#26 Noam Lightstone from Ottawa, Canada

Hey, my name is Noam Lightstone (yes, that’s my real name). I work as a freelance copywriter consulting with clients on e-mail marketing, sales pages, and funnels. On the side, I’m working on building up my blog with information products to help people with anxiety and depression, two things I struggle with.

1. How and why did you choose to go nomadic?

I actually went to school for something COMPLETELY different from what I’m doing now. I spent 8 years (including co-op work terms) getting a Master’s degree in biomedical and mechanical engineering. I’ve always loved logic, math and helping people. Making prosthetics seemed to be the perfect marriage of everything. For some reason in high school I became obsessed with the heart, and I thought my calling was to design artificial hearts to save lives.

However, when I was doing my Master’s degree, I started meeting entrepreneurs and entreprenurially minded friends. I realized then that the idea of working for myself was what I really liked. I HATE being told what to do, where to work, and what schedule to be on. I actually love routine and I put myself on one to stay sane and productive. However, I don’t like being told to be on someone else’s schedule: to commute for an hour if I don’t want to, or not being able to sleep in if I was up working late.

After finishing grad school and traveling in Europe for 3 months, I decided I didn’t want to move forward with engineering or getting a job. I spent the next half year bouncing around Toronto, Canada moving all my worldly possessions to EIGHT, yes EIGHT, different places to save on rent. During that time, I was trying my hand at freelance writing and also writing my first book. I had lived at home for University up until my Master’s degree and worked throughout school so I had a ton of savings. Boy, what I’d do for them now :p.

After reading about the lower cost of living in Asia, the concept of digital nomads, and falling in love with the idea of creating passive income (I have SO much to say about people shipping this as an easy dream…), I decided to book a one way ticket to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. I still remember the apprehension I felt in using my travelhacked miles and having to call my friend Tom in Vancouver to coach me into clicking the “book” button…

That all started a chain of events I could never have imagined before.

2. What was it like leaving your home country?

5% excitement, 95% terrifying.

Let me explain:

I’ve always believed in order and structure, and I’ve always had tons of savings. I’d followed the traditional career path and believed in the concept that if I put my time into getting a degree, I’d get a good job and pay. I think this is a farce for many degrees, but in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine), if you truly believe that it’s your calling, you do need to do the schooling. The availability of jobs is another story…

After making almost no money freelance writing, not having my book out, living in my friend’s old room in his parent’s house, and bouncing around the same city, I was in debt for the first time in my life. Looking back, it’s no wonder why I felt completely out of control of my situation and constantly stressed and anxious. I had no security. Being someone who’s prone to anxiety made this 1000x worse.

I honestly don’t know what possessed me to book that ticket. Again if you read that over if made NO logical sense. I just visited my family and saved up more money for a few months. When I left for Asia this second time around feeling way more relaxed and prepared I couldn’t believe the difference but my Dad said, “I think you were overly ambitious the first time.”

He was definitely right.

I had travelled internationally a few times (to Costa Rica with my Dad, and on my after graduation backpacking Eurotrip), but never to Asia. I had also never lived for an extended period of time overseas. Leading up to my trip I moved all my stuff back home, broke up with a girl I was seeing, and was trying to organize everything:

“Do I need immunizations?”

“Should I bring supplements?”

“What if I get sick?”

I distinctly remember trying to fit all my stuff into my suitcase 20 minutes before I had to go to the airport. I also only vaguely “knew” one person through a contact from a travel forum that lived in Saigon. Otherwise, I knew no one.

Again, just writing this all out, I’m starting to realize that what I did seems insane. Now I know why I was so damn scared. I just wish I wasn’t so hard on myself!

But again, I got drawn in by the promise of travel which I had fallen in love with, the idea of doing no work and money just coming to me (HA, YEAH RIGHT!), and a bit on foreign cultures and girls ;).

3. What are your biggest struggles? Fears?

My biggest struggles and fears all revolve around my anxiety and depression. You see, both of these things severely handicap me when it comes to moving around, meeting new people, changes in routine, not knowing where a good doctor is, and so on…

I know some people deal with these changes well and it’s not a big deal. But it all really affects me. So does planning VISA runs, and all those seemingly small things that you start to get comfortable and in a groove with. I like knowing where I can work, having supportive friends and a good network, and everything being close to me.

I’m glad I pushed myself to move over to Saigon that first time, but it’s why I want to restrict myself to only moving every 6–12 months MAX, and going to places/investing in VISAs where no VISA runs are required: This means non-tourist VISAs, or VISAs with great tourist allowances, which Canadians are lucky to have in many places (I love being Canadian).

