Ep. 162: How this nomad works remotely as a small business consultant with Susan Brooklyn
In this week’s episode, I speak with Susan who is the founder of Brooklyn Tropicali—a travel blog focused on creative travels for creative people, with an emphasis on the region of Latin America.
She’s also a social media manager and consultant for small businesses and startups. Susan lived in NYC, traveled full-time for 3 years, and is now based in colorful Oaxaca, Mexico.
Listen on to find out how Susan works remotely as a blogger and small business consultant.
Hey everyone! Thank you so much for joining us and really excited to be here today. I am with Susan. Hey Susan, how are you?
I’m great. Thanks for having me.
Thank you for being here. So, can you tell us a little bit more about you and why you live an offbeat life?
Well, I am a digital nomad and a blogger. I’ve had a windy road to get to where I am. But basically I live in Oaxaca, Mexico and I have a travel blog that’s about Latin America and about creative travels.
And I also do social media management consulting for startups as well.
It’s amazing that you’re able to travel the world doing your blog and also being a social media marketer. Now, how were you able to transition into this type of lifestyle. Did you used to have a nine-to-five or did you go off into the digital marketing world right away?
I definitely did a lot of different things in my life. I never was the kind of person who knew exactly what I wanted to do. So, I tried lots of different things: I used to play in a band and then, I went to fashion school and I worked in fashion in New York City for five or six years.
And I thought that’s what I wanted to do and it was a creative career and it sounded very cool. But it really wasn’t a very healthy lifestyle; pretty stressful and frantic and just kind of a toxic industry. So I was getting really burnt out and exhausted. And at the same time, had, kind of, started to travel a little bit and definitely got the travel bug.
So, it’s trying any way I could to get out of town and use every scrappy little bit of vacation time I had and holidays to, like, go to different places.And I went to lots of parts of Latin America and at the same time, I had heard about people who are digital nomads or location independent.
And I was obsessed with the idea but I have no idea how to do it because the fashion industry is just completely opposed to that. It’s a really old industry that’s not open to remote work. So I didn’t really have a good plan, to be honest, but at some point, I just was like, “I have to get out of here.”
So I got rid of almost all my stuff and got rid of my apartment and left New York at the end of 2015. And went on an open-ended trip that was going to be about 6 months, but I didn’t really know what would happen after that and kind of just figured it out as I went.
I started the blog about 3 months into that trip. And started house sitting so I could keep my costs really low and then, just kind of little by little, started teaching myself about digital marketing: blogging, WordPress, SEO, social media, everything little by little.
And then, started finding little remote jobs little by little and just kind of figured it out over the years.
Well, it seems like it’s been a long journey for you and so many lessons that you had to learn because that’s a huge leap from New York City fashion to now being location independent and doing digital marketing.
How did you fully prepare for that big change? I’m sure there were so many things that you had to do.
Yeah. I don’t know how to say it really succinctly but I think, for me, I was always really a type-A person so it’s kind of surprising that I didn’t have this really specific grand plan about how to totally rework my career and do everything in a really safe way.
But I think I actually had to do the opposite. I had to just totally jump and not have a safety net and just figure it out because otherwise, I think I would have stayed in my bubble in New York for a long time.
Even though it wasn’t a happy bubble, I think it still was safe enough that if I didn’t have the pressure of having to just figure out how to make money and make it work then, it might have never happened.
So, to prepare for it, I think a lot of it was sort of unintentional where I was just, for like a year or two before I left New York, really obsessed with this idea of being a digital nomad. And there were all these bloggers that I followed who are living that lifestyle and podcasters who were just super inspirational.
And I thought of it as them just kind of like getting me through the day I left at the time, but I think actually I was learning a lot from them: about how they did it, the way they structure their life in different ways you can work online.
So that was helpful. And then, once I started traveling it was just like hit the ground running – I had to figure it out. So I was just researching so much, reading so much and then just trying things. So, I went on job boards and looked for anything that I had any kind of relevant skills for and then just applied for it and just figured I would just try whatever and just see what worked.
