If you work online or would like to, and you haven’t subscribed to the Tropical MBA podcast yet, you’re missing out.
It’s one of the very few podcasts I listen to as soon as it comes out each Thursday, full of practical, actionable online business advice from Dan, Ian, and a range of smart and interesting guests. These guys genuinely know their stuff.
I pulled Dan away from a sidewalk somewhere in Saigon to ask him all about high-end cat furniture (no, really), maintaining enthusiasm over the long term, and how you can take your own business to the next level.
First off, a bit of background: who are you, what’s your story, and how did you come to be rocking a multi-million dollar business while eating soup on the street in Saigon?
I was somebody who was just waiting to hear the entrepreneurial message. Having always needed to work for a living, so when I finally (way too late!) heard the message of entrepreneurship, in particular the idea of “lifestyle design” as put forward in The 4 Hour Work Week, I was immediately receptive.
I felt an epiphany, like “this is how I can travel and get more time to do projects I really enjoy.” So I basically started a few businesses the next day, with a big help from my wonderful business partner Ian (@AnythingIan).
We thought the benefits of having a successful business — the freedom, the travel, the options — were so compelling that we were willing to work very hard and very long to build one. Basically, that’s what I’ve been spending my time doing since late 2007: growing businesses.
Although you have a big online presence, you’re different to most digital nomads in that your business makes and sells physical products. High-end cat furniture FTW! What are the biggest benefits — and biggest challenges — of running such a business from anywhere?
It’s certainly a challenge to get a physical infrastructure up and running — we have an office and a warehouse — but the biggest challenge with business is always mindset. Most business owners who have warehouses can travel most of the year, but it’s mindset, or an issue of priorities, that keeps them in one place.
Since day one, we always wanted to be able to be located anywhere in the world, so we weren’t going to let inventory get in our way. Our biggest challenges are the same that any business owner faces: creating compelling and profitable products, building effective processes, and managing our staff.
Your site and podcasts give the impression that you’re a very organised, process-driven guy. How true is that, and how do you use technology to streamline your business?
It’s certainly true for the business. We’ve taken the lessons that we’ve learned from books like Work the System very seriously. Perhaps part of the reason I’m so attracted to processes for my business is that they allow me to live a life where I can be a bit lazier, or at least focus on big issues rather than getting caught up in the day to day operations.
My personal life isn’t as mechanical as my business. I like to do a lot of random travel to visit friends, and take a lot of time off to read books, play sports, or attend interesting events.
Regarding technology, the biggest tool we use is Google Docs — it does it all! All of our processes are synced, so the whole team can view them and collaborate on improving them. It’s so simple that it keeps compliance with the staff high, which is generally the biggest problem when implementing any process in a business.
You move around all the time, from country to country and place to place. What tech gear do you take with you to keep the business running?
Nowadays things seem to be getting simpler — what can’t you do with an iPhone and a Macbook? For the past three or four years I’ve basically kept myself into the newest Apple gear. I’m always looking to simplify my kit and work with less.
As well as physical gear, I imagine you’ve got a range of apps and systems that you use to manage your business. Which of these are most important, and how do you use them?
I’m always looking for things to delete: less apps, less equipment, less repetitive tasks. Regarding the business, Google Apps is good enough for the day-to-day. Simplicity is something we always talk about whenever making a software choice, as our highest costs are our personnel.
Anything that makes it complex for them to focus on higher-order tasks is something we’ll attempt to delete or automate.
You’ve been doing this digital nomad thing for several years now. What has changed from a tech perspective during this time?
A ton! When I first hit the road, not that long ago in 2008, I carried a point and shoot, a video camera, books (imagine that!), an iPod, a local phone, etc etc etc. I practically had to have a whole separate backpack just for my tech! Nowadays it’s all replaced with an iPhone and a Kindle, so that’s tremendously convenient.
Smartphones and local cellular data services almost everywhere have changed the way I travel tremendously. There’s less advance planning, and the ability to change plans or research destinations on the go — plus being able to work quite literally everywhere there’s cell service — is really making the lifestyle more accessible to people.
One of the challenges that many digital nomads face is maintaining a balance between work and play. Lifestyle businesses aren’t much use without the lifestyle, right? How do you structure your days and weeks so that you are able to shut down the laptop and enjoy the fruits of your labour?
The best strategy for me is to focus your business on things you enjoy doing. If you can automate yourself out of the business units that you enjoy less, and spend your days building out new projects that inspire you, you’ll have a lot more ambition, fun, and excitement.
I always try to make projects or events out of the things I enjoy, like meeting entrepreneurs or playing basketball. Why not throw a mastermind or a basketball tournament?
I like pushing my interests to their ends and doubling down, rather than the more Four Hour Work Week style strategy of cleverly building a business to get out of it and then do random other things. In general we are seeking more alignment than that: we aspire to build businesses that do the types of things we’d like to see more of in the world.
In other words, for me, building a great business is a way more thrilling adventure than jumping out of airplanes or scaling mountains. To each their own! 🙂
There are a lot of digital nomad-types out there who, while they’re making enough money to survive, don’t know how to take things to the next level. What advice would you give them to help them build a true lifestyle business that they can run from the road?
The biggest thing seems to be fear of building processes and teams. Perhaps that reminds of too much of our time when we had “real” jobs, but it’s those things that will truly set you free in your business.
I’ve not met a single entrepreneur with a significant business that they can walk away from for several months, who hasn’t invested heavily in growing a team.
From an amateur’s perspective, things like management, process, team and all that can seem like a burden, but if your business is to have any type of scale, it’s the opposite.
Finally, for those looking to hear more of your story and sage advice: where are the best places for people to find you online?
We’ve finally consolidated everything down to one place to make it simple (something that I recommend but was really difficult for us to do!), so you can find us at TropicalMBA.com, or follow me on my favorite social network, Twitter: @TropicalMBA.
This post is part of Digital Nomad Month on Too Many Adapters.