Who are you and how did you get started in blogging?
Hi! I’m Nora Dunn, aka The Professional Hobo. My website teaches people how to travel full-time in a financially sustainable way.
I do this through extensive (free!) Travel Lifestyle Guides that cover just about every practical aspect of long-term/full-time travel, earning money as you go, logistical preparations, ongoing systems and solutions, and arranging/managing your finances along the way.
Because the site is also based on my own experiences of full-time travel and developing an online career over the last 12+ years, I also write about my personal experiences and observations on the road – good, bad, and otherwise!
What’s the backstory of your blog and how did you choose the niche?
My story begins in 2006, when I was busy (very, very busy!) running a successful financial planning practice in Toronto, Canada. While I’d achieved a modicum of success as society defines it, I had a lifelong dream nagging at me to travel – extensively, immersively, and in a way I’d thus far been unable to manage on vacations; even vacations as long as a month left me wanting more…much more.
Throw in a few “universal signs” directing me to make a life change, coupled with burning out and getting quite ill, and my time had come. So I sold everything to travel the world – full-time!
I had no idea where I’d go, what I’d do, nor how I’d make money. But shortly into my travels, I connected the dots and realized that my penchant for the written word plus a laptop and internet connection could equal a living as a freelance writer.
In 2006, terms like “digital nomad” and “location independent” had yet to be coined. Monetizing blogs was largely unheard of, so while I did start a blog, it was solely as an outlet to share my adventures and cultural observations with family and friends.
So I worked on my freelance writing career. I parlayed my financial expertise to write for travel publications about finance (because you need money to travel!), and I used my lifestyle travel experience to write for finance publications about travel. This cross pollination of niches served me well as a freelance writer.
Eventually, I combined these two niches on my own website to teach people how to travel full-time in a financially sustainable way. Ta-dah!
For more backstory about how I made the decision to sell everything, and then arranged it logistically, check out How I Became The Professional Hobo.
Describe the process of launching your blog/site and getting it off the ground.
I could barely define what a blog was when I started mine! At the time they were glorified online journals, which is exactly what mine was as well. I used the free Blogspot (now Blogger) platform, and named it Freedom30 (as a parody of Freedom55 commercials that were on tv at the time, challenging people to retire early at the age of 55; for me, I was “retiring” from the conventional workforce at 30).
Fast forward a couple of years to when I accidentally started an international NGO in the wake of Cyclone Nargis which obliterated Myanmar (April 2008). I was in Thailand at the time and felt deeply affected by this forceful event only 150kms away, so I used my site to raise money for customized relief efforts. I ended up making international news, and that was what put my blog on the map. Suddenly somebody other than my mother was reading!
By October of 2008 I got serious about my site and I bought a domain and moved to a self-hosted site. I settled on The Professional Hobo as a name, because when I would meet people throughout my travels thus far, they’d ask me what I do for a living. Since I still wasn’t confident enough to call myself a freelance writer (and since nobody knew what a blogger was!), I simply called myself a professional hobo to make fun of my bizarre lifestyle. And it stuck! And so TheProfessionalHobo.com was born.
How do you create revenue on your blog?
It was still a few more years before my blog started making any real money, but my overhead was low, and since I was focusing on freelance writing, I created lots of backlinks to my site through these gigs. This was – quite unintentionally – one of the best things I did for my site in the early years.
Over time, an entire industry built up around me, taking me with it! Travel blogging had become “a thing” – and since I was one of the first, I’m considered a pioneer in the industry. Which is pretty funny, because I still feel like an amateur!
Now, I monetize my site through ads (Mediavine), affiliate sales (many many networks), and I have a few digital products – my most popular being How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World, which outlines how I saved over $100,000 in my 12 years abroad by getting free accommodation in a variety of amazing ways. The book costs less than a hamburger, and if you apply just one tactic for one night of free accommodation abroad, it will pay for itself many times over.
What are the strategies you use to build and grow traffic to your blog?
To be perfectly honest, I only started to get serious about my blog in recent years. For the first seven or so years I was basically using my site as a glorified loudspeaker and creative outlet for my writing and to describe my travel adventures and cultural observations.
But because I did a lot of interviews and got a lot of press between 2007 and 2014, combined with a web of backlinks I was creating from my freelance writing, I grew into a key player in the travel blogging industry.
Around 2014 my blog started plateauing in traffic and growth. By this point I’d been blogging for almost eight years, and the industry had started getting pretty sophisticated. I’m not an analytical gal, so working something like Google Analytics and delving into the science of SEO sounded soul-destroying for something that was only ever intended to be a creative outlet. I started to feel like I was dancing to stay atop a snowball that was careening out of control.
That was when I arrived in Peru and my life took a left turn. Long story short: I started apprenticing with a shaman, which I did for two years in Peru, and then later worked as a shaman’s assistant in Ecuador for almost a year. My website was on hold during this time; I didn’t have the heart to sell it, nor did I have the time nor inclination to do more than the minimum amount of work necessary to keep it alive.
