Keeping business afloat - Cartoonist Sarah Steenland
Sarah and her husband always wanted to retire and go cruising around the seas and oceans. They'd work hard in the construction industry, save their money and one day set sail.
Then when the financial crisis hit 10 years ago things changed. Forced to sell everything and start living on a boat they realised maybe they didn't have to wait until they were older. Maybe they could do this now!
There are plenty of digital nomads. But few have a family of four to support. Even less live on a boat - taking the term 'remote' working to a whole new level. When you're not just worried about whether an invoice has been paid, but what that burning smell on board is miles from the coast of Borneo.
It's a great story. Interesting to find that even a freelancer so physically isolated is still relying on personal human connections to keep their business afloat.
Transcription of freelance podcast interview with cartoonist and digital nomad Sarah Steenland
Steve Folland: Freelance cartoonist Sarah Steenland. Hey, Sarah.
Sarah Steenland: Hey, how are you doing?
Steve Folland: How did you get started being freelance?
Sarah Steenland: I pretty much always worked for myself anyway, since leaving school. I was originally going to go into illustration when I was about 18. Studied that for a year, and it was kind of like a little bit of a disappointment in a lot of ways, because there wasn't a lot of positivity in that arena at that time, because the internet was just getting started, and everyone was like, "There's going to be no jobs for illustrators." It was quite a bit of a downer.
Sarah Steenland: There was no excitement about it. We went on visits to book publishing places, and they were like ... they basically tried to get us to change our mind on going down that line, which was yeah, it was a bit strange. I was like, "You know, this is what I want to do. I want to draw for a living." But there was just no inspiration at the time, and I sort of had to re-think. Because my family were in construction, I thought, "Well, how could I utilize that background?" My dad used to work at home, so it was always a familiar industry for me.
Sarah Steenland: I saw an advertising commercial on TV about interior design, and I just went, "Oh, okay. I'll just go and do that," because it's creative, and I could get work from my father through his construction company. I did that for 10 years freelancing. I married a builder, so you know, we continued to build houses, and I designed, and decorated, and did all the creative stuff to do with construction.
Sarah Steenland: Then when the GFC hit, we got hit quite hard with that, and it didn't quite work out. Basically, we had to sell everything. We ended up living on my husband's father's boat, because we had nowhere else to go. Basically, everything just got completely turned upside down with our lives. I thought, "Well, do I really want to keep doing this?" It was kind of like that time in your life where you question everything, like, "What's this all about? We work hard, and then this happens."
Sarah Steenland: So I thought, "Well, should I just try and find out if I can get back into what I originally loved and wanted to do in the first place?" Which was drawing and cartooning. So I basically dropped everything and started to go on the internet and work out how I could do it as a profession.
Steve Folland: Wow. Did you say the GFC hit? Is that like the 2008/2009 recession type time, or is there something I don't know about?
Sarah Steenland: Yeah, no, definitely. It was actually towards the end of it. We were just scraping by and trading out of it, and it was just like one thing that just was the straw that broke the camel's back. When everything's going well, it's like, "Yay, I have money." And then have more money, and then when they want it back when times are tough, and you're like all you need is one building ... because we used to build houses and sell them, and if you don't sell that one quick enough, then it's just like ... It can just be devastating.
Sarah Steenland: So anyway, we ended up having to sell everything. I think it was 2011. At the time, of course, it was like, "This is the worst." We were actually doing very well at the time. We had properties, and lots of goals that we were really striving for, and because our initial goal was to go cruising with a boat, but we thought that you had to make all this money, and have all these things that are going to make money for you, so you can go and retire early and take off.
Sarah Steenland: We had a block of land that we were going to build storage sheds on so that was like income, passive income. Just stuff like that we were setting up. Then when that's all taken off you, you're just like, "Okay, what do we do now?" We worked our asses off, and we were just so driven, because we met quite early. I was 19, and we built our first house by the time I was 21. Basically, without bragging, we were pretty much millionaires by the time I was 22.
Sarah Steenland: We were just so ambitious, and you think that at that point the building industry was just going crazy in Australia, and people just were buying houses. We're building them, and they were just getting bought three days after you put them on the market. Everything you touch turns to gold, and you're just like when it all fails, you're like, "What happened?"
