The Joys (and Challenges) of Running a Business While Traveling

The Joys (and Challenges) of Running a Business While Traveling

By Andres Zuleta
June 2nd, 2014

Are you thinking of starting a location independent business? If so Meet Andres Zuleta, a inspiring guy who in 2013, at age 33, left his desk job to start a new business that would allow him to travel the world while working. Here’s his story…

At the time, I was working at an “objectively” good job – a fun and well-paying travel company with great bosses and world travel opportunities – but I had an irresistible need to start my own company, and fortunately so did my girlfriend.

I had never started a business before – nor had my girlfriend, with whom I now roam the world – but we kept seeing so many others do it, and we thought, “Why don’t we do that?” So we did. After several months of brainstorming, planning and execution, in late 2013 we left our jobs, sold everything, and left California for our first destination, Japan.

Before founding Boutique Japan, we had a dream of starting our own travel company, and traveling the world while helping others take their own dream trips. It wasn’t until Christina was diagnosed with a serious form of late-stage cancer (stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma, to be exact) that we realized we didn’t have all the time in the world. Our challenging – and successful! – battle with Christina’s cancer took 18 months, and left us more inspired than ever.
Andres Zuleta and Christina Soto _ Boutique Japan Travel Company _ Osaka Japan (1)

Our Business

Our business is Boutique Japan Travel Company (http://boutiquejapan.com/). We specialize in creating bespoke Japan trips for travelers from around the world. We’ve had clients from the US, UK, Australia, Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong and more.

The business is based in California, but we spend most of our time traveling, since we’ve designed the business to be completely “portable.”

After three months in Japan to begin our travels (and some side trips to Bali, Hong Kong and the Philippines), we then came to Mexico, where we are today. It’s a sunny Saturday in May, as I write this from San Miguel de Allende. We’ve been here for nearly two months, and in a couple of weeks will relocate to another part of Mexico – Oaxaca – where we plan to spend another couple of months.

We will be the first to tell you that we are living our dream lives now. But that’s not to say it’s all sushi and tequila – we work our butts off every day (here I am, happily getting some “work” done on a Saturday), and love doing so.

It’s been less than one year since we left our old lives and embarked on this adventure, and in our brief time we’ve learned a lot about the joys (and challenges) of running a business while traveling. We are thrilled to share this with you, especially if you are considering a similar lifestyle.

The JOYS of Running a Business While Traveling

Before I get into all the highlights, I want to acknowledge that some people I know prefer to stay put, and tell me they would hate our lifestyle. While that seems almost crazy to me, there’s no doubt that this lifestyle is not for everyone. But if it is for you, here are some of the things you can look forward to:

Freedom And Mobility

One of our priorities from the beginning was to create a business we could take almost anywhere. Setting up our business to be “portable” took a lot of planning and experimentation, but we’re thrilled to report that after nearly a half-year on the road our systems have gotten to the point where they’re nearly flawless.

What this means is that – basically – we could move to Thailand next week, if we felt so inspired. Or to South Africa. Or Argentina. Or anywhere else with a good Internet connection. We love this freedom, and even now it’s thrilling to discuss all the places we’d like to go next (while of course making sure we enjoy where we are now as much as possible).

Schedule Flexibility

This is more a result of having our own business than directly related to travel. But one of the things we wanted from the start was to design a business that would allow us to work more or less whenever we wanted. As employees, we felt constrained by the seemingly arbitrary work schedules our jobs required, which didn’t allow for our own personal daily rhythms with regard to energy ebbs and flows.

At first we indulged in the flexibility with abandon, inadvertently working too much because of a lack of a clear schedule. We’ve gradually designed our own perfect days (a concept we’d like to thank Natalie Sisson for introducing us to) and settled into more or less regular work schedules, which we have very much tailored to our own energy rhythms throughout the day.

If you’re reading this and you’re worried that you wouldn’t get any (or enough) work done with too much flexibility, then this type of life may not be for you (or perhaps you haven’t found a thing you truly love working on). We’re always coming up with new ideas to implement, and actively put checks on ourselves to keep us from working too much!

