Maverick Traveler

Location Independence, Geo Arbitrage, Individual Freedom

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Ukraine: The Ultimate Guide For Tourists, Expats And Digital Nomads

If you’d asked me five years ago, if I would move to some ex-Soviet Union country after living in some incredible and exotic countries (e.g., Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, just to name a few), I would’ve laughed in your face.

But, yet, here I am, writing this from Kiev, Ukraine, one of my favorite cities on the planet in a country that I’ve gradually made my home over the past several years.

Of course, I may be a bit biased because I was born here and speak Russian fluently. But I don’t think that’s the defining factor in my decision: I doubt I would live in a country like Lithuania, Moldova or Kazakhstan even if I was born in those countries and spoke their respective language. There’s something special about this country that goes beyond even that.

My return to the country was gradual, kind of like dipping toes in a pool before diving in. In 2011, I crossed the border from Poland into Ukraine for the first time after spending more than twenty years living abroad. I spent about three weeks in Kiev and Odessa before flying back to America.

Then, an interesting pattern emerged: I returned again in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, and have spent most of this year, 2018, living and traveling around this country.

At this point, Ukraine is easily the country where I’ve spent the most amount of time out of more than 85 countries that I visited in the last 15 years.

Today, I want to talk about what makes Ukraine special and whether it’s a place you should put on your radar as well.

Introduction

When most people think about Ukraine, they think of crumbling architecture, unshaven Eastern European men wearing Adidas pants and drinking vodka, corrupt politicians and freezing winters. 

There’s some truth to all of that (especially the part of about freezing winters), but the reality is that over the past several years, Ukraine has become a very livable country, so much so that I prefer it over any other in Europe and elsewhere.

Flying in

If you’re flying in from abroad, chances are your first point of contact will be Kiev’s Boryspil International Airport. This is the main international airport and is located roughly 45 mins from the city center.

In order to get to the city center, you have two options. The first option is an airport bus ($2) that goes to either a metro station or the main train station or a taxi ($12-15) which goes straight to your destination.

If you are short on cash but still prefer the convenience of a taxi, a good option is to take the airport bus to the main train station and then take the taxi to your final destination.

Kiev has another airport: Zhulyani. It’s much closer to the city center; only about 20-25 mins by car. It’s also smaller and mostly serves domestic routes as well as select international routes.

Mobile SIM Cards

The first order of business after landing and going through passport control is buying a local SIM card. For that, you need an unlocked phone.

If you bought your phone outright from the manufacturer (without the carrier subsidy), chances are that it’s already unlocked. But to make sure, you should check with your carrier.

Having a Ukrainian SIM card will grant you a Ukrainian number, for easy communication with others throughout the country. Most importantly, however, you will have a cheap data plan everywhere you go.

There are three main providers in Ukraine: Kievstar, Vodaphone and Lifecell.

Kievstar 

This is the largest provider and covers the majority of the country. It’s also the most expensive provider.

Vodaphone

The next popular mobile company. Before the whole Russian/Ukrainian conflict, it was called MTS.

Lifecell

Finally, there’s Lifecell (formerly called “life;)”), a mobile company wholly owned by Turkcell, a Turkish mobile operator.

4G/LTE coverage

In the summer of 2018, Ukraine’s mobile providers finally unveiled the 4G/LTE network. This made it possible to get speeds up to 50-70Mbps in the major cities.

As of this writing, my current plan costs me 90 UAH ($3.25)/month, and I get unlimited 3G/4G connectivity.

My mobile plan

When I first began living in Ukraine, I signed up with Kievstar since it was the biggest operator with the best coverage in the country.

Several years later, I switched over to Vodaphone mainly because it’s slightly cheaper than Kievstar and provides enough coverage for my needs. (I mostly live in big cities and don’t need coverage in smaller towns and villages.)

Budget in Ukraine

Here’s a rough outline of how much certain things cost in Ukraine. Prices are based on an exchange rate of $1 to 28 UAH. (To get the prices in dollars, divide the prices below by 28.)

The following prices are for Kiev. They will be slightly lower in other cities and even lower in smaller towns and villages.

Accommodation

Decent Apartment not in the center: 10,000-13,000 UAH

Decent Apartment in the center: 15,000-16,000 UAH

Really nice apartment in the center: 17,000-20,000 UAH

Gym

Regular gym / daily pass: 100 UAH

Regular gym / monthly pass: 600 UAH

Nice gym / daily pass: 250 UAH

Nice gym / monthly pass: 1400 UAH

Food

Lunch (Business; 2-3 courses): 80-150 UAH

Lunch (regular): 120-180 UAH

Fancy lunch: 250 UAH

Dinner (self-service restaurant): 80-150 UAH

Dinner (regular): 150-250 UAH

Dinner in a nice restaurant: 350-450 UAH

Drinks

One glass of wine (150 ml): 60-80 UAH

Beer (0.3 L): 50 UAH

Beer (0.5 L): 75 UAH

Transportation

Metro: 8 UAH

Bus: 8 UAH

Taxi (15 min): 80-100 UAH

Taxi (30 min): 200-250 UAH

Where to go

Ukraine is a huge country—the second largest in Europe by size (after Russia)—and is roughly divided into four parts: Central (including the capital, Kiev), Eastern Ukraine, Western Ukraine, and Southern Ukraine.

Each region is fairly different from the other. The people talk differently, they act differently and they even look different. The cities themselves are also fairly different ranging from Central European-inspired Lviv in the West to the more Soviet-style Dnipro and Donetsk in the East.

Below, I will cover each part in greater detail.

Central Ukraine / Kiev

Kiev is Ukraine’s capital and the biggest city. In my opinion, it’s also the best city in Ukraine to live and visit. It’s friendlier, has more culture and is more aesthetically pleasing than pretty much any other city in the country.

There are lots of things to do in Kiev. There’s a huge array of restaurants, coffee shops, supermarkets, gyms and whatever else you may need. There are also tons of cultural things to do such as theaters, opera houses replete with great performances to attend.

Eastern Ukraine

Eastern Ukraine includes the area of the country east of the Dnepr river. This includes the major cities such as Lugansk, Donetsk, Dnipro, and Zaporozhye.

After the Russian/Ukrainian conflict, both Lugansk and Donetsk (including part of their respective provinces) came under the rebel control and are, thus, difficult to access from Ukraine. At this point, travel it is not advised.

Recently, I spent two months living in Dnipro, Ukraine’s third largest city. Dnipro is a much more “raw” city than Kiev. While it has its share of restaurants and coffee shops, it lacks the “cultural touch” and sophistication of Kiev.

Just to the south of Dnipro, there’s Zaporozhye, an industrial city with reportedly one of the longest streets in Europe. It’s called “Lenin’s Street” and it basically runs across the entire city and then some. While it’s a nice landmark (sort of), one wide and long street decidedly gives the city an “uncozy” feeling that mostly characterizes the Eastern region.

Southern Ukraine

Southern Ukraine is all about sun and sand, at least in the summer. That’s where you’ll find the only city you need to know: Odessa, the premier summer destination not only in Ukraine but across most of Eastern Europe.

Odessa isn’t only my hometown, but it’s also a fairly picturesque and beautiful city worthy of any postcard. There’s the famous opera theater, the cute downtown with cobblestone streets and great beaches.

Western Ukraine

The West of the country comprises of cities such as Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Chernivtsi.

In many ways, western Ukraine feels more similar to countries like Poland, Hungary, and Austria. Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk look like they belong in neighboring Poland or Slovakia instead of Ukraine. Part of that is because, before WWII, this region was part of the neighboring Austria-Hungary empire.

The largest city in the region, Lviv, is especially a great place to visit in the winter. It’s cozy, has great restaurants, cool coffee shops, and is much cheaper than other large Ukrainian cities.

When to go

Although Ukraine, like the rest of Europe, has four normal seasons, I like to think it’s mainly two seasons: hot summer and freezing winters.

Ukraine’s spring starts around the beginning of May. It’s not uncommon for it to get very hot in just a couple of weeks.

Summer lasts from the beginning of June to around the beginning of September. In the first or second week of September, temperatures start to gradually drop. By October, it’s already fairly cold. November may witness the first snowfall.

Since this is Eastern Europe, winters can get uncomfortably cold. It’s also not uncommon to have temperatures drop to as low as -25 C (-13 F) in January or February, the latter being the coldest month of the year.

It’s also very possible to see lots of snow even as late as in March.

In my opinion, the best time to visit Ukraine is either in the spring or fall. This is when the weather is the most comfortable and it’s not too hot or cold. Another option is to visit in the summer, which does get hot but not uncomfortably so.

Summers are a great time to visit the coastal city of Odessa, with its beaches and beach clubs.

Unless, for some strange reason, you like cold weather and want to walk around in the snow, avoid visiting the region from November to March. 

Moreover, winters can be especially brutal because not only you have cloudy days and snow, but you’re also surrounded by crumbling Soviet architecture, making the whole experience super depressing.

How to rent accommodation

Depending on how long you’re visiting Ukraine, there are several ways of renting accommodation. In this section, I will cover the best ways to rent a pad depending on your needs.

Short term

If you’re a tourist who’s coming to Ukraine for a short visit (a week or so), the best way to rent accommodation is via Airbnb. Although the prices there are generally more expensive than sites tailored specifically to locals, the ease of use and reputation features of the site is worth it. I’ve used Airbnb many times to book accommodation in Ukraine and abroad.

Another way to rent short-term rentals is via local sites. This requires knowing Russian or Ukrainian and being able to trust the pictures displayed to be a true representation of the apartment. I would only advice this method if you have a local friend who can help you. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get burned when the apartment you reserve is the difference from the actual apartment.

