Running a Digital Agency while Roaming the Planet, an Interview with Chris Schwarz
Interviewer: Tim Martin, November 2014. Episode #22 from the NET:101 podcast.
TIM: Welcome to the show. With me today I have Chris Schwarz, who is the owner, the director, the founder of Digital Leaf, an agency based out of Adelaide, but as you’ll discover, that’s a nebulous claim, because it doesn’t spend much time in Adelaide at all. Welcome, Chris.
CHRIS: Thanks, Tim. Thanks for inviting me on the show, and hello to all of your listeners. What are you up to now, 100,000 a week?
TIM: Oh, at least. I have several million, but I lost count. Who’s counting? Chris, we’ve known each other for a little while, and we met in Adelaide a number of years ago. But you’re a man of the world at the moment, and that’s really what I want to talk about today: your ability to travel and work at the same time. Where are you today, by the way?
CHRIS: I’m in the southern Maldives, an island called Maafushi. It’s about a 90-minute ferry ride from the capital, Malé.
TIM: Nice. How long have you been there?
CHRIS: I think about 10 days now, but it’s the sort of place where you lose track of what day of the week it is or how many days here and there.
TIM: You’re not getting behind on your work, are you?
CHRIS: No, no, I’ve got a really good schedule at the moment. I wake up around 8:00, have breakfast from 8 till 12, and work from that time as well, and then go out and get 4 hours in the sun, whether it’s snorkeling or canoeing. I sort of retreat back in and get some more work done in the evening.
TIM: Sounds great. You’ve been doing this for a few years. You’ve been working more or less full-time, but you’ve been moving to different locations around the world and pulling down a full-time job. How does that work?
CHRIS: Yeah, I’ve lived in a lot of different places now, all over Asia, all over Europe. It’s just like any other job. I spend 100% of my time at the computer, and all I needed as an internet connection, so I took it on the road with me.
TIM: Nice. How long have you been doing this?
CHRIS: Probably around 4, 4 ½ years. But it’s sort of been a bumpy road, I think. It’s only really been in the last 2 years where I’ve felt a lot more stable and free, I guess you could say.
TIM: Pretty much your office is wherever you decide to set up your internet connection, right?
CHRIS: Yeah, absolutely. Right now I’m working off a 3G connection, so it’s pretty much anywhere on this island is somewhere I can sit down.
TIM: How many different places do you think you’ve visited? Like different countries.
CHRIS: I really don’t know. It’s less than 30, but I’ve settled down. I prefer to settle down in a city and stay there for 2, 3 months. It’s a little bit more stable and just the sort of travel that I like to do.
TIM: You’ve got a digital agency. I know you do a lot of AdWords work and also paid search on some of the other platforms. That’s pretty much your mainstay in terms of the work you provide?
CHRIS: Yeah, AdWords. I love AdWords. I’ve done a lot of stuff in the past, a lot of SEO stuff, a lot of content. It was a lot more difficult to do while I was traveling. AdWords, it’s all math, it’s all data analysis, which is a little bit more easier for me and my background and the way my head works. I enjoy it a lot more.
TIM: How many clients would you have or be maintaining on a regular basis?
CHRIS: It’s probably around 15 to 20. I have a few agency clients that have some smaller clients that I do work for here and there. It’s a little bit hard to give an exact figure, but around 20.
TIM: Are they all Australia-based businesses?
CHRIS: They are at the moment. I’ve had a Dutch client, a client based out of Hong Kong. I’ve done some work here and there for a guy I lived with in Iceland, an architect out of Hamburg. It’s quite easy to find clients, especially in Western Europe. Yeah, it’s easy.
TIM: How did you get your original set of clients, your Australian clients?
CHRIS: It was basically just through word of mouth. I had a lot of help from some of the agencies that I worked for. Some of their clients weren’t perhaps ideal to their business model, so I was very lucky in terms of some of the connections I had when I was first starting out.
TIM: So what, for the most part, you just retained existing clients rather than be on that treadmill of finding new ones?
CHRIS: Yeah, absolutely. It’s pretty much word of mouth, and LinkedIn. LinkedIn is just absolutely amazing. When you know how to use it, it’s pretty much the source of all of my – when I do need new clients, they generally come – LinkedIn has a huge process about that, and also sort of retaining clients as well. It’s LinkedIn.
TIM: Can you share any secrets in terms of finding new clients through LinkedIn?
