With Germany’s forward thinking Freelancer Work Visa and inexpensive living costs in the creative and culturally rich city of Berlin, there is only one digital nomad headquarters in Europe. Increasing numbers of travellers are falling in love with Berlin and making this city their homebase. After a round-the-world trip, designer and blogger Adam Groffman couldn’t resist the pull of Berlin and has relocated there. In this interview, he shares what makes Berlin such a great city, shares his travel experiences and explains how he funds his expat lifestyle.
I grew up in Texas but went to school and lived in Boston for a while. I studied communications with a focus on advertising (though I’d initially started my studies as a journalism student), but actually worked in the book publishing industry right out of college doing graphic design. I studied abroad twice while at university and that always made me want to live abroad. In 2009, I realized it’d been years since I traveled abroad so a friend and I planned a weekend trip to Iceland. Neither of us had any spare vacation time, so we planned the trip over a US holiday. We flew out of the USA on a Friday night, straight out of work, landed in Reykjavik, had an amazing weekend, and flew right back to make it to work Tuesday morning.
After that trip to Iceland, I realized that I really wanted the chance to travel more and to live abroad. So I decided to try to make it happen. Doing a bit of research, I learned my company offered short-term international placements so I spent the next 7 months submitting paperwork and applications for a transfer. After nearly 7 months of waiting, I was finally approved for a transfer but, then the recession hit and my chance to work abroad was rescinded. So, instead of waiting around for another year to try again through the company, I decided to make it happen myself.
Thankfully, after the trip to Iceland, I’d been saving up money for travel anyways. After my international transfer fell through, I stayed at my job until I reached $20,000 in savings and a vested 401k. With the $20,000, I decided I would travel around the world and ultimately make my way to Australia where I knew I could get a work visa. But, as travelers tend to know, travel rarely goes as planned…
What countries did you visit?
I initially had a pretty aggressive travel plan, but I quickly changed plans. I started my trip in Spain and moved on to Morocco, Egypt and Jordan. When I got to Israel after three months of backpacking, I decided to slow down. I fell in love with the Middle East and found an internship at a political non-profit in Tel Aviv. I was excited for the chance to work for a pro-peace, Israeli-Palestinian organization because it’d give me the chance to learn a lot more about the region, to get involved and to set up a home base in Tel Aviv for a little while. I lived in Tel Aviv for four months for the internship (where I did website maintenance, online marketing and social media) before jetting off again to India.
I spent another three months backpacking around India and eventually made my way to Southeast Asia where I visited Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. India and Israel were both important countries during my trip. I felt deeper connections with the societies there and had more time to explore. Both were difficult and challenging. Israel because I was so deeply involved with mideast politics; India because it’s such a different culture and country. But, ultimately, with all the challenges, I came to respect the countries that much more.
What were your fears and worries prior to the RTW trip?
My biggest worry before setting out on my trip was the gap that would show up in my resume. That’s why I initially set up my blog. I wanted an online space to practice new skills such as web design and social media. Both were things I never studied nor had much of a chance to practice in my career, but were skills I was interested in learning. It was still a worry while traveling, which is also why I was pretty eager to stay in Tel Aviv doing a marketing internship.
Were you personally changed by seeing so many different cultures?
No question—yes! Having the chance to live in Israel and get so involved with the region’s politics had a huge impact on my desire to be more politically involved and to learn more about different cultures. India also changed my outlook on life. It’s hard to even put into words, but there’s just something about India that makes you see the world a little bit differently. The three months I spent in India, I essentially stopped blogging because I was so focused on just being in India.
What were your total expenses for the 15 month trip?
I initially had planned to spend $20,000 and make it to Australia with about ¾ of that within a year. I never made it to Australia (oops!) but instead just kept on traveling until the money ran out. It was the best $20,000 I ever spent!
What made you move to Berlin?
I got down to my last $600 of the $20k when I was in Vietnam, about a week before my visa expired. I had a few options: fly home to America and look for a job, or….cash in my tax refund from the previous year and use it for a month+ of travel in Europe before returning home. I decided to go to Europe.
From Vietnam, I found a cheap flight to Berlin and decided to start my summertime Eurotrip there. It would be just before the Christopher Street Day parade, and I decided it was as good a time as any to visit. Plus, so many other backpackers and travelers had led me to believe that I’d love Berlin. And you should always trust a traveler, right?
I landed in Berlin in June 2011 and pretty quickly fell in love with the city. I continued my Eurotrip for a few more weeks before decided I’d had enough—Berlin was just too cool and I wanted to spend more time there. I decided to embrace my original plan of living abroad, so I returned to Berlin, rented an apartment for a month and gave myself a deadline for finding a job. After about two weeks, I found a job working for a start-up company in Berlin and shortly thereafter found an apartment to move in. Before the month was up, I’d had a whole new group of friends, an apartment and a job again.
What is Berlin like?
Berlin is a truly remarkable city. With its history, it’s a bit hard to beat as an interesting place to live. The best description I’ve heard for Berlin is that Berlin today is what New York City was like in the ’70s: affordable, full of young, creative people, and an exciting and interesting place to live. I can’t vouch for NYC in the ’70s, but that’s pretty much how I’d describe Berlin today.
What are your living expenses there?
