How Will Went From a Broke Backpacker to Building Digital Nomad Hostels in Bali
Ahoy! I’m Will Hatton – The OG Broke Backpacker. I say ‘OG’ as that’s sorta become my quasi-nickname over on my site – both with readers and my team. And that itself ties into the ‘who’ of who I am.
My very first project – and still very much my biggest project – was and is The Broke Backpacker, however, that all began a long time ago in a much simpler phase of life. Back then, I was simply a hitchhiking vagabond on the road, and that is the soul of my website: budget backpacking, off-beat adventures, and the forms of tourism that promote conscious travel, hard work, and the growth that comes for it.
Nowadays, my scope has expanded considerably. The Broke Backpacker has its sister adventure tour company Epic Backpacker Tours (featuring the three illustrious locales of Pakistan, Iran, and Kyrgyzstan). There’s Ditch Your Desk, a fun little side project where I occasionally blog about online entrepreneurship, digital nomadism, and healthy habits.
I’m involved in quite a few projects at the moment, honestly, I sometimes lose count, but the big ones to be excited about are opening my first Digital Nomad focussed hostel, Tribal Bali, in June later this year as well as launching Neco – a sustainably sourced, ethically manufactured backpack line I’ve been working on for nearly three years now.
All in all, the game may have changed considerably since those blessed early days hitchhiking across Iran and trekking through the jungles of South America, but the mission statement remains the same: design your own life, find your own truth, and never stop growing.
For me, I’m passionate about continuing to hack my time so that I can get the most out of every day whilst also pushing myself out of my comfort zone as often as possible so I keep on learning new things, meeting new people and gaining new experiences.
I’ve always had a penchant for travel and adventure: so many of my afternoons after school were just spent leafing through my archives of National Geographic. I’d trawl the same articles day in and day out frothing over the same pictures, dreaming of all the places I would go. When I was 19, it finally happened, but alas, tragedy struck.
While trekking in Costa Rica, I got really fucking sick and faced my leg being amputated. I spent over a year recovering (I kept the leg) but it is still pretty fucked up even to this day – I learnt to live with it though and honestly, I’m pretty grateful it happened as it put me on a different path. At the time though, it was not fun – it was a huge setback both physically and mentally.
While I had dreamt of joining the Royal Marines, instead, I had to pivot and discover a new passion in the face of great loss (a classic traveller origin story if ever there was one). With my dad’s haggard old tent, backpack, and gas cooker, I set off hitchhiking and made my way to India where I spent over two years hiking, camping, working odd jobs (on farms, in bars, and selling weed).
India was a crazy learning curve for me and traveling somewhere as rough and raw as India with only a few dollars a day to get by on – it really puts you up close to the action, it can change you that’s for sure.
The Broke Backpacker initially began as a method to keep my friends and family updated about my travels (as well as documenting the almost-unreal stories of my adventures).
Over time, I learnt how to generate some passive income with the site, and then, while I was hitchhiking through Iran on my great UK to PNG overland adventure, I fell in love with my now ex-wife Nina. It was the meeting of her, the need to find a way to support us financially, and the subsequent growing up that comes from things like love and loss that led me to where I am now.
And though that story may have a complicated ending (as most great tales of love do), there’s still a lot that I’m infinitely grateful for. Meeting Nina was a life-changing moment for me, without her encouragement and without the pressure of suddenly having to provide for somebody other than myself, well…. I might still be selling weed in India.
I found within myself a pretty ridiculous work ethic, I could really grind, and I put that to work – smashing out 80-100 hour weeks, surviving on fuck all money, to figure out what the hell SEO was and how I could make my travel blog into a profitable business.
That’s been something of a learning process. The initial beginning of the genuine growth was when I began to really properly focus on SEO. I am a MASSIVE proponent of top-notch SEO for any online venture: after all, without traffic, you ain’t got nothing!
It also must be said that as much as I loathe social media, it’s played a role in my success too. During that UK to PNG overland pilgrimage, I gained a rather sizable following from documenting the shenanigans on Snapchat.
These days, I don’t personally touch socials with a 40-foot-pole, but its successes still can’t be denied. I don’t even have social media downloaded on my phone, there are some accounts in my name but I don’t run them.
Past that, I’ve found a lot of my growth has simply been by being the best at what we do. People come to us for info because they know what they’ll get: a no-BS critical look at the experience of travel and a slew of awesome information on how to do it cheaply.
Know your A-game and play it well.
At the time, there were no travel blogs out there for broke backpackers – folks with a passion and adventurous spirit but people who just didn’t know HOW to travel cheap, that it was even possible. I get it – it can be scary.
My blog fills the role of giving folks the info they need to feel confident to step out there and have the adventure of a lifetime no matter their background or financial situation. We teach people real life-skills – how to haggle, how to camp, how to talk to strangers – and then focus on encouraging people to visit lesser-known countries where they can 1. Go further on less money and 2. Have a more genuine adventure experience.
Things are – believe it or not – doing rather well despite the pandemic. Not gonna lie – it was hairy for a bit, but thanks to solid income diversification, proactive strategies at the onset of the outbreak, and, of course, my absolutely gorgeous team of incredible, talented, and diligent humans, we persevered through it.
