What do you want to do after you retire? Or, what would you do if you won the lottery next week?
If you’re like most people, at least part of the answer would be “travel”. You’d see more of the world. Experience different cultures. Have fantastic experiences in beautiful places.
What if you didn’t have to wait until you’ve put in 30+ years of hard work, or hope for the millions-to-one shot of your numbers coming up?
That’s the promise of the “location independent” movement: a group of people who don’t necessarily travel non-stop, but could if they wanted to.
They might have a home base, but live abroad for the winter. They might drive around Europe in a van, stopping wherever they want for as long as they want. They might slowly criss-cross the globe, with their itinerary driven by participating in a particular hobby – or just by the weather.
These people mostly aren’t retired or independently wealthy: they continue to earn money, either as a freelance contractor, a business owner, or occasionally even an employee.
It’s a movement I accidentally joined. And now, eight years later, I’m so deep into it that the idea of having a permanent home in the same place for years on end seems utterly bonkers.
The whole idea of “location independence” might sound unrealistic – a fantasy invented by someone who wants to sell you something (I don’t). You might be able to think of a hundred reasons why this would never be possible for someone in your particular situation. You might even be right.
But if the idea of having the ultimate freedom in your life is appealing enough that you’re willing to suspend disbelief, you might find it useful to hear the real story of how someone achieved it.
So, pack your bags (carry-on only, please) and join me as I take you month by month, city by city, through the life-changing journey I’ve been on for the last eight years…
How it all began
It was 2011, and my wife Mish and I were having an early mid-life crisis.
Mish had a decent job at a digital agency. Decent, except that she resented being “managed”, and hated having her ideas ignored even though she was convinced she knew better than her bosses. As she’s going to be editing this for me, let the record state that she definitely did know better.
I was running a music PR company with a partner. In my early twenties, this was the greatest job in the world – but by the time I was closer to 30, the appeal of being out at gigs every night was fading in a big way. Most importantly, even though I was “in charge”, I wasn’t really: I was subject to the whims of our clients (if I wanted to keep getting paid), and I hated it.
So we decided to make a change: we knew our daily lives weren’t working for us anymore, but we needed some breathing space to work out what to replace it with.
Mish has always been obsessed with New York City. Over the years, she’d done a six-month-internship out there, a two-month waitressing stint, a summer studying at NYU, and about three hundred thousand short trips with me. Unlike most people who come back saying, “Great for a week, but never to live,” she wanted to live there again. Thankfully for her, I was up for it too – mainly because Five Guys hadn’t come to the UK yet and I really wanted to try their burgers.
For a few years leading up to our early mid-life crisis, we’d occasionally looked into the possibility of going to NYC for an extended stay. Whenever we researched it, though, we’d always come up against fairly significant hitches – like not being able to get jobs there legally, and not being able to rent an apartment without any credit history.
Luckily, by the time 2011 rolled around, Airbnb existed. Although virtually unknown in the UK, it had just booked its millionth night and was starting to gain critical mass.
Preparing to leave
A plan started to form. We decided we’d move to NYC for six months – which was the maximum amount of time we could get a visa for, and also about as long as our savings would comfortably last us.
What about our careers? What would we do while we were out there? What would we do when we got back? These details fell outside the scope of the plan: we just wanted to shake things up, and assumed we’d figure the rest out later.
We committed to the plan in July 2011 and set ourselves a leaving date of March 2012.
In August 2011, we rented out the flat we owned in London and moved into a tiny rented studio apartment a couple of miles away. The idea was that it would make the transition easier because we wouldn’t have to worry about finding tenants and chucking out the majority of our stuff right at the last minute.
During our six months in that studio flat, we slept on an airbed that was permanently springing leaks – so we usually woke up on the floor. We also had two robberies, two ceiling leaks (thanks to the forgetful bath-lover in the flat above us) and a disgusting sewage “issue” that still makes me retch when I think about it. Weirdly, I look back on it fondly.
Jobs-wise, Mish handed in her notice and I handed over my half of the company to my business partner. We had no Plan B, and nothing to come back to – but we preferred it that way. This wasn’t meant to be an extended holiday or delayed gap year: this was our opportunity to leave one life, and come back to a new one.
So off we went.
New York City: March 2012 to September 2012
In case I didn’t make it clear enough before, my wife loves New York. She loves it to the extent that she’ll not only cry if we watch a movie that’s set there, but cry if it’s mentioned in a movie. She loves every borough, every neighbourhood, and every street. So when we were deciding where in New York we’d live, she agonised over it. Eventually, though, she came up with the perfect solution: we’d live everywhere.
For six months we trundled our two enormous suitcases and (for some reason) a microwave between nine different Airbnb apartments across the city, averaging a move every three weeks. We lived in a mouse-infested apartment on the Upper East Side, a bunker beneath a beauty parlour in Astoria (Queens), and a beautiful brand new high-rise block in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) – among others
It was amazing.
We had no commitments, and could have easily spent six months in tourist mode enjoying ourselves. Luckily for Project Figuring Out Our Lives, neither of us are slackers by nature. We attended every free event going, took classes at NYU, and even hosted our own Meetup group for freelancers every week in a cafe.
We also earned some money.
Our first $5
Before we left, I’d discovered a site called Fiverr.com where you could offer to do pretty much any task for a fixed fee of $5. I often wrote press releases for my day job, so I put up a listing offering to write a press release about anything at all for $5 – just to see what happened
The orders came in. So in the mornings before work, I’d find myself writing about children’s party planning in Australia, dehumidification solutions in Canada, carpet cleaning in Ohio, and the role of states’ rights and federalism in the United States of America.
Now I come to think about it, that last one was probably some kid’s homework. But hey: $5 is $5 – actually $4, after the platform took its cut.
I was earning an hourly rate that’d make a Bangladeshi schoolchild raise her eyebrows, but it didn’t matter: I’d proved to myself that I could make an offer online, and people I’d never met would give me money.
Of all the mindset shifts I’ve made over the last eight years, that one is still the most important.
Once we’d settled in NYC, we both picked this up again on a platform called Elance (since renamed Upwork) – which had better-quality clients and more work opportunities compared to Fiverr. We ghost-wrote, edited and proofread books, covering subjects as diverse as speed reading, binaural beats, and how to look 20 years younger. The pay was still bad, but it was better – and with every positive review we received, our confidence built that bit more.
