During a recent flight from Jakarta to Bangkok I was scanning through the Documents folder on my Mac when I came upon an e-book I downloaded back in April. The title is “Blogging Brought Me Here,” a free guide that my friend Johnny Ward is offering through his site, OneStep4Ward.
With a couple hours to kill, I went through the book rather quickly. The first part of the book talks about Johnny’s backstory, growing up poor yet possessed by a strong desire to travel and be free. Normally I skip over sections such as these, but found his engrossing underdog story so relatable and his frank writing style engaging.
The latter chapters in the book offer a sort of roadmap to succeeding with a blog. Johnny recommends everyone begin a blog, even if it’s just to record their own events and memories in their life. To this end, he’s set up his mom, his girlfriend, and his close friends all on their own blogs, because he believes strongly in blogging. And he’s got the track record to back it up: he’s made over a million US dollars from his blog, and has used these funds to travel to every planet on the earth. He’s also purchased his own condo in Bangkok with cash that he earns from his sites. No mortgage or borrowing.
I met Johnny back in 2013 through another blogger in Bangkok and also hosted a dinner party with Johnny and many other prominent bloggers and entrepreneurs.
This was a time of great change in Johnny’s business (and life). He had achieved some moderate success from his blogging efforts and was now reinvesting heavily back into his business to create a network of blogs and websites. These were big moves Johnny was making, but he didn’t back down — and they paid off for him big time.
I really admire Johnny in one part for his tenacity and boldness, but also equally admire his foresight and diligence in making these bold moves pay off in a big way. Of course, things on the outside always appear differently than what the day to day struggle to the top looks like. But Johnny seems to be possessed of an unshakable will that simply will not take “no” for an answer. He is a member of an elite club in that has visited every single country on the planet, and done so at a young age.
Some time ago, when I was back spending a season home in California, I interviewed Johnny over Skype. I recorded that conversation and transcribed the flow into a piece which I added as a chapter to my book, “Buy Your Own Island.”
“No Half Measures”
Johnny Ward is not one to let obstacles stop him from getting what he wants. Broke as dirt and needing capital to fund his dream of international travel, Johnny returned to Ireland and did the only thing he could: lock himself up in a hospital for five weeks so that different pharmaceutical drugs could be tested on him. While these research experiments are generally believed to be safe, it was only ten days earlier that a story broke of a few English guys who had gotten swollen heads and lost a few fingers as a result of a similar experiment.
Johnny took the money from the trial, about $3,000 USD, bought a one-way ticket to Thailand and never looked back. Turning down a future career in finance, he moved to Chiang Mai, an uber-cheap city in the foothills of Northern Thailand. There he took a month-long English TEFL teaching course, earning his CELTA certification. He became a certified English instructor and found work at a local school, earning about 21,000 THB a month ($700 USD). He lived on modest means with a basic studio apartment with a dingy scooter to get around, but he felt he was living big. He didn’t have two pennies to rub together, but loved every minute of the experience.
Fast forward to today, Johnny is now 30 years old and has been to over 110 nations on his quest to visit every country. This year, he’s on an 8-month overland journey through Central and South America to Antarctica. While he travels, his staff works for him and he easily earns a healthy five-figures a month. On average, he works about 15 hours a week, with most of his operations outsourced. He’s created a lifestyle and business where he can work less while pursuing his dreams and earning more.
Johnny is a living, breathing example that you can live the dream and still do well for yourself financially. Many people seem to think that these two things have to be mutually exclusive: you can either choose to travel and have fun, or be serious and focus on your career. Even Johnny thought this, too. He had chosen the travel route, to travel to every country in the world. However when he began his travel blog, OneStep4Ward, it changed his life forever and he was able to have his cake and eat it too.
He’s not the only one. Many have now realized that it’s possible to accumulate material wealth and still live the high life. Guys like Johnny and many others from the Western world live in Southeast Asia and use “geo-arbitrage” to their advantage. In Bangkok, where Johnny is based out of, you can live like a rockstar on the cheap and have money left over for business ventures and investments.
