Use Travel to Incubate Your Next Business Idea

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Tom McQuillen

I’m Tom, a product manager and full-time traveller from Melbourne, Australia. I work remotely for Yume and write about my travels at The Palm Diaries. I’m a massive fan of Starter Story and have decided to share a little of my journey as I begin my own indie-business - The Good News Email.

I wasn’t looking for startup ideas, but they came thick and fast. There’s something about being in a different place, a different culture and a different headspace that lets the mind kick in to creative mode.

All those little ideas and insights come bubbling to the surface and you see opportunities everywhere you look. If you’re a solo founder, an indie hacker, or just feel like you need some space to think, you should consider a trip abroad to get the juices flowing.

Writers, musicians and artists have always known the value of a retreat or a change of scenery as a catalyst for deep thinking. Creatives from Thoreau to Bon Iver have written their best work in cabins, while Radiohead recorded most of OK Computer secluded away in a mansion. They made the most of being able to work from anywhere – now the internet has made this possible for almost everyone else.

My journey

My overseas journey started as a small break between moving from my hometown Melbourne, Australia to the United Kingdom with my partner.

I work at Yume, a fantastic startup focused on eliminating food waste, and I’m in a role where it made sense for me to continue to contribute remotely, part time. I’ve spent the past 10 months travelling and working throughout Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam!

Over that time I’ve learnt a little bit about working remotely overseas, managing a long-term budget and the benefits of starting your own project while on the road.

Travel lowers your expenses

One of the counter-intuitive things about long-term travel is that it can lower your living expenses. By relying on part-time work or savings, you can reduce the amount of time you are working to support your lifestyle. This opens up lots of free time to tinker, explore and think deeply about new ideas.

I found more time to read books, complete online courses and reflect on what I’ve learnt on my startup journey so far. Without lots of other distractions and the burden of full-time work, the “diffuse thinking” mode of my brain flourished and I began to think about all sorts of problems that I’d like to solve.

Free from my regular routine, I found I was able to think strategically about the products I was helping to build. I was able to take a ‘helicopter view’ - a different perspective that included the bigger picture, and think about where we needed to be in the next twelve months.

A spark of an idea

There was one in particular that stuck in my mind and really seemed to grab my attention – I’m a big fan of regular, informative newsletters like Finimize, the Hustle, the Daily Pnut and the Skimm.

At the same time, I wanted to contribute something positive to the conversation as I found myself inundated with overwhelmingly negative news summaries. The Good News Email was born, and I found I had the time, space and freedom to work on it!

One of the added benefits of forming this idea while travelling was the ability to brainstorm and get feedback from all kinds of different people that I met along the way. It was great to bounce ideas around with people from different backgrounds and cultures, who came at the problem with different insights and perspectives.

The challenges of the digital nomad lifestyle

The ”Digital Nomad” lifestyle has been glamourized to the point of absurdity. I spent months living in beautiful locations, at stunning beaches in great little surf communities, and I absolutely loved it. But there were plenty of challenges. I’ve seen lots of those “my office for the day” type photos and they are mostly rubbish – no one takes their laptop to the beach because it’s too glary, sand would ruin the keyboard and who wants to ruin a day at the beach with their computer!?

When you’re travelling and working at the same time, you need to try and find reliable internet, a power source and a quiet, calm place to work. The novelty of balancing your laptop precariously near a pool wears thin quickly, and you end up looking for places that approximate a quiet office, though perhaps with a better view.

If you’re working on something where other people rely on you, a 4G sim card is essential (you can never depend on the wifi, or the power), as are noise-cancelling headphones and a topped up Skype account. All that said, there are plenty of benefits – a mostly distraction free workspace and different time zones allow you to work more efficiently and effectively – I found I got a lot more done in a lot less time.

Freedom to think

There is a real benefit when you are working on deep, creative work, trying to come up with new ideas or need to do some critical, uninterrupted thinking. You can choose the time and place you want to work with complete freedom. You can talk to people in different cultures, you can easily switch off and go exploring while your subconscious works away at a problem.

I found that travelling allowed me the freedom, the selfishness to pick the perfect moments to work. When I felt that burst of motivation or inspiration, I was able to buckle down and work for a few days and get things done at a speed I’ve never managed anywhere else. At the same time, I was feeling stimulated and inspired by the new, exciting and changing cultures around me.

I spent a day delving into Mailchimp, and a few more days researching “good news” stories and sources. I put together four “pilot” emails and sent them to some friends for feedback. I enjoyed the challenge of learning on the go – as a non-technical founder I investigated API’s, CSS and Javascript tweaks and hosting requirements.

When the first version of my website finally went live, I went out with Hannah and celebrated with a beer on the balcony of a bar in the heart of Hoi An and marveled at the incredible opportunity I’d been given to work on my own projects for such a minimal cost, with an abundance of time and stimulus!

Use travel as your incubator

Not everyone is privileged or fortunate enough to be able to leave everything behind and travel – families, jobs and other responsibilities need to be factored in. However for those who can, it is an amazing way to get some of the hard work and thinking done. If you’ve got a side project, or something you’re tinkering with, and want a catalyst to launch it, or take it to the next stage – a “solo hacker’s retreat” might be just the ticket.

Find somewhere new, somewhere affordable and spend some time exploring and thinking. Work as much or as little as you want, enjoy the freedom and the stimulation of being in an entirely different place. It may just be the perfect incubator for your idea project or hustle!

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