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We met American couple Jenny and Tom in Chiang Mai earlier this year and although we only shared one meal with them, our conversation had a big impact on us. We were going through a difficult business decision at the time, and were inspired by their success story of creating iPhone apps while travelling to start our own app business. They didn’t even mean to work while on their round the world trip (hence the name of their travel blog Till The Money Runs Out) but now have 21 apps for sale which fund their travels.
1) How long have you been travelling and where have you been?
We have been traveling for about 16 months and have been to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Panama, Cuba, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Spain, Bulgaria, Turkey, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, Italy, Greece and the U.S
2) What made you decide to travel?
Jenny: I have always liked traveling, though usually just for a month at a time. I had just finished my Master’s degree and was starting to go on job interviews for a better job than the one I had while going to grad school. After one such interview I had a bit of crisis and cried to Tom ( my then boyfriend of about 7 months) “I don’t want to do this! I don’t want to start wearing high heels to work everyday and working more and more trying to make as much money and gather as much stuff as I can!” He said “well, let’s not do that. Let’s sell everything we own and go and travel off of our savings until it runs out.” About 5 months later everything was sold and we were on a one way flight to Colombia.
Tom: I knew it was going to be a life changing adventure and there was no better time to do it. I wasn’t tied down to anything, I was between jobs and had a little savings. It was the right decision to make, but a very difficult one.
3) How do you fund your travels?
Tom: We started traveling on savings. Our blog’s address says it all “till the money runs out.” Jenny and I are both the entrepreneurial type and never have less than about 5 projects in the works. Because of Jenny’s degree, certification and background in the field of behavior analysis (specifically autism) and my background in programming we began developing apps for children with autism. Our company now funds our travels.
4) Do you find it difficult to balance travel and work? How do you manage it?
Jenny: It can be difficult. We often really enjoy what we do, and when we get started on a project we usually want to finish it more than we want to see what there is to see around us. We definitely have had weeks where we work pretty much all day. But, we also have had lots of weeks where we don’t really work on anything because we are on a trek, or a live aboard or in a place like Cuba where internet is scarce. I am usually the one who drags Tom out of the house to go see whatever is around us. We tend to work every morning until the early afternoon and then go and see the world around us.
Tom: Yes, it’s difficult to find enough work time for all of our projects. We like to work in the morning and do our best to schedule. If left to my own devices I would work 18 hours a day, with one break for dinner and occasional snacks in front of the computer. I have Jenny to thank for motivating me to see the Vatican when in Rome, and explore the beaches in Thailand. Also wifi is not always easy to find, which has the silver lining of forcing you to enjoy traveling more.
5) How did you get into the iPhone app business and was it difficult to learn the skills needed to create an app?
Jenny: Before we left (when I was still working) I had a client (a kiddo with autism) who had a really hard time learning to take turns. He was doing really well with all of the skills I was working with him on, but would get really aggressive when it came to sharing or giving other people a turn. I had an audio and visual tool in mind that I thought would help and when I described it to Tom he asked if it would work if it was on my iPhone. He built it for me to use in my next session and it worked really, really well.
I had other therapists who worked with the kiddo ask me what I did with him that improved his sharing so much. I showed them the app and they all asked if we would submit it to the app store so they could buy it. We submitted that app just a couple of months before we left. After we left we had our computers with us, and more time than we ever had before and so started building other ideas I’d had for different clients. We now have 21 apps in the app store.
Tom: How did I get into the app business? The same way I learned to program; through trial and error and determination. I wanted to build an app and so I beat my head against it until I figured it out. My main tip to people is “keep going at it, you’ll get it eventually.” I’m not the type to learn from reading technical books, I just read online tutorials and blog posts and basically brute force it.
6) What’s your advice for marketing an app and increasing sales in the iTunes store?
Tom: The beauty of the app store is that you don’t have to do any marketing. People go there looking for apps. We would probably do better with some marketing, but with creating and maintaining apps and traveling that is the area that has gotten the least attention. Don’t underestimate the benefit of having marketing be a “nice to have.” The most difficult part of any project is getting people to use it. Apple essentially does this (as well as your customer service) for you, for 30% of profits. A great deal in my opinion.
