5 lessons learned freelancing from tropical paradise
Six months ago, James Mawson freelanced for a month from Bali. What would he do differently next time?
So who else works remotely? We can work anywhere, right? And yet, for the last decade, I’ve mostly written from my couch.
It was only late last year that I finally broke free of this habit to write for a month from sunny Bali. And, to be completely honest, it was fantastic.
I caught my first fish, met a ton of cool people and ate the freshest produce and seafood straight from the boat.
I also managed to find enough time, space and focus to get a whole heap of work done – all while enjoying an awesome work/life balance.
Still, there are a few things I would do differently the next time.
"If you’re feeling stuck, a change of scenery might be exactly what you need. If you’re umming and ahhing about it, give it a try for a month."
Sometimes the cheapest flights are unaffordable
In my twenties, I saw no such thing as flying too cheaply. If I could save $150 flying from Melbourne to Bangkok by packing my own sandwiches and sitting through lengthy stopovers at Darwin and Singapore, that’s what I did.
Where I was headed, $150 was easily four days of comfortable lodgings and outrageously good food. Another time, I spent 20 hours in Delhi airport with a friend on the way to Europe. Regrets? Not even slightly. We found a bar and laughed ourselves silly, wild eyed and delirious from lack of sleep.
I even took a quiet pride in how gruelling a long haul flight could be. Such tests of one’s mettle were part of becoming a rugged adventurer.
So why ditch a winning formula?
My flight there actually wasn’t too bad. A 7am Monday ticket meant being at the airport at about 4am; I avoided the rude shock of waking at 3am by just not going to bed. I managed a reasonable snooze on the plane, landed, found my way to my room easily enough. I even enjoyed a bit of a look around before taking an early night. I woke up well rested on Tuesday morning, rocked up to the co-working space and was already back to work.
Flying home was something else.
I checked out of my room Wednesday morning: my flight was at 9pm and nowhere nearby was suitable to work. I made the best use of this time as I could by getting a long massage, taking my time with lunch and then loitering in a bar until it was time for the airport. A nice, slow goodbye to a beautiful island, sure – but also a full day’s work missed before I’d even gone anywhere.
Flying at night means you can at least be unconscious for some of it. That was the plan, anyway. Instead, my TV screen – which I’d no interest in using – decided of its own accord to switch itself on and then off again. It kept blinking away, occasionally stopping for a few minutes just to toy with me, all the way from Denpasar to Melbourne.
Now, I’ve never once been held and tortured by a fascist paramilitary. I’ve only read of their enthusiasm for ways to break the spirit without leaving a mark. I wonder if they’ve ever tried strapping a sleep deprived man to a chair with an ever blinking screen for an entire night? It wore on, twisting me further and further into insanity and panic, until finally we landed. I was awake for all of it.
Finally home, I managed a short sleep in the morning, spent the rest of Thursday in an odd stupor, then slept all the way until Friday 1pm. All in all, saving a couple of hundred dollars on this return flight ended up costing me two and a half day’s work. And when I think about what that’s worth to me now, that really doesn’t add up.
Billionaire investor Mark Cuban reckons that, out of all the stuff you can score with stacks of cash so serious they’re silly, a private plane is among the most useful, because it saves you hours and hours. That’s completely out of reach for the rest of us – but still, it’s an interesting perspective.
What feels a little more attainable are those fancy pants airport lounges. I used to think they were just a status wank. But if I’d scammed my way into one in Bali, I might have found enough space and quiet for an afternoon’s work.
And if my overnight flight wasn’t on Clockwork Orange Airlines, well, I still probably wouldn’t have had the perfect night’s sleep. But I also probably wouldn’t have been out of action for another day and a half.
Now that I’m travelling and doing business, I have to think like (gasp) a business traveller.
There’s internet and there’s internet
While researching my travels, it seemed that just about every room and cafe offered wi-fi. What’s less clearly labelled is that much of it is garbage: painfully slow and constantly dropping out.
Using mobile data on my global roaming plan varied from town to town, but often wasn’t any better.
I learnt that providing a business grade internet connection in exotic locales can be a much more involved process compared to back home. Offices and co-working spaces might network together connections from as many as 5 or 6 different internet providers to minimise the chances of dropouts interfering with the work day.
