Hey guys, after a few of you asked about how this blog came to be what it is today. I realized I never really answered that question, so I sat down to write out my history – the wins, the struggles, the things that worked and the personal journey as well. Nearly 5000 words later here it is, right from the humble beginning. I hope that if you’re considering blogging too or just looking to connect more, that this is helpful to you:
I was sitting in my cubicle in 2011, three years after I began my job in finance. After years of trying, I’d finally closed a big deal and yet I felt empty instead of excited. I was 25 years old and confused.
I had a prestigious job in mergers and acquisitions – one I was grateful for considering I’d been hired in 2008, shortly after the infamous failure of Bear Stearns.
I worked crazy hours but at least I had money, right? I had a nice car, fancy purses, and a relationship with a man who wanted to marry me, and yet I was miserable. I know, cue the violin playing the world’s saddest song.
But maybe you know what I mean with this dissatisfaction, perfectly summed up by Tyler Durden from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club:
Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.
That day in my cubicle as I read this quote by him I felt understood.
Growing up, society told me that as long as I got As in school and worked hard and earned a lot of money, I could buy things and that these things would make me happy. At some point, I opened my eyes, bleary from the deep sleep that I had been in, and asked, how in the world does a purse make a person happy?
How does a car that impresses a perfect stranger for a millisecond while he drives by make me better? There had to be something else.
Around that time a friend sent me a link to nomadicmatt.com. I was amazed that he was traveling the world and doing it very cheaply. Up until that point I figured only trust fund babies could do that. I looked at my savings after paying off my remaining student loans and the retirement account contributions and realized that I could probably go for a year or even two in Southeast Asia. Once that seed was planted it grew like a vine, rooting itself in my consciousness, completely taking over my mind. There was another option in life and it was available to me.
But what it would take to make this happen was drastic. I knew that I didn’t want to leave for only a month and then come back to things the way I’d left them. I wanted to be completely free, and that meant getting rid of my job and apartment, and maybe even my relationship, too.
Things were already on their way towards an end for my boyfriend and I. This was hard for me. I sang sad songs in the car and the shower (Mostly Taylor Swift TBH). I questioned if anyone would ever love me like that again. I wondered if I was trading stability and the American Dream for nothing more than a pipe dream. I felt like an island, because I didn’t want to hurt anyone with these thoughts and I didn’t trust anyone with them either, least of all myself.
After about six months of inner turmoil, what ifs, interrogating and fighting with myself, and a burning desire to just know that everything would be OK, in a moment of clarity I realized:
I’m not going to let myself live in a cardboard box. There is always a way to begin again.
So I finally did it. I let everyone in on the secret, quit my job, bought the plane flight, and set the wheels in motion.
Year One: It Begins
Over the next two months, freshly unemployed and with lots of time on my hands, I spent nearly all day every day poring over travel blogs, reading the comments, trying to glean information about how they were doing it. I bought Nomadic Matt’s book, How to Make Money with Your Travel Blog, which at the time included two free calls with him.
During one of our calls, Matt, then a stranger to me, told me that the Travel Blog Exchange conference (TBEX) was coming up in Denver a couple weeks later and that it would behoove me to go.
The first Instagram photo I ever posted:
The first Instagram photo I ever posted
Networking was and still is an important part of getting ahead in this industry, and this was a chance for me to do that. It was going to cost me since I wouldn’t benefit from any deals or early bird pricing, but I trusted his opinion, and booked the trip.
This was in June, two months after I had bought the domain and put exactly 3 blog posts up on my website. But even though I was green, simply being around people in the industry allowed me to make myself known enough to implement my next strategy: Guest blogging.
Following the conference, I spent the next couple of months refining the design of the site and networking more. I commented on other bloggers’ posts in a conversational tone, engaged with them on Twitter, and took note of who accepted guest posts. I think an important part of this was that it didn’t look like I was just fishing for links or eyeballs. My comments came from the heart and showed that I had really read their posts.
My favorite blog to follow was Bacon Is Magic, since at the time, Ayngelina’s story of leaving a boyfriend to travel solo was quite similar to mine.
