During my short time in Central Portugal, I’ve met quite a few people who are already doing what I want to do. Many have bought a piece of land or an existing house and moved here in an attempt to slow down the pace of life and do their own thing. It seems like everyone here has an awesome garden, a great passion for food and healthy living, and that they don’t spend any time between 9 and 5 going to a workplace off of their own property.
Which begs the question – what do all of these people do for money? Many are retired, some work online, some run courses (fermentation, natural building, etc), others give massages, and others still are struggling to figure out how to make it all work financially but their costs are low and they seem to have some savings behind them to buy some time.
As much as many of us would rather not think about money, it’s sort of necessary for buying land and getting things up and running. I really like the idea of the bartering economy but, alas, I doubt a landowner would be up for swapping their ruin and plot of land for 3,000 foot rubs.
I know I’m curious about how other people earn their living here in Portugal and so I’ll assume that you’re also wondering about how I plan to support myself financially in Portugal once I move here. Well rejoice! Because lucky for you, I’m not really all that shy about talking about money and I think my business is fairly unique so it might be an interesting read.
A Bit of Background
I left Canada way back in 2001 and I’ve been living in other countries, volunteering (with this amazing organisation), and travelling off and on ever since. I was an early ‘digital nomad’ type and I wrote about my travels and how I earned money along the way on my (woefully neglected) blog, Nerdy Nomad.
Long story short, I found myself in Rwanda in 2010 where I had intended on passing through fairly quickly. The combination of finding myself super burnt out on travelling and meeting a bunch of cool people in Rwanda led me to stay… and stay a bit longer… and then stay for almost eight years. Oops.
The Demise of ‘Magic Money’
If reading my neglected blog is not how you want to spend your time, here’s a summary: I quit my job in London in December 2007 and headed to Southeast Asia. I was making around $500 per month at that stage through Google Adsense, affiliate marketing, and selling links on my websites. I think I had four or five websites when I went travelling and built that up to around 15 today. They’re all crap now and have been filled with paid links so I won’t bore you with the details. For awhile, I was making a lot of money doing this without having to do very much work. I call this my ‘Magic Money’ phase.
Sadly for me but happily for the state of the internet, Google clamped down on link sales. The whole industry sprung up as a way to trick Google by buying links on other sites in the hopes that your site would climb higher in the rankings. Google started imposing penalties for this sort of thing and this shady industry has since faded away. I get the occasional link sale these days and those crappy websites all still exist, but the good ol’ days are well and truly over.
An Accidental Business
Happily, as my Magic Money was petering out, a website I started as a hobby began getting more and more popular. When I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda in July 2010 the only place I could find any information about the city was on a Yahoo Group (which is just sad). There was no city guide website and, since those were the sorts of websites I was used to making, I decided to start one.
Living in Kigali has since grown into the most popular (and only?) city guide website for Kigali and as my Magic Money grew to a trickle, more and more businesses started contacting me about advertising. I actually started the site with the intention of passing it off to someone else since I really had only planned to stay in Kigali for about a month. But the more I stayed, the more I added to the site and the more people started to find and appreciate it.
Another long story short… the advertising income from Living in Kigali is one of the ways I earn money (or flights, trips around Rwanda, and free hotel stays). It’s a pretty sweet job because I love Kigali and really love writing about it and sharing the city with readers.
An Accidental Cartographer
But my main income comes from making maps. Tourist maps of East African capital cities, to be more precise. This was a total fluke and it’s strange to think that this is now my job. So there I was, living in Kigali and working on my little website when I came to the realisation that the city’s only map is incredibly out of date and super crappy. I had zero experience making maps but I was inspired by these maps I’d seen of cities in Thailand and I had a reasonable belief in my ability to figure it out.
Fast forward three years (yes, it actually took that long) and in 2015 I released my first map of Kigali to a reasonable amount of fan fare. I ran a successful Indiegogo campaign, did a bunch of promotion on my website, and the map was a hit. I’ve since printed a second edition, along with maps of Addis Ababa and Kampala. These maps are loads of work and take around a year and a half to make, but I absolutely love the process and people seem to really like them. Up next is Nairobi!
How Can I Run African Businesses from Portugal?