At some point we thought, hey: if we’re writing books for other people, what’s to stop us writing them for ourselves?
By this point, Kindle books were reasonably well established as “a thing”. We’d also learnt about CreateSpace (now called KDP): an Amazon-owned company that would print and dispatch paperback books one by one as they were ordered, so you could sell physical books without having to think about storage or fulfilment.
Given that we had nothing but time (and a microwave) on our hands, we gave it a go. The London 2012 Olympics were soon to start, so we jumped on the increased interest in the topic by writing a book of “amazing” Olympic facts (which we found by quickly Googling them).
We literally wrote it in an afternoon. I designed the front cover in Photoshop (which I can’t use), with images I nicked off the internet (which you shouldn’t do). It looked, and read, about as bad as you’d expect given what I just told you.
And. It. Sold.
Was JK Rowling watching us zoom past her in the charts and furiously calling her publisher to find out what was going on? Were we bumping into Stephen King at book signings? No. But for a few months we made at least some money every day, and it could have gone on longer if we’d had the foresight not to write the most time-sensitive book since “The Millennium Bug: Your essential preparation guide”.
This was our second mental breakthrough: not only could we get paid for doing jobs for people we didn’t know and had never met, but we could also earn passive income by continuing to get paid every day for work we’d done in the past.
Somewhat ridiculously, by the end of our six-month “break”, we’d written and published four books. A couple of them were even quite good.
So as we were coming towards the end of our stay, we’d earned a bit of money, met a lot of people, and been to lots of events. We’d also eaten many bagels, discovered I have a serious phobia of rodents, and totally failed to learn that sort of wolf-whistle thing that New Yorkers do to hail a cab.
We’d had an unforgettable experience, and all the preparation had been totally worth it – but what on earth were we going to do next?
London (and Paris for a bit): September 2012 to December 2012
We were back, and living in an Airbnb apartment in Hammersmith. We continued to rent out the London flat we owned because we weren’t going to be sticking around for long.
While we were in NYC, we’d discovered blogs and podcasts by people who worked from their laptops while travelling the world. They were known as “digital nomads”, which sounded every bit as wanky back then as it does today.
(My favourite was the Lifestyle Business Podcast, now known as the Tropical MBA podcast, which I’ve been lucky enough to appear on a couple of times since.)
Weirdly, neither of us is really that into travel, even now. Yes, we enjoy shaking up our routine regularly and sampling different ways of life in various cities. But working in the morning and exploring temples in the afternoon? Taking a bus trip to some amazing secret beach? Meh.
Although we knew we wanted to shake things up, we’d always assumed it would involve going back to London and picking up some kind of “normal life” – even if it looked different from before. But the concept of digital nomadism really appealed to us – not in a “Yes! We can finally realise our globetrotting dreams!” way, but because of the freedom that being a digital nomad entailed.
Being able to turn up and live anywhere, whenever we wanted, while making a living that didn’t rely on anyone giving their permission? Yes please! We got so excited we even started our own blog charting our first steps as wannabe digital nomads.
But when you can go anywhere, where do you go? Well, the spiritual home of these digital nomads seemed to be Chiang Mai in Thailand. We had no previous desire to go there, no idea how to pronounce it, and couldn’t tell Thailand from Japan on a map… but potential kindred spirits were waiting for us there, and you could get a full restaurant meal for under £3. That was good enough for us.
First, though, we popped back to London (hence the Airbnb in Hammersmith) to see friends and family while we applied for visas and prepared for the unexpected second leg of our adventure.
Something I neglected to mention in the “New York City” section above is that while we were in the Big Apple, I’d started a blog called Property Geek. I wrote most of the first articles in cafes while waiting for my laundry to be ready, and it was simply meant to be a way of helping me develop my thoughts (because I think more clearly when I’m forced to write things out). We’d dabbled in property investment in London and I’d found the whole research process fascinating – so it was an option I was considering as part of Project Figuring Out Our Lives.
Back in London, I decided I wanted to create a Property Geek podcast in addition to the blog – and it seemed like a brilliant excuse to tap into the knowledge of property experts under the guise of helping them promote themselves. Thankfully, nobody I contacted bothered to ask me for my download numbers (zero), so I drove to Watford to record my first episode and Wolverhampton for my second.
My third unsuspecting victim who’d failed to ask the correct “filtering” questions was a certain Robert Bence from a company called Rescue My Pension. Of whom – foreshadowing alert! – a lot more later.
Thailand: January 2013 to March 2013
We arrived in Bangkok with our two massive suitcases (we’d ditched the microwave) and no idea what we were letting ourselves in for.
Bangkok is, as I’m sure you’ll agree if you’ve ever been there, insane. And we loved it instantly.
After racking up a lifetime’s worth of sunburn in the space of a few days, we caught a quick Air Asia flight up to Chiang Mai and checked into the 30sq m, £200-a-month hotel room that would be our home for the next couple of months.
We sampled a lot of 50p smoothies and treated ourselves to a couple of £4 massages, and then we got down to… hang on, how were we meant to be earning a living again?
By now we had very limited money coming in from our odd collection of Amazon books, and a bit of regular writing work from a couple of clients who’d bizarrely found us through our blogs.
Thankfully, we also had income from our (very small) property portfolio, and Thailand was so cheap we could have lived a pleasant single-room existence there for decades to come without much stress. In fact, we met countless people who were doing just that: guys in their 20s told us about their online businesses that allowed them to live it up by Thai standards but wouldn’t be enough to support them in the West, and retirees spoke about how their pension stretched a lot further there.
I can see why the easy life is tempting, but it’s not in our nature – so we pushed hard to expand our writing business (which by now we’d moved off Elance in search of higher paying jobs), and landed clients including a raw food chef and a wedding ring company. Because writing for websites overlaps so much with online marketing and web design, we ended up getting pulled into that world too – learning what we needed to know by furiously Googling as we went along.
