The conclusion of the independent travel business series.
A few months ago I began a series on independent travel businesses, and I went around and interviewed travelers who earn their own keep through running subsistence level micro-businesses. For this series, I interviewed traveling musicians, a tattoo artist, a mobile baker, an SEO consultant, a wandering shoe maker, a freelance writer, a vagabond massage therapist, a perpetually traveling jeweler, a troupe of fire dancers, and a sailor who sells hand made soaps in the street. Through conducting these interviews and peering into how other travelers are making a living, a collection of attributes rosed to the surface that most of these businesses had in common. From this, I was able to come up with a recipe for what makes a successful independent travel business.
How to be successful with an independent travel business
Believe in yourself to the point of disillusionment
Few successful ingenuitive people way by doing what other people felt made sense, they did not follow the laid out road before them. In terms of running an independent travel business, this means not letting a lack of examples to emulate hold you back. Truly live your own fantasy, step out into the world and do what you imagine yourself doing.
There is only one way to test if an idea is good or not: try it. If you get the notion to sell something in the street in a certain place, try it. If you think you can make a living yodeling in metro stops then yodel away. If you have an assumption that people may want to buy your art, eat your cookies, or listen to your music then put it all out there. If there is a potential that you can make a living off of an idea, then there should be nothing that stops you from trying. Sometimes, you will find that there is a reason that other people are not already doing what you propose, other times you will strike up a way to earn your keep on the road.
The laid out road of travel says that you should seek formal employment, work, then travel when your job is over. Few people attempt to make money daily on the road. For many, the idea of working and traveling are mutually exclusive; for most, the discipline to work for independently is not strong enough. Running a successful independent travel business means working daily, it means staying in when others are out playing, it means transitioning the idea of travel from a recreation activity to a full fledged lifestyle.
A business that will work in your location and with your present means
If you are living in a rain forest hostel and do not have access to an oven then trying to start up a baking business is probably not going to work. An independent travel business must suit the environment where you are traveling as well as your available means. Location is a paramount consideration when figuring out a way to make money on the road, and many travelers who run independent travel businesses make their money in areas where other tourists frequent. You can try to sell macrame butterflies in the hills of Laos, but I am unsure how many sales you are actually going to make.
Some considerations to reconcile about finding a location for an independent travel business
- Is there is a customer base/ audience for what you are selling or providing?> If nobody wants your stuff, there is no point in trying to sell it to them.
- Is it legal, or at least acceptable, to run your business where you intend to set up? In some places the streets are a free for all for the independent economy, in others there is no such thing.
- Is there a lot of competition with people involved in similar ventures? If you are selling macrame butterflies it might not make any sense to sit in a row of twenty other macrame butterfly sellers. Either make something different to sell or split to another location.
- How long do you want to be in the places you would need to be in order to do a particular business? How long is it going to take you to establish your micro-business in a particular place? Do you really want/ are set up to stay there that long?
- Do you have what you need to run your business where you are, do you have access to a proper set up? Do you have access to everything you need to run your business, or are there some essential elements missing?
- Can you afford to run your business where you intend to set up? In point, trying to make up a $40 per night dorm bed bill by dancing in the streets may be a potentially frustrating venture.
There are vastly more parameters for running an independent travel business that involves the selling of items and services in person than those that are internet based. For an internet based business, the only real parameter you have is internet access, and, fortunately for us, each day brings more places from which we can work. But for the traveling artisans, musicians, and street vendors location is of paramount importance.
In Central America and Mexico there is a circuit that the traveling musicians and artisans tend to follow. They go between the towns that are known for being good for their particular business in a very predictable route. Find the circuit for your particular occupation, and engineer ways to make the most of it.
Do something you are good at and like doing
It is silly to try to be a traveling artist if you suck at art. Not everyone needs to fund their travels making macrame butterflies. If you can’t play an instrument, do you really think you can learn how to do so well before you go broke? Find something that you like to do and are good at and then come up with ways to make money from it.
Tenacity to take this idea and make it reality
Almost every traveler that I interviewed for this series were very tenacious individuals. Most of them were not people who were born to work for themselves, seriously not people to take orders from another. Many of these characters choose to live poor and make only a fraction of what they otherwise could just for the pleasure of being their own boss. This determination lead many of them to make something out of nothing in their micro-businesses.
Rebbecca, the freelance writer who I interviewed for this series, is a gregarious person. She engages friends and potential friends with open arms, she is a good talker, her travel business thrives. While, on the other hand, many other travelers are not this successful. I saw a girl (European?) in the street the other day selling tweed sandals that she was making. She was wearing a rotten face. It was so rotten, in fact, that I walked by her as quick as I could, I did not even want to speak with her long enough for an interview, save buying her hippy sandals.
In many aspects, gregariousness = success in travel. If you go out in the world, speak with people, ask questions, and show an interest in people doors will open before you. Captain Jim is a fantastic talker, and he sells ten times more merchandise per night than any of the hippies acting coolly aloof behind their jewelry stalls. Gregariousness is essential for making the most of an independent travel business that requires face to face communication.