The Stow Away
Rewind back to 2006, Johnny’s first year in Asia. As his 22-year old self, Johnny didn’t have the funds to do a whole lot. $700 USD was enough to live and that was about it. Forget about spending money to travel around. Still, he had a month off for the holidays and really wanted to visit China. Lacking the requisite travel funds or even a visa, he did the only thing he could do. Johnny took two of his friends, went to a small border town and in broken Thai, attempted to negotiate a ride up the Mekong river on an old cargo boat. Johnny was determined to hitch a ride on one of these boats. But after being turned away twelve times, he resigned himself to thinking it simply wasn’t meant to be. Finally, the captain of the 13th boat said yes. All they had to do was avoid police, pay the captain $30 each, and sign a few documents stating that they were full-fledged members of the crew.
A bit apprehensive at first, Johnny feared the crew might take his macbook in the middle of the night and dump his body into the river for good measure. The crew was indeed a bit frosty in the beginning, but after a few rounds of drinks with the sailors, they were accepted into the crew. The boat first stopped in Burma, where Johnny and his two friends snuck in to the local village. They ran into some police, and instead of arresting them or even asking for their papers – the authorities were excited to see foreigners and everyone ended up getting drunk together.
From 2006 – 2009, Johnny traveled on the lightest of budgets. He traveled for a period of 13 months throughout Asia, on a budget of about $4,000 or $5,000. For that entire time his budget was about $9-10 a day! He backpacked through areas in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal. One time in Bangladesh, he stayed with a man and his family in the slums of Dhaka. He couldn’t afford to upgrade to the Four Seasons, but despite the modest accommodations he thought it was cool and loved the experience!
Today, it’s an entirely different story – thanks to his online business activities, Johnny has financial freedom and can do as he wants to. While happier now, he feels that the romance of travel dies a little bit once you have more money.
Johnny has so many favorite highlights from the past several years that’s it hard for him to name just a few. A huge football fan, one of his best experiences was attending the World Cup in South Africa. He describes summiting Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Fuji as “unforgettable” experiences as well. Tracking wild gorillas in Rwanda. Swimming with great white sharks. Witnessing the northern lights in Iceland. In Iceland, Johnny rented a snowmobile and rode across a glacier at sunset. He says it was “so beautiful,” unlike anything he’s seen.
Johnny just completed a trip in Central Asia. He flew his mother into Uzbekistan and took a trans-Uzbekistan railroad trip across the desert, which was breathtakingly beautiful as well. He also traveled to Iraq and Iran and was absolutely floored by the hospitality of the locals. He says it’s really nice to be able to travel with his mom and do all these things, because it’s all new to them given where they’ve come from. In the summer of 2014, he’s taking his mother with him to Paraguay, Ecuador, and Bolivia.
When I asked what some of his worst experiences were, Johnny responded that the worst experiences are sometimes the best; they leave you with some of the best stories to tell. One time he was trying to get to Nepal from the north of India. At the time, the Maoists had overtaken the country and closed the border. He ended up taking three buses back to back to back. On either side of the aisle, the buses simply had benches with 4 people crammed onto them, uncomfortable conditions which Johnny had to endure for 49 hours. 40 degrees Celsius, no back rest, nowhere to sleep – he describes it as 49 hours of absolute hell. But he laughs about it now.
On another occasion, Johnny was traveling with an Irish friend, Paul, who had never traveled before. His friend met him in Tunisia and together they traveled to Sudan. Paul woke him up in the middle of the night. Something was amiss. “Go back to sleep,” Johnny groaned, “it’s four in the morning.” On went the light, and they discovered an enormous rat’s nest under Paul’s bed. Paul was terrified, but Johnny simply laughed hysterically. He took out his camera and took a priceless picture of Paul. Here he was, a big rugby player, standing atop the bed in his tightey-whitey underpants, absolutely mortified. Johnny still gets a good laugh out of telling that story.
Somalia and Sudan both seem, to me at least, to be risky countries to travel in. I asked Johnny if he has ever been worried about being taken hostage. Johnny responds by saying that Somalian people, and also Iran people, are the friendliest he’s ever met. He says that when he travels to those places he shakes more hands than “David Beckham when he arrives in Tokyo.” People come running across the street to shake his hand saying, “Welcome to Somalia.”