Long term

For long-term bookings (a month or more), Airbnb is still a great option because many hosts offer steep discounts if you book for at least a month.

An even better way is to go directly to the source and rent an apartment from an owner instead. One of the biggest sites for doing just that is olx.ua, which is sort of a Ukrainian craigslist, where people buy/sell/rent anything from used jeans to luxury apartments.

Rental scams

Like I already mentioned, be careful with listings that show amazing pictures but have a relatively low price. These listings can be copied from other apartment rental sites around the web and are used to lure people to send a “deposit” to secure an apartment. Once the money is sent, it’s never seen again.

Beware of any third party services that promise you to “find” an apartment in exchange for money upfront. I’ve heard stories of people taking such money and never returning it.

Where to buy stuff

Gone are the days of dark and confusing Soviet Union-era “magazinchiki” (магазиньчики). Today, shopping in Ukraine is no different than shopping in any other Western country.

Ukraine is now graced with modern supermarkets that may easily rival your Western country.

I would categorize shopping to three levels of shopping stores in the country.

The street stores/kiosks

These are small shops that are located on the actual street. They typically sell things like water, cigarettes, various snacks, and even sometimes things like bread and cheese.

ATB, Furshet, Varus, Billa

At the next level of supermarkets, we have chains like ATB, Furshet, and Varus (popular in Eastern Ukraine). 

These are mostly located in more “working class” neighborhoods and are cheaper than other stores.

These would be similar to stores such as Stop & Shop in New York City.

Silpo

One of my first experience shopping in Ukraine was “Silpo” (written as Сильпо). It’s one of the biggest chains in Ukraine and is located across the country.

Silpo is a bit more expensive than the previous stores, but it carries higher quality goods, more selection and attracts a more upscale crowd.

It’s similar to something like Safeway in California.

Le Silpo

Last but not least, there’s “Le Silpo,” Silpo’s luxury brand. There are only four Le Silpo’s around the country in the following cities: Kiev, Dnepr, Odessa, and Kharkov. Each city has only one Le Silpo, typically located in an upscale area of the city.

Not trying to sound like some snob, but there’s definitely a noticeable difference in the service that’s offered in “Le Silpo” vs regular Silpo, and the other stores.

Le Silpo can be compared to Whole Foods Market in America.

Ukrainian culture

If this is your first time visiting Ukraine (or Eastern Europe), then get ready to experience a mild form of culture shock. Although Ukraine has changed drastically over the years (for better), Ukraine is still quintessentially Eastern Europe.

For starters, that means don’t expect much of hand-holding. That includes things like customer service in stores or restaurants. Don’t expect random smiles from people you may not know (e.g., in stores, restaurants, coffee shops).

For more information and examples, check out my article about living in Russia several years ago. I would characterize Ukrainian mentality very similar to Russian mentality described in that article.

I will admit, however, that Ukraine has come a long way over the years. In the eight years that I’ve been visiting and living in the country, customer service and general ambiance have gradually improved. I’ve noticed this mostly in Kiev, but other cities have picked up too.

Language in Ukraine

Ukraine has only one official language: Ukrainian. The reality, however, is a bit complicated. Most of the country actually speaks Russian. While Ukrainian is the official language everywhere (government offices, police, etc), Russian is the main language of communication in every city south and east of Kiev (including Kiev): Poltava, Dnipro, Odessa, Zaporozhye, Mariupol, Luhansk and Donetsk.

In the capital of Kiev, I hear Russian on the street about 80% of the time compared to 20% of Ukrainian. Almost all shop owners, restaurant waitresses and other service workers speak Russian. People who are originally from Kiev speak natively Russian; Ukrainian is mostly spoken in smaller towns/villages outside of Kiev.

Ukrainian is the dominant language of Western Ukraine. It’s spoken in Lviv, Ivano-Frankovisk, Chernitvski and the surrounding cities and towns.

Everyone in Ukraine understands both Russian and Ukrainian, so knowing one language would be sufficient. If you’re going to be predominately living/visiting Western Ukraine, then Ukrainian is the language to speak and understand. Otherwise, if you’re going to be spending time in Kiev and East / South of the capital—especially in the main cities—then the language to learn is Russian.

Since I’m a native of Odessa, my native language is Russian. I have no problem communicating in Kiev, but had to switch to Ukrainian when I went to Lviv last year.

Safety and precautions

All in all, Ukraine is a relatively safe country. It’s safer than North America, South America and even Western Europe.

Unlike places like Rio de Janeiro (and Brazil in general) which is fairly unpredictable or American cities like New York (where you can also get easily robbed), you generally won’t be robbed at knife- or gun-point in broad daylight or even at night if you stick to well-lit streets in good areas of the city.

Nevertheless, Ukraine is no Japan. It’s still a poor Eastern European country with its share of crime. However, this crime is more subtle. About a year ago, I had someone break into my apartment and steal my suitcase full of stuff. This was at an Airbnb which I rented in a nice neighborhood, so it seems like someone had copies of the keys and entered the apartment when I wasn’t there. They stole my entire suitcase and nothing else.

The best way to stay safe in Ukraine is to relax, but keep your eyes open for any strange and suspicious things. Street smarts go a long way.

For digital nomads

If you’re a location-independent professional, Ukraine can be a solid choice. Big cities like Kiev are replete with work-friendly coffee shops and tons of co-working places. Internet speeds have improved dramatically over the years as well. Plus, with the introduction of 4G/LTE in the summer of 2018—with speeds up to 50-70Mbps—you don’t even need to rely much on fast WiFi anymore.

Over the last couple of years, Ukraine with its cosmopolitan capital, Kiev, is witnessing a resurgence in various startups and other online businesses. There’s a nascent startup culture here, which is easily evident when you spend time in some of the bigger co-working spaces. 

Visas and overstays

Most citizens of industrialized countries (e.g., USA, UK, and EU countries) get the automatic 90-day visa on arrival. After your 90 days is up, you must leave the country. 

After leaving the country after your visa expires, you can’t immediately return to Ukraine; you must wait 90 days before coming back. That’s what the whole 90/180 days visa means. It means you can only stay for 90 days within any 180 day period. 

Thus, it’s not possible to stay 90 days, leave the country and then come right back.

If you overstay, the fine ranges anywhere from 510 UAH ($20) to 850 UAH ($30). (There have been reports of it being as high as $200-300 for really severe overstays). There also have been reports of being banned from the country for three years.

Final thoughts

After living in some very exotic countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, as well as Bali, Indonesia and Thailand, it seems strange that I would more or less settle in an ex-Soviet Union country where people are so stoic to the point of indifference and where the winters can get unbearably freezing.

While I wrote a lot of nice things about the country, it’s important to understand that Ukraine is not USA or Thailand; it doesn’t have the “civility” of USA and it doesn’t have Thailand’s hospitality. It’s an Eastern European country through and through. For many years, trying to make sense of all that was the source of my frustrations in this country, something that I described in great deal here.

I eventually made peace with the fact that the only livable city (at least for me) in Ukraine is Kiev. The other cities are great for random trips, but making them home will be a challenge.

Nevertheless, even knowing that I can throw a dart and live anywhere in the world, something about the country lures me back in, and every time I open a map and think of a new place to live, picking any other country than Ukraine is becoming more and more difficult.

Odessa, Ukraine: A Local’s Guide To Eastern Europe’s Best Beach Destination

Dateline: Southern Ukraine

Ah Odessa, out of all the countries and cities I’ve visited and written about, I can’t believe I still haven’t written about my own hometown.

Actually, the reason I haven’t written much about Odessa is that I left my hometown in my early teens for a new life in New York. But just because you leave Odessa, doesn’t mean Odessa leaves you.

In the past seven years, I have returned to my former hometown no less than five times.

Here’s a local’s unique perspective to one of the most special and picturesque cities in the world.

Introduction

Odessa is Ukraine’s 4th largest city by population, behind Kiev, Kharkov, and Dnipro with a population of around 1M inhabitants.

While Ukraine has a fairly large coastline of the Black Sea, Odessa is the premier city for getting sun and tan. That has become more so after Crimean peninsula switched over to the Russian side.

That event made Odessa as one of the only viable options for escaping the country’s oppressive summer’s heat. (There’s also Mariupol on Azov Sea to the east, but it’s yet another mediocre Ukrainian 3rd-tier city and can’t compare to Odessa.)

The locals

The entire former Soviet Union not only knows where Odessa is located, but they also have heard stories about the locals, Odessits (Одесситы).

Depending on who you ask in Ukraine (or other ex-Soviet Union countries), that person will have something to say about the locals, whether it’s positive or negative.

Generally speaking, Odessits share a particular humor, have their own colorful way of speaking Russian and even have a very specific accent that only exists in Odessa (I don’t have it, but my mom definitely does.)

Like most ex-Soviet Union cities, Odessa has greatly changed over the years. Many people immigrated to Odessa from nearby towns and cities and from other countries. So, it’s definitely not the same city as it once was.

Where to stay

Odessa is a relatively big city (over 1M), but, as a tourist, there are really two places to base yourself in the summer months. The first option is the beautiful center. The second option is closer to the action near the beach.

Out of all the Ukrainian cities, Odessa’s center is definitely the most picturesque and memorable. Kiev with its charming old town comes close, but there’s something that makes Odessa’s center truly special that visitors and locals alike can’t really put their finger and describe.

The second option is right near the beach and, thus, closer to the action. Although Odessa has several beaches along its generous coastline, most of the action takes place near two nightclubs Ithaca and Ibiza, located near a beach called Arcadia.

Back when I was a young kid growing up in the Soviet Union, Arcadia was a quiet area that was frequented mostly by families; there weren’t many fancy shops or noisy nightclubs.

