T.W. Anderson is the Editor-in-Chief of Marginal Boundaries, a travel blog focused on independent immersion travel. Having traveled full-time since 2008, he has learned quite a lot about taking the idea of being a writer and making it a reality. In our interview today, T.W. talks about the hard work it takes to get a travel blog off the ground, gives some tough advice to new bloggers, and offers some tips for making a blog into a brand. Enjoy!
T.W., you’re the Editor-in-Chief for the travel blog Marginal Boundaries, a site that generates more than 1 million page views per month between all of your social media channels and the site itself. Tell us how you started and how you got your blog to where it is now.
I subscribe to the “results, not luck” side of things.
There’s a brilliant quote by Peter Dinklage I came across recently where he said, “I hate that word – ‘lucky’. It cheapens a lot of hard work. Living in an apartment without any heat and paying for dinner with dimes. I didn’t think I felt myself lucky back then. Doing plays for 50 bucks and trying to be true to myself as an artist and turning down commercials where they wanted a leprechaun. Saying I was lucky negates the hard work I put in and spits on the guy who’s freezing his ass off back in Brooklyn. So I won’t say I’m lucky. I’m fortunate enough to find or attract very talented people. For some reason I found them, and they found me.”
One of the main components that most people lack when it comes to getting their brand off the ground is actually buckling down and working at it. A brand – and the blog that goes along with it – is a business. That means work. And while it’s a passion that I love with all of my heart and it rarely feels like I’m working, I put in far more hours with my own company than I ever did when I was working anywhere else.
Four hour work weeks? Please. That’s a myth perpetuated by marketing geniuses in North America to tap into the instant gratification generation of hipsters who want first place medals for simply existing. The reality is that if you want to earn first place you have to be prepared to put everything on the line. Sacrifice, dedicate, work, work, work and work some more. Olympian effort, not minimalism.
I got started with this particular project after I had moved to Mexico from Bulgaria. I’d been freelancing full time for about four years by that point and traveling throughout Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, but I hadn’t ever considered travel blogging until I was contracted to write a Cancun guide. From there, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine and realized that there was this actual world of bloggers who traveled and wrote about their travels for a living.
I’ve been self-employed since 2001, so I already knew the “research and planning and prep” aspect of brand management. I spent almost a full year (2011) writing the first three guidebooks for Sofia, Bogota and Cancun, as well as generating a slew of blog content at the website and living on-location in Colombia doing research for that guide, before I even considered taking it public.
During that time I was spending an easy four hours a day researching other bloggers, seeing what they were doing, buying their products, reading their books, subscribing to their newsletters, their RSS feeds, subscribing to forums, paying for private subscriptions…basically reading, reading and reading some more. Market research and analysis. All while continuing to write freelance for a living and produce content for the Marginal Boundaries platform.
When I first officially “launched” the brand just before Christmas of 2011, it was a soft-launch for friends and family. I then spent a few months writing The Expat Guidebook, which went on to become our flagship eBook when it launched in early 2012 and I then started the social media campaign. Since then it’s just been a steady grind from the bottom working my way up. I still read, subscribe and pay for other people’s products, on a regular basis. I follow the “someone else can always do it better than you” belief structure, which basically means I don’t believe that even though I’ve “figured it out” there aren’t still things I can learn. I’m always learning. Every day. There are hundreds of brilliant bloggers out there, and they all have things they can teach me.
How was your income changed over the past few years and how do you expect it to change in the next 5 years?
It’s been a steady rise. Something I think most people fail to realize, however, is that everyone starts at the bottom. There is this myth (going back to the four hour work week) that travel bloggers can make tens of thousands of dollars right out of the gate while sipping mojitos with their toes in the sand, perpetuated by marketing gurus in North America to sell people on the idea of “minimal effort, maximum results”.
That’s crap. I was making 80k a year working in construction before I made the transition to live abroad, and that was after 15 years of working in the industry. I started off sweeping floors and throwing out trash for 5 bucks an hour when I was 15, and before that I worked for free as a grunt for my old man, grandfather and uncles, from the time I was seven years old. When I first started working as a writer, I came in with zero experience, no college education, and I don’t even have a high school diploma. It was hell trying to land writing gigs those first six months. Lots of low-paying gigs to earn my way up…the equivalent of sweeping floors for 5 bucks an hour.
When the work finally started coming in, I was only doing about $500 to $1,000 per month in late 2008. Enough to “live” while I was based out of Sofia, Bulgaria, and a little bit for extra fun and exploration. From there, it was a lot of hard work and dedication and continual climbing, and as a general rule I saw an increase of about a hundred dollars extra per month until I hit 2010 where I was generating 4k – 6k per month freelancing. Now, I generate 3k to 5k per month on normal months through Marginal Boundaries, which has basically been running full-time for two years as of this writing. It’s less than what I made freelancing or working in construction, but I’m only in the third year of the blog (2014). That’s a combination of book sales, social media clients, advertising, consulting, speaking gigs, teaching classes and the occasional contract. During our brand boot camp months we pull in over 8k per month on the gross end. Right now I’m on a mission to break 10k per month by the end of 2015 purely with the travel brand, so we’ll see how that goes.