We also bought another property during this time, using the savings we hadn’t yet burned through. I’d done some viewings while we were in the UK, and had lined up a letting agent to manage the refurbishment and rent it out in our absence. Because the money we were earning from our bits of work was so shaky and unpredictable, having the extra income from a new property was a big help.
I’d set up one other thing before we left the UK. A couple of days before flying out, I’d met up again with the third interviewee from my Property Geek Podcast – Rob Bence – in a cafe at St Pancras station. He excitedly told me about an idea he had for a new podcast, which sounded great and all… but I was confused about why he was going into so much detail with me – and why he needed to meet me in person to tell me about it. Eventually, he remembered to mention an important detail: he wanted me to co-present it with him.
We recorded Episode 1 of The Property Podcast while living three- and- a- half- thousand miles apart: me in Krabi, southern Thailand, and Rob B in Potters Bar, England. I loved collaborating on a podcast from the very first episode, but neither of us had a clue if anyone would actually enjoy listening to us…
London, Berlin, Sofia, Madrid, Budapest and Berlin again: April 2013 to October 2013
Re-adjusting after our time in Thailand wasn’t easy. We missed the food for a start, and spent a long time trying to recreate papaya salad with carrot and soy sauce (and no papaya). There was also the small issue of prices being about ten times higher, and the temperature having dropped by about 25 degrees.
We were living in an Airbnb near Mile End, but only stuck around for about a month before flying to Berlin to attend a conference for an online community of digital nomads we’d joined.
In London we were writing a website for a yoga instructor, then in Berlin we picked up another writing client through my Property Geek blog: an estate agent who Mish still does some work for to this day.
It was also in Berlin that I published my first book about property: Property Investment For Beginners. I’d already written the bulk of it by accident as a series of blog posts, and in Berlin I edited them together into book form and added some new sections.
Before putting it up for sale on Amazon, I did a lot of online research about how to launch a book – and in doing so I learnt how a “proper launch” requires having a big audience in place who can be informed about the book in advance and encouraged to buy it. I only had a small Property Podcast audience and an even smaller Property Geek email list to work with, but I still followed the process and told them all about it in the run-up to publication. It worked: the book actually did far better than I expected. It wasn’t much – for the first six months it averaged 65 sales per month – but that was still about £250 per month in royalties. Compared to putting down tens of thousands of pounds as a deposit on a property to generate that kind of monthly “passive income”, it wasn’t bad.
From Berlin we went to Sofia in Bulgaria. All I can say about Sofia is: I’m sure it’s different if it’s where you’re from and you speak the language, but I had no idea two weeks could feel like such a long time. Great sausages, though.
After that, for some reason we thought it would be a good idea to flit between a few different cities for two weeks at a time each, before we completed the loop and landed back in Berlin for two months.
This second stint in Berlin was still one of the hardest times we’ve had in all the years we’ve been doing this.
It didn’t help that the Berlin summer is about a billion degrees with no air conditioning, but the main problem was that I felt torn in two different directions – neither of which felt great.
Direction 1: our writing work. I’d never liked working for clients: the search, the proposal-writing, their sudden whims and changes of mind, then the hassle of trying to get paid. By this point we’d become much better at managing the whole process and acting in a way that tended to get us treated better, but I was still far from loving it. Our big job while in Berlin was writing and building a website for an Australian currency trading platform, which was extremely stressful and hardly a product I believed in.
Direction 2: Property Geek, my book, and The Property Podcast. I loved doing these, but were they just a hobby or could they ever be enough to make a living from? I also had a healthy dose of imposter syndrome: although I went out of my way to say I didn’t know it all and was just sharing what I learnt, I was very aware that I didn’t have a massive portfolio or decades of experience.
At no point did I regret starting this whole adventure, and at no point did I wish we could just go back to our old lives. But I was feeling totally adrift: I’d lost touch with all typical benchmarks of success, didn’t really know what my identity was anymore, and had absolutely no idea whether anything we were doing would work in the long term or if we’d have to start all over again with something new.
Still: daily sobbing fits and imposter syndrome or not, The Property Podcast was gaining real momentum – and we were about to kick it up another few gears…
London, Madrid and Barcelona: October 2013 to December 2013
After our long and difficult Berlin summer, we came back to the suburbs of London and lived in Mish’s parents’ house for a few weeks while they were on holiday. As coincidence would have it, Mish’s parents live down the road from where I grew up (and where my parents still live). There’s nothing quite like going back to your home town to mess with your mind while you’re struggling mentally anyway, but luckily we had some exciting projects to distract us.
(Funnily enough, this was also when I got to actually hold a physical copy of my book – which had sold hundreds of copies by this point. We hadn’t had access to a postal address for the previous few months, so I was one of the last people to see it.)
As was now becoming a habit, I took advantage of our time in the UK to view some properties and interview some investors. I’d had plans for a book made up of interviews with successful investors for a long time, and on previous trips I’d spent time with some of them to capture their stories. On this trip I put myself under pressure to do the final few, because I wanted to write it up while we were next away.
Rob B and I were also gearing up for the launch of an online community we’d decided to call The Property Hub. By now we’d had so many emails from podcast listeners asking for advice, we knew it’d be far more useful if they were in touch with each other directly.
The name and general layout of the site were decided while we were in London, then I worked with freelancers to get it built while we were in Madrid and Barcelona. This was our second trip of the year to Madrid: we’d loved it so much the first time that we wanted to go straight back. Why the infatuation with Madrid? It’s partly to do with an awesome cat we befriended in a sherry bar there, but that’s a story for another day.
One of the most common questions I get asked about our lifestyle is “How do you decide where to go next?” These days we move more slowly so give it more thought, but back then the answer was basically “On a whim.” We initially picked Madrid for the ridiculous reason that we’d started thinking about a trip to Milan, but the airport was miles from the city and we couldn’t be bothered to deal with that slight inconvenience. So we gave up on Milan, and Madrid was next to it on Skyscanner’s list of places we could fly to. That on-a-whim visit started an obsession with Spain that’s seen us visit just about every major Spanish city.
Our lack of planning didn’t always work out so well. We ended up in Sofia (AKA “longest two weeks of my life”) for the same reason we ended up in Madrid: Skyscanner gives you the option to put your destination as “Everywhere”, and then it shows you all the different cities in price order. Sofia was the cheapest destination from Berlin that we hadn’t been to before, so that’s where we went. Since that experience we’ve given things a bit more thought.
