Imagine for a second that Walter White wasn’t cooking meth in that RV in the desert, but rather screen printing t-shirts or developing apps. It’s suddenly a very different story, one familiar to many entrepreneurs building a business with limited resources.
For him, the RV was a last resort, and the conditions desperate. In reality, merchants and makers are intentionally ditching traditional workspaces in favor of offices on wheels.
I think they’re onto something.
Meanwhile in Arizona...
Taylor Banks pivots his umbrella to find relief from the hot desert sun. His dogs seek sanctuary in the shade and solar panels behind him soak up rays, powering his laptop and his RV’s coffee maker. It’s Thursday, a work day. Taylor isn’t retired, nor is he on vacation – he’s making a living by living the dream.
By dream, of course, I mean my own. Exploring the countryside and chasing the sun in a mobile abode (while getting paid to do it)? Yes, please!
Entrepreneurship has afforded Taylor the freedom to work anywhere he pleases, and for him, it changes every week.
OK, maybe living off the grid really isn’t your thing. Maybe “the dream” for you looks nothing like the inside of an aluminum tube with a portable toilet. I urge you to read on anyway: Taylor’s story, and the advice gleaned from his own trial and error are relevant to entrepreneurs of all ilks.
In a nutshell, he’s developed systems to create space for life, for family, and for doing what he loves.
Before we dig in, let me first explain how this post came to be. Three years ago, I bought a 1970 camper trailer, and spent every waking moment trying to figure out how to fit my life into it full time. I'm now a remote employee at Shopify, one step closer to the dream. Taking on this topic started out as self-serving (maybe, a little) but it grew into a really interesting roadmap to the summit of work/life balance.
Taylor and I met in Portland last year when Shopify’s Retail Tour converged serendipitously with his own perpetual road trip.
We discovered that we were already connected on Instagram, via our mutual love of wandering. While my explorations were limited to vacation days and long weekends, his own were one and the same with his work life. I had to know more.
We arranged to catch up later over Hangouts, and I enviously surveyed his surroundings: cacti, unforgiving sun, blissful nothingness. On my end of the call, in Canada, icy branches tapped like the fingers of Death on the window beside me. It was the day of nature’s most fruitful snowfall of the winter.
The ecommerce store sprung out of the desire to live on the road.
Taylor is running multiple businesses from his 1997 Fleetwood Southwind Storm, a 34-foot RV that he shares with his wife, Beth and their two dogs. They’ve been on the road full time for the past three years (1260 days, to be exact). Before forgoing their mortgage for nightly RV park fees, the two worked in offices and took consulting gigs, firmly planted in Atlanta.
"In 2010, we went on a pseudo-working vacation in Costa Rica, because we realized it was cheaper to meet my business associate there rather than either of us flying to meet the other. While there, we had this epiphany. We were busting our butts, doing this rat race thing. In Costa Rica, we had this little casita on the beach with no TV but thankfully wireless internet. It was life-altering. We thought, ‘this is what we should be aiming for’. We said, ‘let’s make this plan to move to Costa Rica’. Ace Hackware was born out of that idea.”
Around the same time, Taylor read Tim Ferriss’ The 4 Hour Work Week. “I was pumped up by this idea, by the concept of outsourcing to make this happen,” he told me.
He built his first ecommerce store on Shopify. Ace Hackware – a source for hidden cameras, lock picks, and pentest drop boxes—was an obvious freshman shop for a self-proclaimed “long-time penetration tester and hacking countermeasures instructor”. (Don’t ask me what any of that means. I still get stuck in the work elevator sometimes.)
It took off, thanks to a small but growing community of security enthusiasts, but they still hadn't made any progress in moving to Costa Rica. The logistics and paperwork involved in moving to (and running a business) from a foreign country, it turns out, were prohibitive.
In Costa Rica, we had this little casita on the beach with no TV but thankfully wireless internet. It was life-altering.
The couple then realized that while they loved Costa Rica, there was still much of the US they hadn’t explored. Exit house, enter RV. Beth convinced her company to allow her to work remotely, and they haven’t looked back.
