Cate Costa – On Being a World Traveling Entrepreneur

Today we have a very interesting interview with Cate Costa. Most people dream about travelling the world and experiencing new cultures. However, few actually do it due to family and business responsibilities. Cate’s story is very unique because she has found a way to run two businesses, all while travelling the world and changing countries every month or two. She is a true startup nomad.

[Marco] Hi Cate. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Let me start the interview by asking, how many companies do you own? Can you tell us a little bit about them?

[Cate] I own one company outright – Venture Catalyst Consulting, which is my consulting business – where I am the only member of the team. I also own a large chunk of Only Honest, a virtual public square for political debate, where I have a business partner as well as 1 employee and 2-4 interns at any given time.

Venture Catalyst consulting helps first-time entrepreneurs without a business management background or education to plan and launch their businesses. I help aspiring entrepreneurs with great ideas and the dedication and intelligence to be successful and learn the key aspects of starting and running a business so that they can take their business ideas and turn them into efficient, profit-generating companies that allow their founders to have greater control over their lives and lifestyles.
Only Honest is a virtual public square for political debate where users can upload videos of themselves discussing the most pressing issues in US politics. We take the average citizen off the sidelines of the political debate and put control of the conversation back in the public’s hands instead of letting it be controlled by politicians and pundits.

[Marco]  Given that you’ve wanted to travel the world. How did you plan your companies so that they would support your dreams?

[Cate] Both of my companies have always been mobile – even before I was. With the connectivity we have today – the internet and all of its tools, especially Skype – it’s so easy to be location independent.

For my consulting business, I started out with clients in the DC area because that’s where I was, but as I began to build a web presence I immediately began receiving inquiries from outside of my region and I never hesitated to work with anyone based on where they were physically located.

For Only Honest, we built a mobile team intentionally and from the outset: my business partner and I were in different cities and we wanted to hire a team of interns that were geographically spread out in order to better position ourselves to spread the word across the country.

When building teams that are location independent, hiring well becomes even more important than at a traditional company because you have to be certain to choose a team whose members can feel motivated and committed without seeing everyone in the office every day. You also need a team that’s comfortable with flexibility as you’ll have to schedule across time zones and troubleshoot technical difficulties regularly.

[Marco] As a business owner, I know that managing a company while travelling can be difficult. But as a nomad entrepreneur I imagine it must be a nightmare. How do you plan your trips abroad so that you can stay on top of business?

[Cate] As a nomadic entrepreneur I don’t actually plan trips – my entire life is travel. This year, since starting the Startup Nomad project, I have lived in a different country every month or two. I don’t have a base in the US and visit other countries, I permanently live out of a suitcase. This actually makes managing the team easier than it would were I a frequent vacationer.

The most important thing to consider when living as a nomadic entrepreneur (or just traveling and managing a team) is to always check and double check that wherever you choose to stay will have internet access. As long as you have internet access, you are in business. Beyond that, you need to keep track of time zone changes and try to be respectful of the schedules of your team and clients.

Personally, I leave my scheduling calendar on EST and try to work around the schedules of those I work with instead of expecting them to work around me. Yes, sometimes that means very inconvenient meetings, but it’s better to have a meeting at midnight your time than to have cranky and unmotivated team members because you make them work at midnight their time. You also need to make sure that your team knows when you’re actually traveling – as in planes, trains, and automobiles – so that you will be unreachable and have a pre-planned backup for if they cannot get in touch with you. With Only Honest, our social media and intern manager reports to me, but on days that I will be flying or otherwise without an internet connection both she and my business partner know in advance that she should go to him for a quick answer instead of to me.

[Marco] And while we are on the subject of travelling, how do you manage client expectations and projects while you are away?

[Cate] Again, because this is my lifestyle and not a vacation, I work every day just as I would if I were stationary. My travels do not affect my clients as I adjust to fit their time zone and I work just as much during my travels as I would if I were still in my old apartment in the DC area. When I do take a vacation – for example taking a week off to visit Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca while I was in Peru – I inform my clients in advance, just as any professional going on vacation would do.

