There’s a brand new update (2014 onwards) towards the bottom of this post.
WARNING: a lot of the links in this story are broken. Sorry! We’re working on it!
When we see or hear successful entrepreneurs talk about how they “just fell into it”, or how they were working in a cubicle but then their “buddy Tim Ferriss called up with an offer to partner up on a business venture”, or how they were $x in debt and no one was buying their product but then “it blew up and suddenly we’re on the front of Inc.” it drives us INSANE. That’s NOT THE WHOLE STORY, and it’s neither useful nor inspirational to anyone who wants to set up their own business.
But… admission time. We realised that we do it too – although for completely innocent reasons: we often get asked how we decided to become digital nomads, and the honest (but obviously not entirely literal) answer is that we really did fall into it. We didn’t know we wanted to travel with our work until we happened to be setting up our business while abroad – it was only then that we realised we didn’t have to go home.
But that only explains the travel part – not the business bit. So now it’s time to set stuff straight and give a full account of how we quit our jobs and launched a few businesses while travelling the world. As you’ll see, there was a lot more than “falling into it” involved.
March 2011: Making the decision
I’ve been head-over-heels in love with New York City since doing an internship there after university. And when Rob and I got together, we’d return every year (thankfully, he loves it very nearly as much as I do).
For years it had been our aim to take a six-month sabbatical from work and live out there, but we didn’t really know how to make it happen: it would be tricky to lease an apartment because we weren’t US citizens and we didn’t have US credit cards or credit scores. And hotels in New York (even the crappy ones) cost a bomb. And hotels mean eating out for every meal too.
But then Airbnb came into existence. And we got REALLY excited about the possibility of going to NYC for six months and moving apartment every few weeks to experience as many areas of the city as possible.
March-October 2011: Preparing to leave
We started saving, planning and thinking about what the heck to do with our jobs. Rob co-owned a music PR company, and I worked at a digital agency. Rob’s frustration with his work grew by the hour (never, ever ask him what he thinks of musicians who are “all about their art”), and while I was happy in my job, I resented being managed and told what to do – when I was pretty sure I could run things better.
We were always good at saving money, but we stepped it up a notch and starting saving about half our income each month.
We rented out our London apartment to students and moved into a weeny rental apartment a few miles away – which gave us the opportunity to chuck/sell lots of stuff, get regular income from our own apartment (more than we were spending on our rental), and be prepared to up and leave as soon as we were ready.
We still didn’t know what we were going to do about our jobs.
We spent what seems like an entire summer filling out visa forms and preparing our documents for the US Embassy (UK citizens are only allowed three months there on the Visa Waver Scheme, and we wanted six months). And then we went to the Embassy, had our appointment, and were granted visas.
(I’ve glazed over the details of getting a visa because it’s boring and would take you an entire summer to read. But be warned: those US Embassy people like to ask questions – and you need to be prepared with answers.)
The day after our Embassy interview, I went to work and asked for a sabbatical – I thought it’d be good to have the option to return, even though I doubt I ever intended to. They said no, so I said “cool” and handed in my notice. That was in October 2011, and we planned to move to NYC in March 2012.
Rob decided to hand over his half of the company to his business partner.
All this for a six-month vacation.
Well… not exactly.
Our plan for planning our future
We pretty much knew – even then – that we didn’t want to go back to our old lives. We didn’t want 9-to-5s, I didn’t want a boss, and Rob didn’t want to work with “bloody musicians” any more.
We knew we wanted to create some sort of business – or at least a freelancing career – that would rely solely on our own skills, abilities and interests.
And this “six-month vacation” would be the perfect time to figure out what that business would be.
October 2011-March 2012: Booking, saying goodbye, and landing in NYC
We booked return flights to New York as well as our first two sets of Airbnb accommodation: one month on the Upper East Side, followed by two weeks on the Lower East Side.
We packed two ridiculously huge suitcases full of stuff we’d never wear or use, said “See you in six months!” to an awful lot of people, and buggered off.
We landed, sighed happily, ate too much smoked salmon, stalked Woody Allen outside his apartment for a while, and got down to work.
And it started on Elance.
March 2012-September 2012: NYC
Oh, Elance (and Fiverr, but mainly Elance)
We’d actually already started offering our services on Elance while back in the UK. Our day jobs didn’t take up every waking hour, and we were keen to learn the art of selling our services. We were making pocket money – nothing more.
