Florida girl who left her home to travel the world solo in 2008
Shannon is an SEO expert, National Geographic Traveler of the Year using travel as a force for good
1. Hey, can you please introduce yourself?
Shannon here! Back in 2008, I decided to take my remote search engine optimization (SEO) consulting work on the road for a year as I backpacked around the world. I had been working online for a few years at that point and realized that so long as I had an internet connection, I could travel for a lot less than it was costing me to live in Los Angeles. Plus, you know, I’d get to see the world!
The digital nomad movement didn’t exist yet, and my travel blog was one of the first out there sharing what it was like to not only travel solo as a female, but also jump through hurdles like finding internet and wifi signals long before they were commonplace (oh boy, do I have some stories about my hilarious and often fraught search for internet in remote places—more than one story ends in me bribing someone for 20 desperate minutes of connection).
2. What motivated you to choose remote working?
Remote work chose me, and I feel so lucky to have started working full time just as remote work was actually becoming feasible. I had a very practical major in college: marketing and public relations. But I dreamed of moving to LA and working in the entertainment industry. So how did I wind up specializing in SEO? In 2005, a friend connected me to a local company that trained marketing copywriters in SEO techniques, and then let them work remotely improving a huge roster of websites. I was waiting tables at the time to put myself through college, so it seemed like a no-brainer to take on this new work.
After 15 years in SEO, I’ve grown my specialization into editorial SEO specifically, and the remote aspect of this work changed my life in innumerable ways. Not only did I make it out to LA, but I took the work on the road and for the better part of 10 years I traveled the world, stopping for months at a time in places like Thailand and Mexico. Now, it’s my remote work for U.S. companies that has allowed me to secure the visa that allows me to live in Barcelona, Spain full time.
3. What were your initial months like? Did it live up to your expectations?
I honestly don’t remember much of those first years working online back in college, but I remember the huge growing pains that it took to become a functioning “digital nomad,” as it’s called now. I started my travels in Australia, which back in 2008 had a monopoly basically controlling all internet access in the country—it was expensive to get online. I was dealing with not only the emotional transition of traveling solo for the first time, but I spent many days chasing down solid internet connections and trying to juggle the bizarre working hours it took to meet client expectations.
It was harder than I expected to work and travel, especially in such a different time zone to my clients, but I never resented the obstacles I had to overcome—I was privileged to have this incredible opportunity. That’s always been my mantra about remote work. Even when I’m up at three in the morning whispering in a hotel lobby in Rwanda (true story) about effective content marketing strategies, I approach it all with gratitude that I am able to design my life and work in ways my parents could have never imagined.
4. How did you find remote working roles?
My first remote working role found me, and it also provided me with training that allowed me to specialize in a skill that was really on the cusp of becoming a major part of internet marketing. Not many people knew much about SEO in 2005, and it definitely did not have a respected presence in the online marketing strategies of major multinational brands and small businesses alike. SEO was a bit of a dirty word back then because of blackhat techniques that spammers used, which gave the entire profession a bad name.
Over the next decade, however, SEO became integrated into all aspects of online marketing and I was able to catch that upward trajectory. There were certainly some slim years with fewer clients than I would have prefered, but 100% of my SEO consulting work has come through word of mouth. I’ve never allowed my location to impact what I deliver to the client, or the hours I am available. Sure, I hope that they are willing to work at the edges of U.S. business hours when I am on the other side of the world, but I’ve always prioritized delivering work on time (I went out of my way in those early years to find reliable internet access days before a deadline cropped up), and cultivating the relationship to a level that I know my clients feel they can fully trust me to deliver quality work to anyone they recommend use my consulting services.
5. What have been the best, good and worst aspects of remote working for you?
The lifestyle flexibility is absolutely the best part of working remotely. Working online has allowed me to design a life that exactly matches my goals and values. For me, that meant a lot of slow travel that prioritized volunteering and helping local communities —something I could easily do since I had the time to stay for six plus months in each place. And now it’s allowed me to build a life in Europe.
It has been challenging to keep up with those I love since our lifestyles are so different. Dear friends from back home who don’t have the flexibility to travel or meet me out in the world are on different trajectories. We still keep in touch—that’s so much easier now than at any other time in history—but I’ve found most of my close friends now share a similar remote lifestyle since we all have the flexibility to meet up for coffees in the middle of the day, or pick up and work from a shared house in Mexico for a month. Now that I put it like that, it’s a challenge but also a joy. :)
6. What tools do you swear by while working remotely?
I tell all freelancers to systematize their life and maintain strict discipline during internet time. The fact that I had some infrequent and low quality internet in my early years of travel taught me to be ruthlessly effective with my time and organization. I swear by the “Getting Things Done” done method by David Allen. The transition into a system of personal management is the hardest part for a lot of remote workers. When you have all the time in the world to complete work, it can be hard to actually action on it all.
