A Year of Love and Struggle with "Discover Discomfort"
A recap of what went well, what we learned, and where we're going after one year with Discover Discomfort
Today marks the end of the first year since our launch of Discover Discomfort, a project that Jo and I launched to learn difficult things in challenging places, to take ourselves outside our comfort zones, and to learn more about ourselves, but which has become (and is becoming) so much more.
So I'm sharing a few milestones, plus how our project has evolved, what we've achieved and learned, and where we're going next.
There's so much hype and snake-oil out there about being a "blogger" as some kind of lifestyle business when really, it's a terrible way to spend your time if your only goal is to make money.
But if your primary motivation is to do things you love, then you just might be able to make it work.
And if you leave yourself open to questions like "What do people need?" and "How can I best help them?" then blogging (or podcasting, or photography) can be an amazing platform to conduct research, see what people need, and figure out what you can do.
So like many decisions we make lately, we made the decision to become travel journalists mostly out of love. (And based on a business case backed by a sophisticated financial model.)
A year in, we've
- Made way less money than we thought, but still managed to get to 25,000 pageviews a month (woo-hoo!)... making only about $200 in the year (sad face). Both those are well under our projections.
- Been complimented by strangers for the 200,000+ words (like... four books!) and 100+ photos we've published
- Become conversational in two new languages, Arabic and Swahili, but more importantly, made Egyptian/Arab and African friends on a new, deeper level
- Developed unexpected new skills, like search engine optimisation and analytical marketing
- Seen the purpose of our journey evolve, to include discovering not just ourselves, but what we can bring to this world
- Learned how to live simply, and how much we have to gain if we do
More detail on each of those below.
Making (not much) Money Blogging
On the anniversary of our blog, a record one thousand people visited our website to read our content.
It's such an amazing privilege to reach a thousand people in a day. Especially since it has taken so far to get here, and that we have so far to go.
Let's dissect what this number of "1,000 sessions" means.
When we started out, our goal was to spend a year doing and learning difficult things that we wanted to do and that would force us to grow. Things like learning languages (Arabic and Swahili), new skills (dance and martial arts) and athletic achievements (running and swimming distances). And at the same time, we'd start a blog to chronicle it and perhaps — if things went well — we'd make money.
But we weren't obsessed with making money. The rationale was: we wanted to do these things anyway, and these things would make us better people. Worst case, we'd end up with a bunch of new skills, languages, and cultural understanding that would be great additions to already good resumes.
On the other hand, after doing a little research, we realised... hey, you can make money blogging! Yes, it takes time, research, and investment... but we're smart, really good at making business models, and diligent. We can do this.
Enter my tendency to make models and charts.
Oh yeah did I mention I'm good at making models and charts? Because I'm very good at making models and charts.
Things changed since those initial crazy projections, in spite of how beautiful that chart was (I'm still swooning. Look at it!). But they didn't change in the way we expected.
Firstly, to allay your suspicions — we have barely made a cent! If we tally up all the money we made on Amazon associate fees and affiliate fees from a few partner services, it tallies up to about US$200. Not much.
For context, you might wonder: how do bloggers make money? Three main ways:
- Ads. Yes, these still work, even though you use an ad-blocker. Not everyone does (I use one, personally, which Jo thinks isn't "cool" of me as I should support other bloggers).
- Affiliate income. This is super cool. You know how you feel like you should get a commission when you tell your friend to stay at some hotel or to buy some camera and they do? Well, bloggers clean up on these commissions.
- Sponsored travel. Weird grey area, but basically you write to the Tourism Board of the Republic of Turkmenistan and say "Hello, I would like to visit your country and write about it on my blog" and after a bit of diligence, they organise a guided trip, all-expenses-paid. If you're a very big deal, this can quickly become a very cool luxury trip.
Roughly speaking, travel and lifestyle blogs under 500,000 pageviews/month make around $20/thousand views/month ($20/mil in ad-speak). My favourite example of this is our online friends who run Adventure In You. These guys made US$10-20K/month from their blog before they stopped publishing income reports because they launched a course on how to make money blogging (something much more lucrative than the above methods of making money).
So why aren't we making $5K/month? Or even just the $500/month from our 25,000 page views?
Well, it's because the effect is exponential.
Traffic grows so painfully slowly at first. In our first month (excluding the announcement spike in Oct) we got less than 1,000 sessions in a month. And it grew sooooo slowly. And we'd freak out every time it went down.