Anyway. We got the first version of The Property Hub built while we were in Madrid and Barcelona, then came back to London for Christmas ready to launch. We held a launch party in King’s Cross in early January, and couldn’t believe it when 170 people turned up.
It was the first time we’d met listeners of the podcast in person, and it was… weird. Not because they were weird (although they did turn up to meet two random blokes from a nerdy investment podcast…), but because that’s when it sank in that every download number represented an actual person listening to what we had to say.
With that and thousands of people registering for The Property Hub online community as soon as it launched, we started to realise that we were onto something. And with that weirdness fresh in our minds, we were off again.
Thailand: January 2014 to April 2014
We started 2014 in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a year after our last visit. This time we went crazy and booked a two-bedroom suite (costing a whole £400 per month) rather than live in a single room. We’d also radically cut down our luggage: we were finally travelling with carry-on only. By now it had clicked that we didn’t use three-quarters of the things we lugged with us “just in case”, and being able to carry all our possessions on our backs felt plenty freeing and convenient enough to make up for occasionally having to buy something we hadn’t packed.
So… we’d become more competent at travel and moderately less stingy, but had we made any other progress since we started out on this whole adventure?
It was hard to say. We’d had projects that worked, like my property book. We’d had other projects that hadn’t worked, like a book showing tips for how to best use Airbnb. And the writing and design work for clients that brought in the majority of our non-investment income seemed to be thriving one month and dead the next.
Since talking to lots of other people who’ve quit to do their own thing, I’ve learnt that this feeling of “Am I actually getting anywhere?” isn’t abnormal: it’s a defining feature of the experience. Nobody starts their own business, steadily increases their sales every month, and gradually feels like they’re growing in their ability to manage things. There are always setbacks, slumps, plateaus and crises where you wonder what the hell you’ve done and whether you’re in over your head.
Still, if you’re going to have an existential crisis, Thailand is a pretty great place to do it – and we also fitted in trips to Hong Kong and Macau while we were there.
Two things that were going particularly well were The Property Hub and The Property Podcast, both of which were growing fast. My feeling of being torn between two paths was only getting stronger: was I a copywriter with a fun property thing on the side? Or, given that I enjoyed it more, should I be spending more time on the property side even though it wasn’t producing any income yet – and might never?
Another achievement from this trip was writing and publishing my second book, Beyond The Bricks – a series of long-form interviews with property investors who I’d interviewed during trips back to the UK. Every morning, I’d go up to the rooftop pool and write for an hour – and by giving it that consistent, uninterrupted time every day, it was finished in no time.
Everyone seems to think that writing a book is difficult. If you’re writing a dense biography or interviewing hundreds of people to build a picture of a historical event, then the research part certainly is. But when it comes to the writing, you never sit down to “write a book”: you just string together lots of small writing sessions, and a book is the result. The problem is that writers spend an enormous amount of time and energy finding excuses not to write, but when you just aim for a small amount every day and do it without fail, it really doesn’t take long.
Thanks to our growing Property Hub audience and my developing knowledge of how to build excitement about a book’s release, Beyond The Bricks sold dramatically more than my first book in its earliest weeks. More importantly, it was the first book I was completely proud of and wanted as many people as possible to read. We’d come a long way since our book of “amazing” (hurriedly Googled) Olympic facts.
Valencia: June 2014
The scales of “Am I a writer or the owner of a property business?” were given a big nudge towards the latter in mid-2014, as we geared up to start a letting agency off the back of The Property Hub.
Brief backstory: Rob B had been selling properties to investors for a few years, and his business (RMP Property) had been given a boost by the success of the podcast. Towards the end of 2013 he’d pitched me on the idea of starting a letting agency together as the next logical step: rather than have his investors take the properties they’d bought to another agent (who’d probably do a poor job), why not create a win for everyone by looking after them better ourselves and getting paid for it?
We’d decided early on that this would be a remote business, rather than based in an office. We didn’t know any other agencies that operated like this, but we were familiar with tech companies like Buffer and Automattic (makers of WordPress) who operated with hundreds of employees and no HQ.
So while I was in Valencia, our first member of staff had her first day of work – at home in Chester (northwest England). She brought years of letting agency experience with her, while I had none – so her “training” simply involved a Skype call where I took her through the systems and procedures I’d set up to make everything work digitally.
Prague: July 2014
Our time in Prague was brief, but memorable: perhaps because memory is strongly associated with our sense of smell, and wow does Prague have some unique odours to remember it by.
It was also notable for the fact that I could barely breathe for an entire month (lots of pollen as well as smells), and we were staying in an apartment with the most iffy wifi we’d suffered in all our travel time so far.
The perfect surroundings, then, to go through the stress of launching a new business!
Yellow Lettings’ one employee was up to speed, and it was time to announce its existence to the world. We recorded a podcast with the announcement, which was scheduled to go out on a particular day – so we had no choice but to be ready.
For me, that meant working with our freelance designer to get the website up in time for when the podcast went out. The only place I could reliably get wifi was a small patch of grass just outside the back door of our apartment building, where I could leech it off the cafe downstairs. To make matters weirder, the cafe had a parrot whose cage was often kept on that same patch – so, wheezing and accompanied by lots of squawking, Yellow Lettings went live on the internet. That parrot, I’m sure, will have been entertaining cafe-goers with an impressive repertoire of British profanities ever since.
Would it have been easier to actually have everything ready before we scheduled the announcement? Well, yes, obviously. The “launch before you’re quite ready” approach still makes me uncomfortable now, but that’s kind of the point: you put yourself in a position where you’re forced to get it done, and don’t give yourself the option of faffing about until it’s perfect. If you’re of a particular personality type, it’ll never be “perfect” in your eyes – so you could end up launching weeks or months later (or never), for no good reason.
Budapest: August 2014
To celebrate being able to breathe again, Mish and I had another (smaller) launch when we arrived in Budapest. We were continuing in our tradition of ludicrously time-sensitive books by publishing one called Protect Your Tech, about how to stay safe online and avoid getting hacked. It contained some of our best jokes yet (the metric by which, wrongly, we measure our success) and sold well to readers of our digital nomad blog, but little over a year later we had to pull it off sale because all the tools we’d recommended had changed. You’d have thought this was a lesson we’d have learnt by now, but clearly not.
