Each month we feature an interview with a member of the Superstar Blogging community. These interviews highlight the ups and downs faced on the road to success, illuminating helpful tips and tricks along the way. If you want to get inspired to succeed, then consider these interviews must-read material! This week we are featuring Ben from The Sabbatical Guide!
Tell us about yourself!
Hi, I’m Ben from the UK. I’m a retailer by trade, but a writer and travel-blogger by passion. I live about 50 miles north of London, with my supportive and beautiful wife Becca, and Smudge – the noisiest little cat in the northern hemisphere! We try and live quite a simple life, putting any money that’s over and above our household bills into a bank account named ‘TRAVEL’. We then make the most of vacation time, weekends and unpaid sabbaticals to try and see as much of the world as possible.
I was one of the few people in my family not to go to university, instead pursuing a career since 16, which has really worked out for me. It’s been hard graft — I watched friends around me spend weekends in the pub and take gap-years whilst I was working long and late — but having put the hard work in, we’re now making the most of our free time before we start a family.
I’ve always been a passionate writer starting with music and poetry, and more recently moving on to blogging and travel writing. In the little time that remains I do my best to stay fit, switching between cycling, weight-lifting and jujitsu…and not doing a desperately good job of any of them!
And how did you get started traveling?
My Dad moved to South Africa when I was 10, and travel has been in my blood ever since. Whilst our friends were back home in the UK, my sister and I would spend every Christmas, Easter and summer having a secret African life, in a land filled with colour, strange languages, exotic animals and welcoming people.
I was hooked!
I worked very hard in my twenties, and skipped many vacations and weekend in pursuit of a career. Whilst it worked, I lost a lot of time, and am now striving hard to make up for it by building periods of extended travel into my life. In the last three years, we’ve have two three-month breaks from work, one when switching jobs, and then another unpaid sabbatical. I’m determined to learn as much as I can from far-flung places of the globe as I can.
What have been some of your favorite destinations so far?
It will always be Southern Africa for me.
From childhood memories, it would be places such as Kruger National Park in South Africa or Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Unforgettable adventures with a dad and his two young children (we were both under 15), making memories that would shape our lives. My sister ended up moving there, and is now married to a South African guy. For me, Africa inspired a life-long love of travel.
It hasn’t been left in the past either. I’ve recently visited South Africa with Becca, and this has allowed me to experience it all over again through someone else’s eyes. Cape Town is probably our favourite place on earth, with days that can include anything from whale-watching to vineyard tours. If we could only have one destination for the rest of our lives, it would be that one.
What places or activities are still on your bucket list?
Wow, tough question! It kind of depends what I’ve seen on Instagram that day! I’m constantly being inspired by new things, and the world is always evolving.
If I had to narrow it down though, I’d say I have an ambition to live abroad at some point in the next few years. Travel is great, but even long-term travel doesn’t give you complete understanding of a place. I’d love to live and work abroad for a period of time, to stretch myself out of the UK comfort-bubble and see what I learn about myself.
In terms of places: Iceland, Kerala in India, Patagonia, Easter Island, The Galapagos, Fiji, Mozambique, Morocco, New Zealand, Kenya! The list could go on for a very long time!
We learned to dive whilst in Vietnam, so I want to use this new skill again soon, and complete the advanced diving course to allow us to go into deeper waters. I also want to learn to ride a motorbike over the next few years. I have this romantic idea of doing a long motorbike road-trip at some time in my life!
I’m guessing you’ve had some misadventures on your travels. What lessons did they teach you?
We’ve been stuck in storms on a tropical island, involved in car accidents, scammed more times than people with common-sense should, almost got sucked into the propellers of a passing ship whilst diving, charged by a bull elephant, even bribed the odd police officer (ahem!).
What has it taught me?
The same thing I’ve learned right the way through life.
You only truly learn when you’re out of your comfort zone. Predictable, simple, 5-star travel is alright for some people — and they’re welcome to it — but if you want to come back knowing yourself a little better and learning a bit more about the world you have to push your barriers. Then you’ll come back with some proper stores and a new perspective on the world.