CHRIS: It’s not so much – for example, if I get a lead, an email from something about some guy wants to learn a little bit about Google Shopping or something – an example I had last month was a remarketing campaign. Somebody emailed me and was like “Chris, someone gave me your contact details about those ads that follow people around.” So I said “Yeah, this is what they do. This is the services that I provide.”
Then I added him on LinkedIn, and for the next few days I’d make status updates about the importance of remarketing for businesses, and just changed the way I would update my status on LinkedIn to be very much in tune with what this potential lead needed. A week later, he messaged me and he said, “Yeah, I’ve seen some of your updates. I think we can make something work.” Just simple things like that, but it’s really, really effective.
TIM: Very clever. I would imagine to a large part, in that situation at least, you’re obviously never going to meet that person face-to-face. Do you video Skype them and get to know each other a little bit? Is that the way it works?
CHRIS: Yeah, definitely. A new client, I’ll always sprinkle Skype chat. I’ve got a Skype number, so any one of my clients can call the local Adelaide number and call me directly. But I would say in the last – probably this year, a lot of my clients are more – the mature clients, we don’t really need a video chat. Email is generally fine.
But I do have some clients that they just love to chat to me once a month, and half of the phone call is pretty much about my current location. It’s sometimes fun. A client might be “Yeah, I was in Istanbul 15 years ago with my wife. You should go check out this mosque or this palace,” and we just talk about where I am. Then at the end it’s like, “Oh, did you see that report that I sent you? How was that?” It’s like, “Yeah, no worries, Chris. Keep it going, keep it going for another month.” So it’s definitely about the client communication.
TIM: That’s great. What about the time difference? Different parts of the world, it’s going to be easier or harder to arrange a mutually good time to talk.
CHRIS: Yeah, it’s not so much of a problem. If I have to make a midnight phone call or a 6 a.m. phone call, it’s not really a huge problem. It comes with the job, I guess.
TIM: Did you find some environments easier to work in than others? Are you working out the best side of town to go to in terms of proximity to things or broadband connection or noise around you, that sort of thing?
CHRIS: Yeah. I’m not too fussed at the moment. I think when I first started out, I was always really paranoid about internet connections and what I needed, and a little bit afraid of going to some less developed countries.
But for the last 2 years, I’ve been roaming Europe, the west and the east, and there’s absolutely no problems at all with internet connections. Even right now, like I said, I’m working off my phone in a remote island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and we can Skype fine. I find internet’s not really a problem.
TIM: What about your own sense of self-discipline and getting the work done? Do you feel distracted, that you want to go out and party and go into tourist mode?
CHRIS: Yeah, absolutely. It’s probably one of the bigger difficulties. But if I don’t work, I don’t earn money and I can’t have my lifestyle. It’s something that I want to keep doing for a long time, and I need to keep it up.
TIM: I would. I imagine you’re charging your Australian clients in Australian dollars, but clients elsewhere, U.S. dollars? Is that the way it works?
CHRIS: Yes, U.S. dollars.
TIM: Which must make a big difference for you, depending on where you are, as to how far those dollars are going to go.
CHRIS: Yeah. I actually don’t think I’ll be back in Western Europe for a long time. (laughs) That’s a bit…
TIM: Bit [inaudible 00:09:56] for you, is it?
CHRIS: Oh wow, yeah. I really like Eastern Europe. It’s the same architecture, the same history, the same wow, and it’s a third of the cost.
TIM: The people that you meet along the way, what’s their reaction to what you’re doing?
CHRIS: It’s definitely – when I meet a lot of people and I tell them what I do, you do get pretty much a reaction of “Wow, your life is awesome.” It starts with that, and then it’s like “How do I do what you do?” Sometimes they’re a little bit tiresome questions, but I think after awhile, it really hit home. It’s like “Wow, a lot of people want to do what I’m doing. It must be a really fun thing to do.”
TIM: How often would you get back to Australia, Chris?
CHRIS: In the last few years, 3, 4, 5 months of the year. It really depends. I keep going back for weddings. I’ll be back in a few weeks for my brother’s wedding. All of my mates are at the stage where everyone’s getting married. And I like going home; it’s one of my favorite countries in the world, and summer is such a great time in Australia. And it’s good to see my friends, my family, and my mum, keep my mum happy.
TIM: Yeah, always got to keep your mum happy.