Sarah Steenland: So yeah, I did a lot of soul searching, and kind of thought, "You know ..." When we moved onto the boat, because we had like a huge house, and loads and loads of stuff, and the kids had heaps of toys, and we had to sell it all. It was just like stripping everything back to the basics. It was like, "Okay, it sucks," but it was also a cleansing experience that we kind of realized, "Hey, we actually don't need a lot."
Sarah Steenland: Living on the boat was ... and it was a very, very, small boat that we moved onto, we had no TV, nothing. Just a toilet, and a tiny little kitchen, and a couple of beds. At the time, because it was like, "Ah, this is terrible." Then it was like, "Actually, no. It's actually really great, because we can go over and take off on the weekends, go and play on the islands." Everything was a lot simpler, and we connected a lot more as a family. That's when I realized that we don't need a lot.
Sarah Steenland: Then also, it was actually quite affordable living on the boat as well, so instead of us ... A lot of people were saying to us, "You can build yourselves back up again, no problem. You guys are so driven and resourceful. You'll be millionaires again in no time." We just went, "You know what? We don't want to do that again."
Sarah Steenland: Yeah, so we just sort of went total pivot, and back to basics, and going for things that meant more, which were family connection, more time with family, and then also doing things that we loved to do, and that was what we lost touch of in those years. This was in our 20s that we were together, and we had kids and everything, and I was 31 I think when it all went down. But yeah, so it was like, "Okay, we'll just reassess." That's what led us to where we are today.
Steve Folland: Wow. When you were then thinking, "Right. Actually, maybe I can bring in some money by doing ... for cartoonist stuff, my illustrations that I always wanted to do when I was younger and then presumed that that couldn't be a job," how did you go about finding those first clients?
Sarah Steenland: Well, at the very beginning, I did it in secret, because when we decided that we were going to take off, like get our own boat and take off sailing the world, we obviously needed an income. My job was to come up with an online business so we could make income as we were traveling, and location independent. Obviously, with my experience with construction and interior design, I came up with the idea of consulting people who wanted to build a house. We had so much knowledge, and we had made very good money doing it.
Sarah Steenland: Anyway, it was actually going quite well. I actually did set it up. I did the website, I actually got a grant from the government to do it, so I had a little bit of a hand financially to get it set up. It did actually start off actually quite well, considering how long internet businesses do take to ... You have to be patient, obviously, with the internet. We did a lot of real life meet and greet with people at home shows and stuff like that, so it did actually quick off quite well.
Sarah Steenland: We were selling courses when courses weren't trendy on the internet, but after the funding stopped, because they funded me for a year, once that stopped I was like, "Do I ..." Because that obligation wasn't there anymore to impress the people who were funding that business, I sort of thought to myself, "I absolutely hate doing this."
Sarah Steenland: I felt really guilty about it, because people had faith in me, and they backed me, and my husband and my kids were relying on this thing. I was like, "Oh my god. I hate it, but I'm stuck. I can't ..." It was going well, so it's not like you can say, "Oh well, okay. I've given it a crack, it's failed, and I'll try something else." It was like, "Well, I've got no excuse, because it is actually ... it was gathering momentum and income," but I was just writing about asbestos one day, and you know, and trying to make it really exciting.
Sarah Steenland: The hilarious part about it was that the bit I loved doing was the illustrating that went with it, so I came up with these really funny little cartoons of like, "Asbestos, let sleeping dogs lie," and I had this cartoon of a dog lying down with a blanket on it saying, "Asbestos." You don't want to piss it off, because you're going to get asbestos if you start bashing into it. I was like, "Ah, I love that part, that aspect of blogging about the building industry."
Sarah Steenland: Also, I had a mentor at the time who lived in the marina that were staying in. She taught business at the nearby college, and we'd meet once a week and have a few beers, and discuss what else ... because she had a lot of experience with this sort of thing. Then she'd notice that I'd just talk about the cartooning side of my business. She's like, "Sarah, why don't you just do that? You're obviously really good at it, and you love it, and you don't like talking about the other stuff to do with your business."
