- The Washington Times - Monday, December 21, 2009

Chris Guillebeau has never had a “real” job. At 31, he makes a living by advising others how to make a living without having a “real” job.

Mr. Guillebeau started out as a blogger less than two years ago, but he is already on track to earning six figures annually by selling self-published manuals on “life, work and travel.” That’s his projection for 2010. This year, he estimates he has earned up to $80,000.

“I help people live unconventional lives - to think differently, question assumptions and authority, find out what they are passionate about and overcome gatekeepers,” he said. “For me, a large part of challenging authority involves looking for alternatives to the way most people do things.”

His blog, “The Art of Non-Conformity,” is still free, but his manuals have attracted enough interest so he doesn’t need another income to live on.

“About 95 percent of the people who read me will never buy anything, and that’s totally fine. But the model is able to sustain itself because 5 percent do invest in the products,” he said. “Next year, it should be a six-figure business. I don’t need to grow it beyond that - I’m not trying to get rich.”

Mr. Guillebeau, who lives in Portland, Ore., said he has “personally connected” with about half of his 20,000 readers - mostly by e-mail, but also meeting many of them during his travels across the country and around the world. Travel is one of his passions, and he has visited more than 100 countries so far.

Ben Lopatin, business director of Wellfire Interactive, a Web-design firm, said he was initially familiar with Mr. Guillebeau’s travel blog posts but “kept reading because of his writing about entrepreneurship and unconventional perspectives on work life.”

“He’s not preaching a ‘Get rich quick’ message,” Mr. Lopatin said during one of Mr. Guillebeau’s “meet-ups” on a recent trip to Washington, where about three dozen of his fans showed up. “He’s offering tips and perspectives on rethinking how to work for the things that really matter to you.”

Elliot Susel, another reader who works for the consulting firm Accenture, said it was “abundantly clear” from his conversation with Mr. Guillebeau that “he practices what he preaches.”

“Although he’s able to provide highly individualized guidance, he instead focuses on empowering each individual with the tools that they need to make tough decisions,” Mr. Susel said.

From Mr. Guillebeau’s writing, one wouldn’t know he is a high-school dropout - after a year, he decided that, while he liked learning, he disliked everything else about high school. He began taking classes at a community college in Alabama at 16.

“They never asked for a high school diploma, and by the time they realized I didn’t have one, I’d finished one quarter and had good grades, so they let me keep going,” he recalled. When he transferred to a four-year college, he was attending classes at three schools at the same time, then pulled all his credits together and graduated in two years with a degree in sociology.

Around that time, Mr. Guillebeau got the closest thing to a “real” job - working the night shift at Federal Express in Memphis for a couple of months. Next, he started importing coffee from Jamaica and reselling it to U.S. distributors. He also sold things on eBay.

“In 1998, you could put anything on eBay and sell it. You could go to the store, buy things and people would pay more for them, just because of the novelty of it,” he said. “I went from making $20,000 to $200,000 a year.”

Having made some money, in 2002 he moved to West Africa with his wife, Jolie, whom he married at 18. He became a volunteer for a medical charity, but he “didn’t have any skills,” so his “job for the first year was to carry boxes around,” he said. Later, he moved up and was in charge of 120 people. He was also “a liaison between the organization and host governments, meeting presidents and hanging out with warlords.”

After four years in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Mr. Guillebeau returned to the United States and earned a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Washington in Seattle.

He started his Web site in early 2008, writing mostly about his travels, but soon “realized there would be a limited audience for that.”

“I had a message to share and wanted to establish a career as a writer; how do I do that? I wrote to every person I knew about the site and to fellow bloggers and other writers. This was going to be the most important thing I do, so I wanted to focus all of my creative energy on making it happen,” he said.

He also wrote his “flagship manifesto” with the deliberately provocative title “A Brief Guide to World Domination.”

In the past 15 months, Mr. Guillebeau has self-published five manuals, ranging from $39 to $129, on self-employment, on how to build a small business, on how to succeed as an artist without relying on established norms, on using social media and on how to play the frequent-flier game.

“The most important thing [in starting a small business] is creating a product or service with an active group of people who are already interested in the topic. This is much easier than trying to convince someone they need something they haven’t heard of before,” he said when asked for an example of the kind of advice he offers.

The best sort of entrepreneurship “focuses not on trading time for money,” as is the case in consulting, “but on developing systems that earn money while you sleep,” he added.

“The typical paths in life - school to college to entry level to mid-level to professional - don’t work for everyone,” he said. “I want to help people avoid some of the unnecessary steps to get closer to what they really want.”

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