I started to write regularly on my blog about how I handled my healthcare and immunizations and how I sold off everything I owned on craigslist in the span of a week, and take a chance on traveling. It was quite a vulnerable share at the time and I knew that my friends would be reading it. I remember being super nervous to publish it, just as I have been many times since, when sharing the more private parts of my life.
In September, I took off with my one-way ticket and a carry-on backpack full of newly purchased items and my trusty old DSLR camera. I was terrified.
A final picture of California before heading to the airport:
But everything ended up being okay. I fell into a rhythm and within days I was on a pink cloud, more blissed out than I’ve ever been. I’d found my happy place and it was in a state of movement.
“Enjoy it,” another blogger cautioned me, “because nothing will ever be this beautiful or wonderful ever again.”
It sounded so pessimistic. I didn’t want to believe it, but in a lot of ways, this became true for me and a battle that I would wage later, as you’ll see in year three.
Once I was on the road, I finally had something to pitch those bloggers who I had been networking with.
Since I didn’t have a lot of other things taking up my time like responding to comments, I did a lot of writing. I posted on my own blog three times per week and often guest wrote with a similar frequency.
This gave me exposure to new audiences but it also gave me valuable back links, which did and still do matter to Google in terms of rankings. Not everyone who I pitched said yes to me, and not every blog got me a bunch of new readers, but without putting in this work early on I’m not sure that I would be where I am now. I’d spend every third or fourth day working and spent the rest adventuring.
My main focus was backpacking on a shoestring around Southeast Asia, doing everything in the cheapest way possible, which led to some amazing adventures. I wrote my blog in a diary format, without much of an understanding of SEO. Monetization was not as common back then, so I didn’t spend my time pitching brands or chasing press trips – few PR firms had any idea about what a blogger was or how we could provide value.
In hindsight I believe this was my saving grace. The site was just about telling my story, and my aim was to use it as a resume to get other paid writing work. Travel writing had always been my dream, and in the early days, my goal was to just get freelance writing gigs and maybe a book deal. This did eventually happen, and the book is a collection of excerpts from my diary and blog, but that happened years later and I’m getting ahead of myself.
In November 2012, a big curve ball came that I didn’t expect. I fell in love with someone in Laos and when he went back home to Australia, I was left conflicted. I had only just broken up with my previous boyfriend of four years in the name of freedom only to immediately fall for someone else. The timing was bad and so was my ability to say no.
Though things were rocky from day one, I made the decision to go to Australia and hang up my dream of traveling for a while. At the time, Australia’s dollar was actually stronger than the US dollar, and in Melbourne, salads were like 20 f-king dollars. Before I knew it I was spending the down payment for a house on avocado toast. I got a job at a high-end shoe shop, got back on the hamster wheel, and as my relationship evaporated, asked myself why I wasn’t back in Southeast Asia.
So I forfeited my working holiday visa and went back to Thailand, desperately trying to hold the fragments that remained of my heart together. In time, I healed with the mountains, waters and volcanoes of Indonesia. I went home after 10 months of traveling and, though everything seemed like a big question mark, knew one thing for sure: I was not done yet.
Year Two: The 11th Hour
As I entered year two of blogging and traveling, I wasn’t getting much paid writing yet and I still wasn’t making any money off of my blog. To keep me afloat I sold that nice car from my banking days. With the money I got from that, I figured I could last another year abroad and since I had made the decision not to go back to my old life, keeping a car around seemed silly anyway.
After that, I flew to Europe and attended another TBEX conference, this time in Dublin, followed by the World Travel Market in London. My friend Dylan allowed me to stay in his flat in London for a month for free and after that, I went back to Southeast Asia. In the months that followed, I moved slowly through the Philippines and Vietnam, then made my way into China, a country I had fantasized about ever since living in Taiwan for 8 months when I was a student.
However, China was not as cheap as Southeast Asia, and as I started to see my cash dwindle again, I began to worry.
Would this blog ever take off? Would anyone ever want to hire me? Was there a point, really? Who was I kidding?
In order to save money, I began hitchhiking around China, which I will always remember with fondness for the incredible adventures it afforded me and for opening up my eyes to a whole new way of traveling. It was the impetus for a more adventurous side of me and a traveling method that I have now used on six out of seven continents.
