Solopreneur Jodi Ettenberg has mastered the digital nomad life. Through her beloved site, Legal Nomads, she chronicles her whimsical world travels (in particular, her love for soup). In 2008, when she quit her job as a corporate lawyer to spend a year traveling, Jodi had no idea that one year would turn into nine (and counting), and that she would soon become one of the most respected digital nomads. I spoke with Jodi about how she developed a devoted readership, the question of hard work vs. luck, and the smartest thing she did when leaving the law to travel the world.
Solopreneur, Digital Nomad and More..
Nico: In reading about you, I’ve discovered that you are a multi-talented and creative person. Writer, conference speaker, social media consultant, and food specialist. How would you define yourself? As a freelance traveler, food nomad, or digital nomad? Also, do you believe that it’s essential to be multi-skilled to succeed at becoming a digital nomad?
Jodi: Thank you for the kind words! I have a hard time giving myself a short title because my work now comprises so many different skill sets. It’s been wonderful to follow the business as it has evolved, and I find myself saying, “I eat soup for a living” in the absence of knowing what else to say! I think solo entrepreneur is probably the most appropriate – mostly in writing, photography, and public speaking.
I think in today’s landscape, you need to be multi-skilled to succeed in anything. Yes, it’s important to become an expert in the main area you plan to work in – or else, why are you worth hiring? But it’s no longer a time where one skill can be everything. You still need to learn more about marketing and strategy and technology, even if your main work isn’t in that field. So yes, I think multi-skilled people have an advantage. That’s more a reflection of how interconnected areas of work have become, especially with the technology we use to work from anywhere.
Nico: Where are you based right now? What are the main projects you’re working on?
Jodi: I am presently based in Oaxaca, Mexico, though I travel for about 4–5 months of the year while maintaining my apartment there. The main projects are the blog itself, the celiac translation cards I’ve been building for people with my disease, so that they can eat safely as they travel, and my eCommerce shop with hand-drawn maps of food that I designed. I’m also in the process of crafting a four-week guided course on storytelling, at the request of my readers.
Nico: Having had a kind of adventurous life myself, I’ve always been told how “lucky” I was. Do you consider yourself lucky, or is it more a kind of “planned” choice you made? What inspired you to make such a big lifestyle change from being a corporate lawyer to leading a nomadic life?
Jodi: Ah yes, the “lucky” comment. It’s funny how people attribute to luck what is often hard work and taking a big deep breath before making a tough decision. I always make sure I agree on one part, though: I am lucky to have been born to a Canadian family and not, say, as a refugee in one of the many ongoing world conflicts. The privilege I was lucky to receive by being a Canadian citizen isn’t under-appreciated! But the rest – applying to law school at 18 and law firm jobs thereafter, selling my things and deciding to quit, and then following the uncertain path to keep on with the site when I had no idea where it would go … that part is less luck and more stubbornness and dedication.
I quit my job to take one year to travel – it wasn’t meant to be a career change. But when my site started getting more popular and I received offers to do freelance writing, I thought I would see where it led. If it didn’t work out, my plan was to return to the law.
Nico: What would you suggest to anyone who is thinking about breaking free from the 9–5 job routine to tackle a digital nomad lifestyle? What has been the biggest mistake you made while changing careers and the smartest thing you did to make it happen?
Jodi: I think it’s important to understand what your skill set is, and what your limits are, and the worst-case scenarios that may or may not happen. Figure out what skills are transferable to location-free living. Figure out what you need to learn to make them transferable. Set aside a morning to write out what you’d do if it all went pear-shaped. It’s important to have an idea in your own head, and as a talking point for people who may be negative when you tell them about your plans.
I think the biggest mistake I made was not going on WordPress.org immediately – my site’s taxonomy was a giant mess by the time I did move over in 2010. The smartest thing was to save up money first as a lawyer, which I realize not everyone can do. But to have a secondary source of income/savings beforehand was smart because it allowed the site and business to breathe without monetizing for short-term gain. As a result, I never took advertising or sponsored links, and stuck to how I wanted to write: in long form, about history and food. Readers have stood by me over the years because they know what they get when they visit the site. And the buffer I had allowed me to experiment with writing and photography before the business became profitable.
Nico: It’s been nine years now since you’ve launched your Legal Nomads website, and you have acquired 46k Twitter followers so far. What were your most useless and most effective social media tactics so far? Last but not least, what are your favorite online tools for growing your business remotely?
Jodi: My answers are coming from the lens of being a personal brand/solo entrepreneur. The answers are different for a bigger company. For me, social media gifts you different ways to express your personality. The blog is for long-form writing. Instagram is for quirky pictures or short videos of day-to-day living in Oaxaca. Twitter is where I share links people can (hopefully) learn from. And Facebook is a mixture of them all. The most effective tactics have been to share things I genuinely find interesting and can teach people something new, and to not self-promote too much because no one wants to see a spammy feed.
I’ve never used any automation for any of my social feeds – no bots, no Instagram comment pods, nothing. Other than scheduling posts to go up at a certain time, it’s all authentic sharing/interaction. I’d rather have less of a following but one who actually WANTS to see my page than people who are paid/convinced to follow. Those aren’t real fans.
Tools-wise, I list them out here but my favorites are The Roost Stand, Trello, Canva, and Dropbox.
After our interview, it was clear to me that passion, hard work, and an ease with working from multiple skill sets were all necessary foundations for anyone serious about solo entrepreneurship. Jodi’s ability to shape thoughtful, long-form stories, retain her loyal readership, and work without sponsors all confirm her unique success as a solopreneur. While she has created a one-of-a-kind website, online shop, and travel forum, her advice about how to be a solopreneur applies to everyone interested in breaking free from the 9 to 5 life and heading out on new adventures (which Fiverr can help you do!).
Have you been thinking about becoming a digital nomad? What advice would you give to yourself, or others? Tell us in the comments below!