By Sadie Nicholas
Typing frantically on her laptop, mobile phone to her ear, Hannah Alford made the final tweaks to a massive new deal for her business.
As she hit “send” on the document after weeks of hard graft, she took a deep breath and felt the stress instantly ebb away as she pushed her office chair away from her desk.
For Hannah’s “office” that day was not a stuffy room in a corporate high rise in London as it once had been. It was an airy beachfront apartment on the Gold Coast in Australia, overlooking shimmering sands and the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean.
Hannah, 38, and her husband Chris, 32, run an online career consultancy business, and are two of a new breed of professionals shunning the traditional nine-to-five to become “flex-pats” – managing their businesses remotely so they can indulge their love of worldwide travel in the process.
For them, it’s a case of “have laptop, will travel”. And constant advances in technology mean we can work from almost anywhere. Half of Hannah and Chris’ year is spent working from their home in Bournemouth, and the other six months in whatever spectacular locations they fancy.
If you’re not already green with envy, you soon will be. In the last year, they’ve worked for two months on a beach in Thailand, a month on a snowy mountain in Utah, a month in Bali, three weeks in the French countryside, and they’ve just decamped to a picturesque lakeside cabin in Oregon, USA, after three weeks in Los Angeles.
“We never planned to be flex-pats until we took eight months off work to honeymoon in Asia in 2005,” says Hannah.
“The sheer joy of being away from the nine-to-five and the constraints of annual leave inspired us to combine my business skills with Chris’ IT consultancy background to develop our own business that we could run from anywhere in the world.”
Living the dream
Hannah and Chris have effectively been on one long sabbatical ever since, while all the time dedicated to the clients who buy the services of their coaching, assessment and training companies.
Keen to promote the benefits of combining work with travelling, they’ve set up a website, Loveplaywork.com, to advise and mentor others who want a similar lifestyle.
According to recent research*, there are plenty of them out there – almost 90 per cent of Brits would consider leaving the UK in the next five years for a healthier, wealthier experience living or travelling abroad.
“Once you buy into the idea that it’s possible to travel while running a business, you just have to be brave enough to make it happen,” says careers, life and social media coach Karen Perkins.
“It’s going to take off immeasurably in the coming years with job security so fragile here and more people keen to work for themselves. Anyone self-employed is halfway there.
“The old geographical constraints are falling away and it’s just habit and fear that keep so many of us tied to tradition instead of considering the exciting options now available to us.”
However, careers psychologist Joan Harvey urges would-be flex-pats not to get carried away with the idea of hopping from one tropical paradise to another.
“Wherever you work in the world, there are still clients and employers to satisfy, bills to pay and a lifestyle to fund,” she says. “Take advice and plan how you’ll manage your time and business wherever you are.”
Between them, Hannah and Chris earn over £100,000 a year, around the same as they earned in their old lives.
At home in Bournemouth they work up to 50 hours over five days. Abroad, they reduce that to 25 hours over three days, so there’s plenty of time to explore their surroundings.
“We have outgoings like any business does and we pay a couple of assistants who also work remotely and support us online with admin and paperwork. But our expenses are smaller. It costs very little to stay in lovely hotels, villas and apartments in places such as Thailand, and the cost of flights is off-set against the money we save on commuting or running cars,” says Hannah.
“In pricier places such as America, we organise house swaps through a website we trust. It means that when we’re not in the UK, we have home exchangers staying in our house so there’s always someone looking after it.”
On the move
Since becoming flex-pats in 2006, Hannah and Chris have conducted group coaching calls from a tiny Indonesian island, produced a training DVD from a 30th-floor apartment in Bangkok and launched a new online product from a villa in Nicaragua.
“We still get stressed when projects aren’t coming together, plus we have to overcome time differences,” Hannah adds. “But it comes in short bursts rather than being constantly wearing like it is in the UK, and there’s always an antidote.