Over the course of a few months, we learnt skills that have been essential to our business ever since – skills like selling results rather than qualifications, the importance of niching down, and the need to provide way more value than the client would ever expect.
So what did we offer? Rob wrote press releases, we both edited books, and I did lots of proofreading. We both love writing and editing – and had a fair amount of experience in it – so that’s why we chose to offer these services.
We’re now experts on the subjects of meditation, how to look (and feel) 20 years younger, speed reading, children’s party planning in Australia, the role of states’ rights and federalism in the USA, and the respective USPs of a nail salon in Utah and a cleaning company in Ohio.
We did the work at the very low market rate (or slightly over), and we didn’t mind because we were learning valuable lessons the whole time. It’s perfectly possible to make bucketloads on platforms like Elance and Fiverr with a certain amount of dedication and hustle (see here and here for examples of people who’ve done just that), but we decided to move on instead.
Soaking up as much as we could
Although we didn’t really know what sort of business we wanted to set up, we were pretty sure it would have something to do with copywriting, web design, information architecture and branding: it’s what we’re interested in, what we have experience in, and what we enjoy doing.
But we wanted to stay open to other ideas, and we wanted to continue learning anything and everything.
So we took courses at New York University (mine was in photography; Rob’s was in long-form writing) and we also took a bunch of Skillshare classes (back when Skillshare was about in-person rather than online learning) – in subjects including entrepreneurship, how to set up a profitable coffee shop, meditation, writing for magazines, pitching for jobs, information architecture, logo design and how to “hack” your income.
The coffee shop class was particularly interesting, and the guy who taught it offered to chat to anyone who wanted to learn more. So I emailed him and asked. Rob and I went down to his Flatiron District coffee shop for a chat, and it was incredibly interesting and insightful. We still keep in touch.
At another class, I met someone whose company was about to get acquired by a behemoth digital agency. He was fascinating, so I got his email address and later that week Rob and I took him out for wine.
There were quite a few instances like this. I hope that Rob and I added value to the conversations and that we didn’t just rinse their brains for information.
We also went to a LOT of events: I’d signed up to every events mailing list in the city, so I knew what was going on and when. We went to Internet Week NY and hung out with a load of startup entrepreneurs while listening to the founders of Roomorama, Buzzfeed and others. We attended NY Tech Day and got chatting to a couple of guys who were about to launch a new games-based HR training site (we ended doing the information architecture for the site – for free). We went to political discussions, comedy nights, everything.
All this time, we continued to do small jobs on Elance and work our way through the money we’d saved up. (Rob ate A LOT of ramen, although that was out of choice rather than necessity – and I’m not going to pretend we had some really tough financial times. We’d saved up a lot of money and we’re not big spenders, so money was never too much of a worry.)
Just in case we weren’t exhausting our introverted selves with enough exposure to high-energy, massively intense and motivated individuals, we decided to set up a Meetup group for freelancers. We called it “Cafe Coworking for Manhattan Freelancers” and held it every Wednesday morning in the same Manhattan coffee shop.
About 12 people came to the first one, and then we had a regular attendance of about six people. We still keep in touch with some members, and it was a great way to meet likeminded people and find out how they make freelancing “work”.
Our first paying client outside Elance
When we were still living in the UK and still had jobs, I’d written a book called Haggadah Good Feeling About This – Passover guidance for confused Jews. I’d originally written it to make sense of the Jewish festival of Passover (because every year, the Passover service in our family was such a big, confusing mess).
I’d had it designed up on Elance and sold it on CreateSpace (a self-publishing platform).
I really didn’t bother with any marketing or promotion because I’d mainly written it for fun, but I did contact a super-cool rabbi in New York to tell him about it, because I thought he might enjoy it. We had a Skype call while I was still in London, then arranged to meet for coffee after I landed in New York. We met (he arrived on a skateboard) in a Starbucks on the Upper West Side, and he very kindly invited us to the upcoming Passover meal with his family – which of course we attended.
A few weeks later, he asked us to rewrite and restructure the text on his website. And he paid us. And it felt amazing.
Finding “our people”
All this time we were meeting people who were confident, eager, and keen to have control over their own lives rather than moan about their dead-end jobs and how they can’t wait for the weekend. Many of them were embracing the startup/investment route – which we knew wasn’t quite our bag, but we loved getting to know them and understand their motivations.