4. How are you funding your lifestyle and what projects are you working on?

As I mentioned in the beginning of the profile, right now I work as a freelance copywriter. That’s where I make the bulk of my income. On the side, I’m working on building up my blog with information products to help people with anxiety and depression.

How did I get here? Well, when I first got to Saigon, I was willing to do anything that let me work on my blog on the side. My first thought was teaching English. But man, after going for some interviews and seeing the kids running around, I knew I would hate going to work everyday. The pay and only being able to spend a tiny bit of my time on my blog wouldn’t be worth it. I needed more freedom.

I was fortunate enough to make an Aussie friend through one of my Vietnamese friends who ran a dropshipping store. Initially, we talked about me just writing articles, but I ended up basically doing an apprenticeship with him: I oversaw the entire re-branding and re-design of one of his stores, wrote product descriptions, managed VAs, and more. I got paid hourly, and it worked out to around $2,000USD per month. I’m really grateful because I had reasonable control of my time, didn’t have to go to a specific place to work, and was learning all about internet marketing.

About a year later when I had moved to Chiang Mai, he made the decision to stop all remote work and move all work in-house to his store in Australia. I also found I wasn’t doing much with my time, and while it caused me stress then, I’m glad I was technically “fired.” I needed that kick in the ass to move on.

I wanted to shift from timed, hourly work (I hate having that stupid Upwork timer counting down on your desktop), so with the help of a good friend who had started freelancing on Upwork, I started doing fixed price content writing.

I then ran into another problem: I wasn’t making enough money, and I was working like a dog. I saw 3 options:

  1. Work harder/faster — nearly impossible without having any social life or sleep.
  2. Charge more — but I found I had reached a limit to what people would pay for blog posts.
  3. Outsource the work and create an agency of writers who could do the work for me.

I went with option #3. I found that I definitely did make more money. But, life is never perfect: A had a situation where a writer disappeared a day before a deadline without giving me ANYTHING, and I had to write 4 blog posts that involved a lot of research within 24 hours. Sometimes the writing quality sucked. It was hard to find clients to put on recurring packages, so I was managing 7–8 clients. I also found that I didn’t like I was doing: When I write articles or blog posts, I do it because it’s important and art for me. For clients, it felt forced and like I was just churning out things like a machine. It didn’t feel good at all.

Now granted there’s a lot I could learn and change to make a better agency: Screen clients who only want recurring packages, vet my writers better, etc…But I’ve found with my personality that while I do like having a small team and having a few staff members do things that I can’t do as well (e.g. design my book covers), I’d rather do the work myself. People complicate things :p.

So, I transitioned to copywriting. People pay more for writing that sells, I can work 1-on-1 with fewer clients, and I’m happier. I’m mostly focused on e-mail copywriting because it’s not terribly difficult once you’ve learned how to do it, people ALWAYS need good e-mails, and my freelance friend has been doing this as well, so I have someone I can go to for support. I also do sales pages too because I like long form writing.

Spending 80% of my time here, I’m able to make a good living, and I can spend the other 20% (plus some nights) of my time building up my blog, passive income, and information products. As I’ll say later on in this article, BE PATIENT. Building a business, especially one that’s based on passive income takes time. Know that it might take 2–4 years. Find something that keeps you being your own boss, working wherever you want, and enjoy your life while you get to building. 🙂

5. What is the estimated monthly cost of living for one of your favorite locations? What lifestyle does that afford?

As of writing this I just moved back to Chiang Mai and have changed my upgraded my lifestyle from the last time I was here, so this might not be 100% accurate. Right now my monthly budget is around $1,500USD. This does not include my business expenses, travel insurance, VISA runs, or my savings contributions.

My budget is higher than most people living here because there are certain things I really like having. For example, it includes monthly membership at a nice co-working space, having a LARGE one-bedroom apartment all to myself near my friends and in Nimman, the “trendy” neighborhood in Chiang Mai. It also includes weekly massages and Thai lessons. I could cut some expenses down if I chose to, but as my friend says, I’m like a domesticated house cat: There are certain things that make me happy and allow me to be more productive, and I’m willing to pay for them.

You can definitely live in Chiang Mai for less than $1,000USD if you don’t want a co-working membership, are OK with living in a less trendy apartment, etc.

6. What is your top tip for someone who aspires to earn money online and travel?

I believe every nomad or entrepreneur should have two “jobs”: one that creates passive income, and the other that creates active income.

Passive income is the dream: Recurring money you get without trading your time for work, but that requires a larger investment of time and effort up front. Active income is the typical time in, money out sort of thing. Passive income is sold as sexy, and a lot of people go broke trying to make it work. Active income isn’t sexy, but it’s sustainable, and keeps you going and living in awesome locations.

