In 2001 I was desperate for online money because I wanted to travel hard.
The previous year I had left my export manager position in Italy and went to Australia in search of exotic places, big spaces and everything else which would satisfy my great thirst for freedom.
After 7 months travelling in a van with old and new friends I was kicked out by the Australian immigration (I was selling websites but I was on a tourist Visa) and ended up in Bangkok, then Bali.
Asia opened a new world of possibilities to me.
It was exactly what I was looking for.
Distant cultures and spectacular landscapes were great but what really excited me were the prices: it was really really really cheap.
I just needed the equivalent of 500 € a month to travel.
With that money I could stay in single rooms and eat out three times a day.
But after a whole year travelling I was almost broke so I took my flight back to Europe determined to do “something online” and travel forever.
I tried a couple of things like buying didgeridoos in Australia and handicrafts in Asia to sell in Europe.
It kind of worked but it became quickly clear that it was hard to manage while travelling.
Then it hit me.
I remembered that when in the ’90s I passed through Prague railway station, I was always welcomed by ladies showing pictures of their apartments and offering me to stay there.
I usually did so, and it was always a great deal.
So, one day of March 2001 I took my old Fiat Tipo and, with the equivalent of 2500 € left in my pocket, I went to Prague.
I parked on the roof of the station, went in almost elegantly dressed and looked for those ladies.
There they were.
I had prepared my pitch and printed a fake business card with “Italian Travel Agency” or something like that but at the last moment I got the cold feet.
– “What the hell am I doing?”, I said to myself, “this is so stupid”.
But another voice in my head said:
– “You’ve got nothing to lose, and if this doesn’t work it’s the office again”.
“No. I want to go back to Bali”, I thought, so I forced myself, I went to one lady and said:
– “Hello, I am from an Italian travel agency and we’d like to put your apartments online. We’ll send you customers against a commission”.
I handed my fake card and proudly displayed my futuristic floppy disk digital camera (most people had never seen one yet).
She looked at me and said “ok”.
She took me to her apartment and I took some (ugly) pictures.
I repeated the process with two more ladies and in a day I set up my first apartment rentals website: www.geocities.com/PragueCheapFlats (no link, as Yahoo killed Geocities a few years ago).
It hit Google’s first page pretty quickly and a few days later I had my first customer and my first commission.
It was probably something around 20 € but for the first time I realized that maybe I had found a way to travel forever.
So I went to Budapest, then Krakow, then to work in a hotel in Spain, then Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius, then to work in a hotel in Fuerteventura.
Then, in 2003, I was free.
The business made money and it paid for my tickets, meals and accommodations.
I could not ask for more, only pray that it could last forever.
My life routine became something like this: six months in Asia, two months in Eastern Europe to get more apartments, a month in Italy to see family and friends, six months in South America and so on.
In 2004 I took a whole year off.
I asked my brother to run the business, give me some percent of the earnings and I went for a one year trip with a Round the World ticket.
In 2005 I was in China and hired a pretty basic php developer who, for about 1200 €, developed a site where owners could upload their apartments, communicate directly with customers through a filtered message centre and customers could leave reviews.
If it sounds like Airbnb it’s because it is. The only difference is that I never thought of convincing people to share their houses, as in Eastern Europe they had been doing this for decades under socialism in order to get some hard currency from tourists.
The story goes on and it’s too long for this article.
The point is that I had a good idea, a clear goal (travel full time) and it worked.
I didn’t get rich though.
When I tell this story the first reaction often is “you could have been Airbnb”.
Could I? Sometimes I wonder.
But then I realize that I couldn’t have because I did not want to.
Even if I had the abilities, focus and determination of the Airbnb guys, which I doubt, my dream was not to grow a successful big business or change the world with the sharing economy.
I wanted to change my world, only.
The amount of sheer happiness, experience, insights and the deep feeling of gratitude I felt for so many years are worth to me today so much that I simply can’t regret a minute of it.
So, no, I did not miss a chance.
I made the most of it.