You started traveling in 1999 and have been traveling full-time since 2008. How did you make that happen and how can others follow in your footsteps?
Discipline. Seriously. The whole “throw my stuff in a backpack and just take off to see the world” is complete malarkey…unless you like sleeping in hostels with bad WiFi, semen-stained sheets, drunk hippies humping at three in the morning in the bed next to you (or above you), cold-water showers and living on ramen-noodles and street food for a dollar a day. And eventually running out of money because you haven’t planned, budgeted or set yourself up with an ongoing income source.
When I first started traveling it was during breaks between construction gigs. I’d take off for weeks at a time, and then weeks turned into months. Around 2004 I was working four to six months and then taking off for two to three months to explore Bulgaria and the surrounding region. And I never went without a plan. I would work hard for a few months, wait for a break in the schedule, research in my spare time, then take off when I had the chance.
If you really want to travel like a pro, that means planning in advance. Researching destinations, reading other blogs and their guidebooks, finding the best accommodations through personal recommendations from friends, sending out proposals for house-sitting gigs and press trip accommodations, negotiating long-term apartment rentals that you can use as a base of operations while you explore the surrounding region, making sure there is the connectivity you need, the weather you want, the medical care you might need if you have health problems…there is so much that goes into planning that many people take for granted.
At least from my point of view. I’m not a backpacker or budget traveler who just goes hops on a plane. I like good food, good wine, connectivity and modern infrastructure. I run a functioning business, which means I need a certain level of amenities. I’ll get in the mud and muck with the best of them when I’m on a week-long trek into the jungle with pack mules and machete-wielding guides, but when it comes to the business of travel blogging…it’s a business. That means being professional about it, not just winging it on a whim and a prayer with your backpack and your camera and a head full of fanciful tales of world adventure.
What’s your typical day look like?
I easily put in 80 hours a week with Marginal Boundaries. And it’s a non-stop roller-coaster blast. But was it easy getting to where we are today? Absolutely not. I keep a fairly strict routine: up at 6 a.m. most mornings, and I’m in front of the computer until about 11 a.m. answering emails, drafting and sending out proposals, blogging, producing new content, editing videos, sorting through photos, doing the morning social media routine, working out, having breakfast and coffee. Then it’s out the door for photo shoots, film work, interviews and street-pounding/tours/exploration. Cristina and I are usually out and about from around 10 or 11 in the morning until around 4 or 5 as a general rule on excursion days. Once we are back in the house, I do some more social media work and then spend the evening hours uploading photos and YouTube videos. I do most of my research and reading at night while things are uploading, so from around 4 or 5 until around 8 is when I’m going through other blogs, reading books, watching YouTube videos, as well as gathering emails and contact information for proposals. Consultations, Skype calls, interviews and the like are scheduled on an as-needed basis and are slotted in accordingly.
It’s not the same every day, but that’s the general schedule. I also have an assistant who handles part of my social media load as well as general website development and updates plus graphic design for our press kits and the like, plus he handles infographics and general research for me, as well as little things that I might be too busy to handle with the work load.
If we have time in the evenings we’ll go out and walk or explore, but most nights we settle in to watch shows. We follow a lot of series and watch them in the evening hours after “work” is done, and usually are in bed by 11 or midnight. As a general rule, every day is a 12 to 15 hour day, 365 days a year.
What tips do you have for new bloggers or freelancers who are trying to make a decent living in the travel industry?
Passive income is a myth. At least in your first couple years getting going. Think of it like an actor getting ready for a moving role: they’ll spend four to six hours a day, seven days a week, for six to eight months, getting in shape at the gym, taking fencing classes, learning how to ride a horse, dieting and the like.
Then, when it’s time to shoot, they go into maintenance mode; an hour a day of exercise and then the shoot itself. For bloggers, that’s the “passive income” that they all fantasize about. And while passive income is a reality, it’s not as easy as the sham of working a mere four hours per week while sipping mojitos on the beach. You will spend the vast majority of your time actively working. Writing blog posts. Film shoots. Interviews. Hiking trips. Trekking. Chicken busses through the jungle. Editing blog posts, photos, videos, uploading, doing your social media, writing the next eBook, working on a contract for a client. And, most importantly, proposals, proposals, proposals and more proposals.
Sponsored travel? Largely a myth until you’ve spent a couple of years building up your traffic and your following until you have enough to generate interest from companies. It’s like any other business: it takes time to build up. And while you can earn free trips, free food, free tours and the like…once again, it’s a full-time job lining up those sponsors and sending out the proposals and the press kits to earn the attention of the companies you are trying to woo. Until you’ve been in the game for a few years putting in your time and learning the ropes, you aren’t going to have clients and sponsors knocking on your door begging to work with you. Why would they? You are just another in a long line of travel bloggers who are all doing the same thing: writing about destinations and shooting them on film and camera. What sets you apart?
