Escape Artist #7: JoEllen, the travelling family mother

Meet JoEllen, the American woman who got the travel bug when she had an international exchange aged 17. Ever since then she’s been experimenting and learning along the way, and she has a learn-by-doing attitude! What makes JoEllen special amongst digital nomads is that she’s also a mother traveling with her family. If you ever thought that digital nomadism was something you only did in your twenties without kids, check out this woman’s story!

Being a digital nomad allows me to be a better mother. My schedule revolves around the tribe.

JoEllen and her family in a family portrait
JoEllen is NOT your typical neighborhood housewife!

How do you make money as a digital nomad?

I own an online business that provides editing services. I have 30+ people who work within the organization including freelancers, consultants, programmers, tech, etc.

What are some typical tasks you have during a workday?

Well, it’s pretty all-inclusive. Marketing (SEO, SEM, PPC, SMM, ad creations, content, etc.), sales, management, outreach, fire-putter-outer… I am the owner, so there is a never-ending list of tasks to do.

Don’t plan too much. Most people get “analysis paralysis.” Success lies in doing.

What’s your story? How did you end up where you are today? What motivated you to live this lifestyle?

My story evolves over a long line of learning, questioning, and seeking. Over time, I have read so many books, listened to so many people, asked so many questions, and tried so many things. Each time I took away a small golden nugget of knowledge and experience that has been vital to my current business and interests. More importantly, I put the information to work.

Otherwise, I have worked every job imaginable – cashier, customer services, waitress, fast-food service, telephone sales, greenhouse worker, cleaner, photographer, outdoor adventure leader, youth leader, cruise ship staff, timeshare sales, public speaker, auctioneer, fundraiser, and online entrepreneur.

I started my traveling with an international exchange at the age of 17. I got the “bug” and it never really stopped. Traveling then (no internet, no cell phone, expensive long-distance calls, paper maps, and reading from books that you bought, borrowed, or loaned) taught me to be independent, adventurous, and self-supporting. And I did this all from a zero budget meaning I had no real income or financial support. I got jobs along the way to cover expenses, housing and such. I figured out how to do it on the cheap. Most importantly, I learned to ask for help and met people who were interested in the same things.

Quite often, I was living a resort lifestyle but as an employee, not a tourist. All of this motivated me to build a business that conformed to my lifestyle. Now, I focus on freedom of time and accessibility to adventure/learning more than accumulating things or commitments that become anchors. As a mother, I teach my kids the same values. We travel. We explore. We live where we are and meet the people around us. We try to be as “local” as possible to get a more “authentic” experience instead of living in a resort bubble.

JoEllen with her family on the beac
How focus-on-freedom-of-time-and-accessibility-to-adventure/learning looks like for JoEllen!

What are the best sides of living a digital nomad lifestyle?

I love having the freedom to live in new locations and travel for fun. I am independent of the 9-5 office hours (not that I don’t work my butt off with new projects at the most bizarre hours). I prioritize being completely available for my kids when they are out of school. And I love being able to live with fewer things and a lower carbon footprint (except flying which I know is completely hypocritical).

And the less glamorous ones?

I live in a bubble online. I work alone or with my husband, but I don’t have a work social life. When we live more “domestically” at our home, I get bored and lonely easier. So I have to plan more “me” time as I am so available to my kids.

I spent the 8 hours creating the first step in automating my business. It was scary and great!

What are your top tips for people that want to earn place independent income?

Ask yourself if you want to simply work location-free OR if you want to create a business that allows you to live location free of work. Read, learn, and TRY immediately. Don’t plan too much. Most people get “analysis paralysis.” Success lies in doing.

JoEllen and parts of her family in Costa Rica
JoEllen with her husband and two youngest kids in Costa Rica!

Do you have any tips for resources (web pages, books, courses, etc.) for aspiring digital nomads?

Read the book The 4 Hour Work Week which is my all-time favorite. I have read it at least ten times, and I always focus back-down on details which give me more freedom and purpose. For creating an online website/business, I like SBI! Sitesell for making it step-by-step simple in creating your first ugly website. (As long as you make money, enjoy ugly!) Since I tested it many years ago, it has updated.

Otherwise, there are simply so many websites, courses, books, etc. that it becomes overwhelming. I believe that you have to focus, take notes, create a plan of action, and then do it! Don’t wait. Do it today. Do it now. Find your passion and create a method that works for you.

We became “the pack” instead of me traveling simply for fun and adventure.

You mentioned you have more than 30 people that have worked for you. How do you manage this outsourcing? Do you have any tips for how to do this the right way?

Well, I started my business with only three people under me. Then the business grew. I did it all with no automation in the beginning. You have to. You have to know every detail of your work and how to solve it. You need to know where the problems and time-wasters live in your work. Then I got so overwhelmed that I had to stop. Crazy, huh?

When you are in a panic, the best thing to do is stop. So I was stuck on a plane with so many projects, and I realized that I could complete them during the 8-hour flight and email upon landing OR I could write instructions for other people to do it for me. I spent the 8 hours creating the first step in automating my business. It was scary and great! It worked – well, most of the time.

I recommend that you do as much hands-on at the beginning that you can. Then once you understand the basics of the work and can clearly define what you want, hand it over to someone faster. But don’t assume because someone knows more about say building a website that you will get a website that works for you. It has to fit your needs. Only you can determine your needs.

Now there are hundreds of online freelance websites. Go on and hire the people you need. How to hire good people is the hardest skill to learn. Oh – and some people will have trust and control issues. If so, running an online business may not be for you. Then I recommend that you sign up as a freelancer to offer your services to someone who needs your expertise.

Close up portrait of JoEllen
JoEllen, now a successful business owner of an online editing company!

You’re married and have five kids. How is it possible to balance this with a digital nomad lifestyle?

Initially, the biggest advantage of working online was my freedom. I picked up my life and moved to my husband and new family. This transition would not have been possible otherwise. Having a husband and kids definitely changed my original travel-style. Suddenly, I no longer traveled without reservations. Plus, I married a man with three kids. Thus, we became “the pack” instead of me traveling simply for fun and adventure. We travel now to locations for exploration and sports. It was a lot to take in. Life. Transition.

In regards to travel, for the most part, we don’t stay in hostels. However, there are many FANTASTIC hostels for families in the world. I do recommend trying this cheap travel in the beginning. Now, we rent a house so we can travel slowly. I like to “park” us in a location for a month at a time. We are not tourists as much as we are visitors to a new location/home/community. We are nature enthusiasts, so cities are not high on our list. Renting a house is cheap and simply the best.

But as for work and family, being a digital nomad allows me to be a better mother. My schedule revolves around the tribe. I don’t work when they are out of school. We have time to cook as a family. We have long dinners together every night. We read before bed every night. We have time for play every afternoon. We try new sports together – not just when there is a planned kid activity. It’s about being in the now. Life is short. Too unpredictable. I don’t waste time planning life. We do life now. We live today.

The American-Swedish nomad family gathered in their garden in Sweden
The American-Swedish nomad family gathered in Sweden.

Do you want more people to follow you? If so, how would be the best way to do that?

Well, sure. (I hadn’t really thought about that much…) I have a blog that has been sitting for years at I created it when we decided to adopt internationally. I have been contemplating sharing more of our life there, so I updated it to more of our nomadic lifestyle. It’s not done or even really focused yet. And just talking about all this has inspired me to start updating and possibly sharing more.

You can also follow me on Google: Funny, this was just for fun. But could be even more fun to help others see how easy it is to become a virtual nomad.


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