However at this point, it was very much the 11th hour. I started to think about picking up a job teaching English or getting into marketing on the corporate level.
I don’t think I ever told you this, but through a connection of mine, I got to the interview phase for a marketing role at a fast food company in Australia. I nearly progressed with it and then I had to ask myself, would I really feel good about running social media for something that is unhealthy for people?
I had spent years working at a job that I didn’t feel made anyone’s life better, and rather only made rich people richer. Did I really want to go back to that?
Around that time I applied for a job writing about festivals for about.com, a company that isn’t around anymore. I still remember the feeling of relief and lightness when I had a Skype interview while sitting in the remote mountain village of Kangding in Yunnan province, and was offered the job. I would write eight articles per month for $75 each, and the contract lasted for a year. It might not seem like much but that was the confidence boost I needed to turn the marketing opportunity down.
After securing that job and furiously writing enough articles for two months in two days, I disconnected to hike the Annapurna Circuit in the Nepalese Himalayas for two weeks. It was the first time that I hiked for more than one day at a time. In keeping with my habit of jumping into extreme things headfirst, I went from one day to two weeks in one shot, and fell in love with it.
I turned 28 on the day I reached the pass:
After that, I went to Berlin for the summer. An acquaintance of mine I’d met by chance on a dive boat in the Philippines was out of town and allowed me to stay at his apartment for less than half the rent he was paying. It has always been gifts from people like him that kept me going in those early years and I could not have done it without them.
Shortly after coming to Berlin, I was contacted by a study abroad company that needed articles to beef up their website. He’d seen a guest blog I’d written on another site, thereby rewarding my past efforts.
It only paid $50 per article, but he told me that I could write as many as I wanted. So I wrote nine within three days and between that and the about.com contract, plus a very small amount of passive income that my blog was generating, was able to earn between $1000 and $1500 per month.
That same summer, Matt, whom I had met at the first TBEX conference in Denver and kept in contact with, asked me if I wanted to write a column on his website about solo female travel. He liked my budget-oriented and adventurous travel style and saw a fit with his audience. His was the first travel blog I had ever read and was still a big fan of, so I enthusiastically said yes.
I vividly recall returning to California that summer and, beaming, telling my mom that I was making enough money from my site to keep going. I was so proud that 15,000 people visited it each month. I was going to make it.
Year Three: Taking Shape
At the start of my third year of blogging, an opportunity came my way from a blogger connection that I had made at a conference the year before – going in his place when he was invited on paid campaigns that he didn’t have time for. I was getting paid a fraction of the overall rate but I didn’t care. I was beyond excited to finally be getting paid to travel. That was the dream for me (still is).
It was also nice that I was able to do all this travel under his brand name instead of mine. I was not required to post about it on my channels, which was perfect because I could keep the branded content off my blog. I also got my first sponsored post partnership, and my monthly passive income steadily increased as well. By the fall of 2014, heading into the third year of my blogging career, I was making about $3000 per month on average.
I was staying in Berlin at the time in a room that only cost me €300 per month, so I was able to survive quite comfortably on this income. By that winter my blog readership had grown to about 30,000 unique visitors per month and, after implementing a new strategy of only posting good DSLR photos instead of the oversaturated, HDR photos I’d been posting before (what was I thinking?), my Instagram started to grow more quickly too.
When 2015 arrived with a bang, I flew south like a goose to South Africa, chasing summer. I knew that it would cost more in South Africa than in Southeast Asia and Berlin, but I trusted that it would be alright. And it was! South Africa ended up being one of the friendliest places I had ever been to, and people were constantly inviting me to stay with them, so my accommodation costs went down considerably.
Africa changed something in me. I realized while I was there that I just wanted to be helpful, and started thinking about how to make my blog more of a resource than a diary, expanding it from just my story to a set of tips and itineraries. I found it hard to strike a balance — still do — but it seemed to work as my readership grew.
After returning back to Berlin that summer and finding a room for €275/month, I continued to freelance for the other blogger and go in his place on a couple more trips that summer, allowing me to get paid to travel some more, which took me to Northern Ireland.