I think at the beginning, you should spend 80% of your time on building active income sources, and 20% on building passive income sources.

Here’s the plan I’d recommend anyone follow who wants to make this work for the rest of their life, without having to risk going broke or burned out. It follows something Sean Ogle recommends as a 3-step process to going nomadic: Learn skills, freelance them to gain confidence and make money, and build sexy businesses on the side. This plan isn’t flashy like, “Ditch your job! Build a blog! Make thousands with an e-book!,” because that’s just made to sell you on a dream. This is a logical plan that will make this work for you for the rest of your life:

  1. Get a 9–5 and stay with it for now. I’d heavily recommend paying off all or most of your debt before becoming an entrepreneur as it will give you WAY more freedom. A steady, secure paycheck is a great way to do that. Once you go nomadic, you won’t want to go back to the typical corporate life, so it’s better to get everything sorted out now.
  2. On the side, start learning about internet skills that can easily be freelanced: SEO, copywriting, web design, programming, etc. These are things you’ll need in general working online, and skills you can charge for as well. Google, books, forums, and practice are your friends.
  3. You can also consider using something like Location Rebel (this is a non-affiliate link, e.g., I don’t get paid if you click this, I just think it’s a great approach), to fast track your learning. You can make the money you spend on the program back in one month of consistent freelancing when you transition to full-time with it. Programs like this can short cut YEARS of stress, time, and tears, off your learning curve. I honestly wish I’d invested in it in the beginning. I’m now far more willing to pay for courses and systems that can teach me what I need to know.
  4. Start freelancing your skills on the side of your job. This means you might have to put in an hour or two after work or on the weekend. Take 1–2 jobs at a time so you’re not overwhelmed. How much money are you making?
  5. Find some sort of entrepreneurial support group or mastermind forum to hold you accountable. People working at a regular job will not understand you or what you’re trying to do, and it’ll unfortunately sabotage your progress. You need to be talking to like minded people.
  6. Consider negotiating a remote work agreement with your 9–5 to free up A LOT more of your time.
  7. Begin saving up for a plane ticket. Give yourself $1,000USD to be safe.
  8. Once you see that you can consistently get freelance jobs, figure out your approximate revenue based on your past: If you spent all your time doing this, how much could you make?
  9. Once this calculation amounts to you making $1,000USD/month, and once your debt is mostly gone, quit the 9–5 to freelance full-time.
  10. Move to a digital nomad hotspot like Chiang Mai. I recommend Chiang Mai because it’s cheap, the weather is great, and the community is amazing. Saigon is another option, but I didn’t find that the community was as connected or vibrant. You might also consider Medellin in Colombia, or Bali, Indonesia.
  11. Keep on upping your freelance rates, learning how to pitch, and work on getting passive income sources going: Blogs, Kindle books, ETSY, dropshipping, etc.
  12. Be awesome.

You could bypass a lot of this if you have savings, a great deal of risk tolerance, and all that. But let me tell you, once you quit your 9–5 and get used to working for yourself/on your own schedule, you’ll go NUTS if you ever have to go back. Also, knowing you have skills and a way to make money is everything goes wrong makes everything FAR LESS STRESSFUL then moving overseas thinking, “WHAT THE F*CK AM I GOING TO DO?!”

But again, some people thrive on this. Your call. 🙂

Sure, it’s sexier to imagine getting a FBA or dropshipping store working in a month, but I know more stories of people failing at that and going home broke than having success. Going the 9–5, to freelancing + building things on the side approach is the sustainable way to make this life work long term…and isn’t that the point?

Also, freelancing isn’t that bad. You might have to start with churning out SEO articles in the beginning, but long term you probably won’t want to do that. You’ll want to specialize in something you can charge a high price for. You can get paid a lot freelancing on the right stuff, and you can find good clients when you learn what to look out for.

Any final thoughts?

Thanks for sticking with me through this long write-up :p.

But in all seriousness I think this is something everyone should try. The one thing I’d say is to not feel pressured to HAVE to move lots, see a billion things, etc. In fact, I’d recommend committing (I know, scary word), to one place for the first 6–12 months of doing this, so you can get a community, build your business, and really get some consistent income going in. The more you move, the less productive you’ll probably be because you have to get organized, situated, and all that over and over. Some entrepreneurs burn out trying to do this, and it’s part of what inspired me to write an article on the psychological price of entrepreneurship and being a digital nomad. Know yourself, and do what’s best for you.

If you want to follow me and what I’m doing, check out my blog Light Way Of Thinking. Feel free to shoot me a message if you found this helpful or inspiring, or have some questions.

Best of luck, and hope to see you in Chiang Mai soon. 🙂