If you are not a naturally confident person, pretend you are. A course in acting should be part of any traveler’s preparation. Even if you are a quivering little peon, when running an independent travel business acting like the alpha male will only work to your benefit. People with confidence draws other people in, confidence is something that people are attracted to — like fish to a lure. Reel them in, go into your business with your head up.
There was not one traveler that I interviewed for this series who was not overwhelmingly, observably confident. It takes balls to go out in a foreign country and try to make a living, it is something that requires confidence, it is something that creates confidence.
In point, success means nothing if it is not fun — if you don’t enjoy your independent travel business, no matter how much money you make it will not be worth it. Many readers have suggested excellent ways for me to make a lot of money when traveling, I know of dozens of strategies that would bring me in many times the amount of money that I make working on VagabondJourney.com, but I know that I would not enjoy them as much.
The game here is not just to make money, but to enjoy making money. Both criteria need to be satisfied equally here for an independent travel business to be called a success.
Always move forward
Nothing lasts forever. All temporary travel businesses should be approached with the knowledge that they are, ultimately, ephemeral. Have many projects going at once, and when one starts to sag put added emphasis into another. When one project dies, this is just the opportunity you need to start another. There is a learning curve to just about any business, and this curve is often fun to ride. Enjoy leaning new things, and always be ready to return to the drawing board.
Recent changes in Google’s search algorithm have taken a large cut out of many traveling webmaster’s traffic and earnings. This is business — some days will be good and others not, some businesses will work for a while just to go belly up unexpectedly. A backup plan is always needed, work on various businesses at all times.
In my conversations with Jim, the sailor who sold soap and trinkets in the streets, it became apparent that his wheels were always moving forward, that now and the future were his temporal focuses, the past seemed to be just some remote collection of odd things that happened but had little effect now. This guy told me about how a passenger intentionally crashed his boat, how he was robbed of all of his expensive sailing gear, and how the equipment of a prior business of his was sold away in a police auction. Jim told me these stories with a smile on his face, it was clear that when he came to one dead end he just sought another path.
This outlook is often essential for any traveler making their way on their own micro-businesses. There is no telling what is going to happen on the road, there is no telling what is going to happen in life. A certain business can work great in one part of the world and then flop in another; equipment and merchandise can all be removed from you in a flash; the source of income which came from a particular business can dry up completely. Like travel itself, working independent travel businesses should be a process that is always moving forward, always changing, evolving, ending, beginning, growing, maturing, dying, regenerating. The end of one project is the beginning of another.
This entry concludes this series, but if you’re an expat, check out Cooper Parry for advice.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
May 8, 2011, 12:21 pm
Good write up Wade.
The days of slapping a blog up and making money with adsense and amazon, I think, are a thing of the past.
To make money on the road these days is difficult, but not impossible.
Change with the times, and learn from others.
Making a living on the road is a JOB, no doubt about it.
Really worse then a 9 – 5 in the states for the amount of energy that is needed.
Though, personally, I think it is worth the effort.
Good luck with your effort.
I have been following you for a bit, and you are at least trying to find the niche that you are happy with.
Keep plugging along – it will happen.
As my father always told me – persistence, persistence, persistence.
John D. Wilson
May 11, 2011, 12:53 am
HAHA.. I LOVE THAT QUOTE!! Believe in yourself to the point of disillusionment.. It’s so true though. I remember when I first got into Internet Marketing. Everybody asked me what I did for a living and I told them I was an Internet Marketer, even though I didn’t make a DIME for at least for a good year!!! I believed in myself and my abilities to the core. Fast forward 3 years and I can proudly say I am a full time IMer. I am going to print out that quote and hang it everywhere. It’s so true though.
May 11, 2011, 1:09 pm
Good information Wade I hope I won’t have to work the streets here in Urumqi China but i am having fun on my first trip out of the USA
May 12, 2011, 11:43 pm
Do you ever feel that your creative process is hard to maintain on the road?? I would think it would be hard to find your rhythm while traveling so much. With this business, you are NOT paid by the hour but by your creativity. When I first started to get the wheels turning, I could NEVER be on the road, traveling and maintain a successful internet business. Not to the point where it is automatic .With a set and forget mentality. For me , it needed to be watched constantly like a 4 year old. Do you ever feel like your business takes a hit with all the traveling you do? Would you ever settle in one place for a year and work out all the kinks on the site?
May 17, 2011, 2:51 am
What permit do I need to be a travelling jewelry seller in Mexico?
Love your site. Lots of good information.
August 29, 2013, 8:14 am
I’m currently working as a full-time freelancer and plan to travel more via location independent lifestyle. I’m actually looking for an alternative source of income, something that doesn’t come from the internet. A farm perhaps or a business that can be run by someone while I am away. Is this feasible?
Btw, I really enjoy reading all your honest opinions about traveling.
Thanks mucho. (:
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