In 2017 I surfaced from my shamanic endeavors and took stock of my site. Given its tenure and backlinks, it should have had five times the traffic – and income – than it did. Basically between 2014 and 2017 my traffic didn’t grow; meanwhile the industry exploded.
My efforts since 2017 have been to apply more of a science to my site. It’s still very much an ongoing project and effort, but one that is paying off nicely so far, and shows promise for the future.
How do you grow your email list?
Around 2013 I started developing an email list. To incentivize subscribers, I offered (and continue to offer) a free two-week email course that covers the basics on travel as a lifestyle, and financially sustainable full-time travel. It also served a great purpose in familiarizing my readers with what was growing into a large collection of useful posts on my site.
But over the years as my email list grew and I approached 10k subscribers, I froze. Aweber (who I was with at the time) would triple my monthly premiums if I went above 10k subscribers, and I simply couldn’t justify the price hike as I wasn’t seeing an equivalent amount of revenue coming from it. So I actively DIScouraged people from subscribing to keep my base under 10k!
Now, I’m with BirdSend, and I’m thrilled. They’re the new kid on the block, and their simple system includes all the functionality that a blogger needs (drip campaigns, tagging, segmenting, etc), without the confusing bells and whistles – and accompanying price tag – of other platforms. As an ambassador for BirdSend, I have a special link that gives interested people a free-for-life account for up to 5k subscribers, and amazing low prices for subscribers above 5k.
How do you write content that performs well and readers love?
This is an ever-evolving process. Now that I’ve (finally) embraced SEO, my posts take triple the time to write. I refuse however, to write purely for SEO. So I start with an idea about something I want to write, and I try as best I can to make it appealing from an SEO perspective.
But my first priority – always – is maintaining my voice, my creative outlet, and differentiating my site from the realms of listicles and content farms out there. I probably leave money on the table in so doing, but I’m holding to the foundations of what I believe my site is about.
What obstacles have you had to overcome to start and grow your blog?
In addition to what I covered in previous answers, my latest obstacle was in taking my blog to the next level (cerca 2017). I wasn’t making enough money to hire somebody to help me, but I didn’t have the time/energy/knowledge to do it myself.
So in 2018 I hired an SEO-tastic gal – on a profit-sharing basis – to help me clean up my site. She helped me amalgamate dozens of smaller posts with poor traffic (but great info) into larger optimized posts that would become the foundation of my popular Travel Lifestyle Guides section, which in many ways is now the meat and bones of my site. And because I hired her on a profit-sharing basis, she was equally committed to growing my site as I was! It worked out very well for both of us.
What lessons have you learned in the process of building your blog?
The biggest lesson I learned is something I knew, but had to get slapped around with a bit; if you want your blog to make money, you need to treat it as a business. That means a few things, such as:
- Doing things you don’t want to so (for me, SEO).
- Outsourcing! Do it early, before you get stuck in a catch 22 (like I did) of not being able to afford to outsource, but being unable to do it all yourself.
What platform/tools do you use for your blog?
Hosting: Performance Foundry. It’s managed hosting and it costs a pretty penny, but it also includes an allocation of time every money for development work, and gives me big time peace of mind that somebody has an eye on the backend aspects of my site that I’m soooo not good with. I no longer wake up in the middle of the night terrified that my site has been hacked.
Theme: StudioPress. I’ve had a few website themes along the way, but none as fast, customizable, user-friendly, and generally awesome as StudioPress.
Domain: HostGator. I used to host with them for the initial years, and they were great while I was in the early stages of growing my site.
Content Management: WordPress. An industry standard.
Email Marketing: BirdSend. Cheep (get it?) and cheerful.
Social Media Post Scheduling: Buffer.
I wrote a pretty involved post about how to start and set up a blog, which starts with things like domain selection, setup, mistakes to avoid, and continues on to monetization strategies.
What have been the most influential people, books, podcasts, courses, or other resources?
When I started in the biz there weren’t any resources to help me along, so I made every mistake along the way as I stumbled up a learning curve that was still growing and curving. Don’t do what I did.
Now, there are tons of resources out there! 10 years into running my blog, Nomadic Matt (one of – if not the – top travel bloggers out there) developed a series of courses for aspiring travel bloggers, photographers, travel writers, and videographers. I audited his course on The Business of Blogging, and I truly wished I’d had that course when I started. I learned a ton, even 10 years into the biz!
Advice you can give other bloggers/entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
Treat your blog as a business. This means (among other things) investing in things like outsourcing. Once I realized (all too late) that I owned a job and not a business, I started turning it into a business. That has made a world of difference.
Also, be patient. Developing a lucrative blog is FAR from an instant thing. And for the love of all things holy, don’t say you’re going to quit your job and become an Instagram star (unless you’re joking). The attitude that making money online is easy and doesn’t take work, is an insult to everybody who makes money online.
Lastly, don’t sell your soul for the almighty buck. You have to put a ton of effort into your blog, so it had better be something that excites you, at least to an extent.
Where can we go to learn more?
The Professional Hobo