The blogging community is an echo chamber of hype and hearsay about what works and what you "should" be able to achieve. We'd constantly compare ourselves to others: "that blog is getting 10,000 sessions a day — why isn't ours?" It's dangerous.
In reality, blog traffic grows like the stock market. If you look at just one day or one month, it's chaos. But over time... the damn thing does tend to go up. If you keep your nerve.
Secondly, when you hit our current level of 25,000 page views per month, you basically just hit the minimum eligibility to make any money. For example, in the last month, we made $12 with Amazon. Before last month, we had made $5... since launching our blog. I don't expect it'll go up to $50 next month, but I do expect increases to happen at greater pace.
Different ad networks also have different eligibility requirements. Google AdSense takes small blogs with low traffic — even 5,000 page views per month is fine. MediaVine pays more, but requires you to have 25,000 sessions a month (a "session" is a visit to a site, in which a user clicks around a bit and may view more than one page). And AdThrive pays even more but needs you to have 100,000 sessions a month.
Nobody really makes much money with AdSense (unless they're huge, or unless you're Google). Bloggers LOVE MediaVine — in the first month they sign up, they typically make $250-500. We haven't yet qualified (but will soon). And AdThrive — it's nice if you can get in!
Finally, ads and affiliate income aren't our end game. This journey much more about discovering and serving our audience: building something that improves people's lives. And then working on that. We're still on that journey.
So you might be wondering: "How do we pay for all this"?
Easy. We have some savings. We go to places that aren't expensive, so even with our comfortable lifestyle (usually an apartment to ourselves), we spend a total of $1K/person/month. And finally, I'm doing some consulting work with old friends, which feels more like "helping because they asked repeatedly and nicely".*
If you want to know more about the financial journey, let us know in comments —happy to help out other starting publishers.
But we're confident about the future. We're still growing, and we have new websites coming that will also grow.
Then there are the reasons OTHER than money for which we write.
* On what I consult for — I help early-stage tech companies with international operations. I'm experienced at management, operations, analytics, finance, and engineering, and speak eight languages, so I'm good at it.
Being Complimented by Strangers for Writing 200,000+ words & taking 2,000+ photos
Something that surprised us slightly just how much we like writing and photographing.
The joy was somewhat unexpected. I've always been "good at words", as Jo says, and she has got a keen eye for angles and composition.
I've always been good at writing — for the business world.
It started with growing up in an immigrant family. I regularly didn't know words and expressions at school, so I had to spend extra time figuring them out, to make sure I was always, on balance, ahead.
Then in law school in Australia, I had to take my English to the next level. I had to master English expression. Compared to my amazing peers I was woefully average. But what standards they set!
My appreciation of the written language has evolved a LOT since law school. Educated lawyers would scoff at my style: paragraphs that are too short, words that are too simple, over-use of stylistic elements like random bold-facing and CAPITALS.
But what I've learned, and am loving learning more, is the art of keeping people's attention through style. I tell jokes, throw in pictures, and use emoji. It's all designed to keep your attention.
Are you still with me?
The online world is even fussier than the business world. Nobody has attention for anything. One typo or error and you've lost a huge part of your audience. People click away, shut down your website, and your rankings go down (because of the way search engines work — they just give people what they want to see).
Anyway, it has been an interesting journey.
The best bit? Compliments from strangers.
Here's one, a new friend in Kenya:
And a whole family of friends in Tanzania:
Jo gets touching direct messages on her Instagram feed all the time.
Some of them are just compliments:
Hey Jo! I just wanted to take a second to tell you how much I love your page. I’m considering moving abroad and your profile has given me so much inspiration to chase after my dreams! Your adventures have been so fun to follow along with, especially Tanzania and Israel. Thanks so much for inspiring me everyday 💓
And some of those people say "Hey, we want to show you around our city." And they become our friends. (We think of you often, Mina and Wagdy!)
If we could live off compliments, we would!
Even though we can't, though, we still let them be our guiding force. There are two main ways we know when we're reaching our audience: a) raw pageviews data, and b) when they tell us. When someone leaves a comment, writes in, or leaves a message saying "thank you for this article!" it warms the cockles of our hearts. Especially when it was one that was particularly hard to write and that we were scared to publish.
Seeing the world through the eyes of others
We set out to learn Arabic and Swahili.
But we ended up learning about so much more, including
- About Islam
- Egypt's place in the Middle East
- East African identity and culture (including the different flavour of Islam in Zanzibar)
- The diverse array of Arabic dialects and African languages
... and so much more.
Jo remarked recently: "You know, last year, I didn't have any Muslim friends. Now I have a few good ones. That's cool."
