my series on full-time travel tips. I had about 30 subscribers in January. I now have 80. It’s slow, hard work, but it is progress!
For someone interested in becoming an entrepreneur in your field, what’s the best advice you would give? And what books, podcasts, thought leaders, or other learning resources do you recommend?
There are great free resources out there, like SCORE. If you’re trying to build a service-based business, like coaching or consulting, hire a mentor or a business coach. Start with the free resources, then tap into your network and find a business coach who can help you figure out what you need to do, what order to do it in, and hold you accountable to get it done.
I subscribe to the “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” theory for work as well as money. I do multiple things for work because you never know when there will be a dip in your income because, say, there’s a pandemic, and you want to have something else to fall back on. If you work in corporate, you’re putting all your eggs in one basket, presuming you can stay till you retire. Then you get laid off and panic. If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, I think it’s a good idea to have at least a couple of different work options, as long as they don’t leave you stressed out or working 80 hours+ a week, in which case, you’re only turning entrepreneurship into the job you hated.
My two main fields of focus are coaching and writing. For anyone who wants to become a coach, get certified by a well-respected and accredited coaching school, recognized by The International Coach Federation (ICF). This is especially important if you want to go on for higher-level accreditations. It’s a lot easier and less expensive to do if you take an ICF accredited program. Join groups and organizations with links to your field, network, find graduates from your university, and ask for mentors and advice.
If you want to get into writing, again, network, get knowledgeable on how to pitch an editor and keep trying. If you’re lucky, you’ll randomly meet an editor or contact at a place you want to write for, but then you have to work hard to impress them with a pitch and keep trying to break in. Once you do, always meet deadlines and word count.
What digital tools do you use for your work/business?
A ridiculous number of them! Asana is great for keeping organized. I also use Zoom. I have a WordPress blog and use OptimizePress and ThriveThemes for some of the various marketing on my site. I couldn’t keep straight without Acuity managing my client schedule for me. I use Mailchimp for my list – I got in on a lot of these tools very early, so I benefit from free or reduced fee pricing. I’m a fan of cutting costs as long as it doesn’t ruin productivity.
I recently started using Clubhouse and am still deciding my opinion of it. It’s very easy to get sucked in, so you have to be diligent about having a way to pull yourself off the phone!
If you only had a few minutes to live, what are the most important life lessons you would share with the world?
Make your life one you love, where each day you can be proud of yourself, in full integrity, and delighted with your choices. Don’t wait until retirement to do it because you’re more likely to hold on to regrets, and, well, life is short and sweet. If your goal is to die happy, then spend your life being happy. Of course, that implies you have to know what makes you happy, and a lot of people never take the time to figure that out for themselves.
What do you travel with that you couldn’t imagine traveling without?
My teddy bear for comfort and my darn cellphone. I hate how much I use it, but it’s also a lifesaver when I need to subtly figure out directions. And, of course, my computer! It’s how I’m writing this article, and do all my paid work.
What small change has made a big difference in your life?
Whenever I find myself saying, “this is soooo difficult!”, I now stop and say, “This is a lot easier than I’m making it.” I started it as a game, and it has become a mantra that allows me to figure out most things that originally seemed difficult!
What is your philosophy on being happy and/or finding meaning/purpose in life? And any recommended resources for people navigating this journey?
Life is short. The idea of working away our best years so that we can only really have fun after we’re old and possibly in deteriorating health doesn’t make sense. If you didn’t realize how precious life is before COVID, hopefully, you got the wake-up call that life is for living, not for doing what other people think is normal. Make YOUR normal being happy, whatever way that means for you. The rest will work itself out. You just have to trust it.
How can people learn more about you and your work?