There are sometimes isolated incidents, however. During his second day in Somalia, Johnny was at the market buying bananas when an old man came up and punched him in the face. But afterwards everyone rushed to help Johnny and he could hardly walk four feet without someone offering tea, a chocolate bar, or some other gift and profusely apologizing for the incident.
In his eight years of traveling, Johnny says, being punched in the face was the worst thing that’s happened. He has been in the hospital once or twice due to spills on a motorbike, but that’s about it. His mother always worries about him whenever he travels to these crazy countries. He always reassures her, saying he’s not going to get kidnapped or stabbed. Despite having an iPod stolen once in India, he’s never had any run-ins with police or crime in eight years of travel. He says he’s more worried about theft in cities like London, New York, or Sydney than he is in Somalia, Sudan, or Iran.
Just say “Yes” more
Most of us would be incredibly apprehensive about the daring experiences that Johnny has been through. I asked: how does he overcome fears and doubt?
“Just say ‘Yes’ more,” is Johnny’s advice. His philosophy is based upon this attitude. When we live our lives by this ethos, and say “yes” to opportunity, we’re always guaranteed to experience more fun and fulfillment. Even if he’s just sitting at home and someone asks to hang out, Johnny tends to think: “I just want to stay home with the air conditioning on and watch Dexter.” But, following this “Yes” philosophy, he pushes himself to get out there and meet someone new. The person may be from Sri Lanka, or Ecuador, and he relishes the opportunity to learn something new and have fun. And so, you must consciously make an effort to push yourself out of your comfort and say “yes” to opportunities when they arise. The more you say yes, the more opportunities develop. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is a ongoing effort, but the rewards are huge.
Another thing is to simply “ask” more often. If you don’t ask for something, you won’t get it. Too many of us don’t get the things we want because we’re afraid to ask for them – whether it’s a raise, a date, or a couch to sleep on. Travel is immensely valuable because it forces you into a new environment where you develop these habits far more quickly than you would at home. To survive in a new and foreign environment, we have to drop our over-protective personal bubbles, meet new and different people outside of our circle, say yes to things, and begin asking for things more often.
A big thing that holds people back is irrational fear of the unknown element – and of something bad possibly happening. Johnny isn’t fearless – pushing himself out of his comfort zone is as much of a struggle for him as anyone else. But he believes that if you see a new opportunity and you don’t take it, you will regret it later. Taking action, or making an important change is often uncomfortable – but the regret that comes from inaction and stagnation proves itself to be far more uncomfortable.
Beginnings of an Online Business Empire
Johnny continued to travel as cheaply as possible for three years. In 2009, the existential questions began to creep in: where will I be in ten years? What am I going to do for my future? Maybe it’s time to get a real job, complete with suit and tie. So this thinking took him to Australia and an office job. But after about six months, he was ready to slit his wrists and kiss corporate life goodbye forever. He tried to quit, but was offered a promotion. Another two months went by, and Johnny went into suicide mode again. He decided to start his travel blog, OneStep4Ward.com, and for the next 3 or 4 months he used the company’s time to start writing posts about his travels.
He had heard rumors that you could make between $1,000 – 3,000 a month by blogging. He saw other travel bloggers who did simple package tours find success through their blogs. And he thought, I’ve traveled a lot more than these bloggers, if they can get an audience than why can’t I?
He began blogging with the hope of making money. His first goal was modest: get to earning $1,000 a month through the blog. $1,000 was the golden number that would allow him to permanently travel. After all, he’d gotten by on a budget of half that during his previous travels. Flush with savings, he quit his job and flew one-way to Africa. Things started slowly at first, and in the beginning he was only getting about two visitors per day. But he persisted, and suddenly while in Ethiopia he received an e-mail out of the blue with an offer of $60 to advertise on his site. This was the first dollar he had ever made, and he thought it was amazing. It proved that he could make money if he continued. And sure enough, after about six months, the blog was making a few hundred each month and after a year he was closing in on his goal of $1,000. Within a year and a half, he was making $2,000 – 3,000 a month.