It's true. I've only ever had a few Muslim friends — I could count them on the fingers of one hand. I have more now, and they're from several different countries and all have distinct attitudes towards Islam, ranging from casual, to "reformed", to traditional devout.
I don't want to objectify my Muslim friends, because they're friends first and foremost anyway. But I'm proud to have become friends with them. Because they're people I like and trust — who I could call up in an emergency, for example, and ask to crash at their house. Having friends from new walks of life helps me see many more people as my friends in waiting.
It's similar to, for example, how before I moved to the US for a few years I didn't have many friends who carried guns. Like many non-Americans, I had a media-influenced tendency to assume most gun-carriers would be fundamentally different to me. Now I do have friends who carry guns. These are people I like and respect, and it helps me to see many others as potential friends as well.
The best part was that becoming familiar with one culture helped us understand others in unplanned ways. In Zanzibar, the call to prayer and Ramadan were familiar things we didn't need to get used to. There were a surprising number of Arabic words in Swahili, including most numbers and many basic greetings.
And on the flip side, we interacted with women much more in Zanzibar than we did in Egypt, helping us understand that gender relations in a society can often be much more social than anything to do with religion.
But yes, we did learn conversational Egyptian Arabic and Swahili, and that was awesome. And continues to be — I've even used Arabic a few times in Spain and France, with Moroccans, Lebanese and yesterday, an Egyptian. If you're curious, here are videos of us speaking Arabic, and here are videos of us speaking Swahili.
Learning Unexpected Skills: Search Engine Optimisation, and Analytical Marketing
I loosely knew what Search Engine Optimisation was before I started all this. It meant "making stuff so you could find it on the web".
But now I know a lot more. So much that it helps me plan new articles (or even whole new websites) MUCH more realistically than before, and it helps me laugh at the ridiculous business model I had for Discover Discomfort.
Here's SEO in one sentence, something I wish I knew at the outset:
"A search engine-optimised website is fast, attractive, and rich in relevant, interesting content." (source)
There's a lot of depth below that sentence. For example, we've had to learn to ask questions like:
- What do people want to know?
- How do they find it out?
- Who else is answering that question?
- How good are those answers?
- How can we ensure they find ours?
- Why would they trust us?
- When they find ours, how much traffic will it bring?
- How can we monetise that traffic?
Previously, before starting an article I'd just think "Can I write this? Is it cool? OK let's go". Now there's so much more research, planning, and analysis. If ten amazing websites have answered the question "Where are the best burgers in New York?" then I'd be wasting my time answering that, especially since it's not very related to the rest of our blog.
But sometimes, I just write something because I want to. Like an article I wrote about why you really shouldn't say Kenyans, Nigerians, or Singaporeans speak "bad" English. It had a polemical title and was rich with opinion. It gets very little search traffic. But then it really resonated with some people, and they wrote in and told me so.
And the crazy thing is it's often the unexpected articles that really take off.
For example, I wrote an analysis of the differences between Hebrew and Arabic. I wrote it for fun, on a whim, because people in real life were asking me the question.
Now, that humble article is now at the #1 position in Google search! That means according to Google, I'm the #1 authority out of 33,500,000 search results on the topic of the similarities and differences between Hebrew and Arabic.
A heavy responsibility. I didn't expect to be here.
Or similarly, on my personal blog, I wrote a guide to buying a Ducati Monster, my favourite motorcycle. It, too, rose to the top of Google, getting me about 100 views a day and frequent compliments. Six months and a dozen more motorcycle articles later, and I'm now a motorcycle journalist. I never saw this coming, nor planned it, and it's awesome.
What will we be known for in a year or so? I don't know, exactly, but can't wait to find out.
It's Not Just About Us, Nor You; It's About The World
Discover Discomfort started out being pretty much just about us. And helping others do similar things: learn languages and connect with other cultures. But we've added another important part to it: discovering how we can best help the many problems the world faces.
We knew we were going to live in situations uncomfortable for us, with fewer of the creature comforts of the West (and with a couple thrown in, like vast natural beauty). But we also knew many others lived lives far, far simpler than ours. And we saw evidence of it repeatedly.
And then we saw things like this:
This is a pile of plastic trash burning in a village in East Africa.
Burning trash in fires Is how many people get rid of things like plastic containers. it pollutes the air. It breaks our hearts. And it's kind of necessary because the food people need (before we even get into sugary drinks) comes in plastic containers, and there's almost no other practical way of disposing of plastic in East Africa.