That’s a far cry from today as the main strip leading from the city to the beach is filled with restaurants, stores, and coffee shops. There’s even a small amusement park for your enjoyment.

Both options are viable so it really depends on what you’re looking for.

How to rent accommodation

Odessa is a seasonal city so it’s pretty easy to rent apartments in the offseason, but that can be very challenging during the peak summer months.

There are several ways of renting apartments. The first is through Airbnb.com. Because Airbnb is typically targeted to foreigners instead of locals, the prices are typically higher than similar apartments that are rented to locals.

It’s not uncommon to find a decent apartment in the center for something like $1,000/mo, while the same type of apartment may be offered for like $600-700 on a rental site targeted at locals.

Nevertheless, negotiating on Airbnb is always an option. If you’re staying for at least a month, ask for a discount. It’s not uncommon to get anywhere from 10-30% off simply by asking.

Another good site for apartment rentals is doba.ua. This site lists apartment that is rented out by night and is aimed mostly at locals.

Most of the people advertising apartments don’t speak English, so it’s a good idea to have a local friend help you make reservations. This is the site I mostly use for booking accommodation.

Finally, there’s the king of all sites: OLX.com. This is sort of a Ukrainian craigslist where you can buy/rent/sell pretty much anything from used kitchenware to luxury apartments. This is the main site that Ukrainians use for pretty much anything. It’s a site where I found my last three Kiev apartments.

While you probably wouldn’t be using the site to find a long-term accommodation in Odessa (you could do that), the site also lists apartments that can be rented for short term, which is typically anywhere from 1-3 months. That’s super ideal for spending an entire summer in Odessa.

Although all three are solid options for finding an apartment in the city, if you’re not on a true shoestring budget, Airbnb is a great choice for securing a great pad in a great location. Assuming, of course, you book well in advance, especially if you’re looking for longer periods of at least a month.

How to get around

There are two ways to get around in Odessa: public transportation and taxis. Fortunately, with the arrival of Uber in 2016, it has gotten much easier to efficiently get from one place to another.

When I spent the summer in Odessa last year, I stayed in the center but enjoyed the sun and sand on one of the less populated beaches at the southern end of the city.

I generally took the public transportation (marshrutka, $0.25) which took about 25 minutes to get from downtown to the beach. I also took Uber a couple of times; the ride was about 7-10 minutes and cost around $3-4.

The best beaches

Odessa is graced with a generous coastline stretching from the northern area all the way to the south where it meets another city, Chernomorsk (Черноморск, formerly called Ильячевск).

Just as you’ve probably guessed, not all beaches are the same. There are three types of beaches in Odessa: public beaches, paid beaches (where you pay a fee for a beach chair or a tent, you can even order food and drinks which they’ll bring right to where you’re seated), and, finally, private beaches that are only accessible to the owners of the private land (and their friends).

When it comes to paid beaches, they vary from those without frills mostly frequented by families all the way to party beaches that rival to party destinations such as Ibiza or Miami.

The closest beach to the city is Langeron (Ланжерон). It’s a beach that everyone knows and, thus, one of the most popular beaches in the city. All you have to do is walk towards the sea from the center and you’ll end up on this beach.

The problem with this beach is that it gets overly crowded in the summer months (even worse on weekends) when the entire city descends on it. The result is that people end up being packed like sardines—lying right next to each other. That’s probably not an idea of a vacation that you had in mind.

A much better idea is to go to one of the paid beaches. It’s something that I resisted when I first visited—why do I have to pay to access a free resource?—but after trying it once, I became a convert and now exclusively go to paid beaches.

Paid beaches range from expensive to completely affordable. The more expensive paid “beach clubs” attract the typical “seen and be seen” clientele, while there are also plenty of “chill” beaches where, for a small fee, you can have a true piece of mind.

The great thing about paid beaches is that you rent a beach chair, an umbrella or even a huge tent for two or more people. You can also order all kinds of food and drinks which are brought directly to you. There are also restrooms and showers.

Thus, you can spend the entire an entire day at the beach instead of breaking up your day when you get hungry or thirsty.

One of my favorite beach clubs was called “Agarti.” It was a chill beach that’s more reminiscent of Goa, India than Ukraine. It was super affordable, had a chill music, and attracted a chill crowd. It was about a 25-minute bus ride from the center, so it was never packed. Thinking back, spending time at that beach club was probably the best part of my vacation.

In the famed Arcadia beach, you have two popular nightclubs that everyone in Odessa knows: Ithaca and Ibiza. These are party nightclubs that are frequented by the “seen and be seen” crowd.

The best time to come

Odessa’s summer season begins around the end of June when the water temperature gradually starts to rise; the water becomes truly warm by the end of July. This lasts up until around the middle of September. Towards the end of September and beginning of October, temperatures drop substantially and it becomes chilly so you need a jacket or sweater.

This is unlike coastal cities on the Mediterranean like Barcelona or Rome which are still very warm and pleasant that time of the year.

Actually, the best time to come to Odessa isn’t in July or August, but in the first half of September. By that time, most tourists have left (because it’s cold), few families are on the beaches (school season started), and prices for accommodation drop back down to normal levels after being in the stratosphere in the three months previously.

Visiting in the offseason

For such a beautiful city in the summer, Odessa is a completely different city in the offseason. Once the summer finally ends in the second or third week in September, temperatures drop quickly and the gorgeous blue sunny skies give way to rain and clouds (although the sun does make frequent appearances from time to time).

In the winter, while the city’s proximity to the sea guarantees that it doesn’t experience super cold -25 C (-5 F) temperatures like the rest of Ukraine, Odessa still gets its fair share of snow. Coupled with short days and not a particularly “cozy” center due to the city’s sizable blocks and few pedestrians, and what you get isn’t the most pleasant to spend the winter in.

In the last few years, I spent a couple of winters in Odessa (even celebrated the New Year there), and it’s definitely not my first choice of a city to spend the winter. Cities like Lviv with their cozy squares and narrow streets are much more suitable for cold, Ukrainian winters.

What language to speak

For a city located in Ukraine, Odessa is a predominantly Russian-speaking. It’s probably one of the more Russian-speaking cities in Ukraine.

My native language is Russian. Everyone in my family uses Russian as their native language. In fact, an easy way to tell that a person is not from Odessa is if they have a Ukrainian accent when speaking Russian.

While everyone understands and speaks Ukrainian, the only language you need to know in Odessa is Russian.

Safety and security

While Odessa, just like Ukraine, is fairly safe and secure, you still should watch out for petty scams. In Ukraine, Odessa has always been known as the city of swindlers (аферисты). While there’s a low chance you’ll experience any kind of serious harm, you should still keep your eyes open for minor stuff.

These include pickpocketing in tourist areas, short-changing you by taxi drivers and restaurant waiters. Some of the more serious issues that tourists have experienced were when apartment owners didn’t return the deposit back (partially or all of it).

Final thoughts

Ever since returning to Ukraine back in 2011, I spent many summers in Odessa. Most of them were quick trips from Kiev, lasting around a week or two. Gradually, my sojourns in Odessa became longer; a year ago, I spent several months in Odessa.

Odessa has always been a special city in Ukraine (and the entire former Soviet Union). It was always a great summer destination for having fun and enjoying the sun.

Ever since Crimea became under Russian control, Odessa became the prime destination for summer tourists for the entire country. This resulted in extreme crowds, jacked up prices from restaurants to accommodation, and, generally, lots of hassle that comes with all of that. I solved this problem by visiting Odessa in September when the majority of the crowds are gone.

Still, have no illusions about it: Black Sea beaches aren’t exactly the Mediterranean, and definitely aren’t the Caribbean beaches I’m used when I was living in America and Latin America. The sand isn’t silky white and often times the Black Sea isn’t exactly clear enough to swim in.

Nevertheless, while there are plenty of cities around the world with better weather, beaches, food and even people, there’s only one Odessa.

Dnipro, Ukraine: What’s It Like Living In A Ukrainian 2nd Tier City

Dateline: Southern Ukraine

Introduction

Dnipro (or Dnepr/Днепр/Днипро/Днепропетровск) is a 2nd tier city in Southeastern Ukraine. Having traveled around Ukraine and decided that Kiev is the best city in Ukraine, I would’ve never visited this city had it not been for my friend’s constant nagging to visit him and check it out.

Finally, another friend of mine who had lived here before couldn’t stop praising this city and asked me to meet her there on the weekend that she would be there. I figured this would be a great opportunity to get to know a new city with a someone who’d lived there before. I accepted her offer and bought a ticket on a fast express train from Kiev.

For the first week, I rented an apartment in a very commercial (and expensive) part of the city that was supposed to be the center of everything (Мост Сити, “Bridge City”). Indeed, it was in the center of everything; there was a huge shopping center right in the same complex complete with a huge supermarket and  Western brands such as Zara, Diesel and Massimo Dutti.

Beyond the expensive department stores, everything about this “commercial center” screamed cheap and underdeveloped. There was nothing “exclusive” or “luxurious” about it, and it was a far cry from anything like Kiev’s “Maidan” (Independence Square) or even some of the more charming squares in other Eastern European cities. Its lack of tasteful architecture was also rather hard on my eyes. The only thing I noticed was lots of concrete.

Thinking that this “commercial center” was all there was to this city, I immediately regretted making this trip and started planning my return back to the capital.

Fortunately, the situation improved dramatically when I switched apartments and moved to a different area. Not only was the apartment itself newly remodeled and one of the most spacious I’ve ever stayed in Ukraine, but the neighborhood was awesome; it was very green and bohemian with plenty of great restaurants and a few cool bars. I enjoyed the area so much that instead of spending only a week, as I originally planned, I ended spending almost the entire summer here.