Jenny: I don’t really consider “Touch Autism” work. I really, really enjoy it. I love coming up with ideas and turning materials I have made into apps. Marketing would feel like work. I know it would probably improve our business, but there is too much fun stuff to do to spend much time on it.
7) You have outsourced some of the elements of the app creation. Do you recommend this and what advice do you have for successful outsourcing?
Tom: If possible outsource everything. It’s great, but can be difficult. We are really still learning. We use elance, but there are lots of great services out there. My advice for outsourcing is to be incredibly specific when writing the specifications for a job and when you find someone you work well with, treat them well.
Jenny: My advice would be to be incredibly picky when choosing the person you give the job to, and then when you find someone good- stick with them!
8 ) What are some of your favourite destinations?
Jenny: Hmmm. That is tough. Usually when we talk about favorites we have to get really specific, like favorite breakfast, or snorkel spot. Some of my favorite spots have been La zona cafeteria in Colombia, the Galapagos islands, Bocas del Toro – Panama, Cuba, Barcelona, Istanbul, Bali, and Sydney.
Tom: Cuba, Thailand, Bali, Europe, Istanbul and Australia. Not in that order. We also loved seeing family and friends wherever we happened to be.
9) Tom surprised Jenny with a proposal – an impressive feat when you are together 24/7. Tell us the story!
Jenny: We were in Thailand and our visa was going to run out on February 12th (our two year anniversary). I figured we would probably be on a bus that day making a visa run or going to a neighboring country. Tom however was very insistent that we fly to Bali a couple of days before and stay somewhere really nice to celebrate. He said he would pick the place and make the reservations. When we got to Bali I was amazed at the place he had chosen, by far the nicest place we have ever stayed in. We had a private villa with a pool and a butler, needless to stay leaps and bounds away from our usual modest apartment rentals or hostels.
The morning of our anniversary the butler brought us breakfast to the patio that overlooked a waterfall. After breakfast we were leaning back full and happy, sipping our coffee. Tom started talking to me very seriously about our time together, and then got down on one knee, took a ring out of his pocket and asked me to marry him. It was completely unexpected. I was absolutely gobsmacked, I think it took me a few minutes just to close my mouth. By the time I realized that he was for real, and managed to say “yes” he told me that he thought “Oh, is she still on that part? I thought we had moved on.”
Tom: It was important to me that she was surprised. The most difficult part was building the ring. I didn’t have any time away from Jenny to buy one and since we share a bank account buying one was completely out of the question. While house sitting over Christmas/Hannukah in Bulgaria one of my “man duties” was to chop wood for the fire. While in the woodshed pretending to chop wood I was actually hammering, filing and sanding a 20 Stantinki coin into the shape of a ring. The finishing touches involved tracking down finer grit sandpaper while “running to the ATM” in Istanbul and while Jenny was in yoga in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Over breakfast in Ubud, Bali I asked Jenny to marry me. She was most definitely surprised. All she said for the first few minutes after was “really?” “really?” “really?”
10) Where are you heading to next? Do you think you’ll ever settle down in one place?
Tom: We just returned to the States for our wedding. True to form we have very few concrete plans after July. We will settle down, we just don’t know when. But we hope to never stop traveling.
Jenny: We are in Northern California to get married at the end of June. As far as settling down. Well we had been thinking about staying in Northern California for a while, but are already starting to plan some longer visits to some of the cities that we liked the most. Maybe 3 months in Sydney, or Barcelona. I think we will have a home base someday, maybe a house we can rent out on Airbnb, but since we can and do work from anywhere I don’t think we will ever stop traveling. I don’t know where we will be in a year, we aren’t great at long term planning, but I do know that wherever we are we will be together. Too cheesy?
Jenny: Well it’s true! I don’t know where I’ll be in a year, but I know you’ll be there.
If you enjoyed this interview then read about other long term nomads in our Nomadic Interviews series.