In April of 2009 Mark Webster quit his nice office job in the UK and took off traveling the world without much of a plan. In the time since, he’s visited more than two dozen countries, stumbled upon countless adventures, met lots of legendary people, and figured out how to make a living online.
Right now he’s in Budapest, working hard on an SEO business he started with a friend last August.
You can find Mark blogging regularly about life, work and travel over at Pro Nomad. Today he’s going to share with us some of the key things he’s learned in the last two years.
1. Mark, you don’t consider yourself to be extremely tech savvy, but there you are traveling the world while making money online. WTF?
Most people assume that to make money online you need to be some kind of tech guru. The vast majority of people who make money online are not computer experts, they are people experts. By this, I mean they are good at interacting with people and good at identifying what people want and need.
Think about setting up a typical bricks and mortar business. You are required by law to file accounts and to keep accurate bookkeeping records. How many grocery store owners or restaurant owners do you think know how a balance sheet works? They don’t, so they hire an accountant. It is the same when it comes to the internet. You don’t need to know how to build a website as you can hire someone to do it for you – usually for just a few dollars per hour too.
One of my sources of income right now is working as a freelance website project manager for a small US company. I work online from anywhere I want to and get paid a decent rate for this. Here is the kicker: I do not know any of the programming languages necessary to build a website. The fact is, it simply isn’t necessary for me to know them since I manage a team of people who do. They are the technical experts and my job is to bring together different technical experts to meet the demands of our US customers.
It is true that over time I have learned many of the basics of HTML (the most basic web programming language) but even then I rarely rely on my memory. You don’t have to since I can Google virtually any question about HTML and the first site on the results page will have the answer I need. Coordinating people and collaborating with a virtual team isn’t easy and there is a big demand for people who can manage others effectively in this situation.
Of all the technical skills that I have, I think the most useful area has been learning how to use WordPress. For those who don’t know it is the world’s largest blogging platform. My blog, Niall’s blog and millions of other websites are built upon this platform. No programming language is necessary and knowing how to build simple websites in WordPress has enabled me to try lots of business ideas quickly by setting up a simple test website to gauge interest in my ideas. It is also fun to build your own website or blog and a great way to keep everyone informed about what you are doing and where are going.
If you are thinking of trying to make money online, then you have probably already searched around for how to do it. There is a whole industry which sells products which supposedly tell you how to make money online. A select few are absolute gems (such as “The Four Hour Work Week” by Tim Ferriss), but for most people the results will come from trial and error. I’d like to emphasize the error part especially since every mistake I have made has taught me exceptionally valuable lessons that have helped me countless times in the future. You will fail, so fail fast and get on with succeeding!
2. You saved up a nice chunk of money before you took off on your travels, and had no real plan for when it ran out. How did you make ends meet when the funds ran low?
I left the UK in May 2009 with around £10,000 ($15,000) that I had saved up. I had no way of making money beyond this. My plan was to live off of this while figuring out how to make money online. I had a couple of friends who were did it so I knew that it was at least possible. Things didn’t exactly go as planned. I spent the first 2 months on a beach in Thailand learning how to teach Scuba Diving. I then went to Australia for a couple of weeks and on to Malaysia and Vietnam for some more backpacking. In the first 3-4 months I had spent two thirds of my savings and was still no closer to figuring out how to make a lot more money. I could have became a diving instructor but this was not something I wanted to do full time since the pay sucks and your travel opportunities are limited.
I got a bit desperate at this point so spent 3 months in near solitude in Malaysia trying to build a website and e-book product around air travel and frequent flyer miles. I think my book was technically far better than the competitors, but I didn’t know how to market it. I learned an amazing amount of skills while doing this, but in the end the project never really took off (no pun intended).
At this point, it was the lowest point emotionally for me since the naysayers were being proven right. I needed to clear my head and get away from it all. My good friend from school came out to visit me and we did some travelling and a lot of partying. I’m not the type of person that would ever borrow money or let myself run out of money so some sort of natural instinct started to set in. The fear of losing it all was starting to have a surprising effect – I was becoming amazingly opportunity sensitive.
