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Van Life: Advice on running a successful design business on the road

With Dribbble being a remote team, we fully support the idea of having the freedom to create your ideal lifestyle. More and more professionals these days are going freelance and it’s amazing to see how people are redefining the way they work. Lexi and Cody, founders of the creative studio Dynamo Ultima are doing just this—living and running their business full-time out of their sprinter van. Today, we’re so excited for them to share advice on how to run a successful creative business on the road.

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Hey there, my name is Lexi! My partner Cody and I have lived full-time out of our sprinter van since October 2016. Together we founded our creative studio Dynamo Ultima, where we help small business owners with their brand and website design. We run our business full time out of our van! We spend our working days with pristine views of the great outdoors which fuels our creativity. The fact that no two days are the same gives us a unique perspective, but with the inconsistency of living on the road, we definitely needed to create some routines and rules for ourselves and our business.

Today we’ll be sharing our top advice for anyone looking to become a digital nomad and travel full-time—all while still working with your freelance clients and making a consistent enough income to fuel your travels.

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Remember it doesn’t happen overnight

Just like anything, a successful nomadic business doesn’t happen overnight. It’s taken us a long time of freelancing and working with clients to get to where we are today. Remember that just because someone is making it look so easy on social media, doesn’t mean it actually is.

Building a business takes a lot of time, trial and error, failing, learning, and persistence. We believe if you’re willing to put in the work to create a business that suits your lifestyle rather than a lifestyle that suits your business, you’ll be able to make it happen and live your dream life.

Diversify your income

One of the most challenging things about being a freelancer is relying on client work to pay your bills. The reason why this is tough is because we can find ourselves in difficult situations when clients don’t pay, disappear, or just plain suck. When we solely rely on clients, we tend to treat them with a different attitude—especially when we’re strapped for cash. The last thing you want to do when pitching your services to a potential client is sound desperate or even discount your services way too much.

The #1 best advice we have for anyone looking to live a nomadic lifestyle is to diversify your income sources. We’ve learned the hard way that living on the road is not fun if we’re chasing client invoices. By creating other income sources we are able to have more freedom, less stress, and the ability to take bigger risks! As a designer, you can look into many different ways to create more income sources. You can sell your rejected client designs on sites like Creative Market as templates, or you can sell your illustrations on Society6 or Printful. The options are endless!

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Automate your biz

Traveling full-time is a lifestyle that takes some getting used to. Routines are a little more difficult which makes it harder to be productive. With our business, every time we sign on a new client, there are a lot of steps that go into getting them all set up. To save time and accommodate our limited access to the internet, we use Hello Bonsai to automate sending contracts, proposals, and invoices to our clients.

After we started using this app in our business, we found we get paid much faster. Plus, if our clients’ payment is due it will automatically send reminders to them so that we don’t have to have that awkward money convo.

Stay on top of communication

Working one-on-one with our clients requires a lot of communication. While we sometimes may not have internet access, we always make sure to check our emails in a timely manner and give our clients our phone number just in case anything urgent comes up.

Communication is normally done through email and we have a set process and timeline for our branding projects which helps us plan out which days we need to be readily available for communication. This requires a good amount of planning and using apps like Asana to help with project management. We also use a standard paper calendar so we can keep track of projects and important deadlines even when we don’t have access to an app.

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Remote work

The first and most important thing we need to consider at all times is how we can effectively do our job from whatever location we find ourselves in. We aren’t required to be in our client’s offices or meet them at coffee shops because the work we do doesn’t hinge on us being there in person. We use Skype to conduct virtual meetings rather than meeting up with our clients in person.

Sometimes our work does require us to be on location, for example, some of the photography and video work that we do. This is great because we are able to work with a client anywhere in North America to get the job done. If a client needs a brand video, we’ll plan a trip to that location for the specific job. This is perfect for clients that want images or shots in their video that aren’t in their hometown.

Have several (committed) clients

Before you make the leap into the digital nomad lifestyle, you want to make sure you have committed clients that you can do work for right away. Unless you have a good chunk of cash saved up, you need to have money coming in right away for gas, car payments, insurance payments, and fun things you want to do.

Keep in mind committed clients are different from prospective clients. Having an inbox full of inquiries is great, but none of that is guaranteed income until they sign your contract and pay your deposit. That’s right, you need to be collecting a deposit. The last thing you need is to do a bunch of work and have the client ghost out on you. Make sure you collect enough upfront so you feel comfortable and so the client feels like they have some skin in the game, too. If you’re just starting to get clients, I recommend using Hello Bonsai. It’s a helpful tool for freelancers to build contracts & send invoices to clients. This makes my life so much easier!

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Know your numbers

How much money do you need each month to live your life? How many services do you need to sell to make sure you make enough money to live your life? These are all things you should know, regardless of where you live. Creating an income plan for your business is so important! Even when you are unsure where your next client will come from. Knowing that you only need X amount of clients per month to pay the bills is crucial. Why? Because not knowing makes for aimlessness. When you know your numbers, it’s easier for you to figure out where you should focus your attention.

Internet

“What do you do for internet?” We get asked this question a lot. Because we are running a full-time business, we need to be able to access the internet for emails, book-keeping, banking, accounting, social media, marketing, and more. So, we had to come up with a few solutions for internet access while we are on the road.

The first solution was a mobile hotspot. We get 25GB of data per month through our phone plan. This is more than enough to do basic stuff like emails, book-keeping, etc. When it comes to uploading videos and downloading files from our clients, we had to find another solution. Uploading and downloading files can easily burn through a ton of data. So, when we have to do this, we head to a local library, Starbucks, or any local coffee shop we can find. We like Starbucks the most because they have food, coffee, and reliable internet. The library is also great because it’s quiet and you can pretty much stay there all day to get stuff done.

Dynamo Ultima Website

Dynamo Ultima Website

by Lexi Smith

We changed our website around to speak to our target audience better.

View on Dribbble

That’s it! We hope this advice helps you or even inspires you to create a lifestyle that you love and a business that works and thrives around it. If you want to learn more about van life and becoming a digital nomad, head over to our website and check out a ton of other resources we have available.

Want to keep up with Lexi and Cody? Find them on Dribbble, Instagram, and at dynamoultima.com.

Find more Interviews stories on our blog Courtside. Have a suggestion? Contact stories@dribbble.com.


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