In this article, we interviewed Tom Edwards to learn how he went from living in national parks and pinching nickels and dimes for pasta to earning $1,000+ per day within three months of starting his e-commerce business.
I think everyone has experienced the anxiety of an under-funded budget at some point in their life. I’ve definitely felt it to the extreme, at times wondering if I’d have enough money to eat. Even when I was in a rough patch like that, I always told myself that everything would work out. At the very least, it would make a good story!
Tell us about your story.
I think the first time I was truly at the mercy of my bank account (without any kind of safety net, that is) was the first time I traveled abroad, back in 2013.
Myself and a couple buddies decided to take a round-the-world trip which was originally intended to last a year. We paid for most of our airfare up front, which left us with little money left over for the trip itself.
Looking back, I guess our ambition exceeded the practical reality we discovered on the ground. My plan was to earn money with a travel blog along the way. For some reason I had thought that traveling around the world and writing about it was incredibly unique and would attract all kinds of attention and sponsors.
I don’t remember at which point I discovered that there are literally tens of thousands of other travel bloggers; but I can tell you that it was too late to turn back by that point.
Plan B was music. At that point I was a full-time musician along with one of my traveling companions, Corey. We planned to play music along the way to earn cash, while our other companion, Aaron, planned to sell prints of his photography online.
Long story short, we used almost half of our yearlong stipend within just the first two weeks of traveling through Europe! Quite a feat if our ‘yearlong’ bankroll wasn’t already laughably insufficient. The travel blog was not pulling in a single dime and we hadn’t seen many opportunities to play music for cash.
“Long story short, we used almost half of our yearlong stipend within just the first two weeks of traveling through Europe!”
We realized that partying was no longer on the table, nor was food from restaurants. Eventually, transportation and shelter costs were cut out as well and we were left to live out our time on the road as what I would later call ‘international homeless guys’.
We started hitchhiking sometime in the first month, spending many of our nights sleeping in bushes, under bridges, in bike path tunnels, or even in roadside ditches.
After a while we ended up in Italy, where we discovered we could illegally hop trains to get around. This turned out to be a lot more convenient than waiting—sometimes for hours— for hitchhiking rides.
Eventually we hopped trains farther south and ended up illegally camped in a nature preserve along the beach just outside of Rome. It was there that a strange semblance of ‘normality’ took place—a routine, that is.
Every day we would wake up and take a ‘whore bath’ as we called it, which consisted of brushing the teeth, putting on deodorant, and splashing water on ‘target’ areas. Afterwards, it was off to ‘work’.
Aaron would guard the ‘campsite’ (open area in the trees) and Corey and I would hop several buses into town to play music on the street—busking, as it’s called. It took about two hours and three buses, from the highway outside the nature preserve to our busking spot on a pier, to get to “work” each day.
“I hoped by some miracle that someone out there would buy one of my little backpacking stoves—from a site with one product, which I had no idea how to ship from the manufacturer.”
Once there we would set up and play for 4-5 hours on the pier. The majority of our tips came within a 30-minute window right at sunset. This timed horribly with the last bus running back ‘home’. We’d have to throw everything on our backs and hustle to the bus stop each night, just in time to catch the bus.
Then we’d run from the next stop to our last bus and catch it just in time. (Only once did we miss the last bus and had to walk the several miles back to the nature preserve to a very worried Aaron).
Once we made it back to the preserve home, Aaron would have water boiling to make our nightly pasta dinner. If we got really lucky, we’d make it to the nearby store before it closed and buy some beef for the pasta.
We left Italy to Thailand after a month or so, where the American dollar went much further. There I begun doing graphic design work on Upwork, an online website for freelancers.
I managed to earn a decent Southeast Asian living on there. During the two months we spent between Thailand and Malaysia, I managed to amass a decent amount of money online. Not much, but enough, we hoped, to get us through the rest of the trip.
After Malaysia, we flew on to Australia where we ended up joining a British couple on a road trip for a few weeks, camping along the way. Australia is insanely expensive, but we managed to make it by sticking to eating from supermarkets and steering clear of larger cities.
Our last stop was New Zealand, where we ran into a spot of bad luck and missed a flight to the South Island. Once again we were on the streets, and found ourselves sleeping in public parks and sometimes even parking garages.
We made it to the beautiful Lake Tekapo and camped out there for a week or so. Interestingly enough, one of my design clients happened to live in Christchurch and ended up putting us up for a few nights as well.
We finally spent our last dollar the day before our flight back to the US. We had three slices of bread and a couple scoops of peanut butter left, and managed to make it last while we huddled in the outdoor foyer of an apartment complex, killing time.
While that experience may have been a struggle at times, it set the stage for who I am today. Without that trip, I wouldn’t be a published author, and I certainly wouldn’t own a high six-figure business. Despite the hardships, we made incredible friends along the way and experienced many things I’ll never forget.
Upon returning home, a wanderlust consumed me and I was soon ready to leave again. This time I set my sights on South America, once again with an insufficient budget. I figured if I made it work last time, I could do it again.
I ended up in Peru a couple of months later with about $50 left to my name—not even enough to cover the hostel bill I had already racked up.