Alright, now tell us about your blog!
In blogging terms, I have been involved for a relatively long time, getting on for four years now. I started with a cycling blog, but sold it when I realised my passion was for the travel element not the cycling itself.
After a break of about a year, I started a blog in my own name — BenReeve.co.uk — on which I was writing about my travels. This became far too broad, and I ended up adding in sections about music I’d written, whiskey, sport….needless to say, it got a little out of hand!
After about 8 months of this I decided to book a sabbatical from work, the second time I’d done so in my life. I realised there was a niche here, which would allow me to write factual, well-researched articles alongside aspirational travel writing. The sabbatical information would get people onto the site and give me some focus, and the travel writing would allow me an outlet for my biggest passion.
In March of this year, after taking advice from everybody I could (including an incredible exchange of voice-messages with our very own Community Manager, Chris Oldfield), I decided to shut down my self-named blog and re-brand to TheSabbaticalGuide.com.
From there things have really flown. I’ve found a community of bloggers in a similar niche, and it’s been easy to reach out to people to get involved. I have been able to focus in on my niche, and write some really targeted ‘evergreen’ content that’s going to be relevant for a long time. With the experience of three other sites behind me. I have quickly got the design and layout of the site to a standard I’m happy with, and this has allowed me to put all my energy into producing relevant content.
How has this new journey been going so far?
Let’s face it, blogging is tough! I am a retailer by day, running 20 shops with a team of nearly 500. Finding the time to fit in blogging isn’t straightforward.
But as with everything in life, nothing that’s worth having comes easy. I love the feeling of taking a blank page and turning it into something interesting, exciting or useful. And when people come to the site, comment, share and make contact it is truly an incredible feeling!
Blogging has taught me so many skills — copywriting, design, SEO, marketing, amongst others — and so many of these transfer over to my main line of work, and make me better at what I do.
I love the journey: seeing the map of my travels fill in, adding more links to my site, tweaking the homepage, being able to link articles together. A blog is like a garden, ever evolving, filling with colour, needing maintenance and more adding to it, but every day, every week, every year it just gets that bit better and more enjoyable!
What has been your biggest success to date? What did that teach you?
I can’t think of an individual moment, but I would say learning as much as I could about SEO has been key to my success so far. You can write all you want, but if no-one is reading it, then it quickly becomes draining, and your confidence slips away, believe me, I’ve been (and often am!) still there. I would write a piece, share it everywhere I could, maybe get a quick spike in traffic, and then it was gone again. Studying SEO, and researching keywords fully has given me a foothold with Google, that means even on the days (or weeks!) I’m not producing anything for the site, people are still coming over to find my content.
I don’t do this all the time. Half the time I just write for fun, or put articles on the site that can be linked to from posts people have arrived to from Google. But the key is getting them here in the first place, and then structuring the site so posts link together easily and people read 2 or 3 before they leave.
My favourite articles have been my ‘sabbatical stories’ series, where I have reached out to other travellers, and interviewed them on their experience of taking extended leave. Not only have these articles been really well received, but I also learn a lot from them too, so a win-win!
What is your biggest struggle?
Time is the single biggest struggle for me. Finding the time to write, promote, reply to comments, maintain the site, write newsletters – the list is endless! After a long, hard day at work, it can be hard to summon up the motivation to work on the blog, and even if I do it compromises the time with family. It’s by far the biggest struggle.
For me this is all about focus, and knowing that you’re doing the right thing at the right time. It’s easy to get distracted and chase down the latest fad, or spend forever tweaking minute elements of the site. I write down everything on a list (I use the app Wunderlist), so every time I have an idea for an article, see a post that I think will help me improve the site or have someone make contact with me, I can see it in one place. The quick stuff I deal with straight away, but the rest of it gets reviewed once a week, and I decide which articles/actions I’m going to take next. This also involves making a choice on what I’m NOT going to do. Some article ideas just need binning, some website ideas putting on the backburner. Time is finite, so I aim to only do the things I feel will get me most traction.
It might sound a bit boring, and to be honest it is, but without this focus I’d be forever jumping from one thing to the other, and making no real progress!