Berlin is one of the cheapest capital cities to live in in Western Europe. Rent in a shared WG (apartment) can be as cheap as 250€/month or upwards of 550€. That price range is typical for sublets and would include rent, electricity, internet and heating. Not to mention that you’d be living in the very center of Berlin. Remember: this is a major European capital, so to be paying so little for an often large and spacious room (it’s the Berlin style!) in downtown Berlin is pretty awesome. I’ve personally never spent more than 360€/month for a sublet. You can rent an entire 1-bedroom apartment for the same prices, but they’re often a little more difficult to find.
Food, drinks and activities are also rather cheap in Berlin. You can get some great ethnic meals for under 10€. Beers run as low as 60 euro cents in a convenience store (called spaetis), but 2-3€ in a bar; cocktails hardly ever more than 5€. Nightclubs have incredibly low entrance fees for what you’re getting (some of the best clubs in the world) and other expenses are relatively low. Health insurance is one of my biggest expenses because I’m required to have a German healthcare provider for my visa status.
Plenty of people in Berlin live on as little as 600€/month (well, probably less, even), but I tend to keep my expenses under 1200€ including occasional travel.
What is your visa situation for Germany?
Germany offers a freelance, or artist, visa for many nationalities. The visa provides German residency and the eligibility to work as a freelancer in Germany. It wasn’t too complicated to apply for (just some paperwork) but, in my case, required a lot of patience. Between applying for the visa and finally receiving approval, it took me nearly seven months. But as an American in Europe, the legal eligibility to live and work in Europe is worth the wait. Visas are typically good for one to two years.
Read my post: How to get a work visa in Germany as an American
Have you had any major problems in Germany?
The biggest challenge for me living in Germany has been the language. Admittedly, I’ve been slow to pick it up, but in Berlin I’ve managed to get by with what little I have learned. The only other problem I’ve had was getting mugged in Berlin, but that could happen just about anywhere.
Please tell us about the jobs you’ve had in Germany?
When I first arrived in Berlin I took a 3-month contract job/internship with a start-up company doing more online marketing. The start-up culture in Berlin is pretty big. Lots of tech companies base their European headquarters here and there are quite a few of them looking for native-English speakers. While I met a lot of amazing people and did gain some experience, the company itself was nothing to be proud of and I knew if I was going to work in a corporate environment again, I’d have to be happy with the company as much as the job.
In January I took a job with yet another Berlin start up company, but this time doing web design. I was hoping the passion of doing design work again would make me happy. But while working for this new company, my travel blog started to pick up more and more exposure and recognition. Selling ads on my website made me as much money per month as working full-time for this start up, so I decided to choose one or the other rather than spending all my time working. Blogging was more fun and more rewarding, and I knew if I never took the risk to turn it into a successful…thing…I’d probably regret it.
In April, I committed to working full-time for myself. Doing so has allowed me to travel more again—doing everything from exploring Brussels, taking tours in Rome to my most recent travel project in America.
How do you earn an income now?
Today I make my income through a few different means:
- selling direct ads on my website
- SEO work for small businesses
- consulting tourism companies on online marketing and social media
- freelance writing
- and, increasingly, small sponsorships through blogging projects
While selling advertising on my blog has been the most profitable way to make money online in the past, I’ve increasingly refocused my energy elsewhere. Ads may have accounted for as much as 80%-90% of my online income a year ago when I was still doing freelance design work, but it’s less than half today.
Why don’t you do graphic design freelancing now?
While I love graphic design, I found it difficult to manage while backpacking. I haven’t completely given up on it, but don’t want to worry about clients when it comes to design. For now, having the chance to see how far I can go with my new marketing skills is exciting enough!
Do you think travel blogging is a good way to earn income online?
There’s no doubt that you can make money by being a blogger but if you don’t want to sell ads, the path to making money would require a significant investment of time & effort before you can build a readership big enough to get sponsors, book deals or other money-making offers related to an individual website. Plenty of big-name travel bloggers had the luxury of time and savings to build up their websites, while not everyone has that kind of opportunity.
However, blogging is a great skill in and of itself. So it’s certainly possible to turn those new skills into a means for generating income using your own blog as a portfolio or showcase of your work. Whether it’s freelance or consulting work (in writing, social media, marketing or PR) for relevant companies or starting your own tourism-related business.
How do you get your writing and consulting clients?
By talking to people! I’m frequently working and communicating with travel and tourism companies through my blog, whether for story ideas, sponsored travel opportunities or networking. With my background in publishing (albeit of the traditional paper kind), I’m also a big advocate for blogging. I see it as a new form of publishing and there are so many exciting possibilities. I want to be a part of the change (always have) and so by advocating for blogging, social media and SEO, I’ve ended up convincing some companies of the incredible potential. As for my work in freelance writing, I write for a fashion label’s lifestyle blog on a regular basis and occasionally pitch story ideas to other online outlets. There’s no question that networking and knowing the right people help to build up a portfolio.
Do you have advice for other aspiring digital nomads?
Keep at it! If travel blogging is what you love to do, then there better be a way to turn that into a profitable way of life. I’m a huge proponent for doing what you love. You also better be creative if you want to succeed in the online space. The industry seems to change rapidly and because it’s possible for just about anyone to start a blog, you should find a way to stand out and make certain you get noticed.