119. How this former Disney employee left a dream job to live her dream life as a travel YouTuber with Sarah Funky
On this week’s episode, I speak with Sarah Funk who is a travel YouTuber and founder of SarahFunky.com a site that shares unique travel tips.
Sarah left her dream job in Disney to travel the world for a year and today, Sarah has been able to make her dreams come true as an on-air personality and a youtube travel sensation!
Listen on to find out how to become a successful travel YouTuber with Sarah.
- How this couple ditched corporate jobs to start a successful adventure blog
Hey everyone, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m so excited to be doing this interview with Sarah. Hey Sarah, how are you?
Hi, thanks for having me.
Thank you for being here. Before we get to a lot of your tips and tricks on how to be a digital nomad, can you tell us a little bit more about you and why you live in offbeat life?
Sure. So I originally worked a corporate job. I worked for Disney doing North American marketing strategy and I thought it was my dream job. It was something that I always worked towards in college. I got my masters degree thanks to Disney and I quickly realized that I was achieving the things that I was always told were what would bring happiness, you know, getting that dream, getting your master’s degree, living in a penthouse apartment in New York and I had all of those things and I hated my life so much. I was just so depressed and I realized it was because I felt like I was in an office jail. Working in a cubicle every single day in the same place, only having 10 vacation days.
I was literally living for the weekend. And that is no way to live because the weekends are only a small portion of your life. So I started a website which I still run today. It’s called Sarahfunky.com. And my goal was to have something that people in my situation could use to experience new things and do different things around New York. Experience more, without having to quit their office job. Because at the time it just wasn’t an option for me. I had to make money. I couldn’t just quit and be like, screw this. I’m just going to start this blog and be successful because that never happens overnight.
So I started the blog talking about really cool experiences. You have to go to this theater show, or this restaurant’s awesome, or that you could kayak on the Hudson River. And I started to grow a little bit of a following from that, but eventually, I got to like 20,000 Instagram followers. This was back in 2015, by the way. And I was making a little bit of money, emphasis on the little bit. I think I would make money $1,000 a month. That’s it. And that’s not enough to survive anywhere really. And so I got to a point where I was like, you know what, it’s now or never, I think I was 26 years old at the time and I decided, you know, let me quit my job now and see if I can make it on my own. And so it kind of built from there.
I know we’re going to go into a lot more details later on, but that’s kind of my background and why I started this because of my hate for just working in the office and wanting to be a digital nomad. And eventually, when I did quit, I traveled the world for a whole year and lived in a different country each month. And I learned a lot about being a digital nomad and trying to start a business while traveling.
That is pretty much a lot of what people’s goals are, right? We get into a job that we think we should have. We go to school, we get a job, we realize we really hate it. And then we always try to find some way to get out of it. And it’s so crazy how most people’s lives are, instead of just maybe taking some time to really figure out what you want and experiment. It’s so weird that now we can actually leave that grind to really figure out who we are as people and to really figure out what we want with our life. Before you did that, Sarah, I know it must’ve been really a hard decision for you because you thought it was your dream job working for Disney and doing marketing.
How did you get yourself to that point where you finally said, I’m leaving. What was that breaking point for you?
Well, I was trying to get a promotion and or a raise, cause Disney pays horribly, a lot of people don’t think that’s true. Just look at any of the lawsuits in the paper today about Disney employees living out of their cars. I’m serious. It’s alarming. I was trying so hard to get a raise or a promotion and my bosses would not give it to me and I realized one day I don’t want to be my boss, so why am I trying to get a promotion? I’ve been programmed to believe this concept that we hear so much through our lives that, you know, go to college, get a job, get promoted, get married, have kids buy a house.
And I was starting to check off boxes and every box I checked off, I was more and more miserable. So I decided that this checking off boxes and the lifestyle that I was trained to believe all of my life, it’s not bringing me happiness. So what is bringing me happiness? And I do this thing every night before I go to sleep. I write the best part of the day, the worst part of the day, a new experience. And something I learned. And I realized over and over and over again that when I have new experiences and when I travel, that was when I was most happy.
So I decided, well, how can I get paid to do those things? How can I get paid to travel and do new experiences? So I started thinking about ways to build a business around that model. I finally just bought a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires and told my bosses that I quit and they could not believe their ears because no one quits Disney. That’s what they believe. No one would ever quit. A company like Disney that everyone wants to work in.
I mean, an HR person one day when I was trying to get a raise told me, you know, people would do this for free. So that’s really horrible that they said that. It’s just an unknown concept to that corporate culture and yeah, I bought that one-way ticket to Buenos Aires, quit my job and started traveling and living in a different country each month and learned a lot about that process.