The internet is also heavily censored in Indonesia. It’s not just poo porn and ISIS recruitment. It included websites I actually had real need of, like Reddit. It was a good thing I had my VPN – also a good idea for security reasons – otherwise my work would have been severely derailed.
As exciting as the new possibilities of remote work are, the whole “you can work from anywhere” schtick is way overhyped. You can work where the internet is useful, reliable and connects to what you need.
Sightseeing will take a definite back seat
I spent my first two weeks in Bali in Canggu, a laid-back though rapidly busying surf village on the south coast, then a week in Lovina, an extremely quiet village on the north. Both of these places had a cool vibe with friendly locals and expats.
Then it was on to Ubud. Travellers rave about it; I was keen.
What I found was busy and overbuilt with retail outlets. The food was expensive and extremely bland to cater to the lowest common denominator. Locals are priced out of the tourist economy here, you only really deal with them as “the help”, which feels a bit grim.
Ubud is this popular for a reason – it’s jam packed with awesome things to do. I did almost none of them. After being on the road for three weeks, I just wasn’t in the mood. The smart move for Ubud freelancers seems to be to base yourself in a villa a little bit away from the centre and rent a scooter to get around.
But my main point is not at all specific to Ubud or Bali.
When you’re running your business on the road, the busiest tourist hotspots are way less awesome than they would be if you were just on holiday.
As it happened, in a month, I went to one temple. After hours at the keyboard, I felt more like yoga, a massage or just to hang out with some cool humans after the solitude of writing.
Stay in fewer places for longer and optimise for lifestyle rather than sightseeing. You can always take a day trip to the tourist traps.
Networking isn’t instant
Back home, my approach to professional networking rarely extends beyond ignoring invitations for business breakfasts at unpleasant hours I don’t wake for. I could probably put in more effort, but I’m a bit settled in my habits.
I figured that freelancing from a co-working space was a good opportunity to break this habit. I can’t say I had any specific intention guiding this – it was mostly curiosity as to who else was doing this, with perhaps a view to finding service providers I could work with later.
I’m very glad I did this. The thing is though, in my two weeks there, I barely scratched the surface of who’s who in the zoo.
Part of it is that co-working space itself is not very social. You’re there to sit down and do your work and so is everyone else. The events are where you meet people.
Networking lunches grabbed my attention first – I suppose I just love my food. But it’s a total roll of the dice as to whether you sit near anyone of any relevance to your work: you learn who they are after you pick your seat. When that was a horrible mismatch, they were still excellent company, it was just weird to think of it as a networking event.
Drinks events mean you can circulate around a room. The emphasis here is very much on forgetting about work for the week and having a laugh. It’s the ideal place for introductions and the worst for discussions of any seriousness.
The best event I tried was the “Mastermind”. That was a structured session where a few people in the room volunteered to speak about the challenges in their business and people asked questions and contributed advice. You got to learn what everyone was about pretty fast there.
If I’d arrived with some stuff to outsource immediately and made a bit of noise about it, it would have been a rather different experience.
If public speaking is in your skillset then hosting your own events would absolutely accelerate your networking opportunities too.
In my head it was so much more difficult
On this first attempt, I got more right than I got wrong. And far be it from me to deny my own astonishing brilliance, but I’m certain I brought no unique talent to make this a success.
One worry I had was that I’d be lonely leaving behind friends and family. But I was rarely short of good company. It helps that Bali very much deserves its reputation as a friendly island.
I also wasn’t sure how easy it would be to stay focused and motivated on work while surrounded by a gorgeous tropical island. It was actually easier to eliminate distractions there than here.
So, by the time this goes live, I’ll doing it all again – for six months this time, and in Europe. Feel free to follow along with my travel journal.
Is this for everyone? The biggest things in your life might be excellent reasons to stay tied down: kids, dogs, mortgages, sick relatives, a loving partner whose work won’t travel. It might be though that your main barriers are psychological.
If you’re feeling stuck, a change of scenery might be exactly what you need. If you’re umming and ahhing about it, give it a try for a month.