Sarah Steenland: She just sort of said, just pointed out the obvious. I'm just like, "Oh, don't be silly. You can't make money out of cartooning." I just laughed it off. She kept saying to me, she was showing me all these things, like, "Hey, there's this thing on the internet that I subscribe to. They're cartoon, like animated cards, Christmas cards," or something like that.
Sarah Steenland: She said, "I think you could probably find something that you could do to make money with your talents with cartooning." So secretly, I'd go on her boat once a week, and we would conspire how I could get something going. I wanted to have ... step into the cartooning and have a bit of proof that, "Hey look, I can actually make money out of this," otherwise the family would be like, "What are you doing?" They'd be really upset about it.
Sarah Steenland: I did a bit of experimenting on Twitter, and what actually got a lot of ... At the time, Twitter, as you probably remember, but you can only just type, do text and no images with it. At the time that I started doing stuff on Twitter, I was just, "I don't know what to write about. This is so ..." I knew I had to do the social media building up followers, and engaging. Every time I'd go on Twitter I'd be like, "Oh my god, what am I going to say?" It's like, "Oh, the weather is a bit rainy today."
Sarah Steenland: So anyway, it was super complicated for me at first with social media until they had the option to upload photos, which was like, "Oh my god, this is so much easier, because I can just draw what I think, or feel, or something funny, or send people these little ..." at the time I called them doodles, so I'd just send them these little personalized doodles. Every time someone followed me, I would send them a, "Thanks for following me," drawing that was completely customized.
Sarah Steenland: It was pretty painstaking. I'd go into Twitter every day, I'd see who the new followers. I'd go to every single new follower and have a look at what they like, check their profile out. Like if they had a pet dog that they love and they keep taking photos of it, I'd do that dog doing a little dance or something, and say, "Thanks for following me."
Sarah Steenland: That was like a real hit with everybody. Everyone was re-tweeting them ... and obviously not a scalable thing to do. I had a lot of people saying, "What are you doing? You can't keep that up, it's not something scalable." I'm like, "Nah, it doesn't matter. I love doing it, and it's just a really great way to connect with people." I was making loads and loads of great connections, and I met a lot of people that ... like I started to do some stuff for them, yeah, little jobs not paying too much, or doing free things just to get experience.
Sarah Steenland: Then one day, I sent a, "Thanks for following me," to the right person, which really got my foot in the door big time. It was the advertising agency that does T Mobile's contract with social media, and so one of the girls from the agency, I sent her a, "Thanks for following me," and she told everyone in the office, "Hey, follow Sarah Steenland, and she'll send you this cartoon back."
Sarah Steenland: Luckily, I was on the ball with it, because sometimes I wasn't 100% responsive. But luckily that week I was really onto it, and everyone got this cartoon. They were all like, "Oh, this is so cool." They were just really, really excited about it, which is quite funny, because I actually thought it was a joke when I got the email asking if I was interested. I was just like, "Oh, it must be fake," because it just seemed like too good to be true.
Steve Folland: If you were interested in drawing for them?
Sarah Steenland: Drawing for T Mobile, yeah.
Steve Folland: And you were like, "This can't be real."
Sarah Steenland: Yeah. I'm not sure, do you know T Mobile?
Steve Folland: Yeah.
Sarah Steenland: Is it in the UK?
Steve Folland: Yeah, it was. Yeah, it used to be, yeah.
Sarah Steenland: Okay, yeah. When I told people in Australia, they're like, "I don't know who they are." Yeah, so that's another reason why I was a little bit skeptical, because I'm like, "I don't know who this company is. I've never heard of them." So anyway, I got on the call, and they were chatting to me. I was so nervous, because I'm really quite ... I prefer to draw and not speak to anybody.
Sarah Steenland: There was quite a few on the conference call, and they're like, "Oh, we're really big fans of yours." I'm like, "This is crazy. This is so surreal to hear these people in the U.S. telling me they're fans. I just sent them the little thank you note on a scrappy piece of paper." They were really like, "Would you be interested in cartooning for T Mobile?" It was like a proper contract for a year.
Sarah Steenland: I'm like, "I'll just have to think about this for a minute." I'm just like peeing my pants, you know? Then just like, "Yeah, okay." And they were like, "Yay," and really, really excited. They were all kind of teary and stuff. I was like, "This is so bizarre." It was just an amazing experience, and such an unbelievable thing to happen at that point when I thought that you can't make money drawing, especially cartooning.
