File Under: Business

Web Design at 65 MPH: A Family of Web Workers Hits the Road

TumbleWagon family Olivia, Tristan, and Nathan

Given laptops, web-based tools and an abundance of free WiFi, most of us can do our jobs from just about anywhere. But how many of us actually take advantage of that fact?

Well, at least two.

Pittsburgh web designers Nathan Swartz and Olivia Meiring, along with their 7-year-old son Tristan, are on a yearlong journey around the United States. They live, work, sleep and travel all within the confines of their 100-square-foot RV. As they say on their travel blog, Tumblewagon.com, “That leaves a lot of room for the backyard.”

Webmonkey caught up with Nathan Swartz in Austin, Texas, where the family plans to spend about a month. In an e-mail interview, we asked Swartz how he and his wife balance their roles as vagabond freelance designers, home-school teachers and rig drivers.

Webmonkey: Where did you get the idea to drive around the country for a year?

Nathan Swartz: Well, I’ve always loved taking road trips. Since I took my first cross-country trip about five years ago, I’ve done something every year. My wife is from South Africa and has lived in Brighton, England, and traveled Europe and now is living here, so she loves adventure too. Our son is young enough that we can home-school him — or “road-school” as we like to call it. Add freelancing and the flexibility that gives us and it just seemed natural to take advantage of this while we can. Who knows when Wal-Mart will come out with a web design section in their stores and we’ll have to go back to selling coffee or something, you know?

Webmonkey: What did you have to do at home in Pittsburgh to get ready for this trip? What happened to where you live and where’s your mail going?

Swartz: Well, we had to save up a nice chunk of cash, since between my credit and the state of the economy, we weren’t exactly going to get a car loan for the RV we live in. Aside from that, we basically just gave most of our stuff away to Goodwill and put a few things into storage. We were just renting an apartment, so when our lease was up, so was our obligation to Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a really cool city, by the way, and we’re fortunate to have gotten to live in such a cool place, but having been in western Pennsylvania most of my life, I just really wanted a change of scenery.

As far as getting mail, that’s a bit more tricky. First and foremost, I try to get paid via Google Checkout and handle everything we can via e-mail. When someone just has to mail us something, you know, because they refuse to let go of the Jurassic period, we use Earth Class Mail. It’s a website that gives you a physical address — in our case a Portland P.O. box — and then you can check your mail online. They’ll scan stuff for you so that you can just read it right on their website, and then you can have things forwarded to wherever you’re staying if you need a piece of mail in hand. I’d prefer to never need a physical address, but the world just isn’t ready to stop stuffing pieces of trees into little boxes yet, I suppose.

Webmonkey: How does work work? When do you get work done, how do you get a connection and how do you keep a work/life balance when work and life are both within 100 square feet?

Swartz: This was one of the most fun parts of the whole preparation, sorting out when we’d work, making sure we’d have time, the technology, et cetera. First of all, aside from just working, both of us are teaching our son, Tristan, four days a week. We take turns. My wife, Olivia, does Mondays and Tuesdays and I do Wednesdays and Thursdays. I personally do most of my work on the days I’m not teaching, and then a little in the afternoons of the days I am. I’m probably only working 20 hours a week or less now though, compared to closer to 40 hours per week when we lived in our apartment in Pittsburgh. Expenses are lower living in the RV, and to be honest, I’m really trying to explore more than I work. That might sound “la-dee-da” or something, but the amount of money I can make from freelancing isn’t necessarily the amount I want to, you know? I’d rather have $10 and two days to spend it than $500 and no time left to explore the places we’re visiting.

Of course, we do still work and have to pay some bills and whatnot, so we use the internet connections on our iPhones and we’ve also got Sprint AirCards. The iPhone connection is mostly just for sending e-mail and checking on things that don’t require any coding or heavy lifting, and the Sprint cards do the bulk of the work. So far we’ve had pretty good luck. Only about 10 percent of the campgrounds we’ve stayed in have absolutely no connection. Basically, with Sprint’s connection we’re not exactly “high speed,” but it’s enough to get the job done. Reminds me of web design in the earlier part of the century, when you’d spend an hour coding and three hours uploading the two lines of code you changed.

One thing I have noticed is that while Pittsburgh, for example, is getting to the point of being nearly blanketed with free WiFi spots, that isn’t the case in most of the country. State parks, campgrounds and RV lots generally don’t have WiFi, so you’ve got to bring your own internet.

Webmonkey: Your son is also on the trip. What’s it like for him? How is school, play and bedtime different for him?

Swartz: He’s all about the experience of living in new places and he’s really good at making “friends for a day.” I’m the total opposite; it takes me five years just to meet my neighbors, but he’s off jumping in trees and riding bikes with whatever other kids are around in the campgrounds where we live.

As far as school, since he’s the only kid in his class, school doesn’t take six to eight hours a day. More like three hours, and it’s only four days a week. He’s learning important stuff like how to pronounce the alphabet and read and some math, sure. But he learns way more really important stuff like how to skip stones, navigate a map, ride a bike without coaster brakes and even some Spanish. And because school isn’t such a forced thing, where he has to sit still for the majority of the day, he’s much more open to learning things when it is time. Which, honestly, is all the time. He’s always asking things like “Why do people build skyscrapers?” and stuff like that as we just wander around our neighborhoods.

As far as bedtime, he’s a heavy sleeper. So even though Olivia and I are talking and hanging out only 10 feet away with no doors, he passes right out, ready for another day to come.

Webmonkey: What advice do you have for someone wanting to join the ranks of the vagabond web designers?

Swartz: It’s definitely worth it. I have no idea how long we’ll be able to keep up this great freelance industry that seems to be abundant in the web design world, but our generation is super lucky. We’ve got the internet — and connections to it — spreading like wildfire, and the global economy means people don’t really care if they can meet you face-to-face. Just make sure you’re able to set expectations for your clients. I find that once they know that you’re off being an adventurer, whether from jealousy or admiration or whatever, they’re usually like “Cool, let me know when you get back to civilization.” It’s one thing if you don’t answer your phone because you’re a bad freelancer, it’s another if it’s because you’re in the middle of Yellowstone.