Awesome restaurants and coffee shops

For an Eastern European 2nd-tier city, there are surprisingly great food choices when it comes to restaurants and coffee shops. There are at least a dozen restaurants that I would easily call “world class” where I wouldn’t hesitate to invite a good friend or even my lovely Mom—my trusted litmus test for a place’s excellence—should she happened to visit me.

As a burger lover, I’ve had one of the best burgers and meat as long as I can remember. I’ve also had excellent Italian food and even pretty decent Mexican enchiladas.

While there are plenty of great restaurants, the coffee shop scene (mainly for getting lots of work done) isn’t terrible but could definitely be improved. After living here for a few months, I still didn’t have my “ideal” coffee shop, one that would be my default choice when I was tired of working at home and needed a change of scenery.

On the other hand, this is where a city like Kiev shines. I can easily name five coffee shops that I can go to and get some serious work done. As a location-independent entrepreneur, this is important.

Compact center

The center: where all the action happens

One of my favorite things about Dnipro is the fact that the center is very compact. One can cover this part of the city in about ten to fifteen minutes. Since the center is where all the desirable attractions are, this makes it super easy to have dinner with a friend (who also happens to live in the center) without being stuck in traffic while taking a taxi or public transportation.

It’s not some tiny center either. There are plenty of great restaurants, coffee shops and bars bunched all pretty next to each other. There are also lots of great clothing stores, whether it’s from a local designer or from some famous Western brand.

I cannot overemphasize how convenient this is. Even in Kiev, which isn’t a huge city by any means, everything is so spread out and there isn’t a “true” center. That means meeting a friend in the “center” easily means either a 30-45-minute walk or a 15-30-minute ride by car (assuming both of you live at least close to center). Here, no such issues exist because you simply leave your apartment and ten minutes later you are outside your friend’s apartment or inside the restaurant.

Just to give you an idea, imagine New York City with only the Prince St. in Greenwich village or LA with a small chunk of Melrose Ave. That’s a hell of a lot more convenient than making the trek from South Brooklyn or Bushwick in NYC.

Western Conveniences

For a seemingly sleepy Eastern European city in the middle of nowhere, there are plenty of Western-style conveniences. There are tons of Western-style supermarkets where you can buy all kinds of products that your heart desires. There are the familiar Western clothing brands such as Diesel, Nike and Levi’s. There’s also Uber for easy trips within the city or even to some nearby destination.

One may argue that these Western-style companies and influences are making Eastern European cities such as this one more “Westernized,” but I’m all for it if it makes the city more convenient and pleasant to be in.

“A city in the valley”

Unlike Odessa, Ukraine, Dnipro doesn’t have access to beautiful beaches of the Black Sea, but it mostly makes up for it with access to a beautiful river, Dnipro, which runs along the middle of the country. The city’s main attraction is the wide riverfront area called набережная. In the summer, that’s where you’ll find all kinds of people walking, sitting and overall enjoying life. There are also tons of great restaurants overlooking the beautiful river.

In some strange way, Dnipro—unlike Kiev and other Ukrainian cities—even has an eery Latin American feel. My neighborhood reminds me of Mexico City’s Condesa or Colombia’s Cali. The fact that it has a Latin American feel was definitely one of the main things that drew me to this city and got me to stay longer.

But unlike Latin America, with its crime and unpredictability, Dnipro, like the rest of Eastern Europe, is fairly safe and predictable.

Dnipro is a “hard” city

It didn’t take me long to realize that it’s a rather “hard” city. When I say, “hard,” I’m referring to the people and their behavior. Unlike Kiev or St. Petersburg, two cities infused with great culture and friendly people, in Dnipro, people almost never say “Hello” when greeting you—unless you say it first—everyone is mostly just going about their business.

I’ve had plenty of situations where I interacted with someone and then shook my head in response to their behavior. Things like opening and holding doors for random strangers were rarely (or never) met with a “thank you.” Ask for something in a supermarket, and the person behind the register would simply ask, “What do you want” point blank without greeting you of any kind.

Generally speaking, Eastern Europe as a region is fairly “hard.” It’s not a region where people typically go out of their way to make sure you’re satisfied with anything. This is something I experienced first hand when I spent a few months living in Russia several years ago.

Nevertheless, over the past few years, the region has been undergoing great gentrification that cities like Kiev are actually becoming more or less pleasant cities to spent lots of time in, even for picky foreigners who’re used to Western handholding.

Dnipro is a bit behind in this regard. It’s quintessentially Eastern European in a sense that nobody really cares about whether you enjoyed the pasta dish in a restaurant or the fact that you don’t understand something in a supermarket. Customer service simply doesn’t exist.

Meeting people is surprisingly difficult here because, unlike in Kiev, where people are more cosmopolitan and are at least somewhat curious of people from other cities or countries, people here are more reserved and guarded.

Of course, it wasn’t like this with every person I met, there are plenty of friendly people who at least went out of their way to help you (mostly in department stores), but for the most part this city was decidedly unfriendlier than other Eastern European cities such as Kiev, St. Petersburg or even Bucharest.

Livable city?

The entire time I lived in the city, I spent a lot of time thinking about whether it’s a city I can make peace with and learn to love. And, indeed, if someone put a gun to my head and told me to live here or else, I would certainly find ways to adjust. It’s a city that has everything one would need for a comfortable life. There are great restaurants and coffee shops allowing you to have a great lifestyle for a fraction of the price elsewhere.

But, yet, even as I was writing the above paragraph, and even if I had a great job and a nice apartment, this city still would never be my first choice.

As someone who was born in Ukraine and speaks the language, I’ve had my share of challenges in the city but for the most part, I’m used to the Eastern European mindset and life, so the lack of “humanity” didn’t affect me all that much; it’s something I fully expect. However, I would never recommend this city to a foreigner. I can already see them complaining about how no one “gives a fuck” about their concerns.

Even the fact that this city is “hard,” can also be flipped on its head and become an advantage. I know many people who actually prefer Dnipro over the more cosmopolitan Kiev. It’s smaller, more navigable and the “hardness” of the city can be an advantage because people always keep their word and don’t flake on you in the last moment like they do in bigger cities.

Speaking of Latin America, here’s what I wrote about Medellin back in 2011:

In many ways, it’s a city without a soul, a city without charm.  A city where everything works but nothing is special that motivates you to return or convince others to come and visit.

As I wrote recently, 2nd and 3rd tier cities are generally boring and nondescript and don’t have the excitement or the cachet of their 1st-tier counterparts.

Ultimately, I realized that regardless of what I thought and how much positive spin I can create around this city, I was still in a 2nd -tier city in Eastern Europe. And, in Eastern Europe, as my experience has proven again and again, the only livable places are really the 1st tier cities; everything else is too broken (both literally and metaphorically) to provide a decent quality of life.

Why live in a 2nd-tier city when I could just as easily be living in Kiev—a truly awesome city—where people and the architecture are much more friendlier and welcoming?

Thus, it seems that no matter where in Ukraine I travel to and live, all roads always lead back to Kiev.

Building A Digital Marketing And Copywriting Empire From Mexico City

In this special podcast, I brought on a special guest: Dennis Demori, who escaped life in America for location-independent lifestyle. He’s currently based in Mexico City.

Here’s what we discuss in this nearly 2-hour mega podcast.

  • Why Dennis has embraced the digital nomad lifestyle and has no plans to live in America
  • What’s life like in Mexico City?
  • The pros and cos of Central American countries
  • What Dennis does for a living
  • Dennis’ typical work day – and how to stay productive while living all over the world
  • Why Dennis works seven days a week
  • Dennis’ future projects that he plans to launch
  • Biggest failures and epiphanies
  • His advice to anyone who’s starting from scratch
  • And much, much more in this 2 hour mega podcast!

To learn more about Dennis, visit his website: http://dennisdemori.com

or checkout his instagram here: https://instagram.com/dennisdemori

Enjoy!

Building A Digital Marketing And Copywriting Empire From Mexico City

 
 
00:00 / 1:58:49
 
1X

Why I’m Only Sticking To Large, 1-tier Cities

Dateline: Southeastern Ukraine

One of the biggest discussions around digital nomad or location-independent communities is whether it’s better to live in a large and well-known 1st tier city (such as the capital) or a smaller and less known 2nd or 3rd tier city.

The argument goes something along the lines that smaller cities are friendlier, less expensive and don’t have the hectic craziness of their bigger and badder counterparts.

After living all over the world in large and small cities, I believe, with a few exceptions, big cities offer much more value to any digital nomad or permanent traveler than smaller, 2nd or 3rd tier cities.

As a permanent traveler, I have the liberty to live in any country I want and in any city within that country that I desire. Generally, it’s easy to pick a country: you may love Brazil but hate Sweden, you may love Ukraine but not be too crazy about Kazakhstan or Egypt.

On the other hand, picking a city is a bit more complicated. For instance, let’s say you’ve always wanted to live in Colombia. Do you live in the big capital of Bogota, a smaller city like Medellin or settle down in the provincial Cali? What about Kiev or Odessa in Ukraine? Or what’s better: Bangkok or Chiang Mai in Thailand?

This is definitely something that I struggled with during my permanent traveler lifestyle. When I lived in Latin America, I mostly setup camp in large, well-known cities like Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City, but have also experimented with living in smaller cities and where I didn’t even once hear an English word spoken.

That was the case in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico.

Even as I currently write this, I’ve been living in a smaller, 2nd-3rd  tier city in Southeastern Ukraine. There are no tourists here. That’s probably because there are no tourist attractions (that I know off and could recommend). It’s much more laid back than the capital. Needless to say, it’s been a completely different experience than living in a bigger city like Kiev or, obviously, New York.