[Marco] I can see how many folks would see the lifestyle of a nomad entrepreneur a very exciting, unique and even glamorous. Are there any downsides, other than bad airplane food?

[Cate] There are definitely downsides to the life of a nomadic entrepreneur. First up is being away from friends and family. While catching up with old friends and making new friends in all of the fabulous countries you’ll visit is amazing, there are definitely times when you wish you could just chill out with those closest to you. Additionally, most people don’t understand the life of a nomad (of course) so you will constantly be explaining what you’re doing and why to others who will diminish it by asking you if you ever plan to get a “real job.” Another downside to the life of a nomadic entrepreneur is never being able to nest and build a home. Living out of a suitcase and having a new apartment every month doesn’t allow you to hang photos on the walls or arrange the furniture so it feels like home. Finally, it can be tough to adjust to what you do and do not have access to in other countries. For example, finding peanut butter or tampons or maple syrup at a reasonable price (or at all) can be incredibly difficult in Latin America and many other cultures do not have the “sky is falling” reaction to things like internet or water outages that most of us from the United States do, so it can be frustrating when you need something fixed and it’s not considered a priority by anyone else. That brings me back to my earlier point – when you need to work and travel be sure to check and double check about internet connectivity before you take off. “Reliable internet” means different things in different cultures.

[Marco] What locations would you recommend to entrepreneurs that want to travel, but keep a solid handle on their companies?

[Cate] Number one is to make sure that you choose cities where you can have reliable internet access. Heading off into very rural areas will generally mean that high speed internet is not available, and the lack of wifi makes it nearly impossible to run your company. Another key factor to consider is time zones. If you need to be available to your team members and/or customers during their work day, you probably don’t want to be in a time zone with a 16 hour difference.

[Marco] You have an awesome project called Startup Nomad where you interview entrepreneurs and investors while you travel. How did that project start? Can you tell us what you want to accomplish?

[Cate] Startup Nomad came about because I wanted to explore the entrepreneurial ecosystems along my travels but in a less formal way than some of the reports available. Whether I travel for pleasure or work, I like to get to know the people in the communities that I visit and these interviews allow me to do just that for the entrepreneurship communities across the globe. There isn’t a broader goal other than learning about the startup ecosystems that I visit, through the eyes of the ecosystems’ members, and sharing that with others who are interested in global entrepreneurship as well, though I do hope that the project will show entrepreneurs around the world that we are all more similar than different and help to foster the development of virtual communities for entrepreneurs that cross national boundaries.

[Marco] While we are on the subject of entrepreneurship in other countries. What would you say are the biggest differences between entrepreneurs in other countries and American entrepreneurs?

[Cate] I believe that there are overwhelmingly more similarities than differences between entrepreneurs from different countries. However, the entrepreneurship community does not live in a bubble separate from the broader community, so each country’s culture, heritage, and macroeconomic and political conditions inform the way the entrepreneurial communities are built and how entrepreneurs see themselves and interact with each other and their stakeholders. That means that cultural attitudes about entrepreneurs, access to capital, growth opportunities, stability, etc. may make it more or less difficult or attractive to be an entrepreneur, but those who do take the plunge all face varying degrees of the same struggles and all have similar motivations for embarking on their entrepreneurial journeys.

[Marco] Let me finish off with a travel related question. I know you are embarked in a yearlong plan to travel Latin America. What comes after that?

After spending nearly all of 2013 traveling, I plan to spend 2014 splitting my time between only one or two countries and the United States so that I can have a break from some of the issues of nomadic life that I mentioned above. However, after 2014, who knows. I may continue the Startup Nomad project in another region of the world or I may find an opportunity interesting enough to keep me in one place. I rarely plan that aspect of my life too far into the future. I prefer to leave the possibilities open.

Cate Costa in machu picchu Cate Costa is the founder of Venture Catalyst Consulting and Only Honest. She has a very active blog that is full of useful information. You can follow her @cate_costa