Work & travel: Romanian-born Irina Papuc, a full-time digital nomad running a fully remote company
Born in Romania but raised in the US, Irina Papuc started a business that fits in perfectly with her love for travel. She is the co-founder of the digital marketing agency Galactic Fed, a fully remote company that she’s managing while traveling the world. We connected to Irina to learn more about her journey from Romania to the US and her adventures as a digital nomad and co-CEO.
Irina Papuc was born in Romania but moved to Chicago with her family at the age of two. Growing up in a foreign place was not without challenges but also taught Irina lots of valuable life lessons. Plus, her family kept her connected to her Romanian roots, teaching her the language, the culture, and the values.
A physicist by education, Irina Papuc trained at CERN and led SEO at Toptal, one of the largest fully remote companies in the world, before starting her own business. In 2017, she joined forces with Zach Boyette to start Galactic Fed, a thriving digital marketing agency with a fully remote, international team specializing in both SEO and Paid Advertising. The company’s client portfolio ranges from Fortune 50 brands to early-stage startups.
“We decided to go fully remote for a few reasons, one being our mutual love for travel and desire to work from anywhere in the world, but also because it was a way to quickly recruit and hire new talent,” Irina told Romania-insider.com
Thus, for a few years now, Irina Papuc has been combining her role as a founder & managing partner of Galactic Fed with her immense passion for traveling. She has visited about 50 countries so far, living unique experiences around the world: she has lived with Buddhist nuns, taught English in Taiwan, motorcycled through Nepal, or crossed the Caspian Sea. All that while growing Galactic Fed into a successful company.
Meet Irina Papuc and discover her story from the interview below.
Please tell us a bit about your background.
I was born in Romania and left the country at age two with my family to seek better conditions. At the time, communism had just collapsed, and the situation was desperate. I grew up in inner-city Chicago, where I was blessed to have a great public school experience with kind and nurturing teachers.
Long story short, my first leap into the entrepreneurial world was at age 7 when I sold Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bookmarks to my friends for extra lunch money!
As a kid, I loved to write fiction and paint, but also really enjoyed technical things like math and science.
You left Romania at a very young age. Please tell us more about your ‘journey’ from Romania to the US - how did it happen?
My family moved to Chicago when I was a little kid. Growing up as a Romanian immigrant in the US was a really special experience, with its own challenges and opportunities for learning. My family worked hard to retain Romanian culture and values, including teaching me the language, and watching my family struggle to make it in a new, foreign place helped me internalize the importance of hard work and putting love and soul into your work.
You’ve traveled a lot and lived some unique experiences. What’s your favorite thing about traveling and how did you develop this lifestyle?
Being alone in a foreign country forces you to explore your strengths and weaknesses as a person in ways that you could never do in the comfort of your home. You’re faced with so many unknowns and unpredictable interactions, forced to confront not just the world at large but your place in it. Travel brings about fresh perspectives, kills the ego, and helps ground me as I remember that we live on this vast and interesting big blue marble.
What was your first experience as a traveler, and how many countries have you visited so far (please list a few)?
When I was 21, I was fortunate to travel outside of the country for the first time on my own for a student internship in Germany. The experience absolutely blew my mind. When you are traveling alone, as I often do, you have no choice but to connect with strangers to find your way. This effort alone offers many opportunities for compassion and empathy. It also helps re-affirm that there are good people no matter where you go.
I have visited about 50 countries at this point. I mention some of the highlights in this podcast on the Maverick Show. I have a soft spot for Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan– basically anywhere with big, epic mountains! Fun fact: 80% of Kyrgyzstan is covered by mountains. If there are mountains, I am there. (smiles)
Please share with us one or two of the most exciting stories from your travels.
Oh, there are so many, it’s hard to choose just one! I met a Shamen in Nepal after winning a bet over a game of chess in a sushi bar in Kathmandu. We journeyed together for 12 hours on a bus into the middle of nowhere. I lived with him for a week and got to be a fly on the wall for what a day in the life of a Nepalese shamen looks like. I even got to join him on his work runs to purge people’s homes of bad spirits!