Sarah Steenland: So I started to get other jobs. I wasn't completely exclusive to them, so I did a cartoon for them once a week. They'd choose someone once a week, and they'd send me the person who would get the cartoon. It was their engagement campaign, I guess. That ended up lasting three years. That really allowed us to say, "Hey, we can take off and start cruising." Once you get on the move, it's actually quite cheap, as long as nothing breaks, nothing major breaks.
Sarah Steenland: We left Australia in 2015, and we went to Indonesia, spent about six months there. It was an absolute anxiety roller coaster ride, because my contract, obviously to not break it, I had to deliver these cartoons on a certain date. They actually had quite a good leeway for me, so it was actually really good that I could plan where I'd be where there'd be internet, and for the delivery ... to be able to send these images on time, because before we left Australia, I didn't have any idea what the internet situation was in Asia, so I was very, very nervous about that.
Sarah Steenland: My husband's always like, "Yeah, no, everything's going to be great." He's like a full on optimist. The places that we went to in Indonesia were extremely remote, so that was like ... because I was like, "Oh, I don't think we should go up," because there's thousands and thousands of islands in Indonesia. He'd say, "Are we going to go up to Sulawesi?" which is a big island group beside Borneo, and I'm like, "Oh, I don't know, because I've got to deliver these. I have to meet my contract."
Sarah Steenland: Luckily enough, Indonesia was a big surprise, because they basically skipped the whole landline phone set up, and they all just went digital. Not digital, but mobile. There was a tower literally on every single headland that we sailed past. So it was like, "Oh, there's another internet tower." It actually had more coverage than Australia, so it was quite ... It was a relief, and quite amazing that ... it's definitely possible and doable to have that location independent business by boat.
Steve Folland: So this is three years that you've been doing that now, of sailing around whilst freelancing, and you set sail with T Mobile giving you that safety net.
Sarah Steenland: Yeah.
Steve Folland: How did you continue to grow your ... because it had been a secret, you said, up until then. So you've gone from secret to going, "Oh yeah, by the way, I'm working for T Mobile." How did you continue to build your presence and get the work that you needed?
Sarah Steenland: I have to say, it's quite interesting when you look at it. I'm at a point where I don't rely on social media as much. My website is ... I think it's got enough back links, and I don't know, word-of-mouth, I guess, as well. I get a lot of repeat customers from way back when I first started, which is pretty cool.
Sarah Steenland: I went to a couple of conferences, and met a lot of people, so I did do a lot ... or not a lot, but some real life networking. Social media is amazing, getting yourself out there, and I put a lot of my work out there frequently. In a fun way as well, it's not like a chore. Like if I see someone put something up on Facebook, or Twitter, and I think it's funny and I have an idea in my head as a response to their post, I will take time and draw it out, and then send it to them. It's not like thousands of people will see it, but just one person will see it, and then there's that connection.
Sarah Steenland: I think I found that the personal connection has been very, very effective for me. Yeah, and then just meeting people that are doing the same thing as me, and then they want things, like, "Can you do me a logo?" Or, "Can you do me ... I've got a conference coming up. I need name tags." It's actually been very consistent and nicely spread out as well. Like not too much at once, or not too many gaps as well. Yeah, it's been quite a wild journey. I'm always amazed that I'm able to do it.
Steve Folland: One of the things that years ago that I somehow discovered your comic that you did. So your website is based around your work, obviously, but you create a regular Cruises type comic that you then email out to people, which I guess keeps that connection going as well. Was that something that you started straight away?
Sarah Steenland: No. I wanted to tell my story as I traveled, because there's so many amazing things that are happening as we sail around. I did start to do these long form comics pretty much when we left Australia, but they were quite intensive, and they just took me so long to do. I've actually condensed it down to the two panel comics that people are in the sailing world, they get it.
Sarah Steenland: It actually evolved into trying to please everybody, which that's what you tend to do when you first do stuff on the internet, because, "I got to produce things that everyone's going to love," and then I realized that ... you hear it over, and over, and over. You've got to find your niche market. I think that was a real struggle for me. Even now, I'm a little bit in two minds with what I put out there, free content, and to build an audience, because I want to build a tribe, but I've also got to try and get cartoon work as well. Sometimes I'm a bit confused.
