Inspiring Stories :
Jess The Entrepreneur

This interview with Jess from the UK is part a series on real people living nomadic, semi-nomadic and location-independent lifestyles. Jess is a kind, energetic adventurer, traveler and entrepreneur with a no-nonsense approach to life. Rather than depending on a traditional job, she prefers taking things in her own hands. When not engaged in adventures around the globe, you will find her taking care of her expedition food business TentMeals and countless other projects.

FF: Tell us a little about yourself.

Jess: I grew up in London and currently live in Manchester. From the age of 11 I was reading about people going on adventures, and I was thinking “cool, this is life!”. School for me was not about doing something specific, but simply doing as well as you can. I remember often laying in bed late at night and dreaming of going away.

FF: After school you first did an internship?

Jess: I got a job at Price Waterhouse Coopers which was highly prestigious at the time. Awful job! It was sooo bad! Then I did the traveling “thing”. I planned a month in Thailand, a month in Australia and 2 months in Indonesia. After a few weeks of traveling, I was thinking that I’m not really into traveling, from temple to temple, this famous sight and that beautiful beach. So I got a scuba diving job in Indonesia. I enjoyed it so much that I kept extending my flight. I though that maybe I needed a slightly different lifestyle!

FF: But you still went to university and studied physical natural sciences at Cambridge?

Jess: Yes. And two weeks into uni I thought this sucks I wanna quit! But after the first year I thought I should finish it. I remember so clearly throughout the three years that there were three things in life: work, hobbies and socializing. And it’s literally impossible to do more than one and a half of them, and one of them has to be work. I decided that I would not get an office job after that hellish experience. Absolutely out of the question!

FF: And after uni you went traveling?

Jess: Not immediately. I was thinking, cool, I can do something useful for the world now, I don’t have to keep studying! For a while I volunteered at an African development charity. I tried to set up a car sharing platform, it failed terribly! I spent ages looking for jobs. But these jobs were all terrible. I thought I don’t need all this money at the moment, I don’t have a family, I don’t have a mortgage. So I went to the North Coast of Alaska, and decided to cycle southwards until I figure out what to do with my life.

FF: How do you deal with traveling alone as a woman?

Jess: I don’t think that much about it to be honest. When I wanna go to this place I just think, I wanna go to this place!

FF: And did this trip end up being a defining moment in your life?

Jess: The main realization of that trip was that I really value having a community. I was unable to live with going from place to place all the time. I love traveling, I love exploring, but I don’t wanna do it by myself the whole time. That means that I want a base and go out by patches. I’d rather travel with people I know and see consistently over the years. And a concrete community where I live, at home, is super important to me.

FF: So after your Alaska trip you went back to the UK?

Jess: Yes. And I must have had a hundred, maybe a thousand ideas floating though my head about what to do with my life. I was pretty convinced that I wanted to be my own boss. Gradually this expedition food idea developed, partly because I was making it anyway by myself while I was traveling. And partly because all the other options were rubbish! Filled with oils and preservatives!

FF: You’ve been running this business for a few years now, are you able to live off it?

Jess: No! I go traveling too often to turn it into a proper business! I pay my two part-time employees more than I pay myself. I did a whole host of ridiculous things to fund my adventures. One good thing that this stupid Cambridge degree brought me is that I can charge lots tutoring maths privately. If you’re leaving really cheaply that is a lot of money. I also rented a really expensive 2 bedroom apartment right in the center of town and airbnb’ed one of the rooms. I made such a profit off it, especially when I was away! A lot of that money went into TentMeals. Now it’s starting to support me.

Jess Szekely TentMeals
"It's gonna be OK!"

FF: Are you planning to live completely off the income generated by your business?

Jess: Yes. I think if I was full-time traveling and put a few more hours into it I could live completely off it. Now that I choose to have a base and to pay rent I have to wait a little bit longer. I think if I would work consistently for a couple of years I could easily be able to fully live off it. But I decided to enjoy the process and go traveling rather than sell my soul to the business for a few years.

FF: How much work per week does your business require?

Jess: I’ve gone through extreme fluctuations. There have been patches were I did 12-15 hour days, and patches when I didn’t work much on it for 3 months. Maybe check my email once every week and spend 20 minutes on it.

FF: What has been the biggest difficulty so far?

Jess: I think I was too slow at taking someone else. There was a period when I was doing everything. Including the postage. When I was going away for a day or two I would pack my car with orders and packaging materials and wherever I was in the country I would go and find a post office. Same thing with emails. At some point the business grew. Again I couldn’t get a day off. I didn’t learn and was again way too slow to take someone on. It was so bad!

FF: What would you recommend to someone trying to set up their own business?

Jess: You basically have to be not too scared of screwing stuff up! We’ve mainly talked about TentMeals but you could consider many things that I’ve done as a business of some sort. I contracted with an energy consultant, I tutored maths, I organized acrobatics conventions. Whatever brings an income through your own initiative! Don’t be too scared, it’s gonna be OK!

FF: Where can one look for potential business ideas?

Jess: It’s gonna sound cheesy, but find a thing that works for you. Everyone has something they are good at, and can capitalize it. A lot of people are trying to recreate what others have done. That’s a bad idea. It doesn’t have to be big, or a crazy business. Everyone seems to try to launch an online business these days, but if you are technologically incompetent, don’t know anything about SEO or building a website, you’re gonna hate it. But maybe back home you can have a food van that does the festival season and then you travel the rest of the year. Or you maybe you make some furniture and do that part of the year. Or maybe you are a roofer and you hate working in the winter because it’s miserable and you do it in the summer for a few months.

FF: What would you recommend not to do?

Jess: Travel blogger! The actual reality of travel bloggers is that you go to these amazing places, sit in a cafe, stare at your laptop, write for hours, take loads of photos, edit them, and go, “no one is reading my blog”. And then you have to learn about SEO, marketing. “I better make myself some social media profiles.” “How do I get 10000 Instagram followers without buying them all.” And suddenly you’re not traveling, you’re just sitting in front of your computer writing a travel blog!

FF: You also see frugality as a prerequisite?

Jess: Before embarking on traveling or setting up a business, you first have to figure out how to live really cheaply at home. Cut out everything that’s superfluous. Eat cheaply, get used to nurse one drink over four hours at the pub, stop buying new clothes. If you can’t figure out how to live very cheaply you’re either gonna have to stay in the rat race or you’re really gonna have to work your ass off to make a well paying business really quickly. And it’s probably gonna be too much!

FF: What are your future plans?

Jess: I feel reasonably happy with TentMeals. At this stage I still want to grow it, but I’m also currently interested in building a yoga retreat center. I also definitely want to travel, but not full time. I want to have something to give back to the community.

FF: Thank you so much for sharing Jess!