Taking it to the Streets: Run Your Business from the Road
March 20, 2008
By relying on Wi-Fi connectivity at RV campgrounds and other hotspots around the country, one entrepreneurial couple from Maine has taken their Internet-based business on the road so they can enjoy everything America has to offer.
With Wi-Fi hotpots proliferating in cities and towns everywhere, a new class of workers has emerged. Today, more people are running their professional lives from cafes and hotspots as neo-bedouinsnamed after Arab nomads who wander the desert. Unlike many of their itinerant counterparts, Richard and Angela Hoy of Bangor, Maine, exemplify how a bedouin lifestyle truly should be livedon the road.
In March 2004, Hoy and his wife were searching for the most economical way for their family of six to visit relatives in Wisconsin and Texas.
"Flying is cumbersome, not to mention expensive, with that many people," said Hoy who discussed several options with his wife, including buying an RV. "Buying an RV made the most sense because at least we'd actually have some equity in something rather than just paying it out to an airline."
The Hoys planned to buy an RV to travel the country when they retired anyway.
"We were itching to get on the road and were about 20 years from retirement," said Hoy. "Everyone we ever talked to about full-time RVing told us that they regret not doing it sooner. You wouldn't believe how many times we heard, 'My wife/husband and I were planning to travel around the country in our RV, but then he or she died.' Or, 'he/she got sick before we could see everything.' We decided that life is too short."
Because their print-on-demand publishing company, Booklocker.com, is Internet-based, the Hoys could hit the road and bring the business along for the ride.
"It didn't really matter where we were," said Hoy. "Our business is entirely online. As long as we have a connection, we could run the business. Even when we were exclusively flying or driving in our van, we always had our computers, cell phones, and assorted business-related gadgets. We've automated many of our business processes, and since it is Web-based, we just need to monitor everything and respond to customer e-mails."
In 1999, Hoy's wife launched a Web site for freelance writers, WritersWeekly.com, after both of their previous jobs with Internet start-ups went belly-up during the dot-com bust in the late 1990s.
"Soon after, we decided to branch out into publishing," said Hoy. "We started publishing e-books and Angie put some of her e-books on a site called Booklocker.com, one of the few places selling e-books at the time. It did really well. Eventually, the owner wanted out of the business and agreed to sell the site to us."
After a year of selling e-books, the Hoys expanded into print-on-demand publishing, manufacturing books at the time a customer orders it. Currently, 1,500 authors use Booklocker.com.
"We provide a turnkey system for people who want to self publish to get a book into the marketplace. We take the manuscript and turn it into a finished book or product," said Hoy.
"But instead of doing what other print-on-demand publishers were doingpublishing any manuscriptwe try to find books that are fairly marketable to maintain some quality control with our material."
Knowing that this business model would continue to prosper on the road, the only hurdle remaining for the Hoys was how to educate their children (four at the time, now five). Three of the children were school-aged at the time.
"We obviously couldn't take them out of public school for extended periods," said Hoy. "We started researching options on how to homeschool when we came across Oak Meadow, an accredited institution based in Vermont with an online-based curriculum. It was perfect for us and has worked out well."
With everything finally in place, the Hoys made their first RV trip, from Maine-to-Wisconsin-to-Texas, for six weeks in June and July of 2004. They have also made trips to the Florida panhandle, Pennsylvania, upstate New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
Connectivity on the road
Connecting to the Internet to access their e-mail, business Web site, or the online classes for their children was never a problem. At the time, Wi-Fi penetration into campgrounds reached a level where it was practical for them to plot a cross-country trip.
"In addition, T-Mobile began offering flat-rate cellular data service," Hoy added. "It wasn't very fast, maybe the speed of a 9600 baud modem to a 19.2 modem, but it was fast enough to do e-mail. And you could connect while flying down the freeway."
Today, most campgrounds offer Wi-Fi, so the Hoys choose sites exclusively on its availability.
"Finding campgrounds with Wi-Fi was a big deal at first," he said. "It is a much more common amenity at campgrounds now. You can pretty much find at least one, usually more, campgrounds with it at your destination."
