Berlin is one of my favorite cities. The clash between east and west has been a perfect breeding ground for art, culture and everything that makes a city cool. Ryan and Ang from JetsLikeTaxis.com decided to make Berlin home. They share what they like about this one of a kind city and provide some details about their unique business model. They have managed to run a physical business making custom T-shirts back home with the help of friends and family, while they live abroad. With the over-saturation of online information products, I believe that selling physical products is likely to prove to be a more stable source of long-term income. Germany also offers some unique opportunities for freelance and business visas for longer stays. With Schengen visa limits of 90 days out of every 180 in the EU, freelance work visas provide a relatively easy way for digital nomads to spend more time in Europe.
Please tell us about your background?
Heyo! Ryan from Jets Like Taxis, here. Ang and the dog are somewhere around here, but are apparently letting me yammer on for this one. So, I suppose they say ‘hi’ as well.
Right then. Where it all began. I’ve lived all over the place, but I guess you’d say I’m from Chicago since I spent more time there than anywhere else. I can assure you that our born-and-bred Chicagoan friends will say that I’m not from Chicago, though.
I graduated with a double major in International Economics & Cultural Affairs, and French. It’s not far-fetched to think that all of those things are related to what we do now. In reality, anything related to travel, foreign language, and cultural relations has been a personal love of mine since I was a kid, and would be the focus of my life even if I hadn’t taken any of those courses at university. And, as most people will relate to, I learned more outside the classroom than I ever did sitting behind a desk and listening to a lecture about something in which I don’t have the slightest interest.
As for work, my day job for several years was as an international rep for a large electronics firm. I basically spent half my day on the phone with clients, and the other half fighting with salespeople. It couldn’t have been less rewarding. I also spent quite a while working in the music industry. Design found me by happenstance, and the entire evolution into what I do now was spawned by a long-term series of naturally falling into professions.
I started designing as a hobby, which led to graphic design jobs for print, which led to making T-shirts for fun because I didn’t really want to go to MBA school, to it becoming a business that has perpetually evolved, changed, failed, and succeeded since I made my first shirt. What I can say is that, despite all the anger and frustration in all of my jobs, I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it weren’t for all those highs and lows.
Please tell us about your travels?
I’ve been traveling my whole life. My parents always budgeted for summer trips, and I was fortunate enough to be given the experiences that had me see all but a handful of U.S. states by the time I was in my mid-teens.
They also always had National Geographic, World Book Encyclopedia, and Time Life book series in the house. I read every single one. I was a very confused nerd, but I knew I loved geography, culture, travel, and language from a very early age. I studied maps like it was nobody’s business, and it was all over for another path in life as soon as my parents stuck me in a German class at age eight because they thought I’d enjoy it. After that, I consumed and foolhardily attempted to learn as many languages as I could. I didn’t succeed until later, but my parents like to say that they knew, as soon as I stuck my head in a Russian book and ‘got it’, that this would be where I was headed for the rest of my life.
I have formally studied French since age 12, and my parents did everything in their power for me to be able to study abroad in high school, which I did in France for a short stint at age 16. After that, it was international studies at university, and I took off again to study at the Sorbonne when I was a junior in college. After graduation, all I really cared about was travel. It took me over a decade to figure it out – hell, I’m still figuring it out – but during that time, I spent plenty of money and energy traveling or trying to travel. I went back to Europe countless times with both family and friends, almost went to grad school in Germany, and slowly but surely, as I grew older, established deeper relationships with friends (and my partner) that have a very similar value system. That took us on more trips to Europe, a couple trips to Mexico, and a trip to Argentina.
Eventually, we realized that our path wasn’t going to magically turn into a nomadic lifestyle, nor even an expat one. After our last trip to Germany in summer 2010, a friend said he wanted to move to Berlin, and we decided that we’d better do it for real. So, we gave ourselves six months to sell everything, reevaluate our business structure, and get the hell out. Seven months later – late by one month! – we moved to Berlin. That was early 2011, and we haven’t looked back.
What is Berlin like?
We’ve been here almost a year and a half, and I can tell you that we haven’t even touched what this city has to offer. Moving here was my third trip to the city, and I still feel like we haven’t seen much. However, I always feel that way when it comes to a big city.
