Ahlem Mahroua: From Google to the world of digital nomads

  • Ahlem Mahroua interview
Insights from professionals
Published 2017-06-02 13:09

Ahlem is a blogger and the founder of Digital Nomads Media. Born in France to Algerian parents, she grew up in a multicultural environment — it's this setting that sparked her love for languages and travelling. Ahlem has lived in Mumbai, London, Madrid, Dublin, Lisbon, and currently she lives in Barcelona. A sales manager at Google for six years in the field of online advertising and marketing, Ahlem created the site last year after leaving Google to pursue her own passions. She is a digital nomad who writes about her travel experiences and entrepreneurship on her blog.

In your bio we read: “[...] with the objective to pursue and live off my own passions [...]”. What are your passions?

I’ve always liked working with my hands and I’ve always been sewing, embroidering, knitting, and crocheting on my spare time. I tend to travel with my yarn and needles, to be able to create while I’m on the go. So being creative and making things would be my number one passion. My second passion is writing — I used to write rap lyrics when I was younger with one of my best friends (and before you ask, no, we didn’t release anything, it was for fun). It was a nice way to express myself. Since I stopped writing lyrics, I started journalling, and it’s been a cathartic experience. I took my journalling to the next level by starting a blog for digital nomads, which is as satisfying as writing a journal. And finally, we can’t really qualify that as a passion, but I love mentoring and helping people who start businesses. Oh, and obviously travels.

Not long ago, you left “a comfortable six-figure job at Google in Ireland” to start your own company and become a digital nomad. How has the transition been?

It was easier than what I thought. The “what ifs” gave me few sleepless nights, but as they say, feel the fear and do it anyway, and I just did it. I took that leap of faith and I don’t regret it one bit. I’ve journalled the experience to be able to look back during my moments of doubt and remember why I decided to start my own company. And it’s been very helpful.

Few months after I took the plunge, there was a honeymoon phase. I was travelling, I reconnected with a lot of people, family, friends — I felt more free in a way. Once the honeymoon phase subsided I had my doubts, wondering what on earth I was doing — I had no plans, and that made me a bit anxious, but that period lasted four weeks tops. Ever since, I have a rough outline of what I want and I’m just following the opportunities I create without questioning the outcome too much. So essentially yeah, the transition had its ups and downs, but it’s an experience worth living that I am not regretting whatsoever.

What can you do now as a digital nomad that you couldn’t before?

Living life on my own terms. I decide when to get up, what to do during the day — if I don’t feel like working, I don’t. If I want to update my site at three in the morning, I get up and do it. If I feel like being outside, I work from a café or a coworking space. I would say, it’s more related to being your own boss than a digital nomad.


How have you changed (if at all) since you left your full time job?

Oh yes I did. I suppose I’ve learnt to appreciate life more and take less things for granted, like friendships and having a roof over my head. It sounds cliché, but not knowing what tomorrow holds, not knowing what income you’ll have next year makes you re-evaluate a few things, in a positive way! I’m better at budgeting, at planning my trips and finding accommodation because I need to be scrappy. I haven’t bought clothes in ages as I travel with only two suitcases.

I also feel I have become a better person because I am cultivating my friendships, new and old. I’ve discovered new values and I know now that what matters to me is not my career — it’s the quality of daily life. I want it filled with joy, laughter, and meaningful relationships. Career is something on the side that I develop because it helps me learn and make a living in a fulfilling way, but it’s not central to my life anymore. I tend to say I’m much poorer, but happier too, and in that way I’ve changed.

What is your favourite thing about Google?

I’d say that Google is one of the few companies that constantly strive to stay on top of the game, regardless of the industry and challenges they’re tackling. I love how they don’t wait for something to be perfect before launching it — they just “launch and iterate”, and it’s a mantra that I’m often applying here at Digital Nomads Media.

I didn’t wait for the site to be perfect before publishing it, I just launch, analyse the results, and correct if necessary. And that’s my favorite thing about Google, this ability to move fast even when the decisions are big.

For the world, Google is one of the best companies to work for. Why did you leave Google? What made you become a digital nomad?

Yes, Google offers the best conditions to kick-start your career and grow as a professional, be it the internal training offers or the flexibility given to work on side projects, Google is definitely one of the best companies to work for.

But my answer to why I left is simple — it’s not so much about leaving Google, but rather starting a new journey that is more meaningful to me and to my personal and professional happiness. One chapter of that journey was flying solo, and putting myself in a potential failure situation. It was about challenging my comfort zone career-wise.

I left Google 14 months ago to focus on my startup. At that time I didn’t know it would be the Digital Nomads Media, but over the months, I realized that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to create an activity with different revenue streams, so I can be in charge of my time and travels, while working on the projects I am passionate about (blogging, work on my creations, delivering talks or even teaching in the future). Again, flexibility and freedom are what motivated me to become a digital nomad.

digital nomad

How would you define a digital nomad?

I suppose the definition has varied over the years, but to me it's anyone whose main revenue stream and activity can be carried out with a laptop, without the need to be tied to an office space. Over my travels I’ve met many professionals (freelancers in digital marketing, translators, copywriters, web developers, etc.) — if they have the ability to travel while still carrying on their main activity, they are digital nomads.

What’s the difference between a freelancer and a digital nomad?

A freelancer is any individual working for themselves and offering their services through fixed term contracts in a range of specialized skills (photography, digital marketing, social media management, virtual assistance, development, etc.).

A freelancer can be a digital nomad as long they aren't being tied to an office, and have decided not to settle anywhere permanently for a while.