First of all, I’ve always been a big city guy. I was born in a relatively big city (~1M people) and spent most of my life in relatively big and affluent cities (New York, San Francisco, etc), so it’s no wonder that when I set out to live abroad, I always aimed for huge cities not little towns in the middle of nowhere.

When I began traveling to Mexico more than a decade ago, the only city I really wanted to visit was Mexico City. Mexico City is one of the biggest cities in the world, and for sure it didn’t disappoint. Many years later, I still describe this megapolis as a city where anything and everything is possible.

Here in Ukraine, I spent about three years living in Kiev, before experimenting with living in other cities. Kiev quickly became one my favorite cities in the entire world.

Big cities have amazing hustle and energy

First off, there’s nothing like living in a big city. Regardless if you’re based in New York City, Mexico City, São Paolo or Tokyo, there’s a certain energy and hustle that simply can’t (and doesn’t) exist in some nearby town of fewer than 1M people.

That’s especially important if you’re someone like a freelancer who works for other companies or a digital entrepreneur like myself who carves his own piece of the pie and works out of coffee shops or co-working spaces. I feel like I can build an empire and takeover the world whenever I’m in a place like NYC or São Paolo, but would never dream of anything big if I was based in some Sleepytown, West Virginia.

It’s easier to meet people in big cities

In my experience, it has also been much easier to meet people in large cities. Initially, this seemed like the opposite of common logic; I always imagined small towns to be super friendly because everyone knows everyone else and nobody looks doors at night and all that. And, while that may be true to some extent, I’ve discovered that it’s actually harder to meet people in smaller cities than their bigger counterparts.

One of the reasons for this is because big cities aren’t only composed of natives but also of people who moved there for more opportunities. For instance, in New York City it’s fairly easy to meet people from all over the world, never mind the entire United States.

In Rio de Janeiro, it’s common to meet people from all over Brazil; in Kiev, you’ll meet people from all over Ukraine.

And, since people move to larger cities because of more opportunities, they’re already more primed for meeting new people—whether they’re co-workers, business contacts or romantic connections. 

Big cities are also magnets for other foreigners, which are always open to meeting other expatriates. Even if, one day, I come to grips that I don’t really click with locals, I can always count on foreigners—regardless where they’re from—to meet up in some bar and have a beer.

The “small city” complex

Another thing I noticed after living in smaller but still relatively affluent cities is that people tend to have something that I call the “small city” complex. I recall living in Medellin, Colombia and meeting all kinds of people who weren’t shy about proclaiming how their city is the best in the country and even the world. On the other hand, I don’t think I’d ever met a single person from the capital, Bogota, who claimed that Bogota was the best even though the latter has many more opportunities than the former.

I also noticed this trend in Ukraine, a country where I’m now. Kiev is an awesome city, but people from the capital typically don’t go out of their way to remind you of that. Go to a smaller city like Odessa (where I was born) and you’ll have locals saying that their city is the best in the country (and even the world).

The problem with this complex is that it quickly crosses over into arrogance. When you’re in a city full of people who believe their city is the center of the universe, there’s little desire for them to expend energy and learning about other cities or cultures.

This also makes it much harder to integrate yourself into smaller cities as an outsider.

Big cities have more culture

Generally speaking, big cities are more “cultured” than smaller cities. New York City has more “culture” than Albany or Buffalo; Kiev, Ukraine has more culture than Chernigov (Чернигов); São Paolo, Brazil has more culture than Goiás; Moscow, Russia has more culture than Surgut (Сургут).

I never really considered myself as a “culture-seeking” guy, but I must admit that it’s a lot more pleasant living in a place like St. Petersburg, Russia, which is an epitome of a cultured-city with its world-class museums and restaurants, than a smaller town just outside Moscow (in fact, there’s absolutely nothing in the world that would convince me to live in the latter).

The cultural aspect also extends beyond monuments of dead people and museum exhibits; the people are also much more pleasant in more culture cities than in some backwater in the middle of nowhere.

This is especially true in Eastern Europe where the only livable cities in each country are the capitals or perhaps one other city: in Russia, that’s Moscow and St. Petersburg; in Ukraine, that’s Kiev and Odessa; in Lithuania, that’s just Vilnius; in Latvia, that’s just Riga. In this region, 2nd and 3rd tier cities are typically too poor, rundown or outright broken to provide a decent quality of life.

The exceptions

There are some notable exceptions. The main one is if the smaller city has somehow been “vetted” and delivers massive value above and beyond the big capital or another big city. 

Chiang Mai in Thailand is the perfect example. Yes, it’s a small provincial city, but it’s pleasant enough to provide a good quality of life and robust enough to have the infrastructure and the community to get some serious work done.

Another notable exception is the quintessential beach city. This would be something like Odessa in Ukraine; Split or Dubrovnik in Croatia; or Marbella in Spain. What all of these smaller cities have in common is the fact that they’re located near the beach with its relaxing vibe. Beyond the beach, the city may not offer much and can’t compete with the bigger capital in non-summer months.

Bigger is better

Ultimately, a big city should be your top pick whenever you’re planning a new chapter in a new country. There’s enough buzz and hustle to keep you busy as you’re looking to explore and get to know your new surrounding.

Smaller cities are great for a quick getaway for a weekend or few days. I can certainly see myself living in Bogota, Colombia and making a quick trip to some neighboring town or village, but living in the latter for an extended amount of time would be another story.

From Bangkok to Bogota, from Kiev to Singapore, big cities are the default choice for quality long-term living and everything else you may desire. They just make more sense.

Life Is Easier And Simpler Outside The West

When it comes to a decision to alive abroad, it all comes down to whether you want to live in the West or live outside the West. It isn’t really about a certain country or city, it’s more about a particular lifestyle.

That has been my philosophy in a nutshell. And, for me, my whole living abroad experience has been about the “rawness” of living outside the West, away from its hyper-organized rules and regulations.

It all started in Brazil around ten years ago. I had just finished toiling away the best years of my life for a string of companies in Silicon Valley. I knew I needed a change. I knew I needed to do something. And I knew it had to be a drastic change, and not one where I would merely move to another city in the great US of A.

Brazil did the trick. While the country somewhat resembles a Western country: it’s populated by mostly European descedents who use iPhones and shop in huge shopping malls, Brazil is light years away from the tightly organized and boring feel you mostly find in places like the US and Western Europe.

After Brazil, I spent a bit of time in more organized—and boring—countries such as Spain and Denmark, before heading east to Lithuania and ultimately to Ukraine, a country where I was born and where I’ve been living on and off for the last four years.

I have a love and hate relationship with my former homeland. As an entitled Westerner who’s used to things like smiles and handholding—with a bit of humanity thrown in—it’s a place that at times frustrates me. But as someone who hates all the fakeness and bullshit that comes with the former, living in some ex-Soviet shithole of Ukraine has been somewhat refreshing.

Hit the ground running

One of the biggest differences between a comfortable Western country like US and a non-Western country like Ukraine is that it’s a lot easier to get settled in the latter than the former. 

Everything is simple without the run around. Once I landed and passed passport control, it took me all but ten minutes to secure a 4G sim card. No long term contracts or hidden fees.

Another ten minutes to rent an apartment in the center, in my favorite neighborhood. Again, no long-term contracts or hidden fees.

After settling into my new pad, I walked five minutes into my favorite gym. I had two choices for membership: pay for a visit or signup for a month. Knowing that I will be staying in this city for a while, I paid the monthly fee ($10) and walked into the lock room.

This applies to everything, all kinds of services, whether you’re looking to secure some sort of accommodation or join a great Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academy.

No long term commitments, no hidden fees, no exorbitant cancellation charges that American companies (and other Western countries) have gotten so good at extracting out of you.

Landed at JFK and need a cellular plan? That would be $75/mo from AT&T Wireless in Terminal 7, thank you very much. Fuck that.

Tired of paying $100/mo for cable you never watch and want to cancel it and just have wifi service from the same provider? Good luck with that, because your friendly cable company won’t just let you take the $100, so you can pay $10 for wifi; you’ll have to pay a bit more for wifi instead.

Want to join a gym? That would be at least $25/mo and good luck cancelling it because they’ll make your life a living hell once you decide to stop giving them money.

Same goes for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training, a sport I’ve been practicing for around ten years all over the world. There’s an unspoken custom of the free visit to be free that’s honored by every academy I’ve been too. But only in America will you be “reminded” to signup for weeks on end a week after checking out a new school.

My family lives in New York, but I can’t picture myself living there even if someone put a gun to my head. Don’t get me wrong; I love the Big Apple. But I’d rather swallow nails then rent a long-term apartment there. Like, paying 3x monthly rent as a deposit, making sure the contract doesn’t have any hidden clauses that would wipe out my savings when I decide to move out and other nuisances. 

I can keep going, but you get the point. America is a business. Its religion is money. Great for making money, not so great when you’re the one others are hellbent making money from.

Now, of course, this isn’t applicable to every city in USA and heck, it isn’t even applicable to every country in the West, but it has been my unambiguous experience that no matter where you are, from Bali to Thailand, from Mexico City to Ukraine, from Rio de Janeiro to Lithuania, things are just simple and easy compared to its Western counterparts.

I remembered how difficult it was to rent an apartment in Copenhagen, Denmark. I couldn’t just rent any apartment; I had to sign a brand new lease in order to be “registered” there. (If you’re not registered with the city, you don’t exist.), but then I went to Lithuania and rented a beautiful apartment right in the middle of the old town within a week. No fuss. No muss. No problems.

