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107: How to travel smarter and create a blogging empire with Matthew Kepness

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On this week’s episode, I speak with Matthew Kepnes who runs the award winning budget travel site, Nomadic Matt.

He’s also the author of the New York Times best-seller How to Travel the World on $50 a Day. His writings and advice have been featured in The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian UK, Lifehacker, Budget Travel, BBC, Time, and Yahoo!

He also regularly speaks at travel trade and consumer shows, owns a hostel in Texas, and launched a non-profit called FLYTE, which empowers students from underserved communities through transformative travel experiences.

Listen on to find out how Matt has created a travel empire that helps others to become more adventurous.

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Show Notes:

Debbie:

Hey everyone, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m so excited for our guest. I’m here with Matt from Nomadic Matt. Hey, how are you today?

Matt:  I’m doing great. How are you?

Debbie:

I am doing well. Matt, many people in the travel industry will know your name since you are one of the OG of the travel blogging world. Can you tell us a little bit more about you and why you live an offbeat life for the very little amount of people that actually don’t know who you are.

Matt:

I’m sure plenty of people who don’t know who I am. It’s a big, big world. I am Matt and I run a travel website called nomadic Matt that teaches people to travel the world on a budget. I’ve been doing this for about 11 years. I started in 2008 after I’d come back after 18 months around the world of being a backpacker then came home and decided that I didn’t like coming home and I wanted to stay a backpacker.

So I did what any sane person would do. I booked a one-way flight back to Europe then went back to Asia, taught English there and then really grew my website while I was making money teaching English until I can make enough money to travel on with my website and I just sort of stayed the nomad.

Debbie:           

So there was a lot of things happening in your life and I know you were working at a corporate job, you’re also going to school back then and you had a lot of things happening when you were finally realizing that you wanted to be location independent, what were the first steps that you actually took to get to the point that you can do that?

Matt: 

I never really wanted to be location independent. My first trip around the world came at a break in my life. I had left the job I didn’t like, finished my MBA and thought well before I come back and settle down, I should go travel, get this bug out of my system. And I never really got it out of my system. I just kept traveling and I really just wanted my website to be an online resume where people could find my work. I would post my bylines, my news clippings, any quotes I had as a way for editors to hire me.

The original goal was simply just to make enough money to keep me traveling. There’s no grand ideas or anything more than that. It was just, how can I travel smarter and longer cause corporate kind of stinks. And so, I became an accidental traveler in the sense that I just happened into this and I just sort of became an accidental travel writer, slash blogger entrepreneur.

I just kept doing it and one day five years later you’re like, oh well here we are. Yeah, I’m making money from this. People are calling me for interviews. I’m writing a book and I guess this is my job now.

travel smarter

Debbie: 

And when you’re looking at your life, from the moment that you actually stepped foot in a different country, because you are talking about all of these years of not traveling. And I read on your bio that you actually just started traveling when you were 23 and then to do it full time, what is that feeling like knowing that all of the life you thought you were going to be living is completely put aside and now there’s this unknown future that you are walking into and it’s so different from what you may have thought and even your family and friends.

Matt:  

I think life is what happens while you’re planning your life. I mean, we all have these grand ideas, this master plan that we’re going to do. We’re going to live and, and you wake up 20 years later and you find yourself completely in a different spot. And so I think that the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized that there is no sense in really planning your life. You just kinda have to live your life.

You look back and you’ll always think, oh man, what if I’d done this or that? But when you’re in the day to day or just trying to get through the day, right? And so I always think, are you happy with your life? And the answer is yes, then you’re on the right path. Or if the answer is no, then you need to change the path you’re on.

And so when I think about this unconventional life I lead, am I happy with my life? Yeah. I’m happy. Would I have been happy in a different light? Maybe, I don’t know, somewhere in the multi verse, there is a different me living out my nine to five world, but this verse, I’m happy where I am.

Debbie: 

Well, it seems like a real dream job that most people would love to have. What has been the biggest misconception you think a lot of people think of when they look at your life and even you thought that you were going to be doing, but it was a total opposite.