Can you tell us a few things about your company Digital Nomads Media? How did it start?

Digital Nomads Media started with my own experience. When I was looking for multiple revenue streams while travelling, I struggled to find one source of information that would explain to me how to get the business started and what would be the friendliest city for startups to travel to.

See, I’ve always loved the startup world — I found it fascinating and extremely stimulating. I wanted to be able to find that emulation in the places I would travel to, but, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find guides about these cities in a single place. So I’ve decided to create these resources myself. I also wanted to offer my consulting services in online marketing, and I realized that these services could enable people to put themselves online and start a nomadic lifestyle. And that’s how Digital Nomads Media was born!

Who is Digital Nomads Media for?

As I like to say, Digital Nomads Media is for the makers, the creators, the solopreneurs, and the freelancers who wish to start a nomadic lifestyle and need help to be visible. Being visible online is essential to attracting customers and creating a sustainable business. Digital Nomads Media helps by getting their business online, growing their audience, and monetizing their content. Workshops help identify gaps in terms of online presence and additional revenue streams. For example, a cinematographer can get business through commercial videos, but also by selling stock photos or through brand partnerships on Instagram.

What makes Digital Nomads Media unique?

First, the blog only focuses on entrepreneurship and startup-friendly cities. It’s crucial to me that my audience understands that the next Silicon Valley might be in Barcelona or Lisbon, and plan a trip there. Opportunities will always arise from these trips. The second unique characteristic is the niche I’m focusing on. I like being surrounded by like-minded, creative professionals. I’m lucky that I had a career at Google that exposed me to the world of online marketing, which means that I understand the pains that creatives have when promoting themselves and identifying revenue streams. I want to be the business side-kick of the creative spirits.

To what extent your experience from Google has helped you in your new path of running your own company and being a digital nomad?

To run your own company you need a whole set of skills, especially when you are solo at the beginning. People management (I had a team of six as a sales manager) helped me listen to my clients better; working in a multicultural team helped me cope with the cultural differences; and working in a fast-paced environment taught me to be adaptable. The last point is particularly relevant to me, as I am starting a new venture from scratch and, with no previous experience, I need to be adaptable in order to succeed. To me today is all about “launching and iterating”.

What lessons have you learned during your time in Google and what have you learned during the past year as a digital nomad?

During my six years at Google I grew tremendously as a person. I joined as a new grad and left as an independent woman. I mainly learned active listening, developed my communication skills, and enhanced my emotional intelligence. I still apply all these to this day.

Over the past year as a digital nomad, I’ve learned that sometimes the best plan is no plan at all. I’m ok with uncertainty because I know that I’ll be fine no matter what. Also, I’ve learned to always say yes to opportunities! Be it a night out with friends or an invite to be a speaker at an event, I say yes because I know that everything I want is outside that little comfort zone of mine and that the experience will always be amazing. And to me there’s no better feeling than the adrenaline pumping through my blood after these experiences.

tropical island

What are some clichés about nomadism that you would like to break? How do you break them?

The biggest cliché that drives me crazy is that digital nomads are hippy backpackers, fast travellers, and are going to the east to impose their “white” standards. While it may be true for some profiles, for the vast majority I’ve met it’s not. I don’t know anybody who works constantly from the beach then heads-up to full moon parties. Most of my friends work from coworking spaces, cafés, or their temporary homes. They go to the beach during the day yes, but it’s because they’ve hustled until midnight the night before to free up some time to be at the beach. It’s just becoming another mainstream lifestyle.

As to how to break them, I’d say by leading by example and by talking about these profiles, like I do on the digital nomads interviews section of the blog.

What are the pros and cons of nomadism?

Pros, I’ll say 100% flexibility! Do what you feel like, when you feel like it, it’s just an amazing feeling. Cons, the isolation sometimes when you arrive in a new city, but you can easily overcome it by being active and putting yourself out there.

Does Digital Nomads Media leave you space for other projects?

My main project now is growing Digital Nomads Media, so for now I’ve chosen not to pursue other projects, such as writing e-books or creating online courses — they will come in due time when Digital Nomads Media finds its pace. What I choose though, is to continue focusing on my creativity. It’s very tempting to work 24/7 on a project you love, but I’ve been listening to the advice of other entrepreneurs — stick to an eight-hour-workday and keep my other passions alive. Over the weekends I spend some time knitting, crocheting, or drawing, and on the evenings I maintain my meditation and yoga practice. To me work-life balance is essential — another thing I’ve learnt at Google.

Are there any particular destinations ideal for digital nomads?

To me and the way I work, the destinations I recommend are what I call the startup-friendly ones —Berlin, Paris, Lyon, London, Barcelona, San Francisco, Singapore, Beijing, Lisbon, Tallinn.

Also in Asia, there are ones that offer a great quality of life like Chiang Mai or Bali, and I’m sure I’m forgetting many. Basically, any city that has schemes to encourage entrepreneurship and is tourist-friendly, because it means that there is a high chance of meeting a like-minded community and creating business opportunities, as well as cultivating new friendships in a beautiful environment.

What’s your long term vision of Digital Nomads Media?

Bringing my online vision to the offline world, but shhh that’s all I’ll say.

1 Comment
2 years ago

Pursuing something one love would really matter a lot in the end than just earning money. Indeed, for those who wanted to accumulate money, perhaps working for someone else would be enough. But for the many who have different passions such as writing, blogging, painting - earning money will not compensate it all. The more they earn money, the more their inner selves crave, cry out and struggle to be free.