While in Budapest we spent a lot of time in a bar where wine (or something not entirely unlike wine) cost 20p per glass, and we were ushered upstairs away from the other patrons to drink it. Now I think about it, it must have been a hangout for the Hungarian mafia. But hey, a bargain is a bargain!
Madrid and Barcelona: September 2014 to October 2014
When future historians attempt to identify “the point at which Mish and Rob got lazy about travel planning”, this is the time that they’re likely to converge on.
Yes, we were in Spain again – and in Madrid for the third time. After a “challenging” month in Prague, we just wanted to go somewhere familiar that we knew we loved. The laziness is also correlated with us getting busier with work. As should have come across, we’ve never been slackers – but we were spending a lot of time on projects that went nowhere, as well as on busy-work that made us feel like we were doing something useful but actually generated no results at all. What with the growth of The Property Hub and the birth of Yellow Lettings (while still doing copywriting work to make money), it felt like the stakes were getting higher and we had less mental capacity for establishing ourselves in a new place every few weeks.
In Madrid, we started flipping a property. Not actually in Madrid. In Hull. Which is a long way from Madrid in every possible sense. We’d already bought a property in Hull (possibly two – I can’t remember the chronology) that had been sourced by someone we knew up there, and he called to tell me about a house that had failed to sell at auction. Buyers had been put off because they thought it needed major structural work, but he was convinced it was a minor problem with the drains that could be fixed for much less than people thought.
Although a superficial reading of our story might make it sound like we’re crazy risk-takers who’ll jump headfirst into anything with little consideration for the downside, if anything we’re probably over-aware of potential risks. When it came to quitting our jobs and going to New York, there wasn’t a downside in our eyes: we weren’t happy with where we were, so worst case we’d have an interesting experience then make a change we needed to make anyway. But when it comes to investments, there’s a very obvious financial downside that always makes me nervous about pulling the trigger.
In this case, I did all the research I could – and it all supported what our sourcer had said. Sales in the surrounding streets were happening all the time so there was a clear resale market, and all the prices suggested there was a good profit in it. If – and it was a big if – he was right about the cost of the structural work.
I wouldn’t trust the opinion of a stranger, but everything he’d said about the properties we’d bought in the past had been correct – so we went for it. Time would tell if that would end up being a good idea.
So, that was Madrid. We moved on to Barcelona, where my abiding memory is of recording podcast episodes in the bath – because there was construction work going on outside and the bathroom was the furthest point from it. Like the parrot incident, this isn’t the kind of moment that makes it to entrepreneurs’ Instagram feeds, but everyone I know who runs their own business (especially while travelling) has had plenty of these less-than-glamorous experiences.
Valencia: January 2015
Oh, hi Spain! Yes, we were back in Valencia again – where we discovered that Spanish cities are in total denial about the fact they’re pretty cold for a few months of the year. The apartments are built in a fiendishly clever way that keeps them nice and cool in the heat of the summer, but the downside is that it makes them bloody freezing in winter – and none of them have central heating. Why Spaniards won’t admit to themselves that it’s a bit nippy for a quarter of the year and do something about it I don’t know, but we spent many hours huddled in front of an electric heater while wearing the dressing gowns and multiple pairs of socks that we had to hastily purchase.
Both Yellow Lettings and The Property Hub were growing fast, so we hired three part-time employees across the two businesses during this time: a property manager, a PA for Rob and me, and someone who we ended up giving the title of “special projects”. She wasn’t the strongest candidate to be our PA, but was too good to turn down so we created a position for her. She started part-time on £10 per hour, and a few years later is one of the best-paid and most senior people in our company.
I think this was the first point at which I wasn’t doing any copywriting work for clients at all, instead focusing purely on Property Geek, The Property Hub and Yellow Lettings. Mish and I never actually discussed it, and there was no point at which we agreed that all future client work would be hers: it just gradually moved in that direction over time, until I’d become a full-time property person without really noticing. The tug between the two, and not knowing which was my job and which was a side-project, had bothered me for a long time – and it felt great to have it resolved.
New York: April 2015 to June 2015
We finally got to return to the place where it all started. This time we didn’t feel the need to move every couple of weeks: we spent a month living in an apartment on 14th Street with A LOT OF TRAFFIC NOISE that made podcasting “interesting”, then moved to a fantastic loft apartment in Williamsburg for a second month.
It was great to be back now we were paying our way rather than running down savings, and when we knew that passing through different cities was part of our life now: we weren’t just taking a break or escaping from reality.
We took full advantage of being there and had an incredible time – with the only downside being that on a Monday I had to get up at 2am and stay up all night recording podcasts and having meetings. In the UK it suited me well to batch meetings back-to-back starting from 7am, but it wasn’t fair to ask a whole bunch of people to switch times for a couple of months just because I’d decided I fancied living somewhere different. So, in the city that doesn’t sleep, I didn’t.
During this time we also sold the property that we were flipping. True to his word, our partner had solved the structural issues at the cost he anticipated, and the process of completing the refurb had gone as smoothly as these things ever do. My role was limited to looking at photos, transferring large, regular amounts of money, and really really hoping that this thing sold before my bridging finance needed to be paid back.
We got a sale agreed quickly, but as you won’t be shocked to learn if you’ve ever been involved in a property transaction, getting the sale finalised took forever and was unbelievably stressful. It was slowed down by an unhelpful surveyor’s report with lots of vague but worrying paragraphs that I then needed all kinds of other reports to prove were nonsense, a (genuine) damp problem that needed fixing twice, and an inexperienced buyer who kept popping around and peering through the windows then freaking out when it didn’t look like a show home.
As you’ll also be entirely un-shocked to find out, the estate agent wasn’t enormously proactive during this process. So, as well as my weekly all-nighter, I had to get up at all other kinds of weird times to call and chase things up. Did we make a good profit? Yes. Am I glad we had the experience? Yes. Would I do it again? Hellllll no. Even the most hands-off flip known to man wasn’t hands-off enough for me, and the stress (even though it was all in my head) just wasn’t worth it.