Few places are easier to live than Lithuania. During my sojourn there, I enjoyed one of the fastest wifi connections in the world—a whopping 50MBit. The cost? $10/month. (That was three years ago, I think you can get 100mbit for like $15/mo now).

Once again, no hidden fees, no contracts, nothing at all to make your life even more miserable.

What makes the West “The West”? For one, it’s the standard of living. You get paid more cash in Las Vegas than in Chiang Mai and you get access to more shit.

Second, the government is stronger and more present. You’ll have a higher chance of getting a speeding ticket in northern California than in northern Thailand.

When the government is stronger, things are more organized. Taxes are collected. Roads are paved. Trains run on time. And more money is taken out of your pocket should you break some silly contract with your telco or your landlord. Lawyers gotta eat, too.

Have your cake and eat it, too

Now, of course, it’s not all peaches and cream in Brazil or Ukraine. When our refrigerator broke in Rio de Janeiro, my roommates and I waited four days for a repairman to fix it. When you have a disagreement with your landlord in Odessa, Ukraine, it’s you against your landlord; there’s no “small claims” court to hear your case.

Piss someone off in New York City and they may send you a “cease and desist” letter. Piss someone off in Kiev, Ukraine and they may send a burly man to your apartment or office.

In the West, everything is official. Everything needs to be done “by the book.” But outside the West, everything is personal. Relationships are established between people, not corporations. It’s not some nameless court who’ll hear your case; it’s Ivan, your next door neighbor.

In many ways, living in Ukraine still has this “rawness” to it that America had during the first part of the 20th century. Granted, I’m not in the capital—which is rapidly becoming more and more “developed”—but where I am, a man can simply live and be free, and if he doesn’t bother anyone, no one is going to bother him.

I experienced something similar in rural areas in places like Thailand, Indonesia and Colombia.

When I was living in Chiang Mai few years ago, I rented a car and spent a week driving around Northern Thailand. I didn’t break any speed limits, but I throughout the entire week, I didn’t see a single patrol car anywhere.

As someone who grew up in Brooklyn, it was refreshing not seeing a single police car for miles and miles, something that you will never see in New York City. I liked it. After all, I’m an adult, and I’ll take full responsibility for my driving.

But that’s not to say you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Cities like Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Tbilisi, Georgia are rapidly becoming go-to cities for all kinds of expats, especially those who’re tired of the West, with all of its rules and regulations, but also those who still seek the comfort and predictability of their former homelands.

One Man’s Escape From American Corporate Bullshit For A Happy And Meaningful Life in Eastern Europe

There’s nothing I enjoy more than to connect with other like-minded people. Those who were never content with the status quo, the corporate drone bullshit, the whole “work until you retire at 65” crap that our society happily shoves down our throats from the time when we’re born until, well…, it’s too late to do anything. I admire people who’ve managed to carve out their own path in life and do something meaningful.

Meet Kyle, a young former-corporate wage slave who escaped his comfortable but super boring life in California for a much more meaningful and satisfied life in Eastern Europe.

To be honest, this is easily one of my favorite podcasts that I’ve ever done. In this podcast, we covered pretty much everything: location-independence, travel, favorite countries and cities, business, dropshipping/ecommerce, building products and services and much more.

There’s definitely something for everyone.

Here are some of the things we discussed:

  • (1:24) Kyle’s background, where he’s from and where he’s now.
  • (3:30) Why Kyle moved to Czech Republic over other countries
  • (5:05) Pros and Cons of living in Eastern Europe over West
  • (6:13) The lack of “hustle mentality” in Eastern Europe; The New York City hustle mentality
  • (10:13) The challenges of working hard in during the Eastern Europe summers
  • (11:00) My friend’s weird 5-12 work schedule
  • (12:05) Kyle’s typical day routine
  • (13:33) The “truth” about the Location-Independent lifestyle
  • (14:30) Kyle’s future travel plans
  • (16:05) The challenges of traveling and working at the same time
  • (19:09) How I booked location accommodation in Bali and Thailand
  • (19:45) The cost of renting an apartment in Kiev, Ukraine
  • (21:48) Kiev vs. Odessa vs. Other Ukrainian cities
  • (24:00) Why Kyle is not interested in moving around too much
  • (25:00) The importance of building solid relationships vs. random friends here and there
  • (27:40) Comfortable salary for living in Eastern Europe
  • (28:00) $2-3/mo vs. $1M vs. $1B
  • (29:10) The importance of time – enjoying your life during your 20s, 30s, and beyond
  • (29:45) Going to Brazil at 29 vs. Going to Brazil at 55. Does it matter?
  • (30:22) Club in Rio de Janeiro where you’ll have fun whether you’re 25 years old or 55 years old.
  • (37:15) The myth of “overnight success.”
  • (40:44) The challenges of writing a book
  • (42:35) How to validate an idea
  • (44:45) The power of building a strong brand
  • (47:00) What’s better: blog or twitter?
  • (48:30) Ecommerce/Dropshipping
  • (52:25) Making free money with drop shipping (Credit card points)
  • (58:40) The biggest business epiphanies/failures
  • (1:03:00) The parallels of business / personal relationships
  • (1:04:00) How to start from nothing
  • (1:07:10) Starting a business on the side vs. Quitting your job and terrorizing yourself
  • (1:08:45) Final thoughts

For more information about Kyle and what he’s doing now, visit Kyle’s website.

Enjoy!

How To Become Successful If You Don’t Have A Lot Of Money And Connections

Call me a masochist but I’ve always seemed to choose the hard way when embarking on any mission, whether it’s building a new business, learning a new language or completing some other ambitious task. Although I’ve heard of others finding an easy way or shortcut, I’ve rarely experienced this myself. Today, I want to teach you my mindset of approaching, embarking and conquering even the most difficult challenges.

First, let’s define the word “success.” I define success as a point in your endeavor where each addition (marginal) effort you make results in a much greater output. For instance, if you’re running a successful business, you no longer need to frantically hustle 24-7 trying different things, you simply need to work several hours per day and the business will not only continue working on autopilot but will keep growing. This is very different when you’re just starting the business because all your efforts and energy is employed on figuring out what works and finding traction.

This concept is applicable to any endeavor. If you’re learning a foreign language, the first few weeks (and months) must be spent on merely learning how to read (if the alphabet is different) and memorizing very simple words and phrases. After you’ve built the base, things get a lot easier because you can leverage what you’ve learned to absorb more and more stuff.

Thus, if I’m learning Japanese, and I’ve learned enough where I’m at a point where I can have a very basic conversation with a local, it’ll be a lot easier to learn more phrases and expressions. That’s not the case when I’m starting at zero and must spend all my time memorizing Japanese characters before I can even learn the words such as “Hello” or “Thank you.”

In other words, regardless of the endeavor, there are startup costs that must be factored in before you start seeing any return on your effort.

This stage is the toughest mentally. Most people quit here. More people usually quit before their new business gains their first customers compared to the number of people who quit while trying to scale their business from $5,000/mo to $50,000/mo.

More people quit learning Russian before they could string basic phrases together compared to people who’ve quit after they were able to have a conversation but got discouraged because they couldn’t read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Piece.

Realistic expectations

The first rule of overcoming this hurdle is to have realistic expectations. From my experience, I’ve noticed that many people have very unrealistic expectations. A few years ago, a student applied to my mentoring program. When I asked him what he wanted to achieve, he replied that he wants to make $500/day within a month and move to Bali. Oh, and he also had zero business experience.

Here’s a perfect example of unrealistic expectations. Of course, people do make that much online (I have good friends that make much more), but they certainly didn’t get to those numbers overnight. It took them months/years of trial and error to get there.

When learning a foreign language, an unrealistic expectation is becoming super fluent in a week or a month. While you can certainly become conversational in a month or two (or less, depending on the language), becoming fluent will take much longer because fluency means knowing everything in the language and you simply can’t learn all aspects of a foreign language is a month. There aren’t enough hours to do it. Unless you completely suspend any notion of reality, you simply can’t learn what took someone 20 or 30 years to learn in a space of just few months.

Having unrealistic expectations dooms from you the start. You give up much quicker because you feel that anything short of making $500/day or learning fluent Chinese in a month means you’re an utter failure. That’s absolutely the wrong mindset.

The key is to start with healthy realistic expectations. When it comes to building an online biz, a realistic expectation would be to make something like $30-50/day. That’s absolutely doable and you can build a game plan for achieving that.

If your objective is to learn a foreign language, a good milestone would be to hold a 3-minute conversation with a native speaker. That doesn’t require advanced knowledge so you can achieve this level fairly quickly.

When I moved to Brazil years ago, my goal was to learn Portuguese. I actually couldn’t care less about was fluency; I just wanted to have conversations with locals. I achieved that objective in a couple of months. Sure, my Portuguese is not “fluent”; but it’s a lot easier to become “fluent” now that I’m conversational than if my goal was “fluency or bust” from the start.

The base belief

Although there are people who have unrealistic goals and the blind confidence that they will achieve these goals tomorrow morning, there are also people who don’t believe that something is possible because of low-esteem or other factors.

Let’s clear the air here. It’s 2018. The Internet is over 20 years old, and people still ask questions like “Is it possible to make online?” to “Do Google Ads work?” to “I heard Facebook Advertising doesn’t work” to “Do blogs make money?”

I used to entertain these questions. No longer. The way I see it, these questions are philosophical in nature. If you’re a philosopher and you want to discuss the meaning of life or existentialism, that’s great, but I’m not a philosopher—I’m here to help you build a business.

Before you start any endeavor, you need a certain amount of base belief. If you move to Japan, you must believe that you will be able to learn conversational Japanese. If you move to the Middle East, you must believe that you’ll be able to learn conversational Arabic.