I decided that, this time, I would post about the campaign on my channels too, using the same hashtag. My posts ended up generating more engagement than the person whose place I had gone in. He was upset that we’d ‘overdelivered’ and, in hindsight, I kind of understand. This led to the eventual demise of our working relationship.
However it led to bigger and better things, and it’s also where I met Steve, a YouTuber who involved me in some of his later projects. I’ll always be grateful to him for how helpful he was, once again demonstrating that success, at least for me, came from partnerships.
That summer I also started writing Conquering Mountains: How to Solo Travel the World Fearlessly, one of the most important things that I have ever done with my career. By that time, I had already been writing the solo female travel column on nomadicmatt.com for months and we knew that it was something his audience wanted more of.
I stayed up for days on end writing because I couldn’t think about anything else. I was obsessive. I turned nocturnal, and my stress levels got out of whack. This is my fault, not the book’s, but it consumed my entire summer as we went through five rounds of edits.
The end product was and still is something that I’m really proud of. When we released it the following fall, it was well received, much to my relief.
Year Four: My Big Break
This is when things really hit a turning point for me, and I can trace it all back to releasing that book. I was finally an expert on something, and I had the book to prove it.
Emboldened, I started pitching my story to various news outlets like Business Insider, and another opportunity came when BuzzFeed published an article about me, thanks to an introduction from Matt. Due to the success of that article, the Daily Mail reached out, and then Inc. published an article, too. Out of pure luck several of the stories went viral and were translated into several different languages, and practically overnight my blog readership grew to 70k unique viewers per month and my Instagram grew to about 20,000 followers. I was also offered a book deal, which I accepted.
After the big release of the book, I went on a trip to Iceland with my friend Maksim. Iceland would turn out to be one of the most important trips I ever took, resulting in some of my most popular blog content.
That February, Steve and I went to Patagonia for two months, yet another place that would end up being incredibly important for my brand. I remember hitting 50,000 followers on Instagram and 85,000 unique monthly readers by the end of our trip.
At this point I decided to only focus on my own brand. I was making about $3000 per month passively and while not huge, it was enough to take another leap of faith. So I finished out all of my freelance contracts and chose not to renew, except for the column with Nomadic Matt, which I still happily write today.
Everything was going well, at least on the surface. I really should have been happy, still on my pink cloud, but it was quite the opposite. What that other blogger had told me years before had come true.
This might seem incredibly ungrateful, but I just want to be honest – I was miserable again. I was miserable as soon as I started tasting success in year three. When I didn’t have a dime and I was hitchhiking, it felt more carefree, crazy as it sounds.
Yet with each passing year, I started to feel like I was way more ‘in’ the industry, and the back biting and shit talking started to involve me. Even though I genuinely tried to avoid it by refusing to engage in gossip, I still had a target on my back. What’s worse, I compared myself with others all the time. I also drank way too much, picked up a smoking habit for a while, and when looking in the mirror, only felt self-loathing.
I also felt like a brat – a self absorbed, ungrateful brat. I was sitting in Patagonia, about to hike for a week in the most gorgeous place on Earth, having a nervous breakdown.
Things had to change.
The last networking conference I went to was World Travel Market in November 2015, and I haven’t been to any since. I more or less disassociated from the blogger community. I also eventually deleted Facebook from my phone and stopped looking at the newsfeed. I stopped looking at the blogger groups and paying attention to my competition.
It was a really good idea, you guys. The blogging world is worse than junior high.
That summer I got two more amazing jobs through close friends of mine, and was finally offered my very own campaign in Wisconsin, all for me. Not through a connection, but just through them finding me online and liking my work. It felt amazing.
Within a matter of months, from a combination of book sales, growing affiliate income, and campaign payments, I wasn’t struggling anymore, and was making anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 per month. Finally, I was in a financial position that would allow me to sign a lease and have my own apartment. Instead of scrambling to find a new room to stay in every time I came back to Berlin, I upgraded to an entire flat with an office. At 30 years old, I was a big girl living on her own for the first time.