Rotterdam: July 2015
After our New York trip we wanted to base ourselves back in Europe for a more convenient time zone again. I think we got the idea of going to the Netherlands because we’d met a lot of Dutch people on our travels and they were all very funny and polite. Also, the official slogan of the Dutch football team in the World Cup was “Real men wear orange”, which we thought was brilliant.
Perhaps inspired by the spectacular view from our apartment that took in canals, windmills and people bicycling across the flat land (scoring me big points in my Netherlands “I Spy” book), I started work on my next book: The Complete Guide To Property Investment.
I didn’t have the title at this point, but I knew I wanted it to be seriously comprehensive. My biggest struggle was the structure: I knew I’d lose people if I started with chapters full of waffle about goals and strategies, even though that’s what you should think about before anything else. In Rotterdam, I came up with the answer: start with a series of real-life examples that illustrated different strategies that are geared towards achieving different goals, then get on to the step-by-step of how to do it.
Once I had that, it was just a case of bashing through the writing of the whole thing. Like last time, early mornings were my friend: at a rate of a thousand words per hour and at least an hour per day, the first draft was done in little over a month.
Utrecht/Delft: August 2015
One of the many great things about the Netherlands is that it’s very small and very well-connected, so we jumped on a train to Utrecht to spend a couple of weeks there. Our apartment there wasn’t so good (one of our rare Airbnb mis-steps), and would only have scored me points if I’d had an “I Spy” book of spiders and damp smells.
Yellow Lettings was going through a growth spurt, so I was spending a lot of time training up new employees. The person I was doing the most training with lived in Spain. I was in Utrecht, our properties were in the UK, and it didn’t matter at all.
We then spent a couple of weeks in Delft – a beautiful small town between Rotterdam and The Hague that’s about 50% canals, 30% surprisingly good cafes and 20% everything else. We had another two UK-based employees starting (the people “on the ground” who do our viewings and inspections), so I did a lot more Skype-based training.
Work on my book, as a result, came to a standstill. And it stayed there for a while, because things were about to change…
Then, starting in 2016, we spent 16 months in the UK.
London (mainly): January 2016 to December 2016 (with more London to come in 2017)
Had we decided that actually, on reflection, London has the optimal year-round climate? Had we got sick of taking off our belt and shoes, and placing our laptop in the tray? Could we not face learning how to say “What’s the wifi password please?” in yet another language?
No. We’d decided to start IVF so we could have a baby. And while we’ve found ways of accomplishing most things without being there physically, this one was beyond our powers.
We’d known for a long time that it was something we’d need to do and want to do at some point, but it was difficult to make the conscious choice to stop gallivanting around the world, come to a dead stop, and settle in for what we knew would probably be a long and challenging process.
A weird side-effect of staying in one place for so long is that my memories of 2016 are extremely hazy. As I know from my psychology and neuroscience degree, there’s a whole lot of visual, spatial and other information that gets stored along with memories. In other words, every memory has context associated with it. That’s why you can remember where you were when Diana died, or when you heard The Property Podcast for the first time.
So far I’ve pieced most of our story together by going through our Airbnb history: when I see photos of each apartment we stayed in, I’m reminded of the main events that happened while we were there. For our time in London this time around, we finally moved back into the apartment we’d initially rented out when we decided to move to NYC, so it’s mixed up with years of other memories and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what happened.
Coming back to London – and especially the same apartment we’d lived in before it all started – felt like a backwards step. And in a funny way, it didn’t feel like we’d achieved much in all these years except about ten words of lots of different languages and the ability to operate just about any type of washing machine in the world. We’d also gained lots of new friends but lost lots of old ones, so weirdly we felt more isolated in our home city than we did thousands of miles away
We didn’t have a slam-dunk “win” we could point to, and it was still very awkward when anyone asked what we did for a living. “Everything and nothing” felt like the answer. But on reflection, there had been a vast amount of progress: it’d just happened so gradually we barely noticed.
I’d built up expertise and authority in a whole new industry. We’d built entirely new skills in marketing, copywriting, online business, publishing and many others that we didn’t have before we left. We’d built our property portfolio to a point where it could sustain us, even though we’d had to do most of it from a distance. We’d built other passive income streams through assets like books. And most importantly, we’d built the confidence that if it all got taken away, we had the skills to build it back again – without needing to rely on getting anyone else’s permission.
So apart from being temporarily “trapped” in London, in many ways we’d found the freedom we went off searching for in the first place.
One thing I do remember about this time is that in March 2016 I finally published The Complete Guide To Property Investment. It went straight to #1 in the Business section of Amazon and peaked at #7 out of all bloomin’ books – which was surreal, and shows how much the Property Hub audience had grown since my last launch. Since then it’s consistently been at the top of its category and racked up hundreds of reviews, making it my most successful product by a long way.
A bit later in the year, we made the most of a break in our treatment to escape to Granada for a month – chosen, in our typically rigorous style, because we’d been told that the free tapas you get with your drinks are more generous than anywhere else in Spain.
This turned out to be completely true, and we had a wonderful time eating sliced porky things on top of bready things, working from an apartment that had three (three!) bedrooms, and watching children so smartly dressed it was like we’d been transported back to the 18th century. The main thing we learnt is that the Alhambra is apparently a very big deal, and people get surprisingly angry when you admit that you’ve been to Granada and didn’t visit it. After the first few of these encounters, we watched a couple of YouTube videos about the damn place and have been faking it successfully ever since.
Also while in Granada I started a bridging finance company (as one does) with the same partner who we flipped the house in Hull with.
Another of our lessons from the past few years is that lots of the things you try won’t work, and it’s almost impossible to predict in advance which ones will. Rather than trying to guess correctly with focus groups and surveys, the best thing you can do is just launch it quickly and cheaply – and you’ll find out pretty early on whether the idea has any potential or not.
So we got a logo designed for $5, Mish built the website herself using Squarespace, and we were off. This “launch quickly and if it fails oh well” approach shouldn’t really stretch to situations where you’re lending large amounts of other people’s money, so we’d already tested the concept on a couple of loans using purely our own cash. This allowed us to try out the solicitors who would act for us, learn the various steps of the process, and (importantly) make sure we actually got paid back at the end.