What are your blogging goals for 2018?
2018 is about establishing my new brand, writing about my three-month sabbatical that I finished in June, and producing as much ‘evergreen’ content as possible for the blog.
I have two real big goals at the moment:
1. Increasing subscribers to my newsletter
2. Growing organic traffic from Google.
In my opinion these are two of the most sustainable ways to make my website a success, and whilst they might not give the immediate high of Pinterest and Facebook, I feel in the long-term they will get my content in front of the people who want it most.
In the background, I am also putting together and eBook that I hope will be the cornerstone of the content from my site, bringing together everything I’ve learned into one place.
What 1 thing you wish you knew before you started?
You don’t need to write about everything!
I used to get myself quite stressed having visited a new city or country for a week or so, and taken endless notes. I’d come back wanting to write about every restaurant, church, beach and nature reserve we’d been to! I’d then spend months hacking through a huge list, to the stage where it became like a big black cloud following me around.
Now I try and cut the post ideas down into more manageable chunks. Write about the best places in a city, or the best restaurants we visited in a country. I focus on posts that are easy to digest, informative and where I can, opinionated and controversial. I want to write about what I see on that day, at that time, so people get a flavour of what the location is like.
It still takes time, but it is much easier now I think down and think about the articles strategically (and with keyword research), so I have a more manageable amount to write about.
We have a lot of new bloggers in the group who are diving into the blogging world for the first time. What advice can you give to them?
1. Don’t try and do too much at once. It will only bring you stress, frustration and take the fun out of it.
2. Comparing your blog to one that’s been going for years is just not fair. Do what you can and do it well. Absolutely read other blogs, learn what they’re doing, and add to your blog if you can, but we always compare the worst aspects of what we do, with the best aspects of what other people do! Don’t do it to yourself, you deserve more than that! Be happy every time you make progress, stop thinking about all the things that are left to do.
3. Lots of things can be done over time. This is the fun of blogging. Seeing your site grow and evolve. I remember thinking ‘I need an about page, and a sign-up form, and a sidebar, and a footer, and a better menu, and a Facebook page and a map plugin (etc!)’. You get the idea! The truth is, most people don’t visit this stuff.
When you think of it, write it all down, file it away in a list called ‘Blog – Technical To Do List’ and work through it when you can. The most important thing is content. You can have the best about page in the world, and a sign-up form that is perfect, but without any readers, they’re kind of pointless!!
4. I listened to hundreds of podcasts, read articles, and consumed books, all of which gave me another great idea of what to do with the blog. Trouble is, most of them stopped me actually getting on and writing. I’ve now learned to take the best of these things and not try and action them all or get swept up in whatever I’ve heard that day. If I hear the same idea a few times I might do something with it, but I’m trying to become less reactive and stopping the constant tweaks
5. Focus on content. Content that matters, makes a difference, is well-written, and can feature on search engines. The feeling of getting your first reader through ‘organic search’ or ranking in the top ten for a keyword — even if it only gets 10 searches a month – is amazing. Then you’ll get the momentum going.
6. When you have the content, learn to market it. You need to learn the basics of SEO, find places to interact with other travellers, be in the comments of other blogs so people get to know your name. Marketing isn’t all about just posting everywhere, it’s about relationship building and getting people on your side.
7. In-between the articles and marketing, you can then mess around with all the other stuff. Tweaking your homepage, deciding on a colour-scheme, on a font you like, on getting that perfect profile picture! The reality is it’s nice-to-do not need-to-do, so don’t try and take it all on at once!
8. And lastly, stick with it. So many people just drop out, every day you keep going you’re getting ahead of a few other people. Even if you have a few lean weeks or months, come back to it, and push on. You’ll be glad you did!
Tell us where we can find you online and on social media!
You can find my blog at TheSabbaticalGuide.com.
On social media, I mostly use Instagram and Facebook, but I also have a Twitter account if you want to connect.
I love working with other bloggers, and helping out with advice where I can, so if anyone has questions on what they’re read in this post, don’t hesitate in dropping me an email!