“Credit to my wife’s company for allowing her to work remotely. Companies are starting to realize that remote doesn’t mean less productive – and in some cases it means more productive. Beth has discovered that she can get a lot more done on a day out of the office than a day in the office.”
Though the store was designed to be a means to a (very sunny) end, it became a true passion. “Ecommerce really is my bag,” he says “I still do consulting, but I’d say it’s only really 10% of my income.” He and his business partner are now building a course to teach others how to achieve the same success through quick and easy ecommerce businesses.
The Case for Nature
For Taylor, success is synonymous with freedom and fresh air. Not only are he and his wife – and the scads of other working road warriors—experiencing a pretty epic adventure, they’re (unknowingly, perhaps) working smarter than their office-bound counterparts.
Researchers at Harvard recently discovered that cognitive performance increased dramatically in “green+” office spaces (low VOCs, improved ventilation, and “green conditions”) versus conventional offices. Most notably, the green+ test group’s scores in strategy and information usage were 288% and 299% higher, respectively.
Image: Whole Foods HQ, via Retail Design Blog
If improved indoor conditions can produce such a marked effect, imagine the benefits of taking your work to the source: killing your inbox from the great outdoors!
Some startups are getting wise to the obvious benefits to subjecting their staff to a little sea and air. Surf Office caught the wave—their Gran Canaria co-working space has an ocean view like whoa. The company’s homepage implores you to “Be More Productive Under the Sun”. It’s not just a catchy tagline. It’s science.
Shopify visits Surf Office
Studies have uncovered that subjects perform 50% better on problem-solving tasks after three days of active wilderness exposure. And, according to Eva M. Selhub, Harvard professor and author, nature “turns off the stress response which means you have lower cortisol levels, lower heart rate and blood pressure and improved immune response."
In short: get outside!
How to Run a Business From the Road
Paid vacation is built into the equation for a lot of 9-to-5ers like me. But what about entrepreneurs? If your workspace is located in an urban centre, devoid of the luxury of a quick tree-filled repose from order-filling, chances are you’re not getting enough. And a proper vacation? Forget about it.
Alternatively, why not take your business on the road? In Portland, I asked Taylor how he did it, and his response was simple: “outsourcing”. On our follow-up call, I pressed—there had to be more to it. The formula actually looks more like this: outsourcing + planning + automation + all the internet. Here’s what we can learn from Taylor’s own two years of testing and optimizing.
Image: Mark Compton, Dwell
Ahead of actually running a business from the road, you have to first master the road itself. Where to stay next and how to get there are all concerns for the average RVer, but amenities and services available are more critical to entrepreneurs on the move.
Many RV park review sites are unreliable for the working set because internet speed is rated by people using it to check Facebook and email, and not necessarily for running a business. “Fast” is a subjective term. (He points me, however, to Campendium, a promising new review database built by his road pals.)
Because this post is about the business side of being on the road, though, I’ll set you free to mine the internet for the rest. There are tons of amazing resources from trip planning tools to fuel-saving tricks to advice for travelling with children.
"There are a handful of good planning tools,” Taylor tells me, “but very few are integrated, so that’s still manual process.”
Always be Internetting
Heard of "boondocking"? It's essential to full-time road life, for saving bucks and exploring more remote areas. To take advantage of these free camping opportunities, Taylor has been hacking away at the biggest challenge: the internet.
“We’ve spent a lot more money and time on figuring out reliable internet than most people could or would. This piece is critical for doing this – we’re not retired. We’re almost $2000 deep into equipment and testing now, but the good news is that if we were starting over from scratch, we could get 80% of what we have for $300-$500.”
His current set-up is a Frankenstein of devices – solar power, hotspots, routers, 4G boosters, roof-mounted antennas – and multiple plans from three service providers. Only now has it afforded the luxury of providing a good signal (and enough data) at a decent distance from the closest cell towers.
Technology is still a challenge, even though we’re technologists.