…I hear you ask. The answers are that I’ve put some systems in place to help things run while I’m away (including an amazing accounting firm who do all of my invoicing and payment collection) and that I intend to go back to the region at least once a year to keep things chugging along nicely (I’ve got an ad deal with Turkish Airlines in exchange for a return flight to East Africa from Europe each year – business class, baby!).
I write one article per week on the website and I always attempt to queue up a few month’s worth of articles each time I’m back in Kigali. I think I’m covered until June for sure and then I’ll probably finish off some half-written articles to tide me over until my next trip.
The maps are sort of the perfect business because I can work really really hard on getting the map finished, print 5,000 of the suckers, and then hope that my distribution network is big enough to sell them all in a year and a half to two years. My accountants manage things and I just email distributors (hotels, shops, cafes, etc) to remind them to pay me and see if they want a restock.
I’m actually also working now on a map of Nairobi. I’ve done three maps previous to this one so I’ve got the whole process pretty much down at this point. I was in Nairobi a couple of months ago where I banged out a crazy amount of research. There’s still a lot of research to do in person in the city, but there’s also still a tonne of design work and online research I can do in preparation for finishing the map when I head back at the end of the year. So I’m able to do lots of work on the maps without actually being in each place and when I go back, I have a very clear idea of what to work on and I’m usually working at least 12 hours a day until its done. I probably have a solid three months of work in front of me (half in Nairobi, half anywhere) still left before I can add this finished map into the mix.
Nairobi is the Key to Everything
The new Nairobi map is actually what will allow me to buy property and get set up here in Portugal. I have a bit of savings but nowhere near enough (though I don’t even really know yet how much that will be). I’ve partnered with a Kenyan media business who will buy all of the ad space on my maps to resell (they already have loads of amazing contacts because they sell ad space in their magazine) and will also buy my 10,000 maps to distribute them. They’ll pay most of this up front and that means, in early 2019, I should have a nice chunk of money to throw at a ruin here in Portugal. And if it all goes tits up, I’ll figure something else out!
Reprints and New Maps are the Key to the Future
My Kigali and Kampala map reprints should happen sometime in late 2019 and Nairobi in 2020. It takes a fraction of the time to work on a reprint since the base map work is already designed, the ad spaces on the maps should hopefully mostly be renewed, and I’ll already have a distribution network set up. So, in theory, it should be some easy income doing something I love in a part of the world I love to be in. I guess the main issue is technological progress – I have no idea how long people will be using physical paper maps but they’re popular so far!
Plus I have a couple of other map ideas for East Africa that should be a lot easier to produce since I already have businesses set up in Rwanda and Uganda. Surprisingly, I even had a woman who works in government here in Central Portugal approach me about making a map of this area so that could be an opportunity I’d never actually considered before.
I Also Wrote an Ebook…
…but sales are slow and it needs to be updated – The Underground Guide to International Volunteering.
I Have No Idea How Much I Earn
So that’s how I earn money… but I really don’t know how much I earn per month. I should probably figure that out so I’ll know what my budget will be. It’s tricky because the map payments sort of happen in chunks now and then and I also have expenses to keep my business running and moving forward.
I’m going to write a whole post about estimated costs and what I think I’ll have to spend on land, but I’m planning on anything up to an absolute maximum of €35,000 for land (which would only be possible in a perfect world where all of my business stuff works out well… realistically somewhere around €20,000 would be ideal). There will be lots of costs on top of that to get set up that could add another €10,000 on top of that, before I even factor in monthly living costs.
The good news about Portugal is that it’s cheap to live, especially if I’ll have my own property. I’ve had a few people tell me their living expenses and it’s crazy low (around €500 for four people was one example). The bad news is that it’ll take a lot of time and money to get to the point where I’ll be able to chill and live off of the land a bit. I’ll need to get the garden going, get solar installed, figure out what to do about water, buy a car (yuck), put money towards actually building a place to live, and then there will be countless surprise expenses I’m sure.
I’ll Make it Work
I’ll need to sit down and work everything out so I know what my budget will be to actually purchase land and how much I’ll have to save to put towards building and living costs each month. But I think I’m in a good position with what I’m already earning, what I have saved, and the new ideas I have. I try not to worry too much about money as I don’t have any debt, I don’t really buy things, and my existence is cheap. If times are looking like they’ll be tough or if I want to save some money, I can cut my expenses way way down (by doing a work exchange, for example) and hunker down until maps and website money rolls in eventually. Possibly not the best way to do things but I’ll figure it out!