At Destination: Dev, our mission is to give aspiring digital nomads the tools to escape the 9-5 cubicle grind through software development education and cultural immersion. We’ve met a lot of incredibly interesting digital nomads from diverse backgrounds during our travels, so I’m putting together this series of interviews to profile people from all walks of life who have found freedom through travel.
First up is Maria Johnston, Founder of Clevercare, Travel Blogger and Startup Coach from Hamilton, New Zealand who has been abroad with her husband Dylan and four-year-old son Lucas since September 2016. Maria and her family are currently located in Medellín, Colombia, and this interview should provide inspiration to parents who dream about traveling but don’t think it’s possible while raising a family.
Life in Medellín vs. New Zealand
D: Medellín is the first stop that you’ve been to since hitting the road?
M: Yes. This is our first stop. It took us quite a bit of research. When people ask us, why Medellin? Especially back home everyone always had a shocked look on their face, but for me, I studied Spanish a long time ago, and always dreamed of living in South America.
One of our reasons for doing this big adventure was that we really wanted to meet other people like ourselves. Young, self-employed, business starters. Back home we were never able to come across those kinds of people. Everyone’s working the nine to five, doing the traditional thing, which we did very early on in our lives. So we felt like we needed to leave New Zealand, not just because of the opportunities of meeting like minded people, but also because we were bored and it just felt like the right time in our lives to do so.
D: What do you think is the biggest difference between life here in Medellín and back home in New Zealand?
M: It’s like paradise here. The climate is like spring weather every day, the fruits and vegetables, we’ve just raided them. In terms of daily life, there have definitely been some changes. We just seem to do more here. In New Zealand our lifestyle was a very lazy one. Lucas went to kindergarten just two blocks down the road and I’d drive there. Here, having a healthy lifestyle is highly promoted and supported. For example, every Sunday and public holiday from 7am-1pm one side of the main city streets is blocked off for people to walk, run, ride their bikes and rollerskate.
I think money has also been a big factor as well, because everything is so affordable here. We’ve halved our living costs essentially, which allows us to do a lot more things. Dylan works less, or he’ll juggle his hours a lot better so we have family time, and go exploring. We eat out, not necessarily a lot, because we love cooking at home but every time we eat out it’s like oh my god, that fed the three of us! For the cost that’s less than one person’s main at a restaurant back home. It’s just so cheap here.
Also, we don’t own physical things anymore, which is great. My brother takes care of our sentimental things such as our family portraits, wedding gifts things like that. Other than that we don’t have anything; no houses, no furnishings. We just have our two check-in luggage bags, and our three backpacks.
D: It’s liberating, right? Not having all that stuff.
M: It is. I had a hard time letting our stuff go back home. But Dylan was always able to say something that I just couldn’t argue or justify my feelings, such as, do you want to not go because you love your bedding? Or, one day you’ll get to buy everything new, how exciting will that be? Now our stuff is gone, and I don’t really miss it to be honest.
Coaching Entrepreneurs and Raising a Family
D: What do you do for work?
M: I originally had a career in project management. Then Lucas came along, and he changed my life. In 2013 I launched a business called Clever Care, which is New Zealand’s first GPS and mobile medical alarm provider. I was juggling being a new mom, sick parents, and launching the business. There was certainly a lot on my plate at the time. After about three years or so I decided I was finished doing what I wanted to do with the business and a new business partner now runs the company. So from about January of this year I haven’t been working, I’ve been taking a break, which has been amazing. It’s allowed me to relax and reassess what I’m passionate about working on now. Obviously we decided to take this adventure. We like travel, so we sold all our stuff, and came here and now I’m going to be doing some consulting and coaching to those that want to make their tech ideas a reality.
D: Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
M: I gained a lot of skills and experience over my years of running Clever Care, and even prior to that as a project manager and I’ve come up with a philosophy, I think you could call it. This philosophy identifies the necessary skills and tools I believe entrepreneurs need to have in the tech startup scene. I have seen first hand entrepreneurs who have made some big mistakes early on in their startup phase. Mistakes that could have easily been avoided. For example, delaying or late launches, hiring the wrong developers, focusing on many tasks that are distractions rather than their critical path or have spent way more of their capital than they needed to.
D: That’s a huge one I think, hiring the wrong developers. Especially if you don’t come from a development background it’s going to be really hard.
M: Definitely. As a coach I will give them the tools and empower them with the confidence and knowledge they need to really make their idea a reality. First of all, define what it is they’re wanting to create. Then being able to communicate that, and find their own teams. In terms of how they would communicate their idea with developers I focus on creating development specifications with the entrepreneur that developers would be able to understand, and easily quote out on, as well as work from. So both the entrepreneur and the developer will know exactly what each other’s expectations are. That’s the second part of my philosophy - communication through design.
The last and final part is management with preparation, where I coach the entrepreneur on how to prepare a product road map, and a project launch. That’s taking into consideration any actions that they may need to do for marketing, pre launch, raising capital, all the other things that need to be involved, not just focusing on creating the product.
I have broken down my philosophy into three coaching and consulting areas. The first being a stage where we define what it is they want to do, making sure they understand who their target market is, what it is they’re selling, and coming up with that 60 second pitch for their business. Second, is developing the designs and specification of their product/system and getting the right team together. Then, finally putting together a roadmap of all that would be involved to get their idea from just an idea to a launched product and business. Including that very important critical path. This roadmap will be their very own guide which really will empower them to take on the challenging world of tech startups.
