An Interview with Benny Lewis

When I met Benny, he told me that everything he owns–literally everything–fits into one suitcase. (I wouldn’t be surprised if he knows more languages than he has shirts). He is the kind of traveling nomad who has made his living traveling, working, and now, blogging. His popular blog, Fluent in Three Months, is a testament to the adage that if you do what you love, success will follow. Come check out Benny’s newest adventure–learning Mandarin in 3 months–at his blog here!

How did you “break in to travel writing”? What have been the keys to your success?

I had been following travel blogs for quite a while, since I had been on the road myself for well over six years without ever starting one. I thought I didn’t have it in me since I did poorly in English in school, and wasn’t “writing material”.

But one day, one travel blog I followed had a piece that wasn’t particular impressive and had several spelling mistakes. Ironically, this poor piece of writing inspired me to jump in too! I figured, if that guy can do it, why can’t I?

From there I shared my unique language learning advice and made sure to pour my personality into it. For example, every post I write has a photo of me in it (not a photo I’ve taken, or a stock image) and I’m pretty verbose.

The blog has exploded in popularity because I had a particular niche in travel writing all to myself: travel and language learning. I wrote about my intensive missions to speak a language, and how it enhanced my cultural experience. Nobody else was doing this, so the blog grew very steadily.

I also networked with other bloggers and made sure to take feedback seriously to improve my site’s design and write about what people liked reading about, and ditch ideas that didn’t do so well.

Where do you see your career as a travel writer being three years from now? How will your income mix change and what are you doing to adapt to the changing media landscape?

I can’t even tell you what my situation will be three months from now, so forget about 3 years! The nature of travel writing is that it involves travelling, and this different lifestyle makes such plans impossible, and even silly in my opinion. I don’t really care what the landscape will be like in 3 years’ time. I’ll adapt to the current landscape, as I’ve been doing up to now and face challenges as they come.

Knowing what you do now, if you were starting from scratch today to become established as a travel writer, what steps would you take to ensure success?

Start earlier, and take more risks and make more mistakes. I wasn’t bold enough to start sooner than I did, and when I did start it took me longer than it could have to find my bearing since I wasn’t experimenting as much as I could have.

Play around and you’ll find what works for  you.

What advice would you give to someone near and dear to you who wanted to become a travel writer—assuming they had zero credits to their name. (Besides “Don’t do it”?)

I didn’t have any credits to my name when I registered my blog URL. But I had a unique message to share, and a passion to share it. Why on earth would someone give advice of “don’t do it” – my advice would be to follow the advertising slogan of “Just do it”. Stop overanalyzing, stop reading up so much about it and just write a post and click submit and work from there.

People don’t judge you on your first post, they judge you on your best posts and your consistency once you’ve established yourself.

Seriously, just do it.

As a language enthusiast myself (but, sadly, as one who only speaks two languages), I’d love to hear more about the idea behind your blog, Fluent in 3 Months. How did you get started with the blog and has it become your major source of income?

When inspired to start blogging about my journey, I only thought about the title for a few minutes and it could only be one thing: the success in learning any language quickly for me has been that I aim for a specific target (such as fluency) within a specific deadline (such as 3 months). I was planning to move to Prague for the summer to do this very thing, so the blog was initially to document this first adventure.

Afterwards, I had other targets that were not fluency in 3 months (such as speak with no accent, conversational in 2 months etc.), but the power of the specific title was important to keep so I stuck with it. Having said that, I am aiming for fluency in 3 months once again now with Mandarin.

After blogging for almost a year, I had no plans initially to earn from the site. I was working as a freelance translator, which gave me the location independence I needed. Although, the pay wasn’t so great unless I was in very cheap countries.

Luckily I met some interesting travel bloggers while passing through Thailand and they inspired me with some cool ideas to earn from the blog, without having to resort to cheesy annoying advertising. So I put the work in to create the Language Hacking Guide, and ever since I released it, it’s been my primary source of income. I don’t even advertise it on my own blog with banners and the like.

My site’s traffic is large enough that people will find it if they really need to, and it’s enough for me to live off for the moment without me needing to force my product upon them. I prefer to keep the core of the site completely free and not aggressive in any way. Luckily the readers are passionate about what I do and have supported me up to now!

Essentially, you’ve been traveling for nine years straight. How have you been able to manage this, and what tips do you have for other budding travelers/travel writers who are worried about the financial strains of traveling?

My site has helped me for the last 2 years, but I travelled for 7 years before that based on many other jobs. The trick isn’t a tip to earn or save more money, which is a ridiculous obsession I hear about far too often, especially from North Americans.

The trick is to learn to spend less. I don’t have a mortgage or car insurance, I don’t smoke or drink, I don’t have a silly need to buy new clothes or the latest ‘S’ version of a smartphone I already have, and I can put up with living conditions that don’t have to be super comfortable.

Everything I own in the world weighs less than the airline weight limit (I don’t have a base to dump my stuff, so if I don’t need it, I sell it), and all my books are on my Kindle.

People need to learn to embrace minimalism – it makes the financial issue almost non-existent. You just need to save up for the flight – if you travel slowly you can find a local job and accommodation that is incredibly affordable. If you travel quickly, then of course you are asking for trouble (but you can at least do that with Couchsurfing and not need to pay for accommodation some of the time). This is why I tend to stick to one place for an entire season of the year.

My life is way cheaper than any settled westerner I know. Sell your crap, don’t buy new crap, and travel for experiences rather than comfort and souvenirs, and you will go far with very little.

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Benny Lewis is a “technomad” language hacker and blogs at fluentin3months.com. He is currently on a mission to learn to speak Mandarin in just 3 months and has regular updates about his progress and the unique approach he is taking to attempt this. As well as explanations on his blog, his communicative/immersion based learning strategy is explained in great detail in his “Speak from day 1” video and multimedia course.

Interview conducted in February, 2012 by Kristin Mock.

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