It’s definitely feeling unappreciated with all the work that you are doing and why not just go off on your own and try this. It’s not like you’re making the money that you want. It’s not like you’re doing the job that you want to do, the life that you want to be in. Sarah, how much money did you actually save before you set off to travel for a year? And how were you able to budget it to make it last for you?
I think I saved $15,000. There’s a website called nomadlist.com, it’s like a database of reviews of different cities around the world that nomads score on various points and they’re all different types of points. It’s the cost of living, is it female-friendly, gay-friendly, fun level, safety level, they have all of these different classifications. And I went through that site and I had three factors that were most important to me. It had to have a high fun score, a high safety score and good Wifi. Cause I knew that if there wasn’t good Wifi, it was impossible for me to create a business that could survive online. And I also factored in the price points. So I looked at that site and I chose places that the rent would be no more than $1,000 a month. My husband also traveled with me.
That’s an important thing that I need to say because some people might be doing this by themselves. So we were able to split that rent but there are ways to do this without traveling with a partner. So based off of those three factors, that’s what I kind of chose each location from. And then after that, I had places that were in a price range based on the nomad list that I could afford and had safety, good Wifi, and a high fun level according to nomad list. Then I just selected, I had a list of like 30 countries that fit that description. And then I just started doing logistics wise of what made the most sense traveling across the globe.
And the reason I did was because the flight cost is one of the most expensive costs. So if I could make sure each location was somewhat close, but I’m going in one direction, then I would be able to reduce the cost of my flights tremendously. And so that’s what I did. And we did three months in South America, five months in Europe, and then the remainder of the time in Asia and Southeast Asia. I really wanted to do Australia and New Zealand but it was so expensive that I could not include that given the money I had saved. And the fact that I had just started a business, that was online and trying to find clients that are really so important when you first start a business, you have no clients. And when you have several years into it, you have clients that you can go to and they know you and they trust you and you can get repeat business.
But having no clients at all, I was starting from scratch and, and I had to make sure that the locations I chose were cost-effective, close together. And, I wouldn’t go broke in the process. I would be able to survive off of my savings and around one thousand dollars a month that I was making wasn’t much, but I made it all the way to the end. And when I came back to the United States in January, I only had $300 in my bank account. And it was not ideal. I was really nervous about that because I knew that if I didn’t make it work, I would have to go back to corporate. And so I came back in 2018 and that’s when the big change happened for me.
Sarah, when you came back and you had that $300 in your pocket, that’s kind of like the what now moment, right? You left your job. I know there’s a lot of things on social media online where people tell you you can leave your job, you can travel the world, but then you come back home after all of that and you only have a few hundred dollars in your pocket. That what now moment like happened to you. I’m sure. And it happens to a lot of people and that’s when we all start panicking. It’s do or die. You either make this work or you have to go back to the job that you hate. What was that process like? What was your mentality like and how did you actually make that work after your what now moment?
Well, it was really scary but I was so motivated to not have to go back to a corporate job that I really would do anything to make this business work. I moved back in with my parents, like any real cool 28 year old. Nothing cooler than moving back with your parents at 28, after having a full career at Disney and getting your master’s degree. But I was determined to not go back to the corporate world. I traveled the whole year of 2017. The business model was, I mean it’s hard to even say the word business when I think back to it, but it was all I had. It was Instagram, which is a platform that is only monetizable if you have a large following. And if you have good engagement. And Instagram made some big changes with their algorithm that year, and I was going from growing 5,000 followers a month to maybe a hundred a month and getting terrible engagement. And so what I had once relied on to be my main income in 2017 now was practically useless. And I had done a lot of research on different ways that you can make money as a blogger. And I knew that ad revenue was one, I knew that affiliate revenue, sponsorship revenue, those are the main ways if you’re not selling a product or a service. And so I focused on those to start and I would pitch as many brands as I could on sponsorships.
Unfortunately, all I really had was Instagram, which you know, has a cap on it. For reference for every 10,000 followers you have on Instagram, you can charge $100 for one sponsored posts. So I had 30,000, so I could only charge $300 for a sponsored post. But that was really it. So I was lucky if I was making $1,500 a month off of that. And I’ve learned that youtube was a much more monetized platform, but fewer people actually consider going into it because of the high barriers to entry. You have to know how to use a video camera. You have to know how to edit, you have to be comfortable being in front of the camera. You’d have to know how to tell a story that’s engaging. It will keep your viewers intrigued. And so all of these things to me, actually weren’t scary.
