This interview is part of our Love Mondays series, bringing you stories of digital nomad couples from around the world who love their Mondays! You can read more about the series here.
Steph and Tony, the travel writing pair behind 20 Years Hence have been travelling for three years. Originally they’d just planned to go on a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trip, but they soon realised they could build themselves a business, keep travelling, and avoid the rat race.
I spoke to Steph about their location-independent business and how they’ve managed to win enough work to keep them travelling indefinitely.
How do you make your money when you travel?
Tony and I both work online, though we didn’t before we started our travels. Before our trip, Tony worked as a graphic designer for a firm in Nashville, and his training and skill set was one we quickly realised could easily transition to a location-independent lifestyle.
He’s always dabbled with website development in the past, so we decided to make those two things (graphic and website design) the core focus of our business.
I work in the marketing side of things, offering clients everything from copywriting to online promotion for business whether that’s through social media or other avenues. In the past year, I became a certified Google AdWords professional, so now the bulk of my work comes from helping small businesses capitalise on and make the most of Google’s paid search results.
What’s the biggest challenge you face being digital nomads?
All things considered, we’re still relatively new to the whole digital nomad game, so the bulk of our energies and efforts in the recent past have really been directed towards building up our client base and making sure we were sufficiently financially solvent that we could actually support ourselves.
Consequently, we have a tendency to really bury ourselves in our work and don’t always find we have the time or energy to really explore the places where we are travelling. With time, we hope to be able to scale back our hours without negatively impacting our income, so we can focus more on enjoying the fun parts of this lifestyle.
It turns out establishing a work-life (or, work-travel) balance is harder than it looks on paper!
You created a completely different career for yourself after your previous career wasn’t so easy to transfer to a digital nomad lifestyle. How did you go about this transition?
Prior to our trip, I was working on my PhD in cognitive psychology, which really doesn’t lend itself to the location-independent lifestyle.
I was also really burnt out on research and academia and knew that I needed change, so I was always open to exploring new avenues… but I had no idea what those might be. It sounds crazy, but I really just believed that our trip would put us in the path of things we couldn’t anticipate and that opportunities would present themselves when we were ready for them.
When we first started establishing our graphic design and web development business, I knew that this would really be Tony’s way of earning an income; I still had no idea how I could contribute.
I contemplated possibly trying to monetise our blog or trying to make it as a travel writer, but both of those had fairly significant drawbacks and didn’t feel like the right path for me. So, I stuck to writing our blog simply for fun and promoting our services to anyone and everyone who might be in the market for a new website (or knew someone who might).
When we landed our first website redesign project, it came from someone who had been reading our site pretty much from the beginning of our travels.
It turns out, this client ran a digital strategies and marketing firm in the States, but had done a lot of travelling and loved the idea of the location-independent lifestyle.
It wasn’t feasible for her, but she wanted to support people who were interested in pursuing that kind of lifestyle and she happened to really like our blog and what we were trying to do.
So she hired us for a job, and then began to send us more work. Eventually, she asked me whether I’d be interested in learning more about Google AdWords (which is the bulk of her work), because she thought it would be a great fit for our lifestyle; she said she would be happy to train me because she thought I had the skills that would allow me to be successful.
I had never really heard about AdWords, but felt I had nothing to lose by giving it a shot. I essentially did an unpaid internship for a year where I learned the (tangled and often confusing!) ropes of AdWords, and by the end of it, I was actually doing really well and passed the certification tests.
At that point, I started being paid for the work I was doing managing overflow AdWords accounts for my mentor and even picked up a few clients on my own!
On one hand, I feel like I was really lucky because I often feel like a great location-independent job found me rather than the other way around.
But, on the other hand, even though I never would have predicted that any of the actions we took would have led me to the job I have today, I do think that there is something to be said for listening to your gut and pursuing things you are passionate about.
I abandoned paths seemed popular for other travel bloggers but that didn’t seem right for me, and focused on doing the things that did feel right, even when I didn’t immediately know how those could become lucrative.
You’ve travelled to places that have a distinct language barrier, like China. How did you cope without knowing the language?
Well, China was a tough country for us, and we definitely dealt with language barrier issues the most there, despite our best efforts. (Northern Vietnam was also pretty tough.)
We always do our best to learn a few standard phrases (hello, thank you, how much is this?, delicious, counting 1-10) and we pick up food words pretty quickly, but we are lucky that English is our mother tongue because that really is the international language of travel.
I wouldn’t say that we’ve never found ourselves somewhere where no one spoke English because we’ve been to some pretty remote, off-the-beaten-path places, but in 99% of situations, the person we’re talking to understands enough English that we can muddle through.
By and large, anyone in the tourism industry will speak some English. In most other situations, context plays a big role and people can figure out what you want (if you’re in a shop looking at something and take it to the counter, you probably want to buy it; if you’re in a restaurant or at a food stall, you probably want to eat…) and you can get a lot across through pointing and pantomiming when necessary.
Also: Never underestimate the power of the smile! So long as you keep smiling, things tend to have a way of working out.
Do you feel pressure from your families to return home? How do you cope with this?
For the most part, our families have been incredibly supportive of our unconventional lifestyle. My parents actually looked after our dogs for the first two years of our travels so that we could take our trip, which was wonderfully generous of them and we’ll never stop being grateful to them for really allowing us the opportunity to travel.
When we first started talking about building a business so that we could keep traveling rather than coming home and ‘settling down’, that got some raised eyebrows. Some family members were kind of unsettled by our decision, but we stuck to our guns and worked hard, and now they see that we are actually doing what we said we would and are supporting ourselves while we travel the world. They think what we’re doing is pretty cool and are proud of us.
I think they’ve made their peace with the fact that we’re living the life we want and that we’ll come home to visit, but that for now, we’re happy having adventures elsewhere.
Steph & Tony are a married Canadian-American couple in their early 30s who saved for years, sold everything they owned, and quit their jobs in order to travel and eat their way around the world. They are currently driving through Mexico with their two dogs now along for the adventure, blogging about their experiences over at 20 Years Hence.