We got even more excited when we started to read blogs and listen to podcasts about “digital nomadism”. Here were people who were running businesses while they travelled the world. They were in control of their work and their income, and they got to experience new areas (and make the most of geographic arbitrage) at the same time.
Since arriving in New York, we’d felt reluctant to return to London permanently. We loved moving around and experiencing a new neighbourhood every month, and we dreaded the thought of being stuck in a rut in one place, living for vacations and never having the opportunity to understand or appreciate new cultures for extended periods of time.
The idea of digital nomadism appealed to us massively.
So, these digital nomads…
There are many different types of digital nomad – e.g. some have semi-automated businesses and spend most days on the beach, while others work hard on their business day in, day out – but the key similarity among all of them is that their businesses are lightweight and flexible enough to be run from anywhere.
Most digital nomad businesses today are still focused on web design, copywriting, online stores and affiliate sales, because those are the easiest to keep lightweight and flexible. But we’re seeing and helping more and more owners of traditionally “location dependent” businesses become digitally nomads too.
We started talking to some digital nomads online, and finally felt “YES! These are our people!” We just felt immediately like we understood them, and they understood us and what we wanted to get out of life.
Over the course of our time in NYC, we wrote four books:
- If I’m Not Mistaken, That’s Bacon: Kosher guidance for confused Jews
- Presentation Skills for Introverts
- Airbnb Pro (all about how to get the most out of Airbnb – currently being updated)
- A horrendous book of “facts” about the Olympics, which we wrote in a day, and used to better understand Amazon’s KDP Select model
We never intended for books to become a major revenue source for us – we just wrote them to learn more about the subjects we were writing about, as well as the self-publishing model in general.
We didn’t think we could make significant money from them, and we’re still quite surprised at how well they’ve done – especially one of Rob’s more recent books, Property Investment for Beginners (more on this later). Now that we know how successful book publishing can be, we’re eager to write more. We love the process of learning about a subject, writing, editing and getting a book formatted and designed up with minimal costs, so we’re super-keen.
The blog (AKA “We need to make some friends”)
We were still taking courses and doing Elance work, and we’d also set up a god-awful blog called mishandrob.com, which kind-of mentioned our copywriting services too. The whole thing was an uncompelling, ugly disaster. However, the blog at least gave us regular writing practice.
Soon after, we decided to dump that site and start up a new one – Making It Anywhere – basically in an attempt to make connections. We felt a bit lonely: we knew of digital nomads, but we had no real online presence and nothing to really show who we were or what we were trying to do. So we thought we’d write about our travels and our thoughts on good writing, branding, web design, etc.
We also set up a Twitter and Facebook account. After a week, we had three Twitter followers. And we had 50 Facebook likes – all of them bought. (No, we’re not proud. And no, it didn’t help get any real ones.)
We were still trying to figure out our precise business model, but we knew we were keen on client-facing work because we could start to make money from it almost immediately (we didn’t have to create and test a product before bringing it to market, for example). Also, many of our skills were geared towards client-facing work: writing, information architecture, branding, web project management. What’s more, we’d continued to develop these skills while we were away – through online learning, reading, videos, etc.
Cold-emailing potential clients – and making a small amount of money
We’ve written about our success with this before. To nutshellise, it was fairly successful but we probably wouldn’t bother again. We made a small amount of money for a lot of work – mostly web project management and copywriting.
Property Geek is born
At the time, we’d already invested in a couple of properties in the UK. We’re both really interested in property investment – Rob in particular. So he decided to start up a blog about what he was learning, called Property Geek. He put a mailing list signup form on the site, wrote easy-to-understand blog posts about different aspects of property investment, and hoped to use it as a way to get in touch with other property investors in the UK.
September-December 2012: London
Getting to grips with our business idea
After six months in NYC, we flew back to London – to an Airbnb apartment in Hammersmith (our own apartment was still being rented out to students). And we immediately booked our flights to Thailand for the following January: we didn’t want to lose momentum and just fall back into London life.
By this stage we’d decided what our business would be: we’d market ourselves as doing web design for small businesses, because although we specialise in (and prefer) brand consultancy and copywriting, we knew that most people didn’t know they needed those services. But everyone wants a new website, and we could incorporate our core skills into the process. (It’s the whole “sell them what they want, give them what they need” mentality.)