For example, I started to tell people my situation and how I needed to make money and this alone threw up some great suggestions and opportunities. In the back of my mind, I knew that I could get a working holiday visa and a flight to Perth in Australia for not very much money. I could certainly find even a very basic job there if I really had to, so I always had my bases covered if a worse case scenario occurred.
Then I heard about a way to make a lot of money in a short space of time. What most people would call fortune or luck had swung my way. I feel that it was actually a direct result of the mounting pressure that my ever reducing bank account was putting on me, combined subtle changes in my behaviour which meant that I was much more sensitive to opportunities that might arise.
I heard about seasonal farm jobs in Australia where you drive these massive tractors around giant fields planting or spraying crops. Less than 24 hours after arriving in Perth, I had two job offers for Air Seeder Driver jobs. I had searched online for jobs and realised that the best way to land one was to call when I got to Australia. I had never done any kind of farm work or anything close to this before.
Farmers are not the best interviewers in the world so my job interviews consisted of a couple of minutes of telling me about the sizes of fields, types of crops and horsepower of the tractors. I even specifically said I had never driven an Air Seeder. That didn’t seem to be much a problem either apparently. I got paid approx £1,100 per week after tax (yes, per week). It was very boring and the days were very long (18 hours in one case). The point is that when the chips were down, I figured out a solution to my problem. If more people began to trust themselves and their own abilities, I think people would take many more risks and accomplish many more great things.
I returned to Asia after finishing two months of work but quickly remembered that I still hadn’t figured out how to make money while I travelled. I wanted to find some kind of part-time freelance job where I could work for a Western company, but work remotely and live in a cheap country. This would let me live comfortably and travel while pursuing my own business ventures.
Before I landed my first freelance contract, I searched long and hard for jobs to apply for. I read countless blogs but nobody could seem to point me to a website where I could find this kind of job. So here it is: www.odesk.com. Even if you are really terrible with computers or graphic design, you can still find a job on there as an article writer. A native English person can earn $10-20 per hour writing about all sorts of topics. If you live in New York, this is not enough to live on, but if you live in Budapest or Bangkok it most certainly is – and then some!
3. What sacrifices have you had to make to live the life you do?
I thought I was sacrificing security, in terms of my job, when I quit. However, I have since discovered that I really wasn’t since the company had gone through a lot of restructuring and many people got laid off anyway. It was also made really clear to me through my adventure in Australia that if you want to find a job, you really can. I don’t for a second buy any of this “there are no jobs” malarky that we hear on the News. If you are mobile, there are always plenty of jobs. The worst thing that could have happened to me was that I would have an amazing time and go back home to do exactly what I was doing before, except in some other office most likely.
When I announced to everyone I was going to quit my job, people had one of two reactions. They were either massively enthusiastic and wished they could do it themselves, or they thought I was crazy and tried to feign some level of good luck wish. The hardest part for me was my family clearly thought I was going to fail – most of them still have no idea what I really do. I got over this when I realised that they haven’t had the same experiences I have and have a dramatically different outlook on life. I did not, and indeed should not, have to mould my own life to conform to their worldly view. Once I got over this, I really had no regrets.
There is very little I miss about my old 9-to-5 lifestyle. I’d probably say that my old 24″ monitor is what I miss the most since working on a laptop doesn’t give you quite the same screen real estate. Seriously though, I do miss a handful of people from the office that were either good friends or just very awesome people (sometimes both). I still keep in touch with a few of them and they send me words of encouragement every so often which I greatly appreciate.
I expected to miss the routine of my daily life such as my awesome sandwiches that I’d make for lunch. The food in other countries was different and I wasn’t sure how I would handle it. But even here, I adapted and have started cooking a lot more myself now. In the UK, ready meals are so plentiful that I never really bothered. I’m very glad I no longer do this as the very basic cooking skills I have picked up have started a snowball effect and I’m recently become super interested in making my own food – such as my tangy sweet chilli yoghurt sauce which goes great with a chicken wrap.