Now, things are looking pretty fantastic! Traffic is picking up again slowly and surely. While nobody was laid off throughout the lockdowns (instead, I chose to cap my staffs’ earning potential and forgo my own salary), we did unavoidably have some people move on. But over the last few months, we’ve taken on several new team members again and are once more expanding our scope.
One of the biggest things I did this year was reinvesting (big) back into my main site, The Broke Backpacker. I wanted it to be a speed demon because I felt like that was where we could improve the most. 6 months and a small fortune later, I had a shiny new site; and it all paid off!
After an earth-shattering Google Core Update, the site won big, while many others weren’t as fortunate. Just take a look at the screenshot below; traffic has more than doubled in the past six months and we’re fast approaching pre-COVID levels.
2021 is looking crazy exciting from where I’m sitting. Between the upcoming opening of my hostel’s doors to guests, several other goodies I’m not ready to announce yet, and just the slow but inevitable return of tourism, the future is looking bright!
Something I’m super excited about is that we’ve phased out display advertising across The Broke Backpacker and are instead choosing to focus on brand partnerships and interaction with our user base through more direct means such as email marketing. The results insofar have been smashing!
The aforementioned email marketing project has been a rather chunky win of late. While we’ve always had an email marketing branch, it was left rather overlooked and undercooked until a few months back.
While there’s still a lot of headway to make with generating leads and reaching project potentials, the results are already looking mighty sexy! It also opens a much more direct line with readers – I’m really not a social media guy in the slightest and prefer to have newsletters and email projects of real value that actually expand on The Broke Backpacker’s existing content.
Content optimisation has also been a tremendous boon, especially throughout the pandemic. That project has been about easy wins – why publish brand new content when there’s plenty of old content that just needs a fresh lick of paint to climb in Google’s rankings again? Even the world’s best backpacking guide is going to be out of date three years on: it’s all about SEO, and SEO is all about being relevant.
Synergy has been a big component of my success too (as overplayed as that word is). For a travel blog that specializes in off-the-beaten-track travel, a partnered tour company in the exact same field featuring our favourite destinations is a no-brainer. Throw in some side-hustles into backpacking gear, accommodation, and the lifestyle of the digital nomad, and you have something of an online empire!
I had a pretty unsuccessful venture into dropshipping (with Amazon in particular). That’s something I could probably do without again!
Branching off from that, the onset of the pandemic saw a number of our affiliate partners throwing us under the bus. We’re still owed money by some people who effectively turned off their affiliate programs with no warning.
Now, while NOBODY could have seen COVID coming, it is a useful lesson in never trusting any one company or institution too much – even long-term business partners. Prepping for the worst is never a stupid idea.
I suppose I could also have placed a bigger focus on SEO much earlier in my career to grow faster, however, that feels beside the point. Much of the success of The Broke Backpacker reflects my success as a traveller and the journey and I’ve taken, and honestly… there’s nothing about that journey I would want to change.
Around the time we swapped over to WordPress’s Gutenberg framework, we also moved over to a custom-built block-based page developer and a full redesign of The Broke Backpacker’s theme: this swap has seen a huge boost to both the productivity and efficiency of my team as well as a WHOPPING gain on page load speeds.
Meanwhile, on the technical side of things, I’ve fully embraced the power of data and analytics. We have done several deep dives into data provided by our partners’ platforms. The data was vast and one could easily get lost in the trenches, but my talented team was able to find sexy little insights that I think will set us up for success in 2021.
I’ve always said, the answers are in the data and since we started properly building this blog into something massive four years ago, data analysis has been a big part of what powers our strategy.
It’s difficult to predict anything in 2021, but with solid intel, I can make informed decisions and feel confident in our overall direction.
Tools-wise, I’m a sucker for the classics: AHREFs for backlink and competitor analysis, Screaming Frog for crawls and technical SEO, and everything in Google’s arsenal. Google Analytics, a tool that is often used by many webmasters as just a means to check daily visits, has become particularly useful these days.
Now, I use it not only to keep track of traffic, but also email marketing conversions, A/B testing, UX, and more. In 2020, more than ever, I feel like I’ve embraced the full suite that Google’s tools have to offer and have truly reaped from the data it has provided.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac is what started it all: that novel is a love letter to the freedom of the road as well to the complexities of freedom itself. Reading it as a kid, I already found myself inspired by its ideas of living life your way.
I’m also a big fan of Atomic Habits – for an OCD planner and habit tracker like me it has some really good info which I’ve used to design my weekly flow around what it’s important to me.
Return of a King by William Dalrymple is the best book I’ve read when it comes to inspiring me to visit a place, that man is a legend.
A resource that I absolutely MUST mention is static whiteboards. I buy mine from Wizard Wall. These have been an absolute fucking game changer for me for planning projects, tracking habits, and putting my goals, values, and plans in plain sight so I’m constantly hammering home what is important to me. Honestly, static whiteboards are probably the best tool I’ve ever come across.
For task management, Trello is sick, highly recommend it.