Similarly, if you’re starting a business or learning online marketing, you must believe that you’ll eventually build that business and learn marketing. You must believe that you’ll eventually get the hang of Facebook advertising, Google Adwords or something else, and start to make $30-50/day consistently—at least at the start.

This is an absolute must. It’s not negotiable. I don’t care who you are or your past failures, but you must absolutely know in your gut that with enough time and perseverance, you’ll get to a point where you’ll achieve a certain level of success. You don’t need to become a millionaire overnight, but you must know that you will at least make something online.

Now, if you’re someone who read the above and immediately countered, “But James! I don’t know about that—9/10 businesses fail,” I’m sorry but you’ve failed the test. You need to do some introspection and fix your mindset (or find another website).

Let’s imagine you’re building an online store. You know nothing about building an online store. You know nothing about marketing. You know nothing about websites or tools or WordPress plugins. You know nothing about sales funnels. That’s fine. All of that is secondary. At the very least, you must at least know that someone out there will give you some money for your product one way or another. That’s your base belief.

Or, let’s say you had to pack up everything and move to China tomorrow (I’ve actually been thinking about visiting China for a while). You also know that you would need to learn Chinese. Well, you must absolutely know that you will at least become somewhat conversational in Chinese. It might be the crappiest Chinese in the world, but you must know deep in your gut that will string some Chinese words together and the other person will at least understand you. Remember, we’re not talking about fluency in any way, shape or form.

This is one of the most important things to internalize. Everything starts from here. If you don’t have this minimal level of this base belief, don’t even bother starting.

One of my first businesses was selling physical products on eBay back in 2005. My background was mostly in selling digital products and advertising, so I had zero experience selling physical products. But I saw a product that was selling well, imported it from China and listed it on eBay. The result: I was profitable from day one. Even before I started, I knew I would succeed one way or another. I didn’t care about making millions, I just wanted to make few bucks and grow from there.

Obsession

The next rule with becoming successful is that you must be absolutely obsessive about it. This is also not negotiable. You must feel that you have to succeed at all costs (within limits, of course).

Forget motivation. Forget some fuzzy feeling of happiness or whatever the hell that even means. None of that matters. What matters is your absolute determination to crack the puzzle. And to crack the puzzle, it’s not enough to treat it as some hobby that you do in your spare time like that 200-page book you’ve been “reading” for a year.

It needs to become a central focus in your life. I don’t want to say it must consume your life, but that’s a good way of putting it. The more obsessed you are, the faster you will succeed. I will go a step further and say that if you’re truly obsessed with succeeding, it’s not really a question of “if”—it’s a question of “when.”

One way to become obsessed is to want it bad enough. You must be in such state of pain that you simply must do something—anything—to change it. Ten years ago, I wanted desperately to leave the Bay Area and move to Brazil. The only way to do that was to build a side business to finance that lifestyle. Casey Neistat, in one of his videos, mentioned that his drive to succeed came from hating his life (he was living in a trailer park and working two jobs).

One of the guys I’m currently mentoring hates his current country and wants to move abroad. It’s this rebellion against his current situation that will eventually propel him to succeed. Nobody has ever succeeded by reading a business book while being completely comfortable with everything in their life.

Brute forcing success

There are several ways to speed up this grind. Money is one way. Money buys time. When you have money at your disposal, you’re able to buy experts, buy data, buy people and pretty much anything else. This will allow you get results quicker.

Of course, if you had a million dollars at your disposal, you wouldn’t be reading this article and following this path because you most likely have a competitive advantage that you can exploit.

If you’re starting from scratch, you really can’t buy time and expertise, so your only option is to grind it out. And to do that you must “brute force” success.

If you’re not familiar with this term, it means trying everything until you get the outcome you want. Brute forcing a combination lock means trying to open the lock by trying every possible combination. It’s the complete opposite of finding shortcuts or tips. It’s also the complete opposite of having a certain view of the world and believing certain things work while others do not.

Optimizing your efforts

The problem with brute force is that you can’t brute force everything simultaneously. Unlike a simple combination lock, your endeavor probably has many moving pieces and many “combinations” to get right. You must pick your battles. Thus, it’s important to focus on one objective at a time and only move to the next objective once the previous one has been solved. This forces you to focus on what’s important and remove everything else.

For instance, let’s say you just moved to Brazil and started learning Portuguese. The primary objective here is to become conversational. This main objective can be broken down into various phases. The first phase might be to learn conversational words and understand at least 10-20% of daily conversations.

In order to get to the 20% point, you write down every word that you don’t understand. Then, at the end of each day, you look all of them up and memorize their translations. You keep doing that every day until you understand about 20% of the spoken language.

Once you reach that phase, the next phase becomes understanding 50% of spoken speech. Daisy chaining these phases helps you to get from zero to your main objective in a controlled and predictable manner.

When it comes to making money, your objective could be to make $100/mo. But if you break it down into various phases, you can attack this problem in a predictable and sequential matter. The first phase might be to pick a good product. The second phase might be to get engagement from the audience. The third phase might be to market to that audience more efficiently. And so on.

The currency of hustle

When you’re grinding it out and brute forcing success, it’s very difficult to know whether what you’re doing is moving you closer to your goals or not. You need metrics. You need data. You need an effective feedback loop.

There’s a currency at play here. This currency informs you whether you’re on the right path or just wasting time. It’s not money. It’s also not time. It’s shipping. The faster you create, the faster you make things, and the faster you put them out into the world to see, the faster you learn what works or doesn’t work.

The opposite of shipping is perfection. At this stage, perfection is your worst enemy. I’m not saying that perfection is necessarily a bad thing. It’s good practice to create high-quality products, but you have to know what the product or service is first. When you’re trying to find your beachhead in a crowded market, your job is to make something; perfection can wait until later.

If you’re brute forcing success, forget perfection. Nobody cares about it. I’m more than certain that your customers don’t. All they care about is whether what you’re creating solves their problems and makes their lives a little bit more comfortable and better off.

Hustle dream team

Last but not least, even if you internalize everything above, it’s important to surround yourself with people who can push you.  Surrounding yourself with people who make shit happen helps exponentially. After all, it’s true what they say: you’re really the average of the five people you interact with. This has been an integral part of my success.

I’ve been fortunate because back during my college years I accidentally became involved with very successful guys who got a lot done. They worked hard, build lots of products and essentially printed money. Although we don’t really keep in touch anymore, merely seeing them work so hard and achieve so much in such a short period of time truly opened my eyes to what’s really possible.

I can certainly tell you that it’s one thing to talk about making some “bucket list,” writing down your goals, or saying that you’ll launch this or that “this year,” but it’s entirely a different thing to witness a bunch of guys accomplishes a month’s worth of tasks in one day with your own eyes. That’s what I call compressing time.

If you can’t physically surround yourself with winners, the next best step is to join an online community where people are making moves. Although I’m part of several online communities, there’s only one (a paid mastermind community) that comes somewhat close to being physically surrounded by hustlers.

Most importantly, you must enjoy the ride. There’s hardly a point of suffering through what might seem an endless tunnel when all you’re looking forward is the tropical ending. Whenever I embark on a new venture or project, I view it as a puzzle that must be cracked—at all costs. I actually enjoy the ride.

I also know that if I keep tinkering with the moving pieces, I’ll eventually stumble on the right combination that will pay exponential dividends for the rest of my life and also serve as a jumping point for the next challenge.

How To Monetize A Blog

Humans tend to overcomplicate things and making money is certainly on top of the list. But it’s not rocket science. Generally, you have two options: build your business or work for someone else’s business. Either you create value or help someone else create value. Those two paths summarize my early years. When I was in my teens and twenties, I alternated between running my own businesses and helping someone else run theirs.

Blogging is a different beast. I started mine completely by accident. Mostly out of sheer curiosity and boredom. It was sometime in 2009, and I was living in a small apartment in Rio de Janeiro’s colorful Copacabana neighborhood. I was living alone. I was lonely and bored. Naturally, I figured sharing my thoughts on the Internet would help me connect who were in a similar situation. Making money with my blog was the absolute last thing on my mind.

Over the years, I kept working on these two interests in parallel. I kept writing about my experiences in Brazil. I also kept building different businesses. Gradually, both things started to grow. My blog started to attract more and more readership. My businesses started to generate more money.

Then, one day, something unexpected happened. I had just returned back to my apartment after a morning swim in the Atlantic Ocean. I opened my laptop and loaded my favorite email client. There was an email waiting for me from an unrecognized sender.

The email was short and straight to the point.

“Hi James, I really enjoy your blog. I’d love to schedule a call with you over Skype. I will pay you for your time.”

I thought it over and agreed. Moments later, I received the payment. Few days later, I advised him on a specific issue he was having. (We quickly became good friends and still keep in regular contact after all these years.)

“That was interesting,” I remember thinking myself. “Someone agreed to pay me for my words and thoughts, for my bits and zeroes that I had plastered all over the Internet.”

“I finally monetized my blog,” I thought to myself.

I was wrong. There was no moment. There was no epiphany. Nothing really happened.

What I didn’t realize is that I didn’t just start ”monetizing” my blog the moment someone paid for my services. I was ”monetizing” my blog the entire time. While I wasn’t being paid directly, I was being paid in another commodity: attention. People discovered my content and found it useful enough to continue reading instead of doing something else with their time.

Attention is a much more important commodity than money. If you can capture someone’s attention, money will soon follow.

Capturing value

The whole notion of monetizing anything is misguided. You don’t “monetize” anything—you either provide value or you don’t. A table that I’m typing this article on right now provides me with value. So is the laptop that helps me craft my thoughts and convert them into zeroes and ones so that I can shuttle them onto the Internet for all of you to see. Then there’s my apartment that’s keeping me warm and safe from all the predators so that I can live long enough to hit the “Publish” button.