Time and Space for Creativity

We love our families and friends. But one of the main factors in choosing our current location – Mexico – was to be in a place where we didn’t know anyone. While we wouldn’t want to do this indefinitely, it has turned out to be an incredibly fruitful decision for us. We love going out and spending time with people we love, but when you’re working on developing a relatively new business, there’s nothing more satisfying than having plenty of time and space to devote to your business.

It comes down to having fewer distractions: if we were at “home” in California, there would always be things going on, friends and family inviting us to fun events, and all the other great things that come with living in a place where you’re near the people you love. Sure, we miss our loved ones, but at this pivotal moment in our lives we’re focused intensely on doing everything we can to ensure the long-term success of our business… and of course loving the traveling we get to do while doing so.

Constant Inspiration

I’m OK admitting that I spend most of my days working on our business, and I love what I do. What makes this even better is being able to leave my computer and find myself in a new and exciting city or country I’m eager and excited to explore.

The other day, after a full day of work, we left our apartment and walked into the center of town. San Miguel de Allende is known for its stunning historical center, and we wandered until we found a bar we’d wanted to check out. We had some local mezcal and a perfectly-made margarita, and some delicious raw scallops in a spicy green chile marinade. When we left the bar, the sun was setting. The colonial streets looked magical, and this moment quite perfectly encapsulated why we’re enjoying our current lifestyle so much.

In addition, by leaving our “comfort zones” and living in new environments, we’re frequently getting creative sparks and stimulation thanks to our new surroundings and the fascinating people we encounter in the course of our travels.

Lower Living and Startup Costs

This may seem counter intuitive to some, but since we sold everything and left California, our monthly expenses have actually decreased. This of course means that we’re now both living our travel dreams and saving money at the same time. Sound too good to be true?

Getting to this point took some forethought and discipline, but even during our three months in Japan we spent less per month on total living expenses than we used to do in California. Some of the reasons for this included: lower rent (California is a relatively expensive place to live, and rents are higher in general than in Japan); no car or car insurance (not to mention fuel costs); and lower grocery prices (not to mention better quality groceries!).

Japan is a good example, but if you consider that most “digital nomads” live in much cheaper countries – for example, Thailand – then you begin to see how much money can be saved with this type of lifestyle. Now that we’re in Mexico, costs are a fraction of what they were in Japan or California, which means we can devote more resources to developing our business – which is really important when you’re trying to grow your business.

There can be a dark side to this cost of living benefit – if you’re not careful, you can really spoil yourself by getting used to the prices in a country where things are significantly cheaper than in your home country. We counter this by always aiming to earn at least what we used to earn at our old jobs, with the goal of of course earning even more – so that we can return to live in California, or Japan – or any other relatively “expensive” place if we ever decide to do so. After all, you’re not so “free” or “mobile” if your lifestyle is only feasible economically in the cheaper countries of the world.

Mini-Retirements vs. Vacations

I believe I first heard the term “mini retirement” from Tim Ferris, and it’s a concept I love. Rather than waiting until you retire to travel the world freely – or simply making do with 1-2 weeks of vacation here and there – if you make world travel a part of your lifestyle, you can live out your travel dreams now.

In addition, when you live in a place – even if only for a couple of months – your experience of the place becomes exponentially broader and richer with each week that passes. When you’re used to taking 1-2 week vacations, you make it a point to pack as much into it as you can – whether “as much” refers to pure relaxation, or sightseeing and experiences, depending on how you like to travel. We never fully realized how rushed this was until the past several months.

At our current travel pace – which involves settling into a location for at least a couple of months so we don’t feel like we’re always moving around – the first week or so usually ends up defaulting to more or less an adjustment period. We love exploring new places and walking around to get to know new towns and cities, but it always shocks us at how much of the good stuff we only end up discovering after being in a place for several weeks.

This is definitely not a reason not to take a 1-2 week trip if that’s all the time you’ve currently got available to travel – it’ll still be worth it and full of valuable experiences! But if you love to travel, you’re going to love the luxury of spending basically as much time as you like in the places you love, and getting to know them more deeply.