Which is where a niche comes in handy. It’s not necessary, but it can help you stand apart from the rest of the competition. Because we are all of us competing. Competing for traffic, for book sales, for sponsorships and compensation. And while I fully believe in coworking and mutually beneficial working relationships, it still comes down to you or me when I’m looking for a sponsorship…and you can bet your boots I’m looking to earn it for me, not for you, at the end of the day.
That being said, I’m a huge believer in coworking and networking, not capitalism (i.e. everyone else is my competition, stab anyone in the back to get a gig, screw working with others, climb over the corpses to reach the top, that type of attitude). Affiliations, working together with your so-called competition for book sales, speaking engagements, and the like…a cord is strongest when it is made up of many strands. And 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing, so always look for opportunities to work together with your fellow bloggers and writers on projects as opposed to thinking of them purely as competition.
Except when it comes to sponsorships: wink, wink.
Also, understand that professional blogging – that is, blogging for a living, for profit – is not a part-time job or something you can do in your spare time. It is a full-time job. If you want to run a part-time hobby blog where you post about your travels while you earn income from freelancing, that’s fine…but understand there is a huge difference between hobby bloggers and professional bloggers. One is making a living with their blog, and the other isn’t.
It takes at least a year – if not two or three – of full-time, ball-busting hours to get a blog to the point where it is generating a livable income. Unless you have money at your disposal and can pay for a publicity campaign with a high-end organization and buy your way in. Which is totally possible and absolutely viable. But if you are bootstrapping it on your own…be prepared to spend at least two years working your way up before you see an ROI.
And finally, understand that content marketing and advertising are part of building a business and a profitable blog. Just as much as a restaurant owner should be prepared to put 25-30k on the line to build a 100k a year business, you need to be ready and willing to put an appropriate amount of money into investing in your business to build it into reality.
Everything you do in that first year or three will be coming out of your pocket. Plane tickets, accommodations out of your own pocket, food costs, adventure tour costs, camera gear, website hosting, graphic design, content creation and, most important of all, content marketing and advertising costs.
You’re currently producing the Life on the Road – The Business of Travel Blogging series for International Travel Writers. What’s that process been like for you? How else do you diversity your time and talents?
Honestly, it’s been a blast. I was already producing content at my own blog on the business side of blogging, so when the opportunity came along I said sure. Plus I’ve known Carolynne for a while and was already blogging for her throughout 2013 with cultural immersion pieces for Sofia, Bulgaria and Cancun, Mexico, so it was just a natural progression of our working relationship.
The process started off as a 12-part series, but then evolved from my own end into the next book we are producing through Marginal Boundaries. It’s coming out in March of 2014. The 12 episodes and articles are the foundation layer, but the book itself has expanded content plus YouTube episodes and additional chapters that are unique to the book itself. I’m having fun doing it because I’m shooting most of the episodes on location while we are out and about producing Viajes Con Cristina episodes here in the Riviera Maya, which is a Spanish-language YouTube series we have featuring my wife and partner, Cristina Barrios.
We just shot an accommodation-hunting episode yesterday, actually, while on location in Playa del Carmen, covering the behind-the-scenes aspects of living a life on the road; that’s a chapter which isn’t being produced for International Travel Writers, but will be included in the book version.
It’s also being translated into Spanish for the Latin market as well, and it’s tied into our Innovator program, which is a private, subscription-based newsletter for our premium content where we produce twice-weekly newsletters, a once-a-week YouTube video, and a once-a-month webinar where we have other bloggers and professionals come in and guest speak with our subscribers. There’s also a Kickstarter campaign coming out later in 2014 related to the Innovator and Life on the Road projects, but that’s under wraps for now J
Above and beyond that, I’ve been presenting on social media and blogging throughout the Riviera Maya throughout 2013, in Spanish and in English. We had half a dozen presentations in October. I taught a content marketing and blogging course in Playa del Carmen in November and December of 2013 as well, and then on January 28th I’m the keynote speaker for the Last Tuesday event here in Playa del Carmen talking about the myths and facts of social media for businesses. I also manage social media campaigns for clients around the world, consult with a number of other brands and help them build their businesses up, work with clients to advertise their travel-related services and products through the Marginal Boundaries brand and social media channels, and I’m really keen on stepping up my game as far as YouTube content goes. I’m still fairly amateur in that department even though we shoot a lot, and I’m looking to increase production throughout 2014.
At the end of the day, I consider myself blessed to be able to pursue my passions in life: travel and writing. It’s all about creating your own destiny rather than be a slave to a corporation or The Matrix or society or “The System”, whatever you want to call a life living within someone else’s version of reality. I feel complete and I’m the one in the driver’s seat. For me, that’s all that really matters.
T.W. Anderson is the editor-in-chief and founder of Marginal Boundaries, a travel and lifestyle brand. He is the author of Beyond Borders – The Social Revolution, The Expat Guidebook, and Life on the Road – The Business of Travel Blogging. He is a full-time traveler who has been on the road since January of 2008.
Interview conducted in January, 2014 by Kristin Mock.