By the time I read Allen’s book I had been working online for years and had already used browser extensions to curb my social media use during working hours (I trained myself to stop casually Facebooking with StayFocused and Kill News Feed). I just needed a better way to keep all the balls in the air of my various projects. That’s why about five years ago I married Allen’s concepts in “Getting Things Done” with Trello, which I now use for all of my online organization needs—my boards organize not only my client work, but my own blog and my personal life as well. There are so many ways you can sort information, and it’s that customization that makes it magical. My board organization makes sense to me, but I’ve seen friends’ boards that make me despair but keep them sane—it’s a flexible tool that lets you organize, storyboard a project, task manage, and so much more.
Beyond that, I use Google Drive, and those two services take me through about 95% of my client work.
7. Your most exciting/ hilarious experience since you started working remotely.
I think one of the more absurd moments in my remote work life came early in my travels. I used a program called Dreamweaver for one of my clients at the time, and it meant that I needed to use my own laptop to do my job.
I was traveling in India at the time and it’s really impossible to explain just how horrible the internet was back in 2009! Wifi simply did not exist in some parts of India, and after a week of struggling to find internet cafes willing to allow me to connect via a Cat 5 ethernet cable, I was getting desperate. I had an assignment due and all of the internet cafes refused to let me directly connect my laptops to their systems for fear of a virus.
Finally, I found a cafe employee who told me he would sneak me into a corner while his boss was at lunch for a few extra dollars—it was not ideal because his boss did not allow the connection. Fast forward 20 minutes and the entire cafe was in an uproar when the boss came back early. There was much shouting and I was asked to leave the internet cafe.
I ended up changing my travel plans and headed directly to the nearest big city (Jaipur in this case), and found wifi in a computer shop in the attic of a rundown shopping mall and I spent an entire day there catching up on work. It was weeks like those that made me never take for granted a good internet connection—I always work as far ahead as possible when traveling so I am never on the cusp of being late with my work!
8. What is your golden advice to a new remote worker?
Over-deliver to any new clients—especially those new to using remote workers! There’s still a good bit of skepticism about the effectiveness of remote workers. Although the pandemic has surely changed more significantly than anything else over the past decade+, it’s still a work in progress to help employers understand that remote workers are often even more effective than those working set hours at a desk every day.
You represent the entire movement when you sign on to do remote work, so make us all look good by meeting deadlines and being flexible about working hours if you choose to live in a faraway time zone from your employers. And if you see yourself struggling with bad habits (procrastination, too much web surfing, etc), then embrace technology and let it help you stay focused and work more effectively until you develop good work-from-home habits.
9. How do you see your career shaping up and your goals?
Since I started working online in 2005, I have progressed ever upwards in my career. Some years are tougher than others, especially as a freelance remote worker, but I’ve managed to find work and maintain my travel-and-work lifestyle not only throughout the 2008 recession, but I am on track to continue strong through whatever is on the horizon.
I have always had a strong work ethic and never allowed my remote work situation to become a reason to deliver less than top-quality work. If I made travel choices that imperiled my work—like traveling to places with sketchier internet—I went out of my way to ensure I have never used my remote status as a reason to not deliver work on time. I think that has allowed me to grow from working for indie startups and small businesses to now being doing SEO for multinational brands who think nothing of hiring me despite that I live in Barcelona, Spain and most of them are spread coast-to-coast in the U.S.
10. How do you expect remote working to evolve in the future?
The pandemic has really accelerated the acceptance of remote work—I think it progressed easily a decade into the future in the span of just months. Companies that were staunchly against a remote workforce have quickly made the adjustments needed to empower their employees to work from home—and it’s working! Although there are always businesses that will need in-person work, and there are benefits to in-person collaborations too, all of that work which can be done online is now transitioning there—and I don’t see those employees easily agreeing to go back to the office.
11. Where can we follow you on?
My Now page on A Little Adrift shares what I’m up to right now, but if you’re an avid traveler, you’ll be most interested in my extensive world travel resources and my free responsible travel guides.You can also follow along on Facebook or Instagram.