We called the company Mortified Cow, because we wanted to attract a particular type of client: non-corporates who were up for having fun and doing cool and interesting stuff with their business.
We got the Mortified Cow website designed up, and mentioned it a few times on the Making It Anywhere blog. We also started to talk a lot more about the importance of good branding, good copywriting and good web design – and we gave away HEAPS of information and ideas for MIA readers who wanted a better, more compelling websites for their own business. It was all genuinely useful stuff – full of examples, case studies and reasons why certain elements of a website matter so much.
Clients in unexpected places
Almost immediately, we got our first three clients – two through Making It Anywhere and one through Property Geek. Three separate readers who wanted to make use of our services because they liked our writing style and could see we knew what we were talking about.
By this stage we had quite a few more readers on the blog. (And this is something that I really struggle to explain, I’m afraid. We just wrote stuff, interviewed the odd digital nomad on our blog, did the odd guest post, and somehow we had lots more readers than when we started.)
The spin-off: Undullify Me
We also created a spin-off business called Undullify Me. This was all about improving people’s “about” pages, and we got a few visitors to the site (and then clients) simply through writing guest posts on high-traffic, high-quality business websites.
Again, our guest posts were genuinely useful, and full of examples and case studies to prove we knew what we were on about.
How did we get those guest posts? Partially, it was a numbers game: we contacted a lot of blogs. But we also did extensive research on the blogs and wrote highly personalised emails that made it clear we understood their audience.
Undullify Me acts as a sort-of gateway to Mortified Cow for some clients: we’ll do a small piece of written work for them (their “about” page), and then they’ll have the confidence to take us on for a bigger project with Mortified Cow.
New territory: podcasts
At the same time, Property Geek was going well – simply because lots of people are interested in property, most property sites are utter shyte, and Rob’s was halfway decent and written in a way that was easy to understand and had no agenda to sell people on any “Make £4 million in three days” courses.
So he decided to start up his own podcast – both to find a new audience (who could migrate to his blog) and develop the existing relationship he had with his readers. There was no agenda: we didn’t know what we’d do with these listeners/readers once we had them. But it was fun, Rob loved talking about property, and he knew something could come out of it eventually.
The podcast was interview style, with Rob inviting a different property investor for a chat each week. This gave him the opportunity to find out about all the different styles and strategies of property investment out there, and get hints and tips from people at the top of their game.
January-March 2013: Thailand
We flew to Thailand for two months, where we spent £200 a month on our accommodation, less than £2 per meal, and £4 per hour-long massage. We actually MET, IN PERSON, other people who are doing what we’re doing (running businesses while travelling the world) – and we still meet up with many of them regularly in other parts of the world.
We continued with our Mortified Cow work, and Rob started writing another book – Property Investment for Beginners.
Oh, and we also bought a house in Liverpool – for students of the university there. (We’d seen the house and decided to buy it while in the UK in 2012.) Rob had made contacts in Liverpool through his website, so we found a great property manager to oversee the refurbishment of the house and get it ready for students to rent from in September.
One of Rob’s Property Geek Podcast interviewees was a lovely chap called Rob Bence. The Robs got on so well that when Rob B decided to start up his own property podcast in February, he asked Rob D to be his co-host. The podcast is called The Property Podcast, and it’s currently the most popular business podcast in the UK (with over 160 five-star reviews on iTunes). They co-host it from separate parts of the world, and they get an editor to take out all the umming and aahing.
Why has it been so successful? Partly because of a lack of competition – anyone searching “property” on iTunes UK couldn’t help finding it – but also because the Robs’ enthusiasm really comes across and it’s clear that they don’t have a sales-driven agenda.
March-April 2013: London
We rented an apartment in East London for a month, and spent our time either on client work or trying to explain our increasingly weird and unusual lifestyle to family and friends.
We also realised that we needed help: we just had way too much on and we couldn’t handle it. So we hired Louise, our amazing virtual assistant. Today she helps us out with an insane number of tasks across our multiple projects, and she’s also the community manager of our forum.
If it weren’t for Louise, we wouldn’t have been able to scale up any of our projects and make more money from them.
The property book
Rob had finished writing Property Investment for Beginners while we were in Thailand (he wrote for an hour every morning by the rooftop pool of our apartment), and I edited it once we were back in London. We then got my friend Tom to design the cover, and we shoved it up on Amazon.