The CHALLENGES of Running a Business While Traveling

Now that we’ve talked about some of the highlights of running a business while traveling, I want to mention some of the challenges we’ve faced.

Undervaluing a Work Space

When I dreamed of living the location-independent life, I imagined myself working from cafes, trains, airplanes and safari vehicles. This may work for some, but I have come to the realization that I generally prefer to work from a dedicated workspace. This can be as simple as a desk and chair. Nowadays, I occasionally like to go out and work from a coffee shop, but for the most part I get my best work done at home (that is, wherever I am calling home at that point in time).

At the beginning, I would go out every single day and work from a coffee shop. Something about this felt right at the time, but it eventually wore on me and started to feel unproductive. So increasingly I began working from home, and my personal productivity has skyrocketed. Now I only work from a cafe occasionally, and it’s both fun and productive.

As for trains and airplanes – fortunately, I find these extremely conducive to writing and idea breakthroughs, but since we only move once every couple of months, they don’t constitute a major portion of my work time. My advice here is: when you’re looking for a place to live, make sure it will also be a comfortable place to work, unless you don’t plan to work from home. Everyone’s different, but this has been my experience.
Andres Zuleta _ Boutique Japan Travel Company _ San Miguel de Allende Mexico working

Choose a Comfortable Place to Live

I’ll admit that our living spaces have increased in comfort and pleasantness since my girlfriend took over in choosing our places to live. You don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of money to find a comfortable place to call home – but you may need to search pretty thoroughly if you’re on a tight budget.

The first place I chose for us in Japan was in a gorgeous neighborhood, but simply too cramped for us. We didn’t complain, but once we’d moved into a bigger space we realized that not being in a comfortable living space was hindering our productivity and simply not worth it. Most people have a particular budget in mind when seeking a place to live – my advice would be to consider spending a little extra or so if needed to ensure your “home” is comfortable and restful, especially if you’ll be spending a few or several weeks there.

Banking, Phones and Internet

If you depend on the Internet to do your work (as we do), then having reliable Internet is essential both to your productivity and your sanity. We always plan in advance to make sure everywhere we stay has good, reliable Internet, but it doesn’t always work out as planned.

For example, when spending a week in Bali, we experienced a couple of days with very spotty Internet, and were simply lucky that we had no important calls to make, or we would have been rushing over to the local co-working space for a solid Wi-Fi signal. We make most calls through various means on the Internet, and also have a backup telephone for international calls, just in case – this has saved us once or twice when the Internet was spotty.

Lastly, if you’ll be making or receiving international bank transfers, make sure you have this all very well set up before you leave the country, as some banks may require you to fill out certain forms in person.

Everyone Will Want to Visit You

Obviously this is actually a good thing, but if you’re not careful you’ll have so many friends and family visit that you won’t be able to get any work done! Keep in mind that most likely, most of the friends and family members who visit you will be on vacation, and not working from an exotic and desirable location like you. So one thing is to make sure you get as much work done in advance of their visits as possible, because you probably won’t be getting much work done once they arrive.

If possible, encourage friends and relatives to “batch” plan their trips together, so you don’t end up with a different guest every weekend! Many people find it hard to envision what a location-independent entrepreneur’s lifestyle is like, and I find that people usually imagine it’s a lot more margarita-sipping than the reality!
Andres Zuleta _ Boutique Japan Travel Company _ Bali Indonesia

Conclusion

If you’re thinking about starting a business that you can run while traveling – or taking your business on the road – I hope this overview helps excite and prepare you for what’s to come.

How about you? Do you run your business while traveling? Has your experience been any different, and have you experienced any other joys or challenges that I didn’t mention? Please share in the comments!

About Andres Zuleta

Andres is one of the two founders of Boutique Japan. Unlike a lot of travel companies, we don’t work from a cubicle! A business dedicated to helping others really experience Japan. Connect with Andres at:
http://boutiquejapan.com/
https://www.facebook.com/boutiquejapan
https://twitter.com/BtqJpn

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