The sheer number of people I meet when travelling has certainly had a positive effect on my dating life and I’m pretty pleased how things have turned out. There were a couple of cases since I have been travelling where the fact that I wasn’t in one place for any meaningful length of time prevented me from having a relationship which I otherwise would have. One case in particular was a pretty big regret in some regards. On the flip side, had I explored that option further, I wouldn’t be where I am today so it’s more of an unfortunate case rather than a regret. Of course, the world is a very small place so who knows what the future will hold.
This brings me to another point. Out of all my old friends that I had met prior to leaving, I think I regularly keep in touch with maybe 5 or 6. This is partly my fault for being so bad at keeping in touch. However many of them don’t seem to care too much about what I’m trying to do and it’s only natural to let the those connections slip out of touch. When I went back to my home town for two weeks in August last year, I met one girl that I hadn’t seen in maybe 3 years and she asked what I had been up to. I gave her a short version of my story and her response was “oh so just bumming around then”. This is not an unusual response from old friends so I take zero offence here. When you try to do something great, you must accept that not everyone will understand and give off the same enthusiasm. The flip side is that another girl I hadn’t seen in three years was super excited about the story and I’ve since learned she has moved out of her home town and is seriously enjoying life.
4. If you could go back two years and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
I would have done it sooner and started with less money. I wanted to have 6-8 months of funds behind me, just in case. This was a bad move as I spent the first few months having zero focus on my long term goals. Don’t get me wrong, I had an amazing time and did a lot of partying but it wasn’t until I blew through most of my savings that I started to focus on what I needed to be doing. You can always make more money, but never make more time. I would also have started a blog about my own progress sooner so I had some more public accountability of my progress.
5. Tell us about your plans for 2011. What do you expect your life to be like this time next year?
I am currently living in Budapest in Hungary and expect to be here for some more time. There are so many countries close by and I want to visit them all as part of my mission to visit every country in the world. I don’t want to be a passport stamp collector at any rate so try to have some kind of meaningful purpose when I visit a new country. I’m a massive advocate of travel and feel that everyone needs to do it more. I’m also a huge fan of meeting people, as opposed to seeing places. I feel that people who travel have a much greater understandings of people and how our planet really works. These types of individuals are also much more naturally suited to entrepreneurship since their experiences afford them a huge array of knowledge and potential ideas. Travel will not be my main purpose in 2011 however, instead it will be building my own business.
My friend and I started our own SEO agency in August 2010 and it has started growing to a very good level. There are some big plans to make it grow even further over the next few months so I hope see these goals come to fruition. I honestly don’t know what my life will look like in 2012 and I’d suspect that whatever answer I give will be wildly out. That being said, I will probably spend January 2011 living either in my Miami beach house or my private island in Tahiti with my part time supermodel, part time super chef girlfriend and her masseuse twin sister.
You probably doubt this (even I’m a little skeptical of the twins part) but it’s a lot closer to reality now than at any point in my life. The reason is that I have tried many things, failed many times, learned many things and am finally starting to succeed as an entrepreneur. You rarely read about the amazing failures people endure along the way before finally succeeding. As I grow my business, I fully expect to make many more failures and I can’t wait till this happens. Because every time it does, I learn something valuable and improve on it for next time.
A huge thanks to Mark for taking the time to share what he’s learned. To me, the most inspiring part of his story is how he managed to stay afloat and make ends meet when his money started running low. I believe we have a tendency to underestimate how resourceful and creative we can be at times like that. We often resist taking that first step because we haven’t planned for every possibility. But screw that. Take the leap and trust that you’ll figure it out as you go along. Like Mark, you might end up working a few 18-hour days to get back on your feet, but it’s all part of the adventure.
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Follow the links below to find out more about the life and times of Mr. Webster.
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