This isn't a problem unique to Africa — we've seen trash fires in the Middle East, Central Asia, and in Latin America. It's also not something I mean to blame anyone for. It's just there, and it's bad, and it needs to change.
Then there's every other problem we repeatedly encountered everywhere.
- Persecution and limitations on the freedom of women, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia
- Racism, just everywhere, in all shapes and forms
- Marginalised migrant workers and refugees
- Persecution of LBGTQ groups
- Pollution of the air, ground, and water, and destruction of the environment
- Lack of education opportunities or access to reliable information
- General poverty
- Political/economic instability, people having a feeling of "this may all come crashing down tomorrow"
- Lack of access to safe, clean, healthy food and drinking water
- Poor social welfare and healthcare systems
- Animal welfare/rights — livestock, wildlife, and pets
For an example of the last, there may be no lions by 2050. And yes, I'm tugging on heartstrings with a cute photo. But I don't take photos of people in dire predicaments.
None of these are unique to the places we visited. There's heaps of poverty, plastic waste, environmental destruction, and mistreatment of animals in America and Australia. But seeing it everywhere reminded us of the universality of the problems facing us.
Also, admittedly, not working full time means we had time to see it and reflect on it and think... man, these things aren't good. This can't go on.
I was raised to not give money to people who ask for it on the street. There are complicated cultural reasons, but it's taboo in my culture. Many of you might have been told the same at some point, with various reasons given. It can make you feel weird, right? Me too.
Over the last year, I've given in and now give money. Just the process of trying to come up with a set of rules about this does my head in. To whom do I give money? How much? Why this person, why not that one? Who am I to judge? What if I get scammed/ripped off? My current (evolving) position is I may do some harm, and I may be scammed sometimes, but if I'm careful, mostly I'm hopefully helping someone buy bread for their family, at least in part. Hopefully.
Having time to think about the above problems means we think of things like
- Should we be eating way less meat... or maybe become vegetarian/vegan?
- Should we travel with our own plastic containers for take-out food?
- Should we just travel less? (Flying is a huge cause of emissions pollution)... Probably. This can't continue.
But more broadly, figuring out what cause(s) to contribute to out of all the above (and others) and how to contribute has become as important a part of our journey as any other.
Learned (more) About Living Simply, and Gaining So Much
We've learned a lot about living in uncomfortable places. Things like cold showers, mosquitos, anti-malaria medication, unpredictable power failures, slow/restricted internet, unavailability of most delicious foods (e.g. chocolate), poor clean water availability, noise, sandstorms, poverty, corruption, and theft have all generally just broadened our horizons a lot and made us a lot more thankful for what we have when we're in the West.
I want to point out we didn't live in bad situations. We were comfortable and safe. Many (or even most) others have it far worse. But we did have fewer things.
It's amazing how little we actually need in life. For example, every one of my socks is the same uniform black sock. I have two pairs of trousers and two sweaters. We don't have iPhones, let alone the latest model. We don't have any keys to anything. Life goes on.
The benefit of letting go of things we don't really need to live is getting to live in places like this, near Jambiani, Zanzibar:
Our own villa on the beach. But with no hot water, no internet (and poor 3G data reception), no shops within 5km (and only a rickety bicycle to reach them), and no fridge, and lots of bugs, some as big as my finger. All this for about $45 a night.
Or this place, at Habiba Organic Community, in Nuweiba, Egypt (this beach was, again, about 20 metres from our room):
Again, almost no internet, unreliable hot water, many mosquitos at night, no nearby shops, and I can't remember how we even washed clothes. For $20 a night (or free, if you volunteer at the farm long-term).
But in both those places — and others like them — we've had unmatched peace and some amazing human relationships. Experiences we'll never forget.
But yes, we do need an outlet, and we need a laptop, and a mosquito net, please.
Every time I do a little consulting project I think: I really like some bits of this. I like leading teams, helping people, and creating a fun place to work. It's going to remain part of my life.
But ultimately, it won't get in the way of the life we've been living and building. So next up in 2019 is first, learning to dance the Salsa in Colombia, to cure my two left feet. Expect to see us twirling.
And after that, there's the "Year of Going Home", where we'll begin to explore parts of the world connected more with our own cultural and life backgrounds. This will include
- Central Asia, where we'll speak Farsi (that we'll learn outside the area)
- Korea, where we'll learn Korean and maybe I'll take up Tae Kwon Do
- Australia again, where we'll try to connect with the Aboriginal Australian culture — something I have to work out.
Whatever's next, we've learned so much already. And more than anything else, we've learned how much more we have to learn.