TIM: You don’t feel sort of lonely, that you don’t have friends? Well, I’m sure you make friends on the way, but some of those older friendships, for example, or workmates in a more traditional work environment?
CHRIS: That’s probably the biggest downside of the lifestyle, is you set up place – I left Istanbul after being there for 3 months, and I had a lot of friends there, and it was so good. The final day came where I had to leave, and it was a very sad, emotional day. It’s just part of the lifestyle.
But I keep in contact with all of my buddies back home pretty regularly. Communication’s pretty easy now. You have good days, you have bad days, but generally it’s not – I don’t really feel overly lonely all the time. But yeah, it’s part of the lifestyle.
TIM: So what’s the plan? How long do you think you’ll keep going? It doesn’t have to have an end date necessarily, but have you thought about that?
CHRIS: Nope. (laughs)
TIM: Right answer, there you go. He hasn’t thought about it.
CHRIS: Yeah, no. I don’t really need to think about questions like that. At the moment, I’m just taking things month by month. I really enjoy living in different cultures, and by far it’s meeting people. Some of the people I’ve met all across this world, they really shape your personality. You sort of build from them, and that’s what I’m really enjoying at the moment.
Like I mentioned, I’ll be back home for summer, and then I’ll be back in India in late January. And then who knows? I don’t really have a plan.
TIM: I’ve got to say, you’ve got one of the more interesting Instagram feeds that I follow. It’s like, “Where’s Chris today? There he is.”
TIM: What about the level of sophistication around digital and social in different countries? Is that something that you’re able to pick up on? If you use Australia, for example, as a reference point, are countries ahead or behind? That sort of thing.
CHRIS: Yeah, good question. I can definitely state the obvious: the internet connection in Australia is really, really slow compared to most of the developed world and even the developing world. You take somewhere like Eastern Europe – I remember I was in Lithuania and Latvia, and you just walk down the street and there’s 10 open Wi-Fi signals. They’re all like 30, 40 megabits each. It’s just super fast. You get like 100 gigs of data for like $10. It’s incredibly fast in Eastern Europe, and the west as well.
So that’s one thing. But in terms of digital – something like Berlin, I notice there’s a huge tech/digital startup community there. That was very interesting. Everyone that I met when I went out to the pub or some of these social events, there were social media coordinators for the defense force or some developer for some new Berlin startup. Just everywhere. It was a good environment to be surrounded by. Tech-savvy, internet-minded people.
TIM: Sounds amazing. The usual social media networks that we use here in Australia, are they prevalent in different countries? Or have they each got their own local variations?
CHRIS: No, it’s pretty much all of the American ones, the Western ones.
TIM: They pretty much dominate, don’t they, the world?
CHRIS: Yeah, absolutely. I haven’t noticed anything different, to be honest. Everyone’s on Instagram, everyone’s on WhatsApp. WhatsApp is actually an interesting one. In Australia, no one uses WhatsApp. Everywhere else in the world, WhatsApp is so prevalent. Everyone has it.
TIM: How do you use it, Chris?
CHRIS: I use WhatsApp exactly like I would texting someone. You meet someone in Istanbul, and instead of getting their phone number – you don’t text them; you text them on WhatsApp instead of the local texting software on a phone.
TIM: Do you utilize social media as a remote worker on the other side of the world to keep in contact with people? Is that a good thing?
CHRIS: Yeah. I quit Twitter; I found it was just too much of a distraction. I didn’t really need it. I like to limit myself with the things that I need and try to push away some of the noise, and Twitter was very noisy for me. But yeah, I have Facebook. I like Instagram; it’s very fun. And LinkedIn. They’re pretty much the three networks that I use.
TIM: What would be your advice for someone who’s thinking of doing something along the lines of what you’re doing? Backpack, laptop, roaming card, and head off – is it as simple as that?
CHRIS: It’s probably more transition. For the first 2 years, I would always return back to Australia and I’d be like “Wow” – I didn’t know what would happen next. I didn’t know if had this income coming in. I didn’t know when I was going overseas next. It was just a huge unknown.
So it’s a transition; it’s not as though you can just go away straightaway. Unless you already have the freelancing and the clients already set up in Australia. Then I don’t see it being too much of a problem. You’ll learn along the way.
TIM: Yeah, so basically just start the journey and work it out as you go.