And I think that was actually really good because it gave me a lot of different experiences to see what I liked the most and what I was the best at and also what pays better. It was a really good learning experience to just try all these little things: I did writing and content creation, I did customer service for a dating website and just all these random things that even if I don’t do those for the rest of my life, they were still really good learning experiences.
And also just things that got me really comfortable working with clients and working on temporary jobs and figuring out how to manage my life, my finances, and all that stuff.
I love the fact that instead of just waiting around, you actually took action. Because I think, for the most part, we often read and watch things and it’s really about the action that really makes that big difference. Because you can only see and read so much before it doesn’t really do anything, right?
And, I mean, you definitely did that and I think learning as you go is so crucial to all of this because, honestly, it’s fairly new still and you’re not going to learn this in school. You get out of school and you have to learn this on your own.
I mean it really is true. It’s like the wild past, it’s all new. And, I mean, I think it is kind of crazy the way I did it because, like I said, I was a really like ABCD, type A methodical person. I just know, with my personality, it never would have happened if I didn’t just make the leap.
So, I know a lot of people say you should start a side hustle and do that with your full-time job and then get to a certain point where you feel comfortable that you can sustain yourself on it. And I think that’s really good advice for a lot of people and it’s really smart, obviously, and it’s safe and that’s great, but I don’t think it works for everyone.
And so if you’re the type of person who is really self-motivated and you know that, when push comes to shove you can take care of yourself and make something work, I think you kind of just have to go, you just have to jump and figure it out.
And like you said, it’s true. I mean, you can go to school for marketing and you’ll learn important things but the way digital marketing is now and how fast it changes, I think it’s so much more beneficial to just be doing it.
And to be reading blogs of experts who have figured this stuff out and who are constantly monitoring all the changes of algorithms and all that. It really is an industry of doing rather than then going through a traditional route, I think.
We all have that “what now?” moment after we leave or 9 to 5. I had it and I’m sure you had it too when you left New York and your life in the fashion industry. What was your “what now?” moment like?
I think there were a lot of moments like that for me, a lot of little ones. But the one that I think of the most that were kind of my biggest make or break was about a year into traveling full time.
During my first year of traveling it was a lot more about learning and starting. It took me probably about a year ‘til I get no good groove with work and finances. So about a year in, I had a moment where I was looking at the bank account and I was like, “Oh, this is not a good situation and I have to figure something out quickly.”
So, I spent about a couple of months just working my butt off, like working so many hours every week. Looking for work, pitching work doing, lower-paying jobs just to get some income and it was a really stressful time and it really felt like a make or break moment.
I didn’t know what my backup plan would be; if going back to New York didn’t really make sense because I didn’t have an apartment and it’s more expensive in New York anyway. I was in Panama at the time which was more affordable. So it really just was there was no other option. I just had to figure it out and luckily I did.
And I ended up finding several ongoing clients at that time that were well paying enough. And then, that ended up kind of propelling me in the right direction, I think. I ended up fairly shortly after that figuring out that social media marketing was really kind of my niche and what I did the best and what I enjoy the most.
And so, shortly after that kind of went in that direction, I think it propelled me in the direction that I am today.
Definitely seeing your bank account go down is a huge motivator to get off your butt and really really go for it, right?
Yes, that is a very good motivator.
And also, you talked about some people who are good would just leave and take off and finally leap into this type of lifestyle while other people, they have to save and have to make sure they’re prepared.
It’s also knowing what type of person you are and really knowing that about yourself because you could either do one or the other. But just on the safe side, before you do that, definitely understand what you’re going to be like. Because if you’re not motivated by other things then, yeah.
Safety and savings are first, but if you are like Susan who can just go and do it and be motivated by just the adrenaline sometimes and making sure that you need to do it then, yeah, that’s a good option as well.
You definitely have to be self-motivated and you have to know that you can be that way and take care of yourself.
So, what is the biggest setback that you are encountering right now as an entrepreneur?