Sarah Steenland: I want to showcase what I do, but I also want to connect with my tribe, which don't necessarily want to commission me to do a job. It's just sort of evolved into getting into connecting with the sailing community, mostly, with the two panel comics, but also it's a bit of a crossover, because I am a digital nomad as well, so I get a lot of people interested that are also traveling while working, or interested in doing that same thing.
Steve Folland: What's been the biggest challenges that you've faced of being freelance?
Sarah Steenland: Just trying to have the energy to do everything, because I have two children as well. One's 13, and she's listening in on this interview. She's having dinner right now. I don't know where my son is, he's probably doing something, sort of animating or something, because he's kind of into all that. So I homeschool my kids, so trying to make sure they're okay, and they're on track, and get my work done, and do exercise, and then when we're on the boat, it's actually quite exhausting when you're on the water.
Sarah Steenland: I find that on land, I stay up quite late, and I tend to come into my own at nighttime, and I do a lot of work, and I'm really productive, and everyone's asleep, so I don't have to worry about distractions. When we're on land, I'm very productive with work. When we're traveling, it's just like ... you just don't know what's around the corner, literally. It's just like you've got the wind in your face, and if the weather is a bit sketchy, and there's waves, then I can't work. You get seasick if you try to do any kind of reading, or drawing, or anything like that. So yeah, it can be really hard.
Sarah Steenland: Then by the time we anchor, you're just like a mess. We all go to bed about 8:00 when we're traveling. Yeah, so I think that that's a big struggle. I have to really push through, like if I have a deadline, if I'm just absolutely wrecked, I will have to force myself to just get it done. Usually once I start I'll put some music on or something, and I'll push through it. It's lucky that I love it.
Sarah Steenland: Actually, one of the funniest stories to do with trying to deliver a ... it was actually the T Mobile job that I had to deliver on time. I had timed it to ... I had a couple of days, but I knew that we were going to be in Borneo at the time, I think, because it was like a four night trip, and so I was on a routine of napping during the day, like so we had four hours on, four hours off. I woke up to the smell of smoke. It's like the worst thing that you can wake up to ... well, one of the worst things you could wake up to on a boat, apart from water coming up over the top of you.
Sarah Steenland: So I smelled it, and I just bolt upright, and said, "Oh my god, the boat's on fire." I was just like in absolute panic. I stuck my head out of the companionway, and the whole outside was just smoke, like you could not see two feet in front of the boat. It was just white. I'm just totally ... like my eyes were wide open, just like, "What's going on?" I'm like, "What's happening? Is the boat on fire?"
Sarah Steenland: Then my husband's like, "I think that Borneo's burning." Which it was, actually. 2015 was one of the really big years that they just totally decimated hundreds of acres of rainforest for palm oil plantation, and so my husband's like, "We got two choices. Should we just keep going," I think we were about a day off making it to the island, "or we turn around and go somewhere else?" I was thinking to myself, "Oh god, what am I going to do? I'm not going to make my delivery of the file," because it would have been another few days to get somewhere else where there was internet."
Sarah Steenland: It was like this whole dilemma, like, "Okay, well, we can't see anything." We have radar, but there's a lot of boats that don't actually have radar in Indonesia, so I was very, very reluctant to proceed to Borneo, but I didn't want to obviously lose my contract, so my husband said, "Well, we've got a faint internet connection, so perhaps if we put the mobile phone in a dry bag and hoist it up the mast, maybe we might ..." because I think we were a bit closer than a day, because we obviously had some connection. I was like, "Yeah, I'll try anything." So we did that.
Sarah Steenland: So we put the phone, because I tether off my phone to my ... at the time I was using my laptop for work, and now I use an iPad Pro, Apple Pencil. Yeah, so we hoisted it up and I had connection, but at that point, we had turned the boat around. We were actually hitting a wave from the island, so I could see the bars going down. I'm just watching the file trying to sink into ... to load into the folder so they could get the file in time. It just made it as we were sailing away from Borneo. I thought that was just like, oh, that's just classic. So yeah.