Year Five: Figuring it Out Again
That summer I disconnected a bit more, went down a more spiritual path, and reconnected with someone who I had known in my university days but hadn’t talked to in about 10 years. We fell in love that fall after Burning Man, so then I returned to a flat I’d just signed a lease for, packed up and went back to California.
That relationship ultimately fell apart, but it sent me on a journey of exploration that was new to me. I started to question everything I knew and understood about the way I fit into the fabric of the world. I poured myself into my work and also my own personal development, took another trip down to Africa, came back that summer and spent as much of it in nature as I could.
By then I’d stopped smoking, was exercising and being kinder to my body, and decided to stop drinking alcohol, too.
In a weird way, that breakup was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Writing this now, I am seeing a trend.
At this point I decided to get into video – a huge increase in my workload but an activity that I love. I also finally hit 100,000 followers on Instagram, as well as surpassed 120,000 unique readers per month on the blog. I started earning more each month and brought my assistant, Ashley, on full time, as well as upgraded all of my camera and computer equipment; and added a drone to the mix.
In July 2017, I released my first Facebook video that I shot and edited completely on my own in Kyrgyzstan, and was almost instantly rewarded with over 160,000 views. I’m grateful for that early success and encouragement, and now I add new YouTube videos weekly as well. It was humbling to be building something from scratch again, celebrating when my videos got just one comment or I got another new subscriber, but it was something!
I also launched my biggest new product at the time in Fall 2017 after a tour guide named Pete reached out to me the winter prior, asking if I’d like to join him in Alaska to discuss the possibility of working together. The trip and his professionalism were fantastic, and we released the first tour in October, which sold out in 11 days.
Year Six: New Ventures, and the Trolls
The following autumn, at the start of year six, I decided to spend a full three months in Berlin without getting on an airplane. In the previous five years, there had been no time that I’d done that.
I turned down every opportunity, including some really cool paid ones in Africa. It seemed that the universe supported this, because turning those down made room for a 5-figure brand contract – the biggest I’d ever had – shortly thereafter.
I didn’t share back then that the reason I wanted to stay at home in Berlin was to get sober. It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done, and with my new lease on life and extra time on my hands, I did the only thing I felt in control of – poured myself into work.
I dived even deeper into SEO, researched people I admired right back to their humble beginnings, and with my assistant up to speed and fully trained, was able to focus only on creative endeavors and pass off behind-the-scenes happenings to her. The idea was so that I could work a bit less, but instead of cutting down my own workload, we just doubled company output.
I finally established an LLC, marketed and sold out my first BMTM Adventures trip to Peru, and when winter came, took off for three months in Southeast Asia. Once again I turned down any paid opportunities – I wanted to go back to the place where it had all started for me. Around that time I got hit with a higher tax bill in Germany than I’d anticipated, which nearly wiped out my savings. I felt sorry for myself. Why work so hard for so little?
A friend of mine laughed and gently said to me, “I wish you the unfortunate circumstance that you do well enough as a travel blogger to have to pay taxes,” and I knew he was right. There was nothing to feel but gratitude.
I put ads on my site to help pay the bills and emboldened myself to charge more since the site started to reach over 180k unique readers per month. To keep things cheap, I used my referral bonuses from booking sites to pay for my accommodation in Southeast Asia. There were times when I paid my assistant more than I paid myself, but I knew that good things were around the corner. I knew that if I believed in myself and my brand, things would work out.
And they did, as I’d discover later in the year.
When spring rolled around, I nervously stepped into the arrivals lounge in Cusco airport to greet all of the people who would be coming on my first BMTM Adventures tour. It turned out to be more rewarding than I could have imagined. I’d never had face time with readers like that before, and it was humbling, sleep-depriving at times, and so uplifting that I ran 2 more in year six – one backpacking in Alaska and another exploring Namibia, Botswana and Zambia (Victoria Falls), which I’m running again in 2020.
I never expected that these tours would be life changing for some people – but they have been! To teach women how to backpack for the first time, to watch as they experience camaraderie with a group of women that is often lost in society these days, and to see them triumph over physical challenges is a beautiful thing.