Matt:               

Yeah. I think the grass is always greener on the other side. So when I get asked, what do you do for work? I’m a travel writer. Oh my God, that must be amazing. So you get paid to travel places? Yeah. Oh my gosh. The dream job. And you’re like, yeah, but it’s a job, you know, I mean, I don’t really like traveling with a lot of people to a new destination because I’m thinking I have to go see 20 museums.

I want to get through them really quickly. You pick up cues and clues as to what to look for in what makes a good museum. You want to go check on prices and wander around and it still work, right? I mean it’s a dream job until you realize you’re answering email all day. I’m flying all the time.

I never sleep in one place. I have no routine, so it’s not all like drinking wine, in a three-hour lunch in Paris. It’s like any job and I think people always think it’s just a constant adventure, but nobody is thinking about the hours. I spend on agonizing over an article in  Starbucks or trying to find Wifi.

Debbie:           

How do you keep up with everything because you have this massive brand that you’ve built and you’re constantly traveling? How do you do this successfully even though you’re on the road all the time?

Matt:               

When it was just my blog it was easier to do. I just had me and maybe a part-time assistant. Now I have a team of five because I like to create new projects. So, we’re always doing something new and that requires more humans.

But I don’t travel as much as I used to in part because I just have a lot to do. And so I think that when you’re trying to do this, it’s really important to separate travel and work. You can’t travel and work at the same time. If you’re going somewhere new, you’re going to go somewhere new then sit in a coffee shop, updating your blog. So I build in extra time. So if I’m going somewhere new, or if I’m going for six weeks in part because I spent two of those weeks, working.

So I was really only traveling for a month. Those two weeks were dispersed between those six weeks, they’ll be days where I would just lock myself in my Marriott and just catch up on work. I never left the hotel, cause I had to work and so I was building extra time and try to get as much done so that when I am traveling I’m as present as possible. Then not worry about updating sales pages or publishing posts. Since that’s all been set up. All I do is tweet and checking on email and everything else can wait. And so you really have to separate the two.

Debbie:   

And I think that’s a lot of what people’s misconceptions are is because they see your life on social media and they see all the pictures and they think that that’s the only thing that you’re doing is enjoying yourself all the time. And they don’t see all the struggle that you’re having. We’re you’re trying to balance all of it in order to create content for your audience, which is really tough to do when you’re traveling full time.

Matt:  

Yeah. I mean it’s a job.

Debbie: 

Now having gone through all of these different things in your life and now you’re here, you have this massive brand, what has been the biggest setback that you have faced and how do you usually handle them?

travel smarter

Matt: 

Anyone who is successful has tons of failures. Because nothing ever works the way you think of it. I mean, one thing off the top of my head is a few years ago we did a big Kickstarter, raised a bunch of money and I lost money on the APP. Why? Because we gave shirts away and I didn’t really factor in the shipping cost of shirts and cost lots of money and then the costs to update an APP is a lot.

You released a version and everyone’s like, well you shouldn’t do this and that, that, and then you suddenly have to hire another developer. So we eventually just stopped updating the APP because we can never really built it in the way we wanted with the revenue we had.

But one thing people liked were tee shirts. So we said, okay we’ll order a bunch of tee shirts and people were buying them and we’ll make a couple of bucks off a shirt. It’s print on demand, no sweat. So we bought this whole inventory just to stock it up and I think we finally got rid of that. We just gave them all away last year. We just had hundreds of shirts we had totally miscalculated it, and then we eventually sold enough to break even. And then I just gave the rest of the shirts away, two failures right there. I think you just have to say, man, we lost a bunch of money on this. We lost a bunch of money on that. Let’s never do that again.

You learn, I mean, we’ve put a ton of money to guidebooks that didn’t succeed as we thought and we constantly have to shift. You live and you learn. And I think that I don’t view failure as a bad thing. It’s just disheartening you’re very excited by the project and it completely bombs.

But you know, we’re in business here and we have to try new and exciting ways to increase revenue as well as meet our customer demands. The market is always changing. Things are always changing and you have to keep up with it. I mean, I gotta keep doing Instagram and video and I hate all those things.