All of these things provide value. That’s why I purchased them and own them. That’s why the person or company who created these products or services are duly rewarded with my money.

Of course, the things I mentioned above are all physical products. Blogs are not. They are digital products. And, as it happens to be, words and thoughts are much more powerful than the chair, the table or even my apartment.

Blogs are personal communication mediums. And communication mediums are an extremely powerful way to connect with people. Instead of having some end product that you can touch and feel, words and thoughts are the atoms, the building blocks of life. They can influence emotions and get people to think in a radically different way.

That’s because humans are irrational and emotional beings so thoughts, feelings and ideas always come first. Physical products evolve later.

Writing is like having your own virtual factory from which you can produce anything in the world. If you write about travel, you take the reader on a journey to some distant and mysterious land. If you write about productivity, you help the reader master their time and achieve more. If you write about different tables and how each can help become more creative or more productive, you help the reader choose the right one for their unique situation.

Before I went to Bali for the first time last year, I had no idea where it even was (pretty embarrassing for a geography nut like myself). I had no idea that it was a true tropical paradise on earth. I had no idea that it would be one of the most amazing places in the world to visit and live.

So, I immediately did what I always do when I don’t understand something: I began educating myself. I found a couple of good Bali blogs. I started learning more about this region of the world.

Most importantly, I studied how this region of the world can benefit me, and what I was looking for in a vacation destination. There are plenty of amazing places in the world. But that doesn’t mean I’d like to go to Siberia, Tierra del Fuego or the Galapagos Islands. While all of them are interesting in their own right, I had just spent a freezing winter in Eastern Europe and the only thing on my mind was sun and relaxation. Siberia was out. Tierra del Fuego was out. Galapagos islands, maybe next year. Bali was the overwhelming winner.

Two days later, I bought a one-way ticket to Bali. Two weeks later, I had rented a scooter and was busy exploring this amazing island. I stayed for an entire three months and can’t wait to go back. None of that would’ve happened if someone didn’t educate me on this amazing country by helping me see how it was the perfect solution to the winter dread I was experiencing through the use of their crafty use of words on their blog.

Printing money

David Ogilvy, one of the most successful copyrighters and advertisers, once said that if you can write a good copy, you can print money. I couldn’t agree more. I would even take it a step further and say that if you can write anything well, you’re monetizing your very own words.

Naturally, when people think about “monetizing” their blog, they start thinking about all the products they can create, whether it’s some eBook, a course, or something else. That’s the obvious path because people just want answers handed to them on a silver platter.

Unfortunately, they’re missing the forest from the trees. It doesn’t matter what “premium” product you create, whether it takes the form of a book, video or a workshop. Everyone can do that. You can outsource book publishing and course creation to some guy in Bangladesh or Jakarta. You can outsource software creation to some guy in Kiev or Minsk. You can outsource article writing on any topic under the sun to anyone in the world who can stitch two English words together. The problem is that if everyone can do it—and they can—the end result becomes a commodity. Commodities aren’t worth much.

But you can’t outsource thoughts and ideas. You can’t outsource original value. You can’t outsource your experience of living in another country while struggling to learn the local language in order to integrate yourself into the confusing culture. You can’t outsource failing for the twelfth time and finally succeeding on the thirteenth with a business that finally gets traction. You can’t outsource helping someone overcome procrastination and laziness so they can finish their first book, the one they’ve been putting off for twenty years. You can’t outsource helping someone quit their shitty 9-5 job and allow them to discover true freedom. You can’t source the pain, the suffering, the triumph, the jubilation. You can’t outsource making a person feel one way one moment and then something completely different another moment.

Monetizing products is about demonstrating how they will benefit someone. Monetizing words is about making someone feel something. Whether it’s getting someone to buy a one-way ticket to Bali, or getting someone off Facebook so they can finish an important task first. The person must impact someone. They must be able to connect to those words in a profound and meaningful way. They must want to take action.

If you can’t do that, then none of that matters. In that case, you might as well sell me a finished product that serves a specific purpose like a nice table or a comfortable chair, and let someone else’s words, thoughts and ideas inspire, motivate and ultimately affect me in ways I didn’t think were possible.

The Most Important Rule When Starting Your Business

I recently decided to expand the way I spread my message by creating various videos on YouTube. After all, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video must be worth a million words. So far, I’m enjoying the journey and plan on creating different content and different channels.

Spending lots of time on YouTube while viewing all kinds of interesting content has allowed me to discover creators that I wouldn’t have discovered any other way. The majority of these creators don’t have their own blog or any other channel (or at least don’t market them on their channels), so their main presence is exclusively on YouTube. Many of them aren’t selling their own products either; they’re creating videos for fun. Nevertheless, one nice thing about a huge platform such as YouTube is that there’s an automatic way of making money: become a YouTube partner.

Earning money with YouTube is simple. Make a video, toggle the setting so the ads appear and wait for the money to come in. Advertisers pay Google/YouTube for the ads to be shown, Google keeps a portion and the rest goes back to the video creator.

It’s a win/win for everyone, especially for people who’re starting from scratch. That means you don’t need to spend years building out the brand and then creating products; advertisers simply pay per video views, regardless if the channel has 1,000 subscribers or 1 million. Naturally, the more people see your videos, the more money you make. (Although, because advertising is based on supply and demand, the amount you per view is largely dependent on what kind of content you have.)

Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll become automatically rich. First of all, if you don’t have a large following, the amount of money you’ll make will be very little. It takes a relatively decent audience (typically, more than 5-10k subscribers) to see a steady income that can cover your cable bill.

The second problem is much bigger and negates the benefits provided above. It’s the fact that you’re using YouTube’s platform for your content instead of building on your own platform.

When you create your own content and then host it on another platform, your content is governed by the platform’s rules. This forces you to abide by the platform’s rules. The first issue is that you give up some of those rights to the content. The second issue is that  you’re dictated a certain way to make money and no other way.

So, if you create the best videos in the world and put them on YouTube, you can no longer charge whatever you want for them.

Last week, YouTube introduced a new monetization policy. Starting next month, people with less than 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of views will no longer be able to monetize their videos. Once you reach those thresholds, you can reapply to the program for a chance to be able to show ads on your videos and get a portion of the profits.

This announcement affected thousands and even millions of creators out there. Although creators that don’t meet those thresholds weren’t making much money to begin with, it still signaled that YouTube was becoming more picky about the videos it wanted to be associated with.

But, mostly, this was a signal of something much more important: YouTube is now more concerned with its advertisers than with its up-and-coming creators. YouTube had grown up. Not everyone was automatically welcomed to its gated garden. And if you want to be part of the club, you need to go through strict checks. It’s like going through face control at a posh club instead of a cozy coffee shop that’s open to everyone.

This underlines something I’ve been talking for a long: it’s very risky to build important things on someone else’s platform. You’re building a dream house on a land you don’t own. Thus, you could have the most amazing content, but you’ll always be rewarded according to the most common denominator: in this case, specific ad rates that advertisers negotiate with Google, YouTube’s parent company.

Own the platform

Building your dream house on a land you don’t own is always a poor business strategy unless you make a little tweak: build that dream house on a land you do own. That means owning the platform.

Creating your own platform should be the cornerstone of any business, especially online businesses. I’m no exception. My own platform is Maverick Traveler (and some of the other sites I own). This is where all my content resides. This way I’m in absolute full control of the content I create, how I choose to present it to my readers, and how I monetize my products and services.

When you create content on another platform or channel, you’re powerless to do anything if those platform’s owners deem it unsatisfactory for their audience. If they don’t like you or your channel, they can flick a switch and make you disappear. That will destroy years of hard work and eliminate any revenue.

But when you own that platform, nothing like that can happen. Unless you screw up technically and delete your own site (and there’s backup for that), your site and your brand (along with your products and services) will always be online, 24/7, 365 days per year.

Hard questions

One of the side-effects of building on your own platform is that you’re forced to think through difficult problems. First of all, you need to decide what your brand is all about. If you’re just creating random stuff on YouTube or Instagram, you don’t really need a specific strategy; you can create random videos or post random pictures, but when you create your own platform, there needs to be a unified theme that generates serves a specific objective.

Creating and uploading a video to huge platforms like YouTube is straightforward because YouTube is an already establishment video platform, a problem that was solved when the company was being built. There’s also no discovery problem because your video is simply a search away from the site’s visitors.

On the other hand, when you create a brand tomorrow on your own server, nobody will know about it. Thus, you need to worry about how others will discover it and why what you do will be relevant to them. It’s much better to solve these problems in the beginning than after five years of fruitless labor where you’ve created lots of videos or written many articles but nobody knows who you are.

Leveraging other platforms

While it’s critically important to build your own platform, don’t simply discount other platforms. They have their uses as well. In fact, the best strategy is a hybrid one where you cultivate your own platform and leverage the other platforms to spread your message.

For instance, you can have a main authority site or a personal brand that hosts your articles and other types of content. And then you can use other platforms for spreading that message. It’s a strategy I’ve been using for more than a decade for great results. My main site is hosted here along with all the articles I’ve ever written. But, I also leverage other platforms, like YouTube for reaching new types of audiences.

To be sure, building your own platform requires an initial investment. You must provision a server to host your own content. You must design and build a site. Build products and services. Do marketing and customer acquisition.

But, all of this is something must do anyway in order to be successful. It’s not a question of “if” these questions need to be addressed—it’s a question of “when.” And, it’s much better to address those issues now while your brand is evolving, and you have an array of options than in some distant future when your brand has matured and your options are much more limited.

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