It’s also crazy stressful making sure nothing ever goes wrong, or at least handling as much as possible behind the scenes so that it goes smoothly. Having my co-guide, Pete, has made it all possible, given his years of experience and super chill attitude, and I would probably not run tours without that support.
Thankfully that spring, I also started getting more offers to work with destinations. I was being paid much more than I had a few years prior, and my savings started to grow again.
Everything was going well, right? On the surface, and at most times, it was, but the cheap shots came in hotter too.
I got a couple of internet stalkers, and became the daily target of rude to brutal, and sometimes sadist comments from people. It could come in an email, a video comment, or a Facebook comment. It took many hours on the phone with my life coach to reconcile these comments.
Now I’ve learned not to give them any head space. They’re not opinions from people I value, or even know. I also realize that even though it feels personal, it’s really not about me. As Teddy Roosevelt so eloquently said,
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
Year Seven: Explosive Growth, and 80-Hour Workweeks
I can look back on each year of this journey and see growth, but it wasn’t until year seven that I felt it had all taken on a life of its own, growing in ways I hadn’t anticipated. It might sound ridiculous to some, but I know down to my core that it was finally taking the steps of believing in myself by hiring someone new, doubling my prices to match what I deserved, and loving and believing in myself enough to stay sober that created a shift in my energy and what I was calling in. I was telling the universe that I was ready to step up, and it responded. I see a direct correlation between becoming more spiritual and becoming more successful. At least for me, manifestation has been the the most important part of this era.
In year seven, I worked on 12 projects with brands and tourism boards, all of which paid double or more than I made from such projects three years prior. Blog traffic continued to climb to over 300k unique readers per month, my YouTube grew slowly to 12k subscribers (now 13.7k), Instagram also grew to 115k followers (now 123k), and each time I trusted myself to turn down an opportunity that wouldn’t pay what I knew I was worth, a new one would show up that was even better.
I finally had an abundance of opportunities, which also meant it was the busiest year of my life. I launched the Photo Muse Masterclass, officially left Berlin, which had been my home for more than 4 years, announced and led several more adventure tours, and my workload increased to 80 hours per week.
Year seven was spent almost entirely on the road, and it put me in a weird space. Continuous movement had been the goal when I started. In my wildest dreams I hadn’t imagined getting paid to travel like this. Yet, it started to feel irresponsible to my body, the planet, and my goals, which have started to do with stability. I hired another employee, and while the intention was to cut down on hours, I admit I am a workaholic and it’ll take some reconditioning for me to figure out how to actually sit still, or take a break.
But I’m having fun trying, forcing myself to go off the grid more often and attending more spiritual retreats. I have many goals for the future, one of which is to lead my own spiritual retreats one day, and another is to help other female entrepreneurs on their journey. Mine has been a wild one, but it’s been thrilling each step of the way.
Today, as I write this, I’m a few months into year 8, and I can’t help but feel overwhelmed with gratitude for this journey. Now the blog generates well into the mid-six figures per year, and welcomed 3.4 million readers in the past 12 months.
I hope that by writing this history down in its entirety, it helps to show that it was a labor of love that required a lot of faith and staying power in the beginning. Things came slowly, even if from the outside it appears that it all came very quickly. I owe so much to a few key people, and it wasn’t until the last four years that I was finally getting enough work on my own that I could fully sustain myself. It has only been over the last three that this was a six-figure business, and even now, I pour much of it right back in.
I want to also acknowledge that I’ve been given a lot of advantages in life. I did not grow up in a wealthy family by glitzy LA standards but when measured against the entire world, I had incredible privilege with access to a US passport, free education, and a family who supported and helped me. I know that there were also forces beyond my control that helped me here and there, many of which I’m unaware of and may never fully understand.
Sometimes I’m so happy that I could cry, and sometimes I worry that this castle could crumble overnight, and then what would I be left with?
Seven years of incredible memories, the opportunity to have encouraged women to travel alone, the gift of sharing what I did and am doing and finding that you actually care, and connect with it. Though sometimes it can feel lonely traveling solo and working at home, this community is big, and beautiful, and kind, and supportive, and I love you all so damn much for being here.
Thank you, and I hope we always have a way of traveling this road together.