Debbie:  

t’s also a learning experience. So it’s not always a failure if you’re learning and you make yourself better from all of those setbacks, even though it may not feel like that at the moment. And it may feel like the end of the world sometimes because you lose a lot of money from it and get so much stress from all of that.

Matt: 

Yeah. Yeah. It never really bugs me. We move on quickly or accept that didn’t work. Let’s try something else.

Debbie:  

Yeah. Especially if you’re an entrepreneur, you’re gonna be facing these setbacks. If you can’t handle them, then you may not, or most likely will not be able to stay in it for a long time because there’s going to be a lot of setbacks that are going to come your way.

Matt: 

You’re right. That’s how things go.

Debbie:    

So, Matt, you talked about social media, doing videos and Instagram and since you’ve started your company and your website, there’s been a lot of changes happening. And looking at the current travel community right now, the blogging community, what has been the most cringe-worthy things that you’ve seen so far?

Matt: 

Where do I begin? I hate the term influencer. I think you have influence. You don’t call yourself an influencer. I think that’s a stupid term made up by people who don’t actually have a goal. You know, what am I am a writer, what do you do? You make podcasts. My doctor doesn’t call himself a medical influencer. Stephen King doesn’t call himself a writing influencer, his a writer.

I just hate the term big and because people are like, well, I’m an influencer. They are just really self-promoting marketers. I think that tends to create content that’s me focused, which is all about what you’re doing and how cool you are in the life you’re leading, the partnerships you’re doing.

It’s just voyeurism that eventually people will move along from because nobody really cares about your life. They’re living their own life. They have their own stuff to deal with. So nobody wants to see how awesome your life is 24/7, 365 days.

Humans are naturally voyeuristic. That’s why we have like this weird fetish with celebrities, the English royals when people buy people magazine, but you know, you look at that ones a week, nobody wants to look at it all the time. So I think there’s this trend right now, to create content that is all about you and people will create content that’s all about you. It’s just a flash in the pan because nobody really cares. Nobody cares.

You’re not that important to the other people. They have their own stuff to deal with. As much as we all think that we’re the center of the world we’re not. Everyone thinks that about themselves and it’s definitely not a long term plan for a business or a career because like you said, no one’s going to be really interested in you for that long. It’s definitely less than 15 minutes of fame for sure.

Matt:   

You’re right. I mean, you remember the stuff white people, do you remember that?

Debbie:  

No, I don’t. It was funny back in 2008, it was called stuff white people like. And it basically just made fun of hipster and yuppie white people. Really fun stuff. White people like Starbucks, Apple computers, say how much they love nature. And then they had stuff black people likes, stuff Asian people like, stuff women life, I mean they had all these crazy things. It was a thing in 2008 and they made a book out of it. But, where is it now? Nowhere. Why? Cause it was a funny thing for a moment in time.

And then people moved on, right. The people that have lasted 10, 15 years provide interesting content but also value to the reader. Something that makes their life better. And so stuff white people like was last updated in 2010 so it’s a long time ago.

travel smarter

Debbie: 

I don’t even know it. So that just tells you most people probably haven’t been in the know with that type of a community for a long time.

Matt:  

Yeah. I think that you’ve got to provide value and not just be about you.

Debbie:    

It’s really hard to do that in this time now because there are so many things on social media that just shows you people’s lives are so perfect and you want to start doing it too. And the thing is, it’s harder to actually create content that is really meaningful. And I think that’s why a lot of people shy away from it is because once they actually realize how much work it takes to give value, they don’t move on with it.

And that’s why someone like you, Matt, has created such a huge brand for yourself and this empire in this business because you continuously give value to other people. And it’s not just about you. You help everyone with your website, with your writing and the products that you have created.

Matt:    

Yeah. I mean, we’re a consumer website, we’re here to help people travel smarter and on a budget. So everything we do is about getting people to travel more for less.