I was excited because in high school I always made stupid little videos with my friends. And so for me, I always loved video and that was really what I was more interested in than Instagram photos because I was getting very uninspired with that boring shot of a girl looking into the sunset with a flowy dress. I’m like, if I see one more of those photos, my eyes are gonna bleed out of my head. And so, I had a moment when I was in Prague, in June 2017 where I had never been interested in going to Prague. I went there because my husband loves beer and it’s a beer capital. But my friend told me about this guy on Youtube called the honest guide and he made video guides to Prague.
And so I started watching them and I became obsessed. I must have binge-watched 20 videos of his, he did the best things to do in Prague. Prague’s worst tourist traps, things you should know, like all different types of things just to prepare visitors for visiting Prague. And I remember thinking, why doesn’t anyone do this for New York City? Because New York City has more visitors than in Prague. And I feel like it will be very successful because there’s so much, there are so many tourists reps that I saw working at Disney and Times Square. And I would always be like wanting to run up to people and just say no don’t take a picture with that Elmo.
So I decided back in June 2017 that when I got back to New York in January of 2018 I was going to try to do that because there was no one doing it. And I felt that it would be helpful for people. So with the $300, I had left in my bank account. I went on Upwork because I can edit, but I by no means am a professional editor and I wanted these videos to be excellent. I wanted them to be binge-worthy, which is something people need to focus on when they’re doing youtube because if it’s not binge-worthy, people are going to watch one video, never subscribe and never see you again. And so I hired this editor from Mexico. He only was charging $93 a video which was crazy. And I hired him for three videos to edit these three videos that I went around New York in January of 2018 and I filmed New York’s worst tourist traps, 16 things you should know before visiting New York and secret spots of New York City.
I filmed those videos, sent him the files, put together how I want him to edit this because I didn’t really know how to do graphics and all the transitions and stuff like that. I selected the music. I wrote the script and everything and he edited them, I posted them and those three videos completely changed my life. Together. I think they probably have like 3 million views now. And that skyrocketed the success for me as a content creator. And it all came down to finding a need in the market and essentially being inspired by my travels on what people really look for when they’re traveling.
I learned a lot when I was traveling about what people need, what people want in a destination and how to make their lives easier. And so I use that knowledge and I was inspired by this guy in Prague, so I took it back to New York and I started making a series and I committed to it. Consistency is so important when you’re starting something as a content creator, you can’t just put out one video and then six months later put out the next video. It has to be consistent. So from the start, I said every Thursday New York City and travel videos every single Thursday. And so I didn’t miss a single Thursday until last month because, and that’s the whole separate business venture. But because of the success of my New York videos and my travel videos. I now offer tours of New York, which have been selling out. I’m able to charge premium prices because people only want me as a tour guide, which is amazing. And I get to meet all of my viewers. It’s so cool.
Sarah, all of this changed your life from that moment and it gives you all of these different ideas and it changed pretty much everything. And now this is your business. You know, it’s totally turned your life around. And I’m really excited to also talk to you for our extended interview because you’re going to tell us how to create a successful youtube channel that people can actually monetize. And that’s the thing that people have a hard time doing as people get into it. They don’t have a niche.
They’re kind of just grasping for something and you’re really focused on some things. So that’s going to be really exciting to talk. Sarah, when you were going through all of this, especially in the first year of your business, when you didn’t find Youtube yet, I’m sure there was a lot of setbacks along the way and you only had $300 in your pocket until that moment. But what about now, now that you have the successful business, what is your setback right now? Or what is a problem that you are currently having as an entrepreneur that you are still struggling with?
I just have so much to do it, I mean, right now I’m working like 12 to 16 hours a day, which is not ideal for anything. I have so many things to do. I really need to hire someone. I just don’t even know where to start with that. I have an editor now and I have a videographer, which saves me a lot of time in the filming process, but I really probably need to be hiring someone to help me manage the tours because the tours have become their own business in themselves. And I think what I’ve realized is tours are not scalable. So there’s only one of me and I really need to make something that’s scalable. So I’ve been thinking about different things I could do that people can buy that is scalable because when I’m on a tour, all of my attention is there. And that’s why I charge the premium prices because you have my full attention for three hours and we’re hanging out, you know, which I don’t know any other Youtuber that does that. But it is really cool cause I learn a lot from the people I meet, like why they watch my videos and what they liked and what was helpful. And so I’m able to do more of that. But at this point, it’s just taking up so much time.