How to Make Money Blogging
How long does it take someone to make money from their blog? Are there any shortcuts to speed up the process? This is what I most wanted to pick Johnny’s brain about, to see what kind of insider tips he could lend from his experience.
How many articles does one have to write before they start making money? Johnny says that when he looks back at his first set of articles, he cringes at the quality. They were little more than diary entries. But they helped get him to where he is today, so he takes the embarrassment on the chin. During the period of time that he worked at the office job in Sydney, he wrote about 50 articles, recounting stories of his travels over the past 3-4 years. He didn’t study any courses on writing or blogging, he just got started and ran with it.
Next, I asked Johnny: what makes the best content? What makes a person successful at creating content? Johnny explains that creating a successful content strategy requires a delicate balance of attracting traffic and also engaging your readers. Articles such as “The 5 Best Bars in Bangkok,” and “5 Things to See in Berlin,” always work best for attracting traffic. Although they often don’t provide the most compelling reading, these articles are great for drawing organic traffic from search engines. But to generate an engaged readership, the readers have to buy into your story. Johnny’s story is that he is an ordinary guy from Ireland, just like anyone else, with no money who decided to travel the world and live his dreams. And if he can do it, so can anyone else.
Further, he adds, most people spend their time posting articles about the “same, boring stories.” They’re generic and lack creativity, he says. Companies like STA Travel offer the same round-the-world travel route to travelers from London to Bangkok to Sydney and back again. Johnny says this type of travel and the quality of stories it produces is too sterile, boring, and generic. He says it’s just traveling in one air-conditioned bus with thirty middle-class white kids between hostels packed with thirty more middle-class white kids. And they spend seven weeks overseas getting drunk with each other and watching movies in hostel common rooms. This is not real travel, he says, and that’s not the type of stuff people are really interested in reading about.
To blog successfully, you have to be genuine. You have to live, breathe, eat, and sleep the topic that you’re blogging about. It’s about authenticity, and digging deep into the subject beyond the surface level. You have to be unique and different. Within each niche, there’s a certain status quo. Travel – and by extension travel blogging – is no exception either. Within the travel community, there’s a rather sizable group of people that only go to sites suggested by Lonely Planet guidebooks. You need to break out of that, he says, and be a little different. For Johnny, package tours are his worst nightmare. The idea of being constrained to a set itinerary makes him cringe. He’s only used tour operators once – in North Korea, and only because it was required by North Korean law.
Tell Your Story and Build Your Brand
Through the process of blogging, you grow into your own brand. You put your name and face out everywhere, and the process of becoming a brand happens almost by accident. The process is quite self-involved: you frequently talk about your experiences, and your own dreams and goals. Though it may be a bit self-absorbed, it’s the price you have to pay to promote your blog.
Johnny insists he hasn’t done anything amazing or special; he’s just an average guy who found out he could make money blogging, picked it up and ran with it. At first money came in through ads placed on his blog. But now he’s making far more money working as a consultant, using the experience and brand he’s developed through his blog. He has created a spin-off from his personal brand, called “Step4WardMedia” that performs corporate blogging services for small and medium-sized enterprises.
Johnny doesn’t rely on monetizing his blog these days, but still loves writing blog posts and still considers his travel blog to be his greatest asset. He loves to wake up in the morning and receive e-mails from readers wishing to discuss their travel plans. Even after eight years, he still lives and breathes travel, and loves thinking about and talking travel. The whole “get it out of your system” thing doesn’t apply to him. He’s following his passion, having fun, and making a ton of money at the same time. “Yeah – it’s really cool, mate,” Johnny says.
Curious about his income-generating activities, I pressed Johnny further about his media business. Who are your clients, and how do you get your clients? I wanted to know Johnny’s secrets for getting corporate clients in the English-speaking world: UK, US, Australia, etc. while he was based in Thailand.