You also returned to Romania. When did you visit the country, what made you want to come back, and how would you describe the experience? Do you plan to return here?
As you can imagine, knowing one’s origin is very important. I found this need to know my Romanian origin began growing exponentially when I hit my twenties. Nowadays, I try to visit Romania and my relatives there (many of whom I have grown quite close to) as often as I can, ideally annually, through COVID did temporarily throw a wrench in those plans for a while.
When I visit Romania, I feel like I’m stepping into a very large home, one that is also mine, where everyone can speak a language I previously only knew and understood intimately in my (much smaller) home growing up. I am blessed to know the language and be able to connect with the people.
What other places do you plan to see next?
Well, I am currently backpacking Africa for 3 months! The trip actually began this month, and my business partner Zach Boyette who co-founded our marketing agency Galactic Fed (an entirely remote company with no offices), is joining me. We will be chronicling our travels on our Instagram if anyone wants to follow along! Zach has already been traveling full-time for years, so I have a bit of catching up to do!
Please tell us briefly what Galactic Fed is and how it works.
Galactic Fed is an award-winning digital marketing agency with a fully remote, international team specializing in both SEO and Paid Advertising. We founded the company because we found a niche and demand for the services we have to offer, and since then have grown our team to over 100! We at Galactic Fed work with startups, SMBs, Enterprises, as well as non-profits via our non-profit arm, Galactic Good.
If I had to explain what I do to someone’s not-very-tech-savvy grandmother, I would say, “if you Google something, I make it appear in search!”.
When was Galactic Fed founded, and how did it grow since then? What made you want to start such a business, especially a fully remote one?
Zach and I co-founded Galactic Fed in 2017. We worked together at Toptal, where I was the Head of SEO, and Zach the head of Paid Media. We had a natural synergy, bonding over a rebellious attitude towards wanting to do something a bit (or a lot) different from the ordinary. Our combined forces made sense on many levels, thus Galactic Fed was born!
We decided to go fully remote for a few reasons, one being our mutual love for travel and desire to work from anywhere in the world, but also because it was a way to quickly recruit and hire new talent. With a fully remote agency, we’ve been able to scale our team and hire the best talent all over the world, wherever they live. I’d say remote culture is a huge part of our success!
What has been your greatest challenge so far?
When it comes to building a remote company, unique challenges can arise. Two of those were:
Communication — it’s hard enough as it is to communicate effectively in a traditional team setting. Once to take this to a remote environment, you often have little more than a few specs, Slack messages, and perhaps a brief call or two to convey the expectations and the end goals. Daily communication is the cement that holds the team together, and at Galactic Fed, this extends over multiple time zones and continents.
Building trust — it’s essential to build a team that trusts one another and their managers to deliver on their promises day in and day out — that reassurance of trust fuels the team to show up every day and give 100%. A unified company culture — whether your company is domestic or international, it’s vital that leaders find common threads to unite the organization in unified company culture.
What are your plans for the future?
My plans are to continue growing and building our company while traveling when I can. Since travel was a big part of our interview, I’ll leave you with this beautiful quote from King Matt, written by Polish children’s doctor Janusz Korczak:
“When I was the little boy you see in the photograph, I wanted to do all the things that are in this book. But I forgot to, and now I’m old. I no longer have the time or the strength to go to war or travel to the land of the cannibals. I have included this photograph because it’s important what I looked like when I truly wanted to be a king, and not when I was writing about King Matt. I think it’s better to show pictures of what kings, travelers, and writers looked like before they grew up, or grew old because otherwise, it might seem that they knew everything from the start and were never young themselves. And then children will think they can’t be statesmen, travelers, and writers, which wouldn’t be true.”
Irina Marica, firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photos: courtesy of Irina Papuc)