We’re urbanites, and we love most everything about Berlin. The hustle and bustle, the grime, the graffiti, the history, the transportation, the attitude – it’s just like all other large cities, yet completely different. Berlin truly is unique in how all of its traits mesh together, and it’s unlike any other city in Germany.
While I’d prefer to hear more German (there are a lot of expats here, from all over the world), we enjoy the fact that we can stand on our balcony and hear a handful of languages, see the train, the park, walls of graffiti, hundred-year-old buildings, the stars, historical monuments, and hear church bells – all at once. Yet, it’s quiet for a large city. There comes a certain peace with being able to find quiet when one is surrounded by so much diverse and lively action.
How do you manage your visas there?
How we do it and how we would have done it, knowing what we know now, are two very different animals haha. We obtained work visas through a non-profit that helps people start (or move) companies in Germany. So, we founded a company here, and that got us two-year visas tied to that company. Once the learning curve was done, it was relatively painless. I mean, extremely painless. The same went for our friend who obtained a freelance visa.
On the one hand, I think that it’s a thousand times easier than everyone says it is to obtain a visa here. On the other hand, I think a lot of the people who say that it’s difficult are either spiteful due to their own bad experience, haven’t taken the time to do the real research it takes to obtain a visa, or – consciously or unconsciously – do not want everyone else to be able to do what they did.
What are your living expenses in Berlin?
We’re in a mildly unique situation, and because of that, we currently spend more than we should, or need to. Our monthly rent, including assessments (known as “warm rent” in these parts), is roughly €1,300. We have a four-room flat (not including the kitchen or bathroom), which is just over 100 square meters (roughly 1100 square feet). On top of that, we pay €70/mo. for gas, €30/mo. for phone and internet, €20/mo. for mobile phone service, and we just received our wa
ter bill for the seven months of 2011 we lived in this flat: €850. Ouch.
What I can tell you is that it’s relatively easy to find a two- or three-bedroom apartment in the “hipper” areas of the city for under €1000/month. Less if you don’t care about living in “cool” areas. We have friends that live in the hippest district in the city, who both pay about €500/month for 60 square meters (about 650 sq. ft.).We pay more than that because we have unique studio space needs, and used to have a roommate.
Food here is cheap. Even if you eat out, there are a multitude of budget-range restaurants (meals ranging from €2 for a large slice of pizza to €6 for a huge portion of green curry chicken from the Asian joint). For us, groceries are a joke compared to Chicago. It almost feels like we won something every time we go grocery shopping. It’s crazy inexpensive. Beer is also dirt cheap at the grocery store (€0,65 – €0,90), and even at bars (€2 – €3), and who doesn’t love that? For certain vices, we go to Poland now and then. Smokes, liquor, etc. are even cheaper across the border, and it’s only an hour by train from Berlin.
Transport here is also relatively inexpensive, and virtually everywhere. We live in former East Berlin, which means we also have a tram system that West Berlin lacks, in addition to the S-Bahn, U-Bahn, buses, and regional trains. It’s fairly difficult to walk for five minutes and not have public transport at your fingertips. There are three things I love about the cost of transport here:
1) You can buy a Kurzstrecke (short-distance ticket), which is good for three stops one-way on the subway or five stops on the tram. It’s 40% cheaper (€1,40) than a normal ticket (€2,30), and a great way to save money when traveling short distances.
2) Day passes and small-group passes for the subway are ridiculously budget-friendly. A ticket that covers all city sections (A, B, C) is only €15,50. For up to five people. You can literally travel the entire city and near suburbs for only €3,10 per day, per person. Crazy, right? It’s not the tourist card, which I believe is more expensive and marketed at visitors. This is a normal “small group” ticket. Having an ABC ticket also allows you to visit Potsdam, which is a great day trip, along with all the other lakes and towns near the city.
3) There is also a Berlin-Brandenburg group ticket. For €28.00, you can ride all public transport and all regional trains in the entire city of Berlin and state of Brandenburg, for an entire day. This will give you access to everything in this quite large region, and will also get you to the Polish border. Oh, and did I mention that it’s good for up to five people? Yup. So, you can essentially take the train throughout the entire state and nearly to another country, for a whole day, for less than €6.00 per person.