While all this was going on, The Property Hub and Yellow Lettings continued to grow fast throughout 2016. Rob and I never formally agreed on roles that would be split between us, so we both spent increasingly more of our weeks in meetings (mostly virtual) with our growing teams. And because we were growing so quickly, we didn’t get around to hiring for boring-but-important back office functions like IT and HR. That meant that it came down to the two of us to tell everyone to switch it off and back on again, and to deal with the surprising number of bonkers personal issues that come up as soon as you start employing a reasonable number of people.
In short, we were busy – and that’s before considering that Rob still had his sourcing business (RMP Property) to run, and I had the bridging finance company. But we were OK with being busy, because by now it really felt like we were building something significant…
London (again), Rotterdam, Utrecht and Palma: January 2017 to December 2017
Another year, another business, another book. Still no baby – but we were confident enough it’d happen in the end that we’d started using BorrowMyDoggie.com (yes, that’s a real website) to get in some practice of keeping another life-form alive. Our previous trial run with chilli plants on the balcony hadn’t filled us with much confidence.
The book this time was How To Be A Landlord, which again was mainly written in the early mornings. It probably took longer than any of my other books because there was so much detail I had to research. I also got help from about 50 other landlords, who contributed their own tips and checked my interpretation of the many different regulations.
It was worth it, though, because when it came out in April 2017 it was my most successful launch yet: on launch day it was the best-selling book on the whole of Amazon, and stayed in the top 100 all week. Suck it, JK.
Rob and I clearly weren’t busy enough (even though we really, really were), because we were also planning the launch of a new business: a tax consultancy and accountancy practice for property investors. There had been some significant tax changes a couple of years previously, and we knew from the Property Hub audience that most accountants had a very poor grasp of the implications. We sought out a partner who already ran a successful practice, and started working with him to hire and train a team of property specialists.
The bridging finance company was growing quickly too. We hadn’t built a team, so I was spending ever more of my time looking over potential deals, putting offers together and fielding phone calls from brokers.
By this point, describing what I did for a living was becoming ever more farcical. I was involved in running a letting agency, a bridging finance company, a tax practice, and a property community. I was an author, a podcaster, a magazine publisher, a property investor and developer, and probably a few other things I’ve forgotten. I actually dreaded people asking me what I did, because it wasn’t just that I didn’t know how to explain it: I actually didn’t know myself.
My days were a non-stop mess of being pulled from one thing to another – and the majority of what I was doing each day were things I wasn’t particularly good at, and didn’t really enjoy. How had I managed to start out trying to be a writer and marketer, get good at those skills to a point where I could use them to grow businesses and publish best-selling books, then end up doing none of those things that had brought about the success in the first place? Why did my carefully constructed life of “freedom” involve doing so many things I didn’t want to be doing?
Despite my whinging, I wouldn’t have done anything differently: there are countless advantages to just saying “yes” to different opportunities, and everything I’ve done has led to something beneficial even if it didn’t work out in itself. The downside is if you just scatter a load of different seeds on the ground, some brilliant things might grow, but they’ll inevitably all grow together into a massive tangle of roots and branches. (Unlike our chilli plants, which were steadfastly refusing to do anything.)
So there’s a time for planting, and a time for taking out a whacking great scythe and attempting to cut back the undergrowth so you can actually navigate your way through it. Going into the second half of 2017, I was feeling seriously overwhelmed – and while I didn’t know what to do about it, I was coming to the realisation that I had to do something.
In happier news, in mid-2017 Mish got pregnant.
Seeing those lines on the test(s) didn’t make us think “Oh wow: we’re bringing a new life into the world!” so much as “Oh wow: we can get out of London again!” That’s not to say we weren’t excited about the prospect of parenthood, but the past 16 months of IVF treatment hadn’t been easy – and we needed to get away properly, like in the old days. So we promptly set off to spend a couple of months in Rotterdam and Utrecht again. Mish claims that the Netherlands is the perfect place to be pregnant: the lifestyle is relaxed, English is widely spoken, and the food is so underwhelming you won’t feel like you’re missing out if you feel too sick to eat anything.
The official start of the nine-month countdown also forced me to stop moping about being overwhelmed and actually do something about it. I could barely cope with my work obligations and a part-time dog, and I’d been reliably informed that a full-time small human would be even more challenging. I’d been given a deadline for sorting my life out, which turned out to be exactly what I needed.
And pregnancy wasn’t the only life-changing event to happen in the second half of 2017…
A business transition
There can’t be many life-changing events that have happened in a conference room in Warrington. Especially ones that involved a lengthy PowerPoint presentation.
In September 2017, Rob and I and a few of our team members met with a branding company at our Warrington office. The mission? To come up with a new name for Rob’s company, RMP Property, which sources properties for investors.
I’m sure I don’t need to explain why we felt the need to change the name. Some of the various mis-hearings of it include “R AND P”, “RPM” and “R&B” – all on webinars while the actual name was displayed on the screen. And Mish and I have had endless confusing conversations where she was convinced I was talking about “our MP”.
But while we were only there to find a new name for RMP, the branding agency had spotted a bigger problem:, it was massively confusing that we had a whole collection of companies with different names and identities that you wouldn’t necessarily know were associated with each other. They reflected the fact that different companies had different ownership splits and had come about at different times in different ways, but none of that was relevant to our potential customers.
The chap leading the discussion clearly had this figured out in about five minutes, but as the smartest consultants do, he artfully led us through a process that made it feel like it was our idea to fix it. And once we’d reached this point, the solution was obvious: because almost everyone initially discovered each company through The Property Hub, everything should be brought together under the Property Hub name.
Once we’d finished patting ourselves on the back for this astonishing insight, it was time to do something about it. Coming up with a new logo and new branding would be easy enough, but if everything were called the same thing it would actually need to be the same thing: it’d be no good for customers if the Sales and Lettings divisions knew nothing about what the other was up to because they were actually separate companies.
So, it was time to undo all the accidents of five years of history and merge all our various property businesses. In doing so, we instantly had the scale to make hires that each individual company hadn’t been big enough for – like HR and IT – and bring in a proper cross-group management structure.