To help other RVers locate hotspots at campgrounds, Hoy added a database to their Web site, which chronicles their RV adventures.
Be prepared with back-ups
When making reservations, they ask for the location on the site with the best Wi-Fi signal--usually the area closest to the campground office. If that doesnt work, they have back-up.
"You always need a back-up," explained Hoy. "Weve been to places where its not always promised as advertised. The problem with Wi-Fi in any kind of outdoor setting is that there's always signal interference if it has not been professionally installed. Campgrounds are full of trees and large metal boxes with wheels on them that greatly affect Wi-Fi signal strength. Moreover, when campgrounds say they have Wi-Fi, they could mean the owner went down to Best Buy and bought a router that he then put in the campground office. Or it could mean a professional installation where the Wi-Fi reaches every RV site."
The Hoys have a custom-built bridge/antenna rig that plugs into a wireless router inside their RV, which helps pull in weak Wi-Fi signals at campgrounds.
"We need the external bridge/antenna rig to pull in consistent signal strength," he said. "We, of course, are hard-core users. The average person at a campground isn't really going to balk much if the Wi-Fi signal isn't usable from their site."
In some rare cases, the Hoys would connect to a hotspot only to be kicked off.
"Sometimes this happened when the main campground offices are closed," Hoy said. "So its always good to have other methods to get online if its critical. You have to be prepared."
About a year ago, they also invested in a satellite Internet setup for RVers from Maxwell Satellite. They spent $2,000 on the satellite equipment and pay a monthly fee of $60. One of the drawbacks is that it takes nearly 20 minutes to set up and calibrate.
"Its a big deal to set it up," said Hoy. "But if youre going to be at a place for a week, like we are, its worth it."
Hoy works primarily from his Mac Powerbook G4, while his wife uses a custom-built Windows laptop. They also both carry cell phones, one of which can be used as a cellular modem with the Mac. Although they have the satellite and the cellular modem to fall back on, if none of the back-up plans work, they always have the option of finding a nearby café with Wi-Fi, or checking into a hotel with Wi-Fi capability.
"Most hotels have some sort of high speed connection, and in a pinch we can roll into a hotel if we need to," he said.
Later this spring, they plan to purchase an iPhone.
"With its fully-functional Web browser and e-mail, we can actually use it to administer our site and answer e-mail during times when it may not be practical to break out the full setup of laptops and antennae," Hoy said.
From Maine to Alaska
After 18 months of being road warriors, the two oldest Hoy children who were entering their teen years, wanted to go back to a bricks and mortar school.
"Theyre budding teenagers and didnt want to be with mom and dad anymore, and wanted to go to a regular high school," said Hoy. "So we acquiesced and let them do that. We stopped traveling at that point and had another baby. But we made the decision that the two youngest will be homeschooled entirely. We plan to use Oak Meadow as the curriculum."
Until the Hoys are able to return to full-time travel, their RV trips have been limited to one per year (lasting at least a month or more in the late spring and summers), always with their businessand kidsin tow. When their middle son graduates from high school in three years, their plan is to spend summers in Maine and winters traveling in the south.
"We have three major trips that we want to take," said Hoy. "This year, we're going down to Virginia, over to Colonial Williamsburg, then to Cape Hatteras, and down to the Florida Keys. On our way back up, we're catching a Delta 2 rocket launch on May 16th, and then swinging back inland to drive along the Blue Ridge Mountains to Gettysburg, spend a few days on the Maine coast, and then home. Eventually, we also want to do a 6-month tour of the southwest, up the California coast to the Pacific Northwest, and finally, Alaska."
Hoy offers one valuable piece of advice for other RVers contemplating spending time on the road and bringing work along.
"If you have your own business and are on the road, one of the things you get sucked into thinking is that this is like an extended vacation," he said. "Make the distinction between work time and fun time. Otherwise, youll get sucked into going to the beach every day."
Daniel Casciato is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh, PA. In addition to writing for Wi-FiPlanet, he writes legal, medical, real estate and technology-related articles for trade and consumer publications and recently launched his own copywriting business. For more information, visit www.danielcasciato.com.