Oh, and if you’re even more of a budgeter or simply like to use your legs, walking is great in this city (as is cycling). We walk every day, and walk for all of our errands unless we need to go across town. I’ve always found that walking not only saves money and gives you exercise, but it’s the best way to see unexplored (or unwritten) sites, meet new people, find new restaurants and cafés, etc. We’re very much the “walk around, sit at cafés” type of traveler.
How do you earn an income?
Our main source of income stems from our apparel brands. We own, operate, manage, and or/curate Formula and all of its associated brands.
We also do design projects for private clients when we’re called upon for such things. As it’s not our main source of income and we’re fortunate for that, we do not seek design clientele. They occasionally come to us, and we make something for them. I’m extremely picky when it comes to contract or freelance design, not just because I don’t want to spend time working on someone else’s project. Being a freelance graphic designer, in my humble opinion, is one of the most difficult professions there is (I’ve done it), until you are courted and no longer have to work. In the creative industry, designing something for a client is like a baby asking for some applesauce. You give them the applesauce, and they ask you why you didn’t give them the jar of peas. You give them the peas, and they ask you why you didn’t give them the toy fire truck. You give them the toy fire truck, and they throw a temper tantrum.
That said, I’m glad that we’ve worked hard enough to be self-sufficient, and we can only take design jobs when we want to.
Before we moved to Berlin, we sold everything we owned in the States, and lived off of that income for the first few months. Because we have a large customer base in Europe, the idea was to replicate, here in Germany, what we do back in the U.S.
As our business evolved over the past 1+ years, we realized that this wasn’t the best way to do things. So, our business is shifting and we’re focusing on our business based out of the U.S.
Please provide some details on Formula?
We used to process, print, and finish every product by hand – for all the brands in its family. As we grew and business evolved (and we decided to make the move), daily production is now handled by a few trusted associates in the U.S. We manage everything from where we are, including orders, finances, and service; and they are the ones who manage things on the ground, printing, finishing, and shipping orders. We certainly couldn’t do what we do – in the way we do it – without a dedicated and loyal circle of colleagues, partners, and friends back in the U.S.
Since everything with Formula is custom-made now, we no longer use contract printers to do large jobs in advance, followed by sales of the product in-hand. In addition to B2B pre-orders, most labels operate like that. We started doing things differently in order to give our customers more choices, and the added benefit was that we no longer had to pre-make any product. There are pluses and minuses to that, but we’re constantly learning and now know that it’s the right thing for us.
Formula and its family are very centered in the arts, and it’s quite nice to be able to give so much choice to a clientele that values the same things we do.
While we’re not millionaires (or even thousandaires) and don’t sell billions of T-shirts like some companies do, we appreciate the freedom we’ve given ourselves and our customers (or business partners) have given to us. We love working the way we do, and more importantly, the way we want. We’re able to make a living with it, and that’s all we need.
Regarding your question about marketing: We don’t. We have a Facebook page and a Twitter page, and of course a blog/shop. We have a mailing list and B2B contacts. And that’s it. We spent years throwing money at print publications and web ads, and the return wasn’t there. We don’t do trade shows, either. We’d rather spend that money on making free stickers, buttons, and other swag to give out for free to our customers and random people in random places. Giving benefits to customers and nurturing a community based on word-of-mouth is far more rewarding – for us – than any sort of marketing campaign. Again, it’s just how we do things. There is no right or wrong way, and both could be wrong or both could be right. After doing this for so long, we simply feel that any marketing funds should be spent on the customer.
As for shopping carts, up until this year, we used custom-built carts for everything. We did that since Formula’s inception in 2003. That’s just how it was for us. No one could provide what w
e needed, so we built it ourselves (with our cohorts, of course). I have personal preferences as to what we use now, and what we will use later this year, but sorry – can’t divulge just yet. What I can say is that it’s important to evaluate what you really need in a shopping cart. Everything from vague givens like a blog, to intricate, back-end solutions, to how you want to manage every order that comes in. It’s also important to evaluate support, and future changes you may need to said cart solution.