For sure, it’s managing all the stuff, all the different things that I do. I’m particularly having a harder time with that right now that I have been in the past. And I think it’s always a tough thing because it’s great to focus on one thing but it’s not really feasible when you’re an entrepreneur because you have to have your hand in at least a couple different things because something can always drop out.
And it’s safer to have a couple of different income streams, different projects. But you kind of can’t have too many or you spread yourself too thin, you’re not going to do anything well enough. so it’s a really tricky balance but I never feel like I fully mastered it. Like sometimes I get better at it and then, with various clients and projects, it gets harder.
So, right now, I just feel like I have so many things that I want to do and I have a lot of new ideas I’m really excited about and just really trying to find the time for everything. So, finding balance is always the hardest thing for me.
It’s always so many things. I think our eyes are bigger for the most part than anything else than our time and everything because I have this too. I have the shiny object syndrome and I get really excited about something and realize, “Oh my gosh, that takes a lot of time and effort and probably need so much more of the time that I can afford to give right now,” because you have so many other things that you are taking care of and your business.
So beware of that ‘cause that will happen to all of us for sure.
What is your secret sauce for making your business and work successfully and be really right for you?
Well, I think, to be right for me is just about me enjoying my life and allowing myself to do the things that make me happy. So, it makes me really happy to wake up when I want to wake up and makes you really really happy. I hate waking up to an alarm.
So, that alone just makes me feel great and makes me excited to work and just like to feel happy and shiny when I wake up. So that’s great. I love being able to schedule my day the way I want, to take breaks when I want, to do yoga and go for a walk or go to the market here in the middle of the day, to go meet a friend for lunch, to take a weekday off and go on like in Pueblo exploring trip.
All those things are what really motivate and make my life what I wanted to be. I don’t know if that’s what makes me successful. I think in a way it does because being happy is an important part of being successful, but other than that, I’m a very organized person and I think that’s crucial when you work for yourself and when you have various clients and projects.
So I have to have lots of different methods to keep track of all my to-do lists of my calendar, of everything that needs to be done and checked on and rechecked on and finished. And all those things are important to keep everyone happy, to keep all your clients happy, to keep your reputation, and to do a good job.
So, I think just finding all those methods, all of your project management efforts that keep you streamlined are really important.
Do you have any specific programs or apps that you are currently using to streamline your business and make it a lot easier?
I don’t use any fancy apps, to be honest. I feel like the stuff that I use is pretty basic but I just have found ways that I use all of them together in a way that works.
So, one of the things I used the most, and it’s like the most basic is just my Notes app. I use it so much, I use it constantly all day long. And I have notes for everything. I have one ongoing note that is my to-do list that I continually like to change and shift and add to whenever things come up during the day.
So, it’s really helpful and then I have separate notes for lots of other things. For every meeting, I have an ongoing note that keeps all of my client meetings in one place. And they’re so easily searchable that it is helpful too. And I have idea lists in there sometimes I’m journaling in there. It’s just everything’s in there and it’s all organized by different folders.
And the fact that it’s so simple is so important to me. I think that helps that it’s not overly complicated. It’s just a really easy way for me to keep track of so much stuff.
And then, of course, Google Calendar is huge and I use that for keeping track of the timing of blog posts and client work and things like that. And then that streamlines right to meetings where I can just click through to a client meeting which is helpful.
And then, Google Docs and Spreadsheets are in Google Drive is like my best friend. I use that constantly for my editorial calendars, for the blog, and for clients. And all the sharing options are so helpful.
And then, PayPal is just super easy for invoicing and so I use that for invoicing. And I think that’s about it. Those are like my big ones and, like I said, they’re really simple but they just all work together so effortlessly I think.
Sometimes simpler is better for sure because then, you don’t get overwhelmed with all of the technology that you need to use, to make things a lot easier.
When you finally left New York and you wanted to choose a place to live in, how did you do that? How did you choose the right destination to live as a digital nomad?