What prompted your start in e-commerce? How did you feel going in?
Given the Peruvian economy, busking on the street would
yield little results. I had managed to earn a little money playing gigs on ConcertWindow.com (a site where musicians can play shows to an online audience), but nowhere near frequently enough to get by.
So that was when I turned to a small Facebook group I had found a few months before leaving, called ‘The Product Blast.’ Ran by a guy named Robert Nava, the group basically taught people how to dropship products using an online store hosting system called Shopify and running traffic with Facebook ads.
I had paid $40 for a training module he was promoting in the group, but had been too busy with other projects to look into it before leaving. With
nothing left to lose, I decided I’d invest the last of my money in into giving this e-commerce thing a shot. I chose a niche, created a store on Shopify, and uploaded a product (that’s right, one product) I’d found.
Major wins? How do you advertise your products?
I remember being absolutely filled with skepticism about the whole thing as I set my first Facebook ad for $10 a day and hoped by some miracle that someone out there would buy one of my little backpacking stoves—from a site with one product, which I had no idea how to ship to them from the manufacturer. I started running the ad and closed my laptop. Then I decided to go and spend the $8 or so I had left after the startup expenses on a few beers. Facebook it, I guess we’ll see what happens.
“I’ve never lived my life focusing too much on the bad things that happen. I see something I want to do, and I just say screw it, and go for it.”
I went out for the day and shut it all out of my mind. Here I was, once again broke in a foreign country. This time, however, I was alone and playing music on the street wasn’t an option. I didn’t even have enough money to get back home if I wanted to!
After a few hours and several Tres Cruces cervesas, I made my way back to the hostel. I’d installed the Shopify app on my phone when I had set up
the website, and as soon as my phone automatically connected to the hostel Wi-Fi, I heard a ‘ding’ in my pocket which I’d never heard before.
I pulled out my phone and my eyes widened as I saw the little notification—I’d sold two stoves while I’d been gone! The phone ‘dinged’ a few more times throughout the day. The next day as well. By the third day I had recouped all of my money and was in the black. By the end of the first month I had made thousands in profit.
It took quite a bit of time to figure out how to actually deliver my products to my customers, and by that time I went ahead and flew back home.
The next few months was a crash course learning experience as Facebook changed their ads algorithm and I watched my beloved new business go in the can right before my eyes. After three months of my first financial success, I was broke once again.
This couldn’t have been timed more poorly, as I had just bought a new vehicle with what I thought was the beginning of a new life of financial freedom and was getting ready to head across the country to Los Angeles for some meetings about my first book.
Those three months in LA spelled another low, fortunately with the safety net of my friends and family there to keep me from having to starve or sleep on the streets.
I returned home and played as many gigs as I could to try and recoup some of the debt I had amassed during my downturn. I decided it was time to give e-commerce another shot. This time I centered the business around my already established travel blog and called it the Tune Up & Travel Gear Store.
I begun advertising some little animal rings and partnered with a couple charities—The Wildlife Waystation and the Beagle Freedom Project. Ten percent of profits from each ring sold would be donated to one of those organizations.
I figured I’d post something on my regular Facebook and see what would happen. That first weekend, before running any paid ads, I profited $200 in sales. I knew I’d found a winner. Your Facebook friends usually never buy anything from you!
So I used that money to start some paid ads. That was at the beginning of September.
That first month alone I generated almost $20,000 in revenue, or $10,000 in actual profit. By Christmas I was making that much in a week!
That’s insane! How has going from $50 left to earning thousands per week changed your life?
This business has opened up more doors than I ever would have thought possible. After hiring reliable employees and setting up an autonomous business model, I’ve been able to run the company by only working about 5-10 hours per week.
By gaining financial independence, you’re able to focus your time towards things that fulfill you as a person. I’ve had plenty of time to travel more, work on new book projects, learn languages, and keep playing music for that matter.
The moral of this story is that anything is possible, but none of it will happen if you don’t dive in and go for it. This book is invaluable to everyday budget travelers as well as those wishing to embark on the rewarding adventure of what I call ‘extreme budget travel’.
I’ve never lived my life focusing too much on the bad things that happen. I see something I want to do, and I just say screw it, and go for it.
It usually works out, even if not in the way you originally intended. Tim Ferriss said “Most people will choose unhappiness over uncertainty” and I’ve certainly found that statement to be true. No great reward comes without some kind of risk.
Currently I’ve just published my newest book, called “Two Bucks to Timbuktu,” which provides a how-to guide for traveling the world with little or no money.
Inside I provide instructions for train hopping, hitchhiking, busking, or finding free or cheap places to stay.
I also give my best advice for making money online, including a guest article on Kindle Publishing by my gracious interviewer here, Danny.
This book is invaluable to everyday budget travelers as well as those wishing to embark on the rewarding adventure of what I call ‘extreme budget travel’.
Knowing what I know now, my time spent as an international homeless man could have been done with much more ease and comfort!
For more from Tom, and to learn some of his best strategies for driving traffic and making sales through e-commerce, listen to our podcast: “From My Last $50 in Peru to $20,000+ a month with Shopify.”