Tegan Phillips, winner of the 2016 The Altumate Challenge grant, reflects on what it takes to make it as a professional adventurer, and why it’s not for everyone.
South African adventure cartoonist Tegan Phillips first appeared in the adventure space in 2014 as the girl that won Tom Allen’s bicycle and then cycled across Spain. She went on to do a year-long African cycle tour with her family, before winning the 2016 Altumate Challenge grant, and doing her New Zealand Epic - the equivalent of 10 Ironmans around NZ South Island.
In the process, she learned a lot about what it means to try and be a 'Professional Adventurer'.
A year ago I was getting ready to fly out to New Zealand, about to embark on a solo 2400km triathlon of my own design. I was nervous as hell, not so much for the adventure as for letting down my sponsors. It was my first fully sponsored adventure, the opportunity of a lifetime, and probably the toughest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. But among the many incredible life-lessons it taught me, one of them was that I’m not cut out for adventuring in such a public way – and it inspired me to rethink ways to fund my insatiable adventure appetite.
Leading up to winning the sponsorship, I did a lot of research and connected with a lot of professional adventurers and, now, looking back, would give these five tips to anybody considering trying out adventuring as a profession.
1. Think of yourself as a brand
This may sound obvious, but as soon as you put some aspect of your personality in the public domain, you create an entity that is not exactly you – it’s a brand. Your brand is everything that people perceive you to be through what you release to the public – your individual way of interpreting and representing your experiences in the world. For a professional adventurer, this brand is what you release of yourself to the public in the context of adventuring, and to make money your brand supplies ‘products’ (talks/photos/books/coaching etc) to the public in exchange for cash or other goods or services.
Getting this brand/person separation in your head early on is useful, because brands are a kind of public property – people are not. If you confuse yourself with your brand, you become a slave to praise and rejection and all of the other things that will inevitably be directed at your brand, and it’s an emotional rollercoaster that you probably want to avoid if you, like me, are a little bit sensitive.
Just like with any other brand, it helps to have some kind of identifiability, a look/feel/tone that will make your brand recognisable and appealing. This absolutely does not mean you should invent or fake any parts of yourself when creating your brand – in fact I would rank honesty as the number one criterion for a good adventurer – it just means you should be as clear and consistent as possible in what you decide to present from a business perspective.
Although anybody can be an amazing professional adventure, I’ve observed certain personality types with a natural tendency towards pragmatism find it easier to naturally keeping a balance between ‘brand’ you and ‘personal’ you. Personally, I found I wasn’t very effective at maintaining this balance. I felt very awkward pitching/promoting myself, which led me to struggle with the fundraising aspect of my adventure, and once I had committed to the sponsorship, I felt over-intensely personally responsible for making the adventure a success. This led to me perceiving a pressure that stopped me from being able to just go about doing what had to be done in a fun, balanced way.
2. Make your brand stand out
Being a professional adventurer is easily one of the coolest jobs in the world. Admin, risk and isolation aside – you essentially earn money for doing what you love in the great outdoors and sharing that love with other people, which is a huge privilege. Unfortunately, this means that the professional adventurer world is increasingly saturated as ‘conventional’ jobs are becoming less mandatory.
Competition for sponsorship is fierce; there are hundreds of brilliant photographers / videographers from all over the world wanting to do very amazing things all vying for help from a very limited pool of resources. In my experience, to consistently secure support or funding, you need to either be very experienced / very good (which can be fairly difficult if you are just starting out), or have some kind of USP that differentiates you from other adventurers.
My USP was drawing adventure cartoons – but it doesn’t have to be that ridiculous. Whether it’s a unique way of adventuring (pogo sticks, anyone?), a unique or specialised way of documenting (special Instagram skills/unusual multilingual documentary style), or just a unique character style (world’s funniest/grumpiest adventurer), it’s good to notice what makes you different from the people you’re competing against and work on developing that thing.
3. Remember to give back
I’ve been very lucky to have been given sponsorship for various adventures, and the temptation is always there to think of what you are given as some kind of reward or encouragement for your great adventure ideas. But of course, that’s not how the world of business works.
Any type of exchange between a professional adventurer and a business should ideally be because the respective brands feel they complement each other. There could be some mutual benefit if, for example, the business could help the adventurer out financially or with gear and the adventurer could help promote the business’s image in some way.
The clearer both parties can be on what you expect from each other, the more you will be able to help each other and gain from the collaboration without confusion or disappointment. I was, regrettably, useless as a brand ambassador for an amazing sports clothing company because I didn’t have any natural ability or inclination to share my adventures regularly on social media. The more I imagined an obligation to share them, the more it turned it into something scary and daunting for me.
It made me realise that it’s unwise and unfair to commit to taking anything if you feel you may not be able to offer something to benefit the other party in exchange. Don’t worry fellow shy people, exposure isn’t always the only thing other brands want – I was luckily able to help the brand I represented with product design feedback, and there are plenty of other ways to give back that don’t involve selfies. But it’s just good to be clear on these things before your ego starts promising the moon.
4. Make sure you’re comfortable working alone
One of the hardest things about pursuing this path is that you have to do the majority of the donkey work by yourself. Even if you often have company for your adventures, as a ‘professional’ you alone get to be responsible for figuring out what steps to take when and actually trying to take them. Very quickly it becomes obvious that the actual jumping on your bike or climbing that big mountain aspect is a very small part of professional adventuring.
Depending on your style of adventuring, there’s a good chance you find yourself spending your days sending hundreds of emails, doing research, sending more emails – there’s sponsorship, fundraising, PR, events, logistics planning and hundreds of things more. And there’s no way to know exactly what you should do each day, what to prioritise, what to ignore. No way to tell if you’re doing well or badly, or working too hard or not hard enough.
Personally, although I love the liberation this offers, I find this aspect of working for oneself very overwhelming, and, at times, lonely. On the bright side, there are more and more adventure networks/forums – even festivals - forming all over the world, which makes this element easier than I imagine it once was.
5. The more genuine you are, the easier it’s going to be
Probably the main lesson I’ve learnt through my brief flirtations with professional adventuring is that doing anything too differently from the way that you naturally would do it is not going to be sustainable. At best, it will be a strain, at worst, a disaster.
Out of my wonderful professional adventurer friends, those who seem to be the most successful and enjoy it the most are the ones who have realised their strengths & weaknesses, preferences & dislikes, and most importantly their capacity & limits. They have worked these into their style of income-generating adventuring rather than looking around at other adventurers and trying to imitate them.
For example, Matt Prior has taken his love of empowering people and used it to start his own adventure academy. Will Copestake has honed his natural skills in film & photography to become one of the world’s best kayak adventure filmmakers. Sarah Outen gets sponsorship for her crazily long record-breaking rowing adventures, whereas Tom Allen has no interest in setting records and has preferred to stick to exploring and consulting and so on. They’re honest with themselves about what they really do and don’t enjoy, and they’ve taught me that just because something is glamorous doesn’t make it fun, and just because something isn’t glamorous doesn’t mean you can’t love it.
My final reflection, something I wish I had known better about three years ago, is this: if you’re going to try and make it in the exciting world of professional adventuring, the most important thing you can do is to remember not to take anything – especially yourself – too seriously.