Good question. So for the first 3 years, it was moving around a lot but it was all kind of all over the place. And so there are a few different factors, one was house-sitting. I started getting at the house sitting and loved it and it was a great way to like being plugged in to a place that already has Wi-Fi, to have a comfortable home. It’s not just Airbnb but has actually all the things. All the pots and all the things that you need to live. And you’re often even kind of plugged into a community at the same time.
I really like that and so, there was a good portion of time where I would kind of let that dictate where I would go. I belong to four different house sitting sites and I would keep an eye on ones that came up and apply to ones that are interesting and then if something came through I would just kind of follow that.
And then, at some point, after the first year, I just started getting offers for houses from either returning to places I’ve been or referrals. So that was kind of an easy way to choose where to go and then, in between that, I would maybe think of where, logistically, made sense, or maybe I just wanted to, after being in like a remote part of Mexico, go to Peru for a little while ‘cause I’ve always wanted to go there.
So, it’s kind of all over the place depending on just the opportunities that came but then also what I wanted to do. And then, at the end of the three years, I was really kind of burnt out on full-time travel. I loved it but I just felt tired and I really, really missed having a community and just felt pretty isolated.
At that point, I was trying to figure out where to live on a more stable, long-term basis. And I was just thinking of the places that I love the most that I’ve been doing this for years. Mexico City and Oaxaca were kind of my top 2 that I spent the most time and had friends, love the vibe, the weather, the culture, food, and everything.
But then, when it came down to Oaxaca, which is really, for a variety of reasons, was my favorite place. So, I ended up coming here a little over a year ago and have been here since.
Well, that is a really great journey and it allowed you to see where you really wanted to be. I mean, it was all over the place in the beginning but you found the right place for you right now.
When you’re actually living abroad like you are right now, what type of international insurance do you use?
I have a health insurance that does work abroad. It’s not my favorite, to be honest. It has like some quirks but its kind of what I’ve just been using.
It’s funny ‘cause I hear that a lot. It’s either they’re not happy with international insurance or insurance that they have or they don’t use any. And it’s really crazy because if you’ve ever tried to make a claim with your insurance when you’re traveling then you know how annoying it is to get a hold of someone.
Especially if you are in a foreign country and you don’t know the language. And it’s an even more familiar one – you’re in unfamiliar territory.
That’s why I’m really glad that I was able to partner with Integra Global because you can manage your claims on their app. So it makes it so much easier and they have so many things that they can give you and so much help from that.
They’re all over the world so they’re so easy to get a hold of. And it’s easy to log on to their app and submit a claim. So, if you want to make your life easier and feel safer when you’re on the road, go to IntegraGlobal.com and check out their insurance coverage.
So, if you could check out the insurance company Integra Global, Susan, and if our listeners want to do that too, make sure you check them out.
So now, Susan, let’s talk about how you were able to save money before setting off to be a location independent. How are you able to do that? And how were you able to budget to make it last?
Yeah. I didn’t touch on that but I did save a lot before I left. And that was what made it possible for me my first year to have the time to learn things and to be able to kind of build up client work. So I just worked a lot to be honest.
When I was in New York I transitioned to be freelance the year before I left which actually benefited me so, I ended up making more money which was great. And I also was able to take on more hours and work hourly. So I just worked as many hours as I possibly could and it worked out that the fashion company I was working with needed a lot of help.
So, I work long hours. I took work home and worked at home. So a lot of the time I felt like I was working like almost every waking hour which honestly was not healthy, but it was a short-term goal and I knew I was going to be leaving. So, I kind of make it work mentally for me to just get through this time period and work as much as I could.
And then the nice thing too about New York is the cost of living is high which also means the pay is usually on a higher cost-of-living side. And then, I was going to places that were on a lower cost of living, so I was able to save a lot of money right before I left, working a lot.
And then, after I left, like I mentioned, I was house-sitting a lot the first year and when you’re house-sitting you’re not paying any rent. So that’s usually helpful and you can live in a home, you can buy groceries and cook, and generally, just keep your costs really low. So it did that a lot.
