These Two Freelancers Left Their Home to Work Out of a Van, and They Absolutely Love ItBy Camille Padilla Dalmau January 8th, 2015
When freelance designers Jorge and Jessica Gonzalez moved to Austin in 2012, they felt like they finally had their dream home: modern furniture, a big desk, two 27-inch monitors, a scanner, and a printer. Yet after only a few months in their new house, the couple became restless. The two freelancers were working long hours into the night, barely sleeping, then waking up early to begin the grind all over again.
So they moved—sort of—and haven’t stopped since.
In December 2013, Jorge and Jessica took their life on the road, fitting their design tools, 15-inch laptops, and two dogs into a 1991 Volkswagen Vanagon GL they named Falkor the Luck Wagon—an allusion to the classic children’s movie The NeverEnding Story.
“We always had a dream of having an RV, but it was after we pay our student loans, after this, after that. It was always after something else,” Jessica said. “Then we started entertaining the idea maybe we don’t need to wait.”
They read Where’s My Office Now?, a blog about a nomadic couple working as freelance creatives, but Jess wasn’t fully convinced to make a change until August 2013, when she read a Business Insider article about a college graduate who lived in a van in order to save money. “That article made me realize it didn’t matter if we were putting money towards an RV or towards rent,” she said. “It would be accomplishing the same thing.”
The Gonzalezes do what they call “slow traveling”—they’ll stay one to three months in an area and get to know a town or city. Most of Jess’s clients are remote, while Jorge does both remote and on-site work. Where they travel usually depends on where they find on-site contracts, or if they’re just doing remote work, wherever they want to see.
However, their work hours need to be planned meticulously at the beginning of each week. The couple determines how many days they need to be stationary and connected to the Internet. They’ll often stop at coworking spaces or Internet cafés in order to get work done.
Their clients include mostly small design or marketing agencies who need logos, web design, or illustrations. They’ve done work with large advertising agencies like Razorfish Atlanta and Organic NY and have worked with major brands such as AT&T, UPS, Precor, Olay, Kohler, Baker Furniture, Visa, the Weather Channel, Avid, HP, and Bridgestone.
Jess and Jorge were both late bloomers in their careers. They married when they were 19 and 21, respectively, and a few years later started their own auto-dealing and reconditioning business. They ran that business for six years, but after the market crashed in 2008, their business took a hit and they decided to switch careers.
At 29, Jorge started studying at Atlanta portfolio schools The Creative Circus and Portfolio Center to learn web design. Not long after, Jessica began studying illustration at Portfolio Center. They worked with clients in Atlanta and New York City and then moved to Austin to find more business and explore out west.
“Both of us have always freelanced from the first day of design school. We never had a full-time gig, whether it was remote or on-site,” Jorge said.
A few weeks ago, the couple Skyped me from the San Juan Mountains near Durango, Colorado, where they were staying with a traveling family they met on Instagram. Communicating with other traveling families through social networks has become a major part of their daily routine, but this was the first time they had met members of the virtual community of freelancers in person.
“We’ve actually found that people in this community that we’ve never met before are much more open and welcoming to our travels than people we may know very well,” Jessica said. “All summer we kept missing people by a week. We’re hoping as we head out west we’ll have more meet-ups.”
Within the larger community of traveling freelancers, there’s a sub-group of those who only use Volkswagen vans and buses. Jorge recalled that when their van broke down last year, the group was quick to respond with private messages and comments about what could be wrong with Falkor the Luck Wagon.
Automotive breakdowns are only one of many challenges that come with freelancing on the road. Jess and Jorge also had to adjust to limited workspace, access to Internet, showers, food, and other challenges that come after such a major move.
Yet even though the road has its challenges, according to Jorge, “Nothing beats working with a huge mountain or valley to look at.” He said his work is not necessarily affected by what he sees. But by applying their motto—”open minds, open roads”—to his work, his creativity has hit levels it might have not reached before.
As for Jessica: “Traveling and designing has gone hand in hand for me.” She’s not only inspired by the sights she sees, but also by the people they meet in the places they visit.
Although many may perceive living on the road as a bit eccentric and difficult, Jorge and Jessica said it has made them healthier than when they were settled down.
“We are a lot more balanced than what we used to be,” Jorge said, explaining their sleeping and eating habits have improved significantly on the journey.
Nomadic life also has financial benefits. Jorge estimates two people could live on the road for as little as $1,500 per month. Aside from van upkeep, the couple’s largest monthly expense is Internet and phone—both necessary to run their business. They also have a Verizon Hotspot they use to access the Internet while traveling.
“We’ve learned what you can do without,” Jorge explained. “We didn’t need this full office setup in order to continue working, and that translates into everything in life when you’re in a van.”
Now that they’ve been on the road for a year, both Jorge and Jess are satisfied with the life they chose. “It’s not hard and these are memories that will last for the rest of our lives. The people we’ve met are people we’ll remember forever,” Jorge added.
While the Gonzalezes enjoy working from their van, eventually, they’d like a permanent home they can go back to and rest. But for now, that’s way down the road.