I could just do this only, but I don’t want to be just a tour guide. My goal was always to be a travel show host. And so I need to find something that’s more scalable because once my attention is taken on the tours, that’s really what we’re struggling with now is trying to balance the tours and then making videos and doing all the normal influencer things like sponsored posts and writing blogs and all of that. It’s very, very time-consuming. It’s like two jobs really.
Yeah. There’s only one you and you’re getting pushed in so many different directions and it’s hard. And I think that that’s really important to understand and realize that you have only a limited amount of time. And I think people underestimate that, especially when they look at you doing all of these awesome things, but you’re also an entrepreneur and you really have such a little amount of time to spend on so many different things, which is ridiculous. So now, Sarah, let’s fast forward to 50 years from now and you’re looking back at your life. What legacy would you like to leave and what do you want to be remembered?
Well, you know, I always said I wanted to be the female Anthony Bourdain, but now that’s a little bit awkward. I would like to just inspire people to try new things. That was always my goal from the start. My tagline is “experience more”. And so I really believe that by getting out of your comfort zone and trying new things and if you’re not going to try to achieve your dreams now, then when are you going to do it? And so my goal has always been to kind of inspire others to get outside their comfort zone, travel that to that new place, try that new thing. And you know what? They might love it, they might hate it, but at least they’ve tried and at least they know. There’s no reason to be so concerned and I think so many people are so worried about what other people think that it really prevents them from trying doing anything.
And the thing is, you’re one of those people that you are a risk-taker. And I always say that if you want what you want out of life, you have to take a little risk and look at you. You traveled for a whole year with your husband, you came back with $300 in your pocket and you made it work.
Haha, exactly! You can do it. Especially if you’re living in the United States, you can do pretty much anything you set your mind to.
Yeah, that is true. And I realized that and I think traveling opened my eyes to that because I saw so many poor places and the people are so happy. So I realized that worst-case scenario, and if this fails I’ll be poor. And you know what? They’re living their best life. They’re having a great time. I think that American culture really focuses on materialism and that is not what brings me happiness. I’m sure some people it does, but most places don’t have the resources that we have. And I knew that when I got back from traveling and I was like, well, if this fails, oh well. All these people I met don’t have anything and they’re having a great time in life. And also for me, it helped because my husband, he’s Guatemalan and he grew up with nothing, his story is crazy. I mean it’s like way better than mine, to be honest.
It’s not about business in any way. It’s about survival. But his family essentially, they came here from Guatemala. And just hearing his story of being a six-year-old child, having to pretend to have a fake family and being put through tunnels and having a dirt floor and growing up with nothing, you know? And he really keeps me grounded in that way because I definitely grew up, I wouldn’t say super privileged, we were upper-middle class, but you know, when I needed a new computer, my parents could buy it. Whereas Louie didn’t even have a bed.
That’s why it’s always good to travel and really understand how other people live. So now, Sarah, what are you working on today that is really exciting for you?
So I have my tours. I launched my tours in April. That’s been going so well and I love doing it. I just need to find a way to better manage a tour life and also a blogger life. But it is really exciting. I do one group tour a week, which is my Friday secret of New York tour and that one’s ticketed. So that one, I bring my viewers through secret spots and show them hidden gems and tell fascinating, true stories of the lower Manhattan area. And I’ll bring them through secret passageways and we see where the largest concentration of gold and human history is kept. Some really cool stories and I do that one every single Friday. And then I also offer private tours, which I normally end up doing two to three times a week.
And those are for my viewers that want more custom experience. So those are completely customized. I mean, I’ve done everything from nightlife tours to food tours, to history, music, art, general areas like Greenwich Village and Brooklyn and things like that. And so that’s really fun for me now. And I’m having a great time doing it. I don’t know how long I’m going to do it because being a tour guide was never a goal of mine. It just kind of happened because people kept requesting it through my youtube channel. And I was thinking, Huh, you know, people keep asking for these tours, maybe I could actually make some money off of this. And so it has been a really good revenue source for me and it’s just crazy to me that a year ago I had nothing. And now everything’s going so well. So that’s really exciting.
But like I said, I am trying to find something more scalable. So whether that be a guidebook to New York or an app about New York, I definitely know it has to be about New York cause that’s the majority of my audience focuses on New York. So that’s kind of what’s like currently going on in my life.
That’s so exciting Sarah. If our listeners want to know more about you, where can they find you?
They can find me on Sarafunky.com that is my website and that has links to all of my other things. But if you like videos, just skip that and go straight to Youtube, which is Sarah Funk. That’s my name. Funky. Like Funky town. Debbie:
Thank you so much, Sarah, for joining us today. It was so much fun to talk to you again.
Sarah: Thank you.
Audio Engineer: Ben Smith