At the moment, Johnny hires six salesmen. They go to work for him contacting corporations and offering technical expertise. The corporate market is almost infinite. Every company that isn’t blogging in 2014 needs a blog. Whether they use Step4WardMedia in 2014 to create a blog, or wait three years to work with another company to start a blog, they need to have one.
I asked Johnny if it was difficult to find entrepreneurial opportunities while he travels. A lot of people that I know divide their time between developed countries like the US, Germany, or Norway, where their businesses are based, and countries like Brazil and Thailand, where they go for leisure. But it’s about 50 / 50. Can Johnny really manage his business full-time from the road?
Johnny says that the beauty of having a blog that talks about inspiration and business and travel is that people come to him all the time with different types of business propositions. Further, the social group he keeps is all within the same collective entrepreneurial “mindspace.” Simple nights out for beers come to serve as a sounding board for the exchange of ideas and brainstorming. Many potential opportunities arise, but Johnny believes that when you feel you can hit a home run and are onto something that can make $25 or $50k a month, then pause everything else, stick with it and put everything into it while the opportunity exists.
Trading for 5-Star Resorts, Cruises, and Exotic Tours
Want another awesome example of how starting a blog can change your life?
For his 100th country, Johnny went to the Maldives, an island nation in the heart of the Indian Ocean. A far cry from the dirt poor style of travel when he started, Johnny stayed at the luxury 5-star Niyama resort, a favorite getaway of megastars like Jay-Z and David Beckham. Upon his arrival in Male, the capital of the Maldives, a staff member of the resort met him to escort Johnny to a private seaplane and off they went, James-Bond style. Upon arriving at the resort’s private island, he and his girlfriend were escorted to their own villa, complete with wooden stairs leading into the ocean, a private pool, their own golf cart, all the food they could eat, and more.
The best part? The trip and stay were free, provided compliments of the hotel. Johnny is no celebrity or head of state – he’s just a blogger.
This wasn’t the first time Johnny received a stay at a luxury resort for free – far from it. In the south of Thailand, he was given a complimentary stay at Sri Panwa Hotel, the nicest resort in Phuket, including all of the elements of luxury – private pool, balcony overlooking the ocean, and more. In London, Johnny stayed at the ultra-lux Grange St. Pauls Hotel London, across the street from St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Xara Palace Relais & Châteaux in Malta, a favorite destination of Bruce Willis. Jabunami Villas in Bali. The Savic Hotel in Prague. The list goes on and on.
Johnny has an assistant who works full-time to arrange trades for resort stays, tours, and other travel deals. Johnny describes resorts like Niyama as jaw-droppingly, out-of-this-world beautiful. The normal rate for this resort is $2,000 USD a night – but if they’re running at only 90% occupancy, then they lose money by having empty rooms. They might as well invite bloggers like Johnny to stay for a few nights in exchange for a review, giving them leverage with their online marketing. It costs them nothing to give someone like Johnny a room at the resort.
Anyone can engineer these types of trades. Once you start a blog and build a following, you have a form of leverage that you can offer in exchange to hotels, cruise ships, and tour operators. Johnny gets a million hits a year on his blog, and about 25,000 fans on his Facebook fan page, but everyone starts somewhere. If you can show the company you want to trade with that you have an engaged readership, then it makes sense for them to accept you. Anything that isn’t running at full occupancy – such as cruise ships – is prime for a trade. The cruise might normally cost $5,000, but it doesn’t cost the company anything to give you an extra room on the ship if it isn’t sold out. In November of 2014, for example, Johnny is getting a free 11-day (normally $5,000) tour to Antarctica. It costs Chimu Adventures, a South American tour company, almost nothing to bring Johnny along, so they might as well get free online marketing out of it.
It’s a win-win, Johnny gets to travel in luxury and liaise with the CEO and marketing head of the companies he barters with. So these trades also help him to build valuable business connections as well.