Rob also created a separate landing page for the book, from where people could buy “bundles” – i.e. not just the book, but audio files, screencasts, spreadsheets and so on too. If people bought the book on Amazon, they were also given the opportunity (at the end of the book) to “upgrade” to a bundle via Rob’s landing page.
Promotion was as low-key as all the other books. As usual, the book was written for fun and to help Rob understand property better himself. He promoted it through the Property Geek Podcast, The Property Podcast and his property site, Property Geek. And that’s about it. But he had quite a large following by this stage – and he also benefited from the fact that lots of people search for property-related books on Amazon. Today, the book probably makes just about enough to fund our lifestyle (if we wanted it to).
April-August 2013: Europe (Berlin, Sofia, Madrid and Budapest)
Following our time in London, we flew to Berlin for a digital nomad conference – where we met yet more people who are “just like us”.
After Berlin, we did a few whirlwind trips to Sofia, Madrid and Budapest – spending a couple of weeks in each place – before settling back down in Berlin for two months. Our time in Berlin was pivotal: we hung out with a small group of other digital nomad buddies, and it felt incredible to be able to have long, easy conversations with people who all just “get” each other.
Since Berlin, we’ve kept firmly in touch over email, Facebook, Skype and Google Hangouts – and we also got to catch up with a couple of them during a single crossover day in London. Next year we’ll all meet up again at some point in Europe.
Starting the forum
For a while, we’d been toying with the idea of setting up a forum for likeminded people. And being in Berlin with our friends made us realise just how useful and successful such a forum could be. So we wrote out a massive plan for how we’d go about it, put a heap of milestone dates in our calendars, and got started. You can find out more about the process here.
The forum is already open to a few select members, and it’s going better than we could have ever imagined. We’ve got an extensive waiting list (sorry if you’re on it and haven’t heard from us!), and we’ll be opening the forum up to a few more free members before charging a subscription for entry. You can sign up for more information about the forum here.
“Pivoting” Mortified Cow
In June 2013, we “pivoted” Mortified Cow, because we realised that we actually get far better clients if we position ourselves as brand consultants who figure out the problems of their business and then go about solving all those problems – which can include web design but not always.
And that’s where we are with Mortified Cow today. We focus almost solely on “solopreneurs” or small businesses in traditionally boring industries (accountancy, dentistry, real estate…), and our aim is to make them stand apart from the competition.
We’ve upped our prices significantly, and we can now tell almost immediately if a potential client will be a good fit for us. We used to waste HOURS writing proposals for jobs that came to nothing, but we’re now much better at figuring out what’s worth our effort.
Another book: Be a Digital Nomad
In an attempt to get more readers to our MIA site, we collated our blog posts, categorised them, and sold them as a book on Amazon. We thought that if people searched Amazon for topics about digital nomadism, they’d come across our book (because there weren’t many others), and then either buy our book or come on over to our website.
We cared so little about profit that we offered to give every single reader their money back (in return for a review and a photo of them holding our book).
The endeavour was marginally successful. We probably wouldn’t repeat it – and if we did, we’d go about it very differently. But it was a risk-free test and it gave us some nice photos.
Aaand another one: No More Boring Businesses
Something that was much more successful was our PDF book that we gave away for free on Mortified Cow (you can download it here, and you don’t even need to give us your email address).
The book is called No More Boring Businesses, and you can find out all about how we created it and promoted it here.
We’d wanted to write a cute, quirky little brand book for a while, but we finally decided to knuckle down and do it when we were invited to be interviewed by John Dumas on Entrepreneur on Fire. EOFire has a huge audience, and we wanted to have something to offer new potential clients who’d discovered us through the show.
Once the book was ready, we also informed all the companies who we’d mentioned in it – so that they could promote it to their audiences too.
The book gave us quite a few extra clients – both EOFire listeners and other people who’d found out about us. What’s more, it helped to raise awareness of Mortified Cow in general.
August-October 2013: UK
Property, big decisions, and lots of goal-setting
We wanted to visit Liverpool to check out other investment opportunities, so we spent a bit of time there.
The Robs also decided that now would be the time to set up their own property-related website to complement the podcast. The website is called The Property Hub, and it’s just launched. It contains a free forum with a section for paid subscribers, digital training products, and heaps of information about property investing in the UK.