Nothing is ever perfect, but I literally spend months researching everything I can possibly dream up when it comes to cart functionality. At some point, a choice is going to be made and you hope that your research and forethought gives you the right solution. It could be something for Wordpess, or an open-source solution like Presta or OpenCart, or a hosted solution like Shopify, or a hybrid like Mal’s, or something done completely in-house. It all depends on what someone truly needs, and I would honestly recommend something different for each person, based on those needs.
Would you recommend selling custom designed products like that for others?
I think it’s important to note that the entire concept we call “Build Your Own” evolved out of what was, at one point, a typical clothing brand (or brands). We and our colleagues designed products, pre-sold them on a B2B level, produced them, and then sold them online and in shops. A few years ago, we got an idea in our heads about making everything ourselves. The idea was to provide the designs, and allow the customer to choose the styles and colors. After exhaustive research and a whole lot of learning, we launched the BYO project and eventually turned it into everything we do at Formula. We used to spend our days doing what we do now, plus making every single product. As previously mentioned, as we grew and evolved, that changed to trusted associates making the product while we did everything else. Even if we were still in the U.S., that would have been the natural evolution of things. It’s pretty difficult to grow if you’re spending more than half your day making product. There’s very little time for maintenance, design, etc. when you do that.
It’s not terribly expensive to set up, but the learning curve is an unbelievably tedious process – as it should be. I’m not sure I’d recommend people get into the custom business. It all depends on your product and what your goals are. We know intimately what those things are, which allows us to make qualified decisions about what we do. It’s not for everyone, but it can work great for certain folks.
I should also note that all of our brands are very driven by very, very loyal customers. Each brand in our family has its own loyal following. Each of these brands is different, with unique owners and designs, yet we all have a very similar mindset and have customers whose interests overlap quite a bit. We were all friends before we started making shirts together, and that gives us a huge advantage in what we do. We understood and respected each other on a creative, personal, and business level before we ever got in bed together, which makes things extremely easy on all of us when it comes to putting out product. These things then allowed us to evolve into a custom business that was readily and almost instantly supported by the community that was already buying our product.
Regardless of what the product is, and regardless of the fact that business and structure will change, I think it’s important to learn as much as one can, and to start small. When one learns and hustles and loves what they do, a lot of things simply come organically. And that is something you cannot buy.
Do you have any advice for aspiring nomads?
Do what you love. That’s all that really matters. 99.9999% of us are not trust fund babies. We cannot drop everything and travel and never worry about income. (I can’t imagine never working, anyway.) Because of that, we must find work that we love as well as a life that we love. It should be one entity. Even if you don’t want to travel full-time, I think it’s imperative to find work you love. That’s the hardest part; everything else is a cakewalk.
Most jobs can be done from anywhere if you tweak them to your needs or desires. If you know what you love to do, I can almost guarantee there’s a job out there for you – one that you can do from anywhere. Otherwise, it’s all about researching one’s opportunities, and figuring out what you might enjoy. There’s nothing wrong with dabbling, as long as there’s a focus and end goal to it.
It is also essential to be willing to fail. You have to be, and you cannot truly be happy until you’ve at least bombed a few times. It could be with a job, or an idea, or whatever. Learning from your mistakes is a key part of growing into having a life whose every aspect is something you love. I’ve failed at so many things in life! But so what? Learn and grow and move right along.
Something else that I know you’ve touched on in blog posts is that it can be wildly less expensive to travel full-time, even if it’s slow travel (especially if it’s slow travel). It is not at all difficult to survive on less than 50% of what you spend in your American or Canadian hometown. I think a lot of people find that difficult to grasp since most are led to believe that travel is expensive, and people think they need to earn twice what they already do in order to travel full-time. If you learn and read and know your stuff, the reality is that you probably need to earn half of what you earn at your day job in order to hit the road. It’s quite a beautiful thing.
I should also note that jetsetcitizen.com is responsible for our shift in focus, from being expats to being nomads. I stumbled across this site when I was reading Fluentin3Months, and I never looked back. (I still read Fi3M, naturally.) This site is solely responsible for solidifying my thoughts on living abroad and traveling full-time. It was literally the gateway to all the other sites we now read and follow, and I read this entire site in, probably, one or two days. It inspired our blog, and just as everything came together at the right time with various things in our lives, helped to create a very easy decision and smooth transition into all of the things that are now coming our way. And I honestly cannot thank you enough for that.