Exotic cruises and stays in $2,000-a-night resorts are the kinds of things most of us dream about. If you start a travel blog like Johnny’s, it is absolutely possible to get them for free – it just comes down to asking for them. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Another time, Johnny wanted to go to Bhutan (a small mountainous kingdom due east of Nepal). The problem? Bhutan is one of the least-accessible countries in the world, and doesn’t want to get a lot of tourists. A one-day visa for Bhutan costs $290, so a 10-day tour costs almost $3,000. Johnny desperately wanted to go, but didn’t have a lot of money at the time. So he tasked his assistant to find every single operator that conducts tours in Bhutan. Two-weeks later, his assistant delivered a massive spreadsheet of every tour operator offering tours to Bhutan. He e-mailed every single operator with a proposition. One company responded and agreed to the deal. He was given a private driver, private tour, and all flights included. Now, he’s become good friends with the tour operators, who sometimes visit him in Bangkok.
Want to Live this Lifestyle? Johnny’s Advice
Start a blog as soon as possible. And make a long-term commitment to it. No half-measures. A blog is an asset that you’ll have for the rest of your life. Become engaged in it, promote your blog through your social networks, and over the years your blog will become more popular and better ranked. Start your blog as soon as possible, and before long you’ll have a powerful asset that you can monetize, leverage for freebies, or use to boost your professional career.
Starting OneStep4Ward changed Johnny’s life forever. He can sit around on a work-day in his Bangkok apartment, which he owns outright, and watch Dexter all day if he wants to. Starting a blog was the biggest thing that brought Johnny to this point.
Johnny sometimes acts as a consultant to friends helping them get started as travel bloggers. One of Johnny’s friends living in Japan is now in month 11 of blogging, and made $2,700 last month. Together they’re traveling to South America because his friend can now live off the blog profits.
Here’s how to get started: First, get an OK design for your blog. Investing in a nice, professional design is important. Create a nice banner. Then just get your first 50 articles up on the blog. Make these articles SEO-oriented.
“How to Make Money Online”
“How to Travel the World”
“How Much Does it Cost to Travel the World?”
“5 Things to Pack When You go To Thailand”
These first 50 articles are pretty generic, but they’re the type that will allow people to find you through Google and search engines. For these 50 articles, don’t even tell anyone about them. Set up your Facebook and Twitter pages, and update them every day or two. Get these first 50 articles up as soon as possible. Once you have them, pour everything you have into writing 2 or 3 golden posts that you think can go viral. Add one, and then promote the hell out of it. A few days later, add another, and then another, and keep promoting them as much as possible. By this point, people start coming to your site and can get lost in it. You’ve got 50 other articles, you’re getting organic traffic, and so on.
Keep writing awesome articles, and within six months you’re off to the races. How do you know when an article is good? Give it a read over after, and trust your gut. If you pour your heart into it, you can write a great article.
When you write a great article, you could also consider submitting it as a guest post to an already established site. While you’ll be giving up a good article, you’re also putting yourself out there on a large website that already has a large readership, which will help drive traffic and prestige back to your own blog. News interviews are another great way to drive traffic to your blog. If you’ve got an interesting story or are doing something newsworthy, contact a reporter that might be interested. Many reporters list their contact information in their articles, and local reporters within your city or state are surprisingly easy to reach.
Escape the System
What if Johnny had continued down the finance path? He’s not sure where he’d be. “I’d probably be some asshole,” he confides. He says that if you’re going to spend your twenties trading time for money, be sure that you get something by the time you’re 30. Don’t fritter away all of the money you earn keeping up with the Joneses and being locked into an endless cycle of consumption and working to support your consumption habits. Is it worth it to arrive at 30, having sold a decade of your youth, and looking at another 20 years of servitude to pay off your mortgage? Is it really worth it? Of course not, Johnny says.
Minimalism is the way forward, he explains. Don’t go around wasting your money. Beyond food and shelter, you don’t really need anything. Until you reach the point where you’re earning enough money and can comfortably afford to do as you like, stay frugal and smart. “But,” Johnny continues, “if I had 100 million I’d be buying apartments everywhere.”
This post is an excerpt from the new best-selling book, “Buy Your Own Island.” The most thorough and comprehensive handbook for lifestyle design and the mobile lifestyle on the planet, the book outlines how to travel the planet using strategies such as couchsurfing and much more. You can download it immediately from Amazon, or download the audio book for free by clicking here.