CHRIS: Yeah, absolutely. It’s about the journey. T here’s no endpoint to this lifestyle. Just enjoy it for what it is.
TIM: Yeah, because I outsource a lot of business functions to people around the world, and if I’m outsourcing to them, I don’t see why they can’t outsource to me. Put aside the fact that I’ve got a family and a house. But do you outsource yourself to people in different countries for things?
CHRIS: Yeah. Part of AdWords, I need designers, I need copywriters, and I occasionally need some HTML or CSS updates. These are just parts of my life that I don’t need to concern myself. I don’t need to know how to use Photoshop or CSS or anything like that. I’ve got teams based in Europe and in Asia as well.
TIM: You’re a freelancer; you’ve got maximum global mobility. You pretty much go wherever you feel like going. You yourself can outsource functions to people in other parts of the world. You’ve got a global payment system. What do you use, Chris? Is it PayPal?
CHRIS: I have PayPal. Most of my clients are Australian, so they can deposit straight into my Australian bank account.
TIM: Very few fixed costs, because you’re just basically renting where you stay. You’ve got a good laptop; what do you use?
CHRIS: I have just the year-old Dell Vostro or something like that. I don’t do a lot of heavy software. I don’t use a lot of data. I just need quick, fast internet. So I don’t have anything too special at all.
TIM: And then you’ve got a website, obviously, and a social media footprint, as you say. LinkedIn is a big thing for you. So that’s your kit and caboodle, pretty much all in a backpack.
CHRIS: Yeah, pretty much. I use a variety of online services as well. I love FreshBooks. I’ve been using FreshBooks as an invoicing platform for a few years. Something like Teamwork is my project management software. I gave up BaseCamp years ago. Teamwork is a lot better. Just tools like that which I use as well, which come in really handy. I’ve got Dropbox, Google Drive, just things like that.
TIM: Right, excellent. You’ve got a lot of cloud action happening, both on the beach and over in the server farm world. You’ve got the best of both clouds, haven’t you, Chris?
CHRIS: (laughs) Yes.
TIM: Okay, that sounds great. Have you got any more stories to tell? Obviously it can’t have been all swimmingly perfect for you. Any mishaps?
CHRIS: Yeah, there’s been lots along the way. I remember even trying to find internet in Japan was really difficult. Surprisingly, the Wi-Fi, different technologies, my laptop didn’t work. Then there’s public holidays that I didn’t know about and I can’t get to an office or a café, which was really frustrating at times.
I’ve also had – my phone got pickpocketed in Vietnam. My laptop stopped working in Vietnam and in another country as well, and I had to quickly work out how to find another laptop really quickly. Just issues like that.
TIM: Of course, you survived to tell the story, so it’s just something that you worked through, became a little bit wiser for it, yeah?
CHRIS: Yeah. You learn how to handle the stress. At the end of the day, you may go offline for a day or two, but I’m in the position now where I can cater for that. It’s not really a big problem anymore to me.
TIM: Do you find yourself – because this has been my recent experience of traveling overseas: I’ve become obsessed about power sources. I’m always thinking about how I’m going to power my devices.
CHRIS: Yeah. At the moment my battery is really not so great on my laptop anymore, so I permanently have to charge it into a power point. Also on my phone as well; it needs to be permanently charging. Which is really frustrating. One of the reasons, when I go back home, I’ll sort that out, get a new battery, get a new phone.
But I’ve been reading a lot about the portable chargers, which is something I really, really need to get. Charge it up and charge my phone if it runs out portably.
TIM: Now, where are you off to next?
CHRIS: I’m flying out to Singapore – I don’t really know when. And then I’m going to be back home for a few months. And as I said, I’m going to be in India in late January.
TIM: Nice. Chris, thanks so much. I’ll of course be following you, as I always do, on Instagram. Always good to see where you are. Let people know where they can find you, Chris.
CHRIS: Yeah, cool. Probably the best spot is LinkedIn. It’s Chris Schwarz. Maybe just Google “Chris Schwarz Adelaide” and you should be able to find me quite easily there. My website is digitalleaf.com.au as well.
TIM: Excellent. I won’t hold you anymore; I know you’re busting to get back to the beach there.
CHRIS: Yeah, I might go for a canoe around the island today, I think.
TIM: (laughs) I’m a little bit envious, but I’m not going to show it. Chris, thanks so much for joining us.
CHRIS: All right, cool. No worries, Tim. Thank you very much.