At the same time, we made the big and scary decision to scale back the Mortified Cow work, and to focus only on client projects that scream “awesome” to us.
I still think that client work is the bestbestbest way to get started for people who want to live our lifestyle but don’t quite know what they want to do. Client work can make use of an existing skill, teach you a whole heap of new skills that will come in useful for all types of work, and you can start making good money right away.
But client work sucks up a LOT of time, and we wanted to dedicate more effort to MIA, The Property Hub, property investing in general, and our book-writing – all things that were doing pretty well and just needed a bit more nurturing. Those projects give us total control and freedom, and we liked the idea of being beholden to customer purchases/feedback rather than the (sometimes) misguided feedback of clients.
So we had a number of meetings, and had a heap of goal-setting meetings in relation to each individual project.
Property book #2: Beyond the Bricks
Rob had been wanting to write a book about lots of people’s different investment strategies (and why different strategies work for different people) for a while, and this seemed the perfect time: he had a great audience from Property Geek and The Property Podcast, and we were back in the UK – which meant he could travel up and down the country interviewing people.
So throughout this time back in the UK, I’d often hold the Mortified Cow/MIA fort while Rob would take our little yellow car around the country to interview nine different property investors and follow them around for the day.
October-December 2013: Madrid and Barcelona
TLC for MIA
By this stage we were holding regular monthly Google Hangouts with our forum, the development of The Property Hub was underway, we were no longer actively seeking Mortified Cow work, and Rob had nearly finished Beyond the Bricks – and I’d nearly finished editing it. (The book is out in February – find out more here.)
The promotion for Beyond the Bricks was also underway.
So now was the time to focus more on Making It Anywhere, which needed a little bit of TLC after 18 months of being considered a “fun side project where we get to meet awesome people”.
We decided that we wanted to show off our expertise in starting a business and running it from around the world – rather than hide it away in the background. The majority of our readers are either doing what we’re doing or want to do what we’re doing: they might have the travel bit nailed but not the work, or vice versa. Or neither. They value our opinions and ask us lots of questions. And we love trying to help – as well as learn from them too.
So we began the process of overhauling our site to make it easier to find our blog posts, easier to get in touch with us for structured and personal advice, and easier to get help on specific topics in the form of low-cost, high-value products. The overhauled site will be ready to show off to the world shortly. (UPDATE: It’s now ready, and you’re looking at it!)
Products for MIA
I can’t quite remember when we fitted these in, but we did them at some point!
We rewrote Airbnb Pro so that it’s completely up-to-date and provides tips and techniques for both guests and hosts (the original Airbnb Pro just focused on advice for guests). The book is bundled up with lots of other useful content: screencasts, interviews with experienced guests/hosts, and a Google Spreadsheet checklist for hosts.
It’ll be for sale through the new site soon.
We also created a video course called “Your First Online Income”. It’s based on how we got started, and we created it after lots of people asked how they could follow in our footsteps. Our footsteps – as you’ve seen – occasionally ended up on ridiculous and unnecessary territory, so we’ve streamlined everything to provide a course that’s as efficient and effective as possible.
The video course comes with PDF notes, and it’ll also be for sale through the new site soon.
December 2013: London
And reeeeelax… not
December in London was a bit frantic: we had all our projects on top of seeing family and friends, and we also had to squeeze in all the obligatory dentist, doctor and optician appointments.
The Property Hub officially launched (with great success – which we’ll write about soon), and we held a launch party in London (which 170 people attended) the day before we flew out to Thailand.
January 2014: Thailand
We’re now back in our beloved Chiang Mai, and the next three or so months will be spent working hard on all the projects we’ve decided to focus on:
- Promoting Beyond the Bricks
- The Property Hub
- The Anywhereist forum
- Making It Anywhere – and its associated coaching and products
- Redesigning Undullify Me – which needs a bit of a facelift (UPDATE: It’s now done! You can see it here)
- Continue to invest in UK property
- Take on fantastic, exciting and eager clients through Mortified Cow
- More books
- Another property-related business – to be announced soon!
We gave ourselves six months to come up with a business idea, and we just about achieved it: Mortified Cow was borne out of all the experience we’d gained while in NYC.
Over time, Mortified Cow became a business that we were and still are exceptionally proud of. It’s us – it reflects everything we believe about running a business while having fun and providing a superb service or product for customers (and making great money at the same time).
