Meet Jess: On Hacker Paradise and being a freelance graphic designer


Tell us more about yourself.

I am Jess Warren. I am originally from Long Island, NY but currently live in Austin, TX. I am a full-time freelance graphic designer who works on everything from logos and branding to infographics and marketing materials. I love having a flexible schedule and try to travel when I can, but I do not get to do it as much as I would like. I figured the best way to explore the world is to test out digital nomading, combining work with travel.

How long have you been a digital nomad?

I am a newbie digital nomad. So far I have only done it twice - I’m still learning about what it means to be a digital nomad and if I qualify as one!

I first tested the waters by road tripping through Minnesota and Wisconsin for a few weeks - in between weddings - so I did not have to travel back and forth from Austin. It worked out great, particularly because I was still in a U.S. time zone and my clients trusted that I was working. I would work from about 9 AM to 5 PM every day from cafes, then explore the cities or hop on the road in the evenings. My favorite experience during that time was when I stopped in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere and worked for 8 hours from the same local cafe. They started treating me like a regular because I was there so long!

Most recently I traveled to Porto, Portugal with a digital nomad group called Hacker Paradise. They arranged housing, a co-working space, meetups, a speaker series, language lessons, demo days and more. It was the most enlightening experience and the first time I could see myself being a digital nomad.

It’s hard to know if I qualified as one while there, as I was only working in Porto for 4 short weeks, but that’s a greater question, right? What does it take to become a digital nomad? Do you have to combine work and travel for an extended period of time, or can you explore digital nomadism for shorter stints? I met some of the greatest people in my time at Hacker Paradise, which is comprised of a group of about 20-25 remote workers from around the world. I learned a lot about myself, about balancing work and travel, and of course, about the local culture.

What was the experience like being part of Hacker Paradise?

My experience with Hacker Paradise was life-changing. It opened my eyes to the world of digital nomadism and showed me that I could do it successfully.

One major benefit of Hacker Paradise is the immediate group of peers. You not only become great friends quickly, you are also encouraged to collaborate and support each other’s professional and personal endeavors. Hacker Paradise encourages this through a speaker series, demo days, meetups and more. At Hacker Paradise I was super productive by day, but explored with my new friends by night. There was always someone to answer a question about coding, review your latest design project, or grab dinner or a drink.

Another benefit of Hacker Paradise was that they handled the logistics for you. They arranged housing, set up high speed Internet, offered language lessons and beyond. This was great as a first-timer working abroad because I could focus on my work before and throughout the experience rather than planning where I was going to stay and how I was going to find reliable Internet.

One potential con of a digital nomad program, however, is that if you prefer to be a solo explorer it may not be the best fit. With a large group around all the time, you may feel overwhelmed or smothered. That said, you are always free to adventure out on your own or break away from the pack. You are not required to hang out with the group by any means, so it could be a success for anyone.

What was your best experience being a digital nomad in Porto?

Joining the Sao Joao festival in Porto was one of my favorite experiences while traveling. It was a 24-hour street festival during which you bop each other on the head with plastic hammers (everyone was doing it!), stick garlic flowers in each other’s noses, adventure through the streets with beer or sangria, watch a fantastic fireworks show, and stumble upon live music and DJs in every square.

It was an amazing experience, and I would recommend that anyone planning to visit Porto go there in late June so you can also be a part of Sao Joao. It’s a great way to really dive into city’s culture, meet locals, and enjoy yourself.

What was the hardest thing about being a digital nomad?

I think the toughest part was leaving the Hacker Paradise group and heading home - I was only a part of Hacker Paradise for four weeks.

Did you encounter any travel safety issues while traveling?

I have been lucky and have not encountered any serious safety or travel issue as a woman while traveling. I will say, however, that there were times I had to hold my purse tight in my arms while in crowds - particularly in Amsterdam’s Red Light District - to keep it safe. I have also befriended other solo travelers while on the road, so we not only keep each other company, we help keep each other safe. I felt completely safe while in Porto.

How do you find work as a remote graphic designer?

I am in a unique position because I work remotely full-time, but I have a home base in Austin, TX.

I find most of my clients through word of mouth, generally from personal connections or current or former clients. I do my best to maintain a solid relationship with clients and keep top of mind for former clients, so that when other opportunities arise within their networks, they can pass on my name. My clients are all around the U.S.

Through meetups and events, I have also built up a personal (often in-person) network in Austin. For instance, I attend a small meetup for freelancers every two weeks, during which we discuss freelancer problems and provide recommendations and solutions for one another. I also attend AIGA events (an American organization) and Creative Mornings (a global organization). These are particularly great because you can find them while traveling as well. That said, I missed the Creative Mornings in Porto by a week!

I keep an updated and professional online presence. I maintain a blog (I post about once per month) on my portfolio website and do my best to keep that site updated with new projects. As a designer, I also keep a curated Instagram account. In addition, I post professional topics to Facebook and Twitter. Keeping an updated and professional online presence helps with SEO and helps demonstrate to potential clients that I am on top of my game. This is something you can do from anywhere, as long as you have Internet!

Lastly, I try to get involved with public speaking. I have spoken at SXSW Interactive twice, and have co-lead some branding workshops. Public speaking is a great way to show your professionalism, practice networking and potentially gain new clients. You can try to find public speaking opportunities around the world.

How do you balance traveling and working?

I would say one of the most crucial ways to balance travel and work is to maintain a flexible routine that makes time for not only work, but also exploration, travel and fun. This helped keep me happy, healthy and fulfilled.

I started each day by getting a coffee and a pastry at a local bakery. Every few days I would switch that out with a morning run. I would get to the co-working space around the same time each day, work for a few hours, grab lunch with friends, continue working for a few hours and then participate in the Hacker Paradise event (meetup, speaker series, etc.). After that event I would join friends for dinner, drinks or an adventure through the city.

I was almost more productive as a digital nomad than back at home because I was surrounded by other intelligent, hard-working people and always wanted to finish my work to make time for spontaneity every night. Exploring the city, having long meals, heading to a bar or two - the evening was time to unwind and dive into the local culture.

Lastly, any advice for an aspiring digital nomad?

I really enjoyed joining Hacker Paradise for my first experience working from abroad. It was stress-free and provided a collaborative community right off the bat. I was able to focus on my work and exploring the city rather than focusing on travel details.

I’d also suggest picking a city that is safe and manageable. If you go somewhere too big you may find that you are always looking to explore rather than spend time working. With a slightly smaller city, however, you can focus on your work while also balancing out adventures. You can really get to know the place in which you are staying.

I’d think about the length of time you plan to stay in one place. Four weeks in Porto was great, but I could have done more weekend trips or gotten to know the city better with a couple of additional weeks. Meanwhile, I know some digital nomads who prefer to stay in a place for only about a week at a time. They constantly need to be moving. Think about what will work best for you. When in doubt, I’d say try a little bit of a longer stay and if you feel yourself getting antsy then perhaps a shorter stay will work better for you next time.

Most of all, don’t lose sight of why you are a digital nomad. Set some goals for yourself while being a digital nomad and do your best to stick with them! For me, I wanted to create some icons about Portugal (check), make a video of my time in Porto (check), get reinvigorated about freelancing (check), make great friends (check), and get excited to re-explore my home city of Austin upon returning (check).

Follow Jess on Instagram, Twitter and her website.

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