“Recently, we’d had a stressful morning finishing a project for a client, but when a neighbour in Oregon, where we’re currently based, came and asked if we fancied going out on his speedboat on the lake, all the anxiety faded.
“We have an amazing lifestyle, but we’d like to start a family and that will bring extra challenges to how we live. That said, we’ve met flex-pat families who are making it work for them. Even with kids in tow, we can’t imagine ever staying in the UK year round – there are too many other places to experience.”
‘Everything we own fits inside our car’
Michelle Dale, 30, is an online business consultant and is married to Dale Robert, 36, who works with her on the business. They have two children, Theo, four, and Akasha, three. She says:
“My current office overlooks the pool of the beautiful stone villa we’ve been renting in a little village on the island of Crete for the last four months.
If I glance up from my laptop, I can watch my children splashing in the water against the backdrop of the Greek countryside with the sea beyond.
During the last seven years, I’ve spent two years each in Egypt and France, 18 months in Spain, nine months in Italy and now Greece. All that time, I’ve also been building my online business, which offers advice, training and consultancy to people who want to know how to set up mobile, paperless business operations and online marketing.
The business has a turnover of more than £100,000 a year, far more than the £1,000 a month I earned working in the UK as a mortgage underwriter.
By 2005, I’d grown tired of the daily grind, so I sold up and bought a one-way ticket to Egypt, a place I’d fallen in love with following a recent holiday.
Greece is the word
There was no plan. I started researching things I could do online to make a living and that’s when I discovered the concept of being a virtual assistant, which was perfect for my background in marketing, finance and business.
I did that for a year before meeting my now husband Dale in 2006, when he was travelling during a break from studying at university in America. Thankfully, we both enjoy the nomadic lifestyle and since we met we’ve followed the same pattern of choosing a country, holiday accommodation to rent, then staying for as long as it feels right.
I returned to the UK in September 2007 to have my first child, Theo, as I was nervous about the hospitals in Egypt, and I gave birth to Akasha in France in February 2009.
The children adapt well to us moving around. As they get older, it may become increasingly difficult as their friendships become more important to them. If we find that they aren’t coping as well, we’ll establish a base so that they can stay at the same school, and travel for three or four months of the year in school holidays so as not to disrupt their lives too much.
Because we don’t have a home base, we don’t own any furniture or anything bulky, apart from our computers and a nice TV which was a wedding gift we don’t want to part with. Everything we own fits inside our car – a seven-seater people carrier with a roof box – so we just pack it up each time we move, and off we go. We’re very minimalist!
We’ve had countless wonderful experiences as flex-pats, such as watching fireworks on New Year’s Eve from an Italian hilltop, and gazing out over the pyramids in Cairo while talking to clients online.
But I don’t live without a care in the world. I work long hours, I have all the usual bumps and bruises from being a mum, and I still worry about money because the business is our sole household income.
But being a flex-pat has given me the means to live life in a way that I could only have imagined seven years ago.
I go back to the UK to visit family once a year and I miss PG Tips and bacon butties like crazy, but we don’t intend to settle back there – or in any other country – as there’s a big world out there to see.”
Join the flex-pats
Hannah and Chris, who run Loveplaywork.com, offer up some invaluable tips…
- Get connected. Sign up for Skype, and invest in a webcam so you can be easily contacted for video conferences. A smartphone is also a must to check emails on the go.
- l Be realistic. You’re not on a permanent holiday, so you can’t spend all your time at the beach. Plan in advance how you’ll divide your time between business and sightseeing.
- Account for hidden expenses. You may not be paying for office space or commuting, but flights and accommodation add up.
- Choose countries where the cost of living is low.
- Look after base camp. You may need to employ admin support to keep things ticking over in the UK, dealing with bills and book-keeping.
- Downsize your life. The flex-pat lifestyle isn’t for hoarders. Everything you own, you should be able to check in at the airport – put everything else in storage.
- Tell us what you think on Twitter #FabMagFlexPats