But all the time we were running Mortified Cow, we didn’t let go of our side-projects and fun interests: we love learning new skills and information, and we enjoy the variety on working on different things every day. Today, those side-projects and interests have a lot of income-generating potential – and that’s perhaps because we never put too much pressure on them. We didn’t try to force them into one direction or another, because we never intended them to be anything other than enjoyable extras.
How can any of this apply to you?
Everyone’s starting point is different. For example, we had money saved up to go to NYC or six months. We didn’t have kids or responsibilities. And we had a fair idea of the sort of work we wanted to be doing. Your situation may be entirely different.
But I think we learnt some essential lessons that apply to anyone wanting to set up and run a location-independent business:
Have side-projects and interests
Don’t be afraid to have interests outside the thing that you think will make you money. I got into photography. I went to a class about running a coffee shop. Rob attended writing class. We went to random events the whole time (and still do). We wrote books for fun. We didn’t have any intention of connecting any dots – we were just feeling our way and seeing what got us excited and eager. Sometimes these things were just enjoyable and interesting, and nothing else came of them. Other times, we’ve delved further into our interests and developed businesses and connections out of them.
Setting up a business can feel all-consuming – but there’s always time left over for doing the stuff you love and are interested in. And we’d wholeheartedly suggest you spend time on those interests – partly to keep you sane, and partly because you never know what they might lead to in future.
Find likeminded people
If you’re hanging around with people who can’t understand why you’d want a different sort of life for yourself, you’ll be stuck.
Create opportunities for serendipity
We went to events and met people in NYC; they often became friends (or at least valuable contacts), and more than once we got work or work experience out of the encounter. We started a blog and got clients (completely unintentionally) through it. I contacted a super-cool rabbi about my silly little book, and he became our first proper client. Rob started a blog about property because he liked property, and now he’s got the #1 business podcast and we’re about to start up an entire business around property.
One skill won’t get you very far
If you’re a fantastic designer, that’s great. But you’ll need far more than design skills if you want to run your own design business (even if it’s just you as a freelancer). You’ll have to learn about marketing, putting together compelling proposals, taking payment, knowing how much to charge, how to communicate with clients so that they know you’ve got their interests at heart, and so on.
Start other projects while you’re still in your day job
There IS time. We were up before 6am and we’d work in the evenings after work. If you want to make this happen, you can find the time to learn new skills while you still have the reassurance of a regular income.
Ask for advice
But ask for it in the right way, and ALWAYS say thank you.
2014 onwards: an update
It’s been two years (HOW DID THAT HAPPEN??!) since I wrote this post. While there haven’t been any life-altering decisions or gigantic changes of direction, a lot has happened – particularly with work.
Travel-wise… after Thailand at the start of 2014, we lived in the following places: London, Valencia, Prague, Budapest, London, Madrid, Barcelona, London, Valencia, London, Valencia, London (don’t ask), New York, London, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Delft, Gran Canaria, London, Berlin, London, St Julian’s, London. That takes us up to now (February 2016).
We spent a minimum of two weeks in each place, but usually about a month or two.
Here’s an update on what’s been going on over the past couple of years:
The “another property-related business – to be announced soon” that I mentioned above? It’s called Yellow Lettings, and it’s a real estate management company for property investors. You can read more about it here.
The Property Podcast and The Property Hub have steadily grown in popularity – and in April 2015 we started publishing our very own Property Hub Magazine. An actual, physical, glossy, magazine! We’re up to 1,000 subscribers already, and we’re breaking even on the costs. We’ll be in profit by the next issue.
The purpose of the magazine? Not profit (although that’s a nice bonus). The magazine draws yet more people into The Property Hub world – which means more potential clients for Yellow Lettings.
Meanwhile, Property Geek (Rob’s personal blog and podcast) has also been doing well. Rob recently created a high-price product to be sold to new subscribers of the site, and the revenue from that is better than we could have ever imagined.
He’s also written a heifer of a new book – The Complete Guide To Property Investment – which sold over 800 copies on the FIRST DAY.
I’m making it all sound easy, but I promise it wasn’t. Yellow Lettings in particular has been, uh, interesting. It now has a distributed team of ten incredible employees, but the process of hiring and managing has been a learning curve, to say the least. There have been some very long days, and some very panicky moments. But we’re getting there – and we’re now able to spend more time “on” the business rather than “in” it.