Steve Folland: Geez. When my broadband goes down, I walk down to a coffee shop. That's like, "I'm three days, hoist the phone." That's amazing.
Sarah Steenland: Yeah, yeah.
Steve Folland: Oh man, what a life you've made for yourself. I mean, you never even thought that you'd get to do the drawing, and yet here you are sailing with your family. I don't know, it just blows my mind. It's such an amazing thing to be able to do.
Sarah Steenland: Yeah, and I think it's so strange that you're basically having to make it up as you go, because you can't really read up about it, like someone else has done this. It's just basically winging it the whole time, because we're a family of four, and so that makes it a little bit harder, because a lot of digital nomads only really have to help support themselves, so I have to support four people. We live on a boat, so that's another thing that you don't come across that often.
Sarah Steenland: So you're kind of making it in a way more complicated, but more unique in experiences, because it's just like, "You know what? You just couldn't have done that 10 years ago." I find that that part, even though it is quite exhausting, because we change countries quite a lot. I guess that's same as a lot of people traveling, but you're just troubleshooting all the time. You've got to get this sorted, and that sorted.
Sarah Steenland: I think that it's exhausting, but I think it actually is so amazing, that that's what we kind of keep going for. You just think, "Look at all the stuff that we've done in one year, for instance, and all the places, and all the things that have happened, and all the amazing experiences." Like we just talk about it. Nothing quite much happens when we're back in Australia, which is ... We're just like, "Oh my god, this is so easy." Just to do laundry on the boat is like, it's just an ordeal and an adventure at the same time.
Steve Folland: Wow. Now, one thing I was wondering, very early on in this tale you mentioned about a friend of yours, almost like a business mentor that you would meet. Have you had anything like that since? Is all your community basically the sailing community, or do you have other freelancing entrepreneurial type business friends supporting you as well?
Sarah Steenland: Yeah, I do have a couple that actually were around very early on. I think they kind of just saw something in me, and they could see that I was trying to give it a real go. They just went, "Hey, this girl just won't give up." A couple of them are coaches. I never paid for their coaching or anything, but they want to chat to me, and I guess help out. Sometimes I will try and get ... like when things are a bit tough, I just turn to them for advice, and they just give it, basically mentoring me for free, because they really like me, I guess, and because we connect.
Sarah Steenland: So yeah, I've had a few really great people like that. I wish I could connect with them more and meet them in person, and maybe I will someday. One lady, I'll have to give her credit, Diane Valentine. She's really amazing. She's just like really genuine. She doesn't push you. She just wants people to be the best at what they're good at, I guess, and she's always been there cheering me on. So yeah. It's nice, yeah.
Steve Folland: That's awesome. Now, if you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?
Sarah Steenland: Probably don't have so much anxiety about it, and don't rely on the social media likes so much. It doesn't mean much in the beginning, because if you only have a few followers, then it's just going to take some time to build up a following, because that's the worst thing I think when you're starting out, because you're starting from scratch, and you don't have an audience, basically.
Sarah Steenland: The best thing that I did do was to network with people, and connect with people early on. I did do that, which was good, but there was still always that emotional roller coaster ride when you wake up in the morning and you check how many likes you got on something, or like that you put up on Facebook. That was always a little bit of a turn off for me to keep pushing, because it was just like that rejection thing, which I've never been really good with. But I think that's the thing is just keep going. Just keep going. And luckily, I did keep going in spite of that rejection feeling that I had quite a lot of.
Steve Folland: Well, we're so glad you did. You can check out what Sarah is up to as always at beingfreelance.com. We link through to each guest's social media, but also their website, so make sure you go take a look. Check out Sarah's work, and I'll put an extra link to your ... because you reminded me when you said about how you used to do the scrolling cartoons, and I used to love them. Even if they were a nightmare for you to do, they were brilliant. I found early on the one to do with you describing what it was like to be a digital nomad.
Sarah Steenland: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Digital Nomadness was the post, yeah.
Steve Folland: I will put a direct link through to that as well, and it's yeah, it's really, really worth taking a look at. Sarah, thank you so much. I'm so glad we managed to catch you on dry land. Good luck with your adventures when you're back onboard. Sarah, thanks so much, and all the best being freelance.
Sarah Steenland: Thank you.