D: Tell me a little bit more about the full time job of being a mom on the road.
M: Okay. So Lucas is four, he just turned four in June, so he is quite full on. I mean he’s not a baby, but it’s a different kind of need. As a four year old he’s not at the age yet where he’s mellow, and a lot more managed. So Lucas has until now taken a lot of my energy and time, because he just needs my attention and company. He wants to play together, ask a lot of questions, and just wants to talk, he loves to talk.
D: So would you say raising a kid is the most challenging thing about being abroad full-time?
M: Yes, I think as a mom you constantly worry. You have this absolute fear for your child. For example you fear that you’re never going to see your child again because something is going to happen, or something is going to happen because you decided to go abroad. I think that’s the most challenging thing: battling your mind with that sort of fear. Because you are a mom, and you’re completely responsible, and completely in-love with your child. It’s the most challenging thing because you have to actually let that go. Now Lucas is going to school here and I’ve had to just let go of the fact, okay, somebody else is going to take him to school on a bus. I’m not going to get to drop him off. He’s becoming independent now which at four years old is just a crazy feeling for a mom.
Becoming a Digital Nomad
D: What made you decide to get on the road and become a digital nomad?
M: I definitely have to say life sometimes happens to people. About two and a half years ago my life changed completely when my mum was ill, and passed away. I went through a dark time and I’ve really changed. I think that life situation and experience in particular really changed me. Because god were we different people beforehand, we were so different! We owned houses and we wanted to do the whole traditional thing, like have more kids, and just live in a small town.
During that time, I suffered from severe depression, and anxiety. It was a really bad time. At one stage I attempted suicide. That’s how dark it was. Whenever you go through something like that, it’s life changing. At the time I was also juggling grief, business and a newborn baby. That made things very difficult. Since then I’ve been in recovery, and I still am in recovery. Traveling is part of that recovery for me.
Having gone through a big shift in my mindset, I just didn’t feel like I could settle down, and commit to living in one physical location. I dreamed about traveling. Which Dylan and I always thought we would do when we retired. Once Lucas had left home.
D: Yea, the standard model.
M: Right, exactly. Then all of a sudden it hit me. I was going through all of my changes. I was just like, my god, I’m still young. Because we did the whole traditional thing early in our lives; marriage, work, kids, etc.
D: So it sounds like it was kind of a calling for you.
M: Obviously the life stuff happened, that was out of my control, I didn’t want it to happen and I felt lost. But then the idea of travel became this seed of thought. And we started researching into traveling and living abroad as a family and realized it is possible. Lots of people are doing it too.
D: So now that you’ve been on the road do you feel like it has strengthened that recovery and transformation that you had?
M: For sure! Especially with the anxiety. Which I’ve discovered is actually really common. Depression and anxiety are very common.
D: It’s the number one thing in the western world.
M: Yes. It’s very common. Prior to that stuff happening to me I had no idea. In fact, I was very much black and white. If a friend had depression I’d just be like “yeah, whatever, get over it”. But then I had a big awakening obviously going through it myself. The traveling has pushed me to reprogram my brain. It’s not only provided a distraction for my mind but it has forced me to find strength from somewhere.
Advice for Aspiring Nomads
D: Last question. Do you have any advice for aspiring digital nomads, especially those with families?
M: One big thing would be if you have an inkling that you want to do it, just do it! Maybe you’re sick of working for an employer. Especially when you have a family, when you start to have kids you’re like, I want to be at home more. You want that work lifestyle balance. My advice would be you can totally have it. So if you come from a similar background to us that’s even more of a reason why you can do it. You have to put a bit of effort in of course, especially in the beginning, but you can totally have it is my advice.
I would definitely say start feeding that seed of thought by doing exactly what we did, which was reading articles, joining Facebook groups, following Instagram accounts that have inspiring travel pictures. Just start feeding that seed of thought, and it will eventually happen. Somehow everything will align. You might get the courage to ask your boss to take your job home, and work from home, and start out that way. We did that for many years, just working from home.
D: So that’s step one; work from home. Step two is go on the road.
M: Yeah. Definitely work from home first. Especially if you have any concerns, because we sure did in the beginning. We used to think; Oh, we have a family so we need to have a house, and pick a school, and all that sort of thing, so we need to stay put. No, you simply don’t have to, you really don’t. So to test the waters, start by working from home.
Even if people are not at that stage where they have a family. They might even be single, or maybe they’re in a serious relationship. I believe we can give them hope too, that life’s not going to end if you want to have kids, but you’re too busy traveling. Well actually you can totally do it all. You can do whatever you want!
D: Right. Like you said it could be just a single guy like me, and maybe with a little fear about taking the plunge. Then you see, oh, they’re raising a kid on the road, why am I being such a wimp?
M: Yeah exactly! You could fall in love. You can have a relationship. You can go get married, have a kid all while traveling. Anything is possible. I think doing something like this, and meeting other people, you learn and realize that anything you want in life is completely achievable.
Destination: Dev is an 8-week program combining web development education with cultural immersion in Medellín, Colombia. Want to learn how we can help you become a digital nomad? Click here