This column, Escape Artist, is a series about folks who have escaped. More importantly, this biweekly column is for those thinking about trading in their 9-to-5, leg-shackled-to-the-desk existences to forge their own way. The brave outliers featured in this collection of interviews are the digital nomads, online entrepreneurs and lifestyle trendsetters who decided it was time to say to hell with the humdrum and grab life by the roots.
Kristin Francis runs Souvenir Finder, a travel site that focuses on finding and bringing home memories and parts of the world that remind travelers of their experiences. Francis encourages travelers to go beyond collectible shot glasses and knick-knacks to find one-of-a-kind pieces, local artisan crafts, or even a physical piece of the destination (such as sand) as trip memories.
The “escape the 9-to-5” mentality seems to be popular now. What are your impressions?
Kristin Francis Because of technology, the 9-to-5 has become 24/7 these days anyway, and there is no escaping any job. So you may as well do what you love because you will likely spend a lot of time doing it. As an entrepreneur, having the freedom and flexibility to create your own schedule (at least in theory) is psychologically a huge benefit.
What was the “aha” moment that sparked travel for you in this way?
KF For me, travel and memories are inextricably linked. I feel more alive when I travel and when I use my souvenirs back home, whether carrying a handmade handbag or cooking with a new spice. For a moment, I relive what it felt like to travel. When I returned to one destination, for example, I was excited to seek out a small leather shop I’d previously visited that carried a favorite change purse. Despite having been owned by the same family for generations, the shop was now closed. Finding local shops when traveling is getting harder and harder – every high street from New York to London to Seoul is starting to look depressingly similar. I decided to make it my mission to find these little gems and share them with others before the world becomes one giant shopping mall, all accessible online.
What inspired you to start blogging, and how did you first build a following?
KF I’ve always been a writer and assumed that would be my profession since childhood. But somehow I ended up in law school, then working for a large company and those dreams were set aside. While taking a dance class, I landed wrong and ended up tearing three ligaments. With months confined to the sofa, I finally had time to turn back to my love for writing. I went online, googled how to start a blog and was on my way.
For at least the first solid year, I paid absolutely no attention to building a following. I focused all my efforts on writing and improving my photography and hoped the traffic would follow because I was the only one writing in my niche. It didn’t take long for some top travel sites and bloggers to discover me, which set the ball rolling. Although I’m active on all social media outlets, I found Pinterest resonates most with my readers as they save pins for souvenirs at the destinations they plan to visit.
Why did you decide to focus on “Souvenir Finder” as an idea and brand?
KF I decided to create Souvenir Finder simply because the information I was looking for was not available anywhere else. I searched online for unique souvenirs in a location and only found ancient guidebook entries, with no photos and minimal text, which were pretty worthless in letting you know whether the shop was actually worth going out of your way for, especially on a short vacation. Flashy magazines focused too much on high end design shopping. For example, one magazine recommended making an appointment to order a $5,000 custom made sofa in Morocco.
None offered the basics I was looking for — the unique, only-in-this-destination souvenirs I could bring home that would remind me of the feeling I have when I travel. When I bring home a souvenir, I bring home a piece of the world. Souvenirs embody the very terroir of a destination, those intangible characteristics that define a sense of place, including the beauty you can’t quite put into words, the cultural quirks that catch you off guard, the overall ambience, even the tension of a place. Sometimes the souvenir is about more than just the place and include the memories inextricably linked to those I traveled with, whether we laughed, fought, cried or fell in love.
How does life now compare to before you started the site?
KF Before my site, I had a legal consulting job that I enjoyed, but I had no way to express my creative side, and I always felt like something was missing. After starting my site, I discovered new passions not only for travel and writing but also for photography and even video. Now instead of counting the days until my next travels, I can hop off to a destination on a moment’s notice. When I’m not traveling, I am reliving the joy of traveling through my writing and photography by creating blog posts and videos. Every day I am doing what I love and sharing my enthusiasm with others. I went from a circle of mostly New York City lawyer and banker friends to a circle of friends around the world, including twenty-something backpackers, local artisans and other bloggers and writers.
Do you have a favorite travel spot you’d like to share with Paste readers?
KF Japan is my favorite place for unique souvenirs, both for its centuries old traditional crafts and its new, sometimes quirky/crazy things.
The “travel blogging” mentality is becoming more popular as well. Does the market seem saturated?
KF Although the market for “travel blogging” might be saturated, the market for inspiring, well-written and unique travel blogs is not. Most travel blogs are generalist, personal narratives, and unless the writing is particularly good, can be boring. The keys to a successful travel blog I think are great writing, a strong point of view and an interesting niche.
What’s one tip you have for readers who want to live a life like yours?
KF My website started as a passion project, and it was only because I loved my niche and the writing process so much that I was able to stick with it and grow it to the point that I could take it on full-time, which is something I hadn’t even considered as a possibility when I started. Those who start travel blogging because they think it would be a good way to support their travel habit, and not because they love writing or their niche, are far less successful. It’s not as easy as it might seem, so you really need to love what you are doing. If you have that passion, don’t be afraid to do your own thing and not rely on advice from others. Trust your gut. I came up with an entirely new niche and did nothing the “traditional” way, which worked for me.
What are you most excited to focus on in 2017?
KF I’m traveling to new destinations in Africa, Australia and Greenland. I am excited about making more inroads into video since YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram are great ways to connect immediately with my followers. I also have some exciting new ideas for my site that I will finally have time to execute.
Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.