Guest Post: Building a Business from a Backpack

Thoughts from the team
By    | May 28, 2012 | Strategy,

Have you ever considered starting your own business, or giving up your day job and going traveling for a while? There is no reason you can’t do both and it can be much easier to get started than you think. This article covers how to mix business and pleasure as much as possible to have an interesting mobile working life and not stare at the same wall every day.

The Storm team asked me to put together some thoughts and advice for how this can be done, as I have started a successful business which is turning a profit in the first year. I started working for it the first day I touched down in the States, and a year later I have settled down up north – but it was one hell of a time and I was technically homeless for most of it.

Expenses

The main concern for many is money. Right now you pull down a reasonable steady monthly salary in your day-job and quitting to go on a long holiday doesn’t sound too reasonable, so there are two things to think about.

  1. How can you make money on the move
  2. How much money do you need to make

Generally speaking, where is it your money goes? If it’s on a mortgage, kids, etc then this sort of thing will likely not be for you, but if your largest expenses are mainly food, beers, rent, random expeditions on the weekend, etc then you can do this much easier than expected.

The first cost to think about is accommodation.

Hostels £15 ($27) x 30 (nightly) = £450

This was some quick maths I threw together to work out how much it would cost me per-month to stay in hostels based on the average price of a nights stay. Research showed me that it was about $27 which is pretty cheap. At the time rent and bills were coming to about £850 for me – living on my own, which is boring – and thus traveling so far is nearly half the price.

What other costs are there to think about?

  1. Food
  2. Travel
  3. Entertainment

Food in the States can be pretty cheap, and seeing as most hostels offer you free breakfast you only need to worry about two meals a day. This you can budget entirely yourself as you can student-style and live off pasta for $3 a day, or go for nice steak dinners and fancy evening meals $50 a day – it’s up to you.

Travel for me was an easy call: Greyhound. The Greyhound is a coach network that covers the US and Canada, and is seen as a cheaper alternative to flying. It can be stressful, time-consuming and grubby, but it does get you around. I’ve taken Greyhounds the whole way around the US and while I might not rush to do it again I will say if you can deal with strange conversations and keep your head in a book for a few hours when delays happen you’ll get on just fine.

Entertainment is easy over there, the US has so many mountains to climb, rivers to walk along, bike trails, even just talking to locals in a bar will be a great evening. Besides, you’re an internet-savvy chap, why not meet up with some of your Twitter friends? I’ve met over 100 of my Twitter followers and they’re always pretty happy to buy me a beer, offer me somewhere to stay, give me a lift or show me the area. I had one guy drive me from a hostel in Arizona to give me a grand tour of the Grand Canyon – which was epic!

Income

So that’s us sorted for living expenses, but we still “gotta get that gold” or we’ll be broke or growing the big red number on our bank balance. How can you make money if you’re up a mountain or on a Greyhound coach? Well… your laptop has a battery doesn’t it?

If you are a web developer like myself then this can be done in a few ways.

Build a passive-income

Before I started my company I had built multiple addons for various different content management systems. This seems like a pretty random task but there can be good money in there over time. I built a REST addon for ExpressionEngine which was making me $250 a month for the first few months, which is INCREDIBLY handy when you consider you don’t need to do all that much to maintain these addons. That meant even if a client didn’t pay me in time I would have two weeks of hostels covered each month.

Beyond selling addons, selling software works very well too. I sell a PHP CMS called PyroCMS which was getting me a few more hundred bucks a month, and with software there are no client deadlines. I could just hop on email, check support tickets, fix some bugs and occasionally add some features.

Do something you can only do THERE

Another revenue stream for HappyNinjas is conference organisation. We run the CodeIgniter Conference and the 2011 even was in New York. The income for this certainly helped, and the fact that I was in New York to take a look at venues 6 months before the event, then in New York again for the event, meant that at least some of my travel was covered by the company! Business and pleasure, successfully mixed.

Sit Next To Your Client

All of these jobs can be done remotely in this digital age, but people love you swinging by to do the work in their office. One day of development sat next to the end client is normally twice as effective, especially when you can have questions answered real-time. Besides that, most clients are terrible at explaining what they want so having them be able to point at stuff on their own screen speeds up the process even more. I have some clients who were friends first, and offering them a massively discounted rate if they let me stay in their house for a few days (or a month in the cast of working on PancakeApp in Canada) certainly helps with money and gets a lot of work done.

I’ve been blogging about PHP, CodeIgniter, Git, etc for years now so when I say “I am in Dallas, who needs some work done?” there is usually somebody that will take me up on the offer – and planning further ahead certainly doesn’t hurt.

Not a Nerd?

I believe that everybody has a talent they can take on the road. If you do your work on a laptop then take that laptop somewhere interesting and carry on as you are but with difference scenery. Even if you don’t work on a computer, I have friends setting up plans to do similar things who just move around selling paintings they’ve painted on the road.

If you know a lot about something then turn that into money. During a 25 hour coach journey you have a lot of time to think, and you can write down notes for articles than could be sold to a website. For me it’s .NET and NetTuts but you could write about cooking, travel, marketing advice, whatever it is your good at. You could even use that time to start writing the book you always dreamed of.

This sounds like a lot of work

So far I have been talking a lot about work, but you should be having fun or what is the point?

Generally I tried to keep to a 3-day cycle, or at least keep the ratio about right:

  • Day 1: Pay up x3 nights in a hostel, grab some beers and relax or get some work done.
  • Day 2: Explore town in the day, climb something, swim somewhere, do something awesome. In the evening take your stuff home and hit the bars.
  • Day 3: Recover and work, or get your Greyhound to the next place.

If I had stuck to this a little better instead of sampling every beer the US had to offer then I would have come home with profit, but instead I came home breaking even – which is still not bad.

I came home to the UK and worked on a cool start-up in London for a few months. Then I headed up to Newcastle for a 3-month start-up incubator where they covered the cost of my accommodation and I helped build another very interesting product. Sadly the company did not complete the ignite100 program but I got contracted by a team who did. Then I headed back to Canada to see what it was like in winter and went snowboarding in the Rockies, then stayed with another friend while I worked for him, then back to London for a few days with the GoCardless team, then finally back to Newcastle.

In general it has been over a year of moving around getting work done and having a blast in between. The fact that I move around has given me business opportunities I would never have had if I stayed static and I’m being flown to Chicago this Sunday to do a few weeks work there. Winner!

Summary

Working in an office is not a bad thing, but could you be having more fun doing something else? In the past 14 months I’ve been to places I’ve never even heard of, been splashed by Niagara Falls, climbed mountains in the Rockies, seen forest fires up close in New Mexico, seen Killer Whales, cycled over the Golden Gate Bridge and even been chased by a black bear. Good or bad, you don’t get experiences like that sat at your desk!

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