Taylor laments that he really should commit his system to a blog post, but in the meantime, both Gone with the Wynns and Technomadia—two very inspiring and helpful full-time RV blogs – have excellent guides to staying connected on the road.
And, when fancy gadgets fail (as they do), there’s always free wifi. Pro tip:
"The internet is not ubiquitous. Sometimes, we do have to go to places with free wifi. Coffee shops are actually terrible. Laundromats and libraries are much more reliable in our experience – they’re not over-utilized by all the hipster tech geeks with their Macbook Airs.”
Ask Yourself: Is Your Business Road Worthy?
Since achieving trial and error success with Ace Hackware, Taylor and his business partner have applied the formula to additional businesses, including natural supplements, beard oils, and an in-the-works organic vape liquid shop.
“It’s one of the big trends – vaping and e-cigs. We found that there was a dearth of quality, purely organic, help-focused e-liquids. We’re taking our experience from the natural space to apply it to this trend.”
When making your own first foray into commerce, pick a product that is either a natural fit for your experience or interests, or research emerging trends.
Also consider the portability of your product or idea. You can’t warehouse most products in a 150 square-foot living space, and shipping from an Arizona desert is tricky. How you will handle inventory and shipping? Will you dropship or use third party warehousing and fulfillment?
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Outsource (Almost) Everything
Running Ace Hackware remotely relies on outsourcing a lot of the business. Taylor hired a VA three to four months into launching the store. She’s covered everything from bookkeeping and managing the site, to customer service and backend process management. Years later, she’s still on the team, and an integral part of business operations, affording Taylor a much lighter schedule than a typical entrepreneur.
I don’t truly have a 4-hour workweek. I think I would be antsy and bored, looking for something to do. I definitely don’t work 40 hours either.
Taylor’s business partner, Kevin, is grounded in Atlanta where the shop’s inventory lives. Picking and packing is outsourced to an hourly independent contractor.
What else can you outsource while you’re on the road?
- Fulfillment – Shipwire Order Fulfillment integrates with Shopify to pick, pack and ship orders to your customers from fulfillment locations across the globe
- Design, development, marketing – hire a Shopify Expert to take care of the technical or creative aspects of running the store
- Data entry, bookkeeping, customer service – Upwork is a handy resource for finding freelancers for any job (especially those mundane tasks that mess with your travel chi)
- Meetings – x.ai’s VA “Amy” shoulders the burden of scheduling calls and meetings
- Just about anything – there’s inevitably someone on fivver willing to shoutout your brand on Instagram or write you a jingle for about five bucks
Automate the Rest
More automation means less outsourcing, allowing Ace Hackware to continually handle a higher order volume with fewer people on payroll.
“We’ve been using Stitch Labs for inventory management, because it integrates with Amazon where we do other channel fulfillment, and integrates with ShipStation where we manage all of our shipping. It allows us to automate the manual stuff. Once we get our processes automated and documented, that’s when we can hand them off.”
The Banks duo even employs automation to plan the fun stuff. They use Fancy Hands to locate food and activities at an upcoming destination.
"When we’re rolling into a new spot, we can send a text message and it automates a sequence of processes that will create a couple of tasks that say ‘go find the cool yoga studios, go find the farmer’s markets’. We use IFTTT which spawns an email to Fancy Hands and has them researching things we want to do, like hikes and good gluten-free restaurants.”
Taylor finds Fancy Hands less helpful for business, however: “It’s harder because you don’t know who’s going to pick up the tasks – you have to be really specific."
Image: The Learning Banks
As we wrap up our conversation, Taylor swings wildly at a wasp—a problem I’d happily swap for this Canadian deep freeze. “Not to gloat, but it’s a pretty awesome existence,” he says. I marvel at how they seem to have really cracked it – the elusive work/life balance problem (weighted very heavily on life), but then I’m reminded that an entrepreneur will always be an entrepreneur:
“We’re both geeks. We struggle between going nice places and seeing new things, and staying in our little cave and punching buttons on lighted boxes. We find a lot of the time, we have to force ourselves to go outside.”