Debbie:   

You have been all over the world. I’m sure you’ve talked to a ton of different people because you have your own conference and everyone wants to talk to you and I’m sure you have gotten a lot of advice from everyone, even now that you are really successful. What has been the worst advice that you have ever received?

Matt:  

The worst advice I’ve ever received in business. You know, honestly, I don’t know. It was probably so bad I forgot about it. It would probably be the idea that you have to be everywhere on, always be posting and be on every social media platform and all that stuff. I don’t do any of that and I’ve done just fine.

So I think this idea that you always have to be on is a little bit BS. There’s this idea among bloggers that you gotta always be posting and doing stuff. Again, people have their own lives. They don’t care if you’re going to take a week off to do something, people aren’t voyeuristic as people believe the Internet is.

So I don’t even have Snapchat and the last time I made a YouTube video was like seven years ago. And of course, people want to do video now, but at the end of the day, people still Google questions and that’s where we’re coming from.

Debbie:  

And you have your niche, you have your platform, and if you’re doing that really well, people will keep coming back. You’re right, you don’t have to be everything for everyone. And you’re doing it well, you’re doing fine and you’re making money from it, which is great. How were you able to create income from the start and how do you continue to create income today?

Matt:               

I mean, back in the beginning, I didn’t really make any money from my blog for a year. But back then you sold links and content and did affiliates, That was really it and you ran ads. Google wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today. So companies will buy links on a bunch of websites so they can rank higher. And that’s how most bloggers made a lot of their money, there’d be a sidebar full of just random links and then I started writing ebooks, and then I started to make more money. Google changed their algorithm. I stopped selling text links, I wrote more ebooks, I got deeper into SEO and affiliate marketing and I just started to make money that way. Folks in affiliate and then we created our courses.

So that was sort of the next thing. And I wrote a traditionally published book and so I had royalties coming in from that. Most of our revenue is courses, affiliates, ebooks, as a company as a whole. Now we also have Travel Con, so that is another revenue stream. So we used to run tours, that was a revenue stream for a while. But then I decided I really didn’t like doing tours. So we stopped doing tours.

Debbie: 

It’s great that you are able to create income from so many different streams and you didn’t just put yourself in one box, you tested out all of these different things and you found out what worked for you. And we’re also going to talk about how to create and market your digital products for our extended interview. So make sure you listen to that cause I’m really excited to talk to Matt about it because he is such a great marketer and you’ve created so many digital products already that have done really well.

So Matt, let’s fast forward to 40 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 for?

Matt:  

I hope I’m still alive in 30 to 40 years. So people aren’t mourning me and remembering my half. So let’s fast forward 60 years probably a hundred, And I think that’s a bunch of innings.

I don’t know, helping people travel smarter and making the world a slightly better place by showing people that the world beyond their borders isn’t so scary.

That is a really good legacy to leave. And you are already creating so many different legacies even right now and you’re still so young. So that’s going to be exciting to see what the next 50 years is going to do. And what’s going to unfold. I mean, I’m not so, so young. I’m going to be 40, pretty soon? If this is a hundred years ago. I’d have 10 years left to live.

travel smarter

Debbie:

Well, thank God it’s not a hundred or 200 years ago. Right. You’re healthy.

Matt:  

As far as I know.

Debbie: 

Matt, is there any question that you wish people asked you more of?

Matt:

Anything that is not travel related would be awesome. I have many tastes, many tastes.

Debbie:

What are your hobbies besides travel? I like to cook, workout, hike, I watch a lot of the movies, I read. Politics is like my second passion. It’s what keeps me busy.

Debbie:

And it’s also probably keeping you sane because you’re always so busy and that will get you going. Aside from just work and travel and all of that stuff that I’m sure you are bombarded with every day. What are you currently working on that is really exciting to you?

Matt:

Well, I have a new book coming out. It’s called “10 years a nomad, a traveler’s journey home”. It is about my 10 years backpacking around the world. It contains stories and lessons and advice from the road, about how I change, how people change. There are travelers who change the longer that go, why people go.

My other books are sort of like the how of travel, here’s how to do this, here’s how to save