And then, one of the tools that was the most helpful for me and I still use is an app called Trail Wallet. It’s a budgeting app specifically designed for travel and it’s really simple which, again, I think it’s something for me. I really appreciate tools that are really simple to use otherwise, I’ll just find them overwhelming or annoying.
With Trail Wallet, you can just enter in everything that you spend during the day. And there’s like a couple of different categories. You can keep yourself organized and see what you’re saving on food versus rent – things like that. And then, it will tell you your daily average.
So, I always kind of had in mind what my daily budget should be and I would adjust that depending on where I was. So, if I knew I was going to Europe I knew that my daily and my monthly budget was going to have to be higher versus if I was going to be in Guatemala or something like that.
So, that just helped me stay on track every day, keeping an eye on that. Knowing if I was completely blowing my budget or not. And I still use it now to just stay on budget. Even when I’m not traveling, I still just think it’s a really helpful and easy budgeting app. So that has been a huge help for me.
Those budgeting apps are honestly lifesavers because otherwise, I don’t know what’s coming in and out. I’m really bad with that sometimes so I definitely agree with you on that one, Susan.
Let’s fast-forward to 50 years from now and you’re looking back at your life. What legacy would you like to leave and what do you want to be remembered for?
That’s a good question. I think one thing that I am hugely passionate about is Latin America and Mexico. And I think that this part of the world is really misunderstood and the media really portrays it badly especially in the US and it’s something that really frustrates me because it’s such a gorgeous part of the world.
The culture is amazing, the people are so wonderful and warm. And people are just scared of it and so a huge motivator for me with my blog is to try to educate people and show them what it really is like here. And to help them see a more well-rounded view of Mexico and of Latin America, to see what everyday life is, not just have this gritty idea that the news is showing them.
So, I would love it if my blog could help spread awareness of how beautiful this part of the world is. And how much you can learn, experience, grow, and connect with people here.
Yeah. And one motivator when I created my blog also, it was a very selfish motivator, but I was just really burnt out as a creative person in New York, working in a creative industry. And the pressure to always have new ideas and inspiration while working 60-hour work weeks and barely having a vacation and not having a balanced life is really hard.
So, one of the reasons that travel was so important to me was that it was really like feeding my soul and what I was missing. So anytime I would leave and go to Guatemala or Costa Rica or Mexico, I just felt all this renewed inspiration and creativity and it just felt like the World opened up for me.
And so, I wanted to be able to have a platform to show people how they can visit these places and travel to these places in a way that’s not just going to like the big tourist spots and checking them off their list; actually understanding how these places can feed you and transform you. And learning from local artisans in these places and seeing their traditions and just kind of having like a renewed perspective on the world.
And so, I hope that my blog can be that at some point. That’s kind of what my goal is.
Well, there’s a lot of things for you to definitely do right now ‘cause you’re there. So that’s really exciting.
What are you working on today that is really exciting for you?
Well, I haven’t talked about this yet, but I’m really excited about it and I’m working with a partner here in Oaxaca and we are going to start offering retreats. We’re really early in the stages of planning but I’m really excited about the direction that’s going in. It’s something I wanted to work on for a long time but really wasn’t sure about doing on my own for a variety of reasons, but I think our partnership will work really perfectly.
And I just really want to show people all the things I love about Oaxaca: the creativity here, the traditions, all the things that make this a really special place and that have really fed me.
So, yeah. That’s something I’m working on and I’m really excited about sharing and hope that all the details will be developing the next couple of months.
That is really awesome.
Now, if our listeners want to know more about you, where can they find you?
So, my blog is BrooklynTropicali.com, which is a good place if you have any interest in traveling to Latin America. I mostly post about where to travel, how to do it, specific things. I have tons of posts about Oaxaca and lots about Mexico in general and other parts of Latin America.
And I’m also on Instagram, @brooklyntropicali, Pinterest, Twitter, pretty much all the social media.
Perfect. Thank you so much, Susan, for being here with us. I really appreciate all the knowledge that you shared.
Thanks for having me. It was really great chatting with you.
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Audio Engineer: Ben Smith