You know… for a long time we struggled with this business: what it was, what it did, how much to charge, etc. And even back in January 2014 when I last updated this post, things weren’t perfect.
But now I think we’ve finally got there – and I’m loving it. I now run the business while Rob concentrates on Yellow Lettings (although we spend a lot of time in each other’s businesses too), and I’ve been able to work on some fantastic writing projects with incredible clients. While I was always OK, pipeline-wise, it’s nice to be constantly in demand.
What changed? A few things:
- We worked hard to define (to ourselves, mostly) who we were and what we did – and then we redesigned our website.
- I completely changed the way I structured my pricing. It’s cut the pitch process by about 70%, and it means I spend more time earning money for what clients have hired me to do: write.
- I wrote a book: May I Have Your Attention, Please? Your guide to business writing that charms, captivates and converts. The book is for business owners who’d rather write their own marketing copy/website content, but a happy by-product is the business owners who read it and then decide to hire me instead.
- All of the above has given me the confidence to go out and promote my services a bit more. I’m doing blog posts, LinkedIn, Facebook groups and website interviews. I’m even doing podcast interviews, which is a huuuuge deal for me: I used to have a near-phobia of podcast interviews, but these days I don’t even cry – let alone throw up – when I have one scheduled!
Here’s a quick summary of our thoughts on each place we stayed:
Great (if hot) in summer. No central heating anywhere in winter (cue a sock-buying spree for Rob – who hadn’t worn any for two years). Just about enough wifi cafes to work from. Fantastic public transport. Heaps of lovely bars and restaurants. Gorgeous beach (a bus ride away). Wonderful, huge supermarkets (MERCADONA!). Happy, friendly people.
Boiling in summer (when we were there). HEAPS of wifi cafes everywhere. Ridiculously cheap food and drinks (our groceries cost a third of what they come to in London). Never seen more tourists in our lives. Very “East European” vibe among locals. Not somewhere we’ll return in a hurry, but we understand the appeal.
Very pretty. Lots of wifi cafes (but not as many as Prague). Men like to pee in the street, at any time of day. Ruin pubs are great. Friendlier people than in Prague (not hard). Stay in Pest, visit Buda. Extremely cheap accommodation.
LOUD at night. Incredible food and drink everywhere. Enough wifi cafes around. Avoid sending/receiving mail: it’s a nightmare. Beautiful. Hilly. A favourite.
Surprisingly few wifi cafes, but the good ones are great. Steer clear of La Rambla and you’ll be fine. El Born = the best area to live. Great food. Lots to do and see. Everyone speaks English. A beach! Go during off-peak times. Terrible supermarkets.
Still my favourite place in the world. Stay in Williamsburg: just as pricey but you’ll get more space and quiet. Everything’s a hassle, but everything’s amazing. Restaurant/diner food: surprisingly good value. Supermarkets, rent, everything else: not so much. More wifi cafes than you could ever need.
Rotterdam, Delft, Utrecht, Netherlands in general
Everyone cycles. SO easy to see the entire country by train. Just about enough wifi cafes. Go wild on Indonesian food. Everyone speaks English. Friendliest people we’ve ever met. Beautiful (especially Delft and Utrecht). No credit cards anywhere. Desperate to go back.
Great for a vacation. Potentially excellent as a “writing retreat”. Nothing much to do (except water sports), but that’s really not a problem if you’re there to sunbathe.
Heaving with digital nomads. Plenty of wifi cafes. Huge – and can take forever to get around because the train network isn’t fantastic. Go in summer. Airbnb = expensive these days. Great vibe. Lots going on. Heaps to do. Very obedient dogs.
Easy peasy place to be. Lovely promenade. Barely any wifi cafes. Food = meh. FANTASTIC weather. Great day/afternoon trips to other cities. Crap supermarkets. Like, really really crap.
Work-wise: more of the same. We’re both finally at a stage where we know we’re onto a good thing with our businesses, so it’s time to push them and see where we can go with them.
Travel-wise: we’re off to Granada in a couple of months. After that, we’re hoping to go back to The Netherlands for a few months. Then… who knows? We’re trying to be a bit more flexible and last-minute about travel this year.
Over to you
What information have I missed? What would you like to know more about?
And what have you been up to for the past two years?
Let me know in the comments!