Cue several months of drawing lots of boxes and lines on whiteboards and napkins, trying to come up with the right structure and decide who we needed where. It also gave Rob and me the opportunity to reflect on what our roles should be. We’d both been doing a bit of everything (mostly badly) in parallel, and bringing in a proper structure meant we could take on individual properly defined roles of our own.
So over Christmas in Palma at the end of 2017, I attempted to work out what I wanted that role to be. I’d spent the last couple of years drifting gradually further from what I enjoyed doing, so I took seriously the opportunity to reinvent my role. And when I take something seriously, I write it out at great length. Accordingly, Rob B’s Christmas present was a 4,000-word treatise on my thoughts on life, the universe and everything. I don’t remember him being anything other than nice that year, but Santa must have felt differently.
London, Malaga (twice) and Utrecht: January 2018 to December 2018
There can’t be many life-changing events that have happened in a Costa Coffee in Hatfield. But this is where Rob and I met on 2nd January 2018 to talk about our roles, the new structure we needed to create, and how on earth we were going to do it.
To spare you roughly 3,980 words, what I basically wanted was to go back to focusing on what I enjoy most and am best at: writing, podcasting, generally creating, and looking after the marketing side of things. Luckily, Rob was keen on being the CEO: overseeing all the operational aspects that I wanted to get away from. But before we could adopt those roles, we needed to pull together four different businesses into one and put a structure in place that freed us up to do what we wanted to do.
By the time we’d scribbled over every napkin in the place and filled up a few Trello boards on our laptops, we were intimidated by the scale of what we needed to achieve. We’d be hiring 20+ people (including several director-level hires we had no idea how to find), changing the roles of just about all the 20-odd people we already had, and totally re-inventing our own responsibilities too. Oh, and changing the names of all the companies and re-creating every asset across every business with new branding.
As if that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, our baby was born a couple of weeks later. Five weeks early, because y’know – there’s just not enough stress and unpredictability with a baby if it’s born at the right time.
The next few months I largely remember as a blur of doing Skype interviews with a lot of people, and trying to remember through a haze of exhaustion which role they were applying for and what my own name was.
But one thing at least was about to return to normal: when our baby was three months old, we started travelling again. Much as we were desperate to get back to New York or Thailand, we decided that a month in Malaga would be a more manageable starter trip. Most of all, regardless of destination, we were desperate to get back to our “normal” abnormal life – and to prove to ourselves that all those people who said “Oh, this travel sounds fun but it’ll all come to an end when you have a baby!” were as wrong as they were when they said “You’ll have to come back and get a job when you run out of money.”
(At the moment they’re saying “Well, you’ll have to settle down when it’s time to start school.” We’ll see about that.)
And when we weren’t working, we explored just like we had done for years – just with a baby in tow. He slept through us going for early evening drinks in Malaga, was immensely unimpressed by his first trip to the beach in Nerja, and got very very excited by cycling around in the drizzle in Utrecht.
The only downside was that I had to give up my interest in the bridging finance company, because we couldn’t find a way to integrate it into the new Property Hub group. But that aside, it felt like everything was falling into place: we were sort-of getting the hang of being parents, I finally had a job title I could explain, and we were back on the move again with another trip to Malaga and a return to Utrecht coming up.
Seville: January to March 2019
So, here we are in 2019 – with a one-year-old baby, a newly rebranded and restructured business, and a life that makes some semblance of sense.
It’s been eight years since we waved goodbye to a “normal” life, and at first our aim was to get as far away from “normal” as possible. We ditched our steady jobs, and made money from odd (sometimes very odd) writing and marketing gigs. We ditched our home city, travelled to another continent and went through a period of moving apartment every three weeks – and later, moving country every two weeks.
We rejected the ways you were “supposed” to do anything, and experimented with just about everything. And after all this time, we’ve ended up not back where we started, but somewhere in the middle: a life that’s “normally abnormal”.
We now have a long-term base in London (rented, so we still have the flexibility and freedom to change up our lives whenever we want), but we still travel for about four months of each year. I’m writing this in Seville, where we’ve been sitting out the worst of the British winter. We’re going back to London soon, which is where we’ll spend the summer before deciding what to do next.
I have a proper job with a proper job title and a proper salary… and although it comes with more responsibilities than any normal job (because I’m the owner), it gives me the flexibility to work wherever and (to an extent) whenever.
And after all these years, Mish has decided she doesn’t want to work with clients full-time, so – because we’ve never been silly with spending and we have the security of passive income from our books – she’s decided to focus some of her time on a brand new project.
You could look at my life now and think I’d designed it perfectly for the lifestyle I want: I get to live in my favourite places, work on things I love, keep to my own schedule, never have to commute, and spend as much time with my family as I like. And all the time, in the background, I have assets generating income that mean that if I ever stopped enjoying it, I could stop working whenever I like.
As you now know after ploughing through this sort-of memoir, though, it’s evolved rather than designed. There’s absolutely no way I could have planned a path from where I was to where I am now: I didn’t even know that where I am now existed. I only got here by trying everything, saying “yes” to whatever opportunities came along, then reviewing and keeping what worked and ditching what didn’t.
I hope there’s something you can take from all this – and that you don’t think it’s just a 12,000-word “look how great my life is” brag. I don’t want to pretend everything’s perfect, because nothing ever is, and I don’t take it for granted because I’m extremely aware that it could all come crashing down at any time.
And to the extent that things are great, I don’t mean to take any credit for it: I’m not special, I didn’t have any great flashes of inspiration, and the traits that have been most helpful (a willingness to take some risks and an enjoyment of working rather than doing what most people think of as “fun”) I’ve done nothing to develop.
In fact, while there are lots of lessons embedded in here that you can take away if you so wish, I think this is the main one: if you know what matters most to you (in our case, freedom) you’ll improve your life by taking steps towards it even if you don’t know exactly where you’re planning to end up.
Just use it as a compass point to follow: although you’ll be going in slightly the wrong direction most of the time as you get lost and scramble around obstacles, you’ll get there in the end – as long as you keep moving. And you’ll get there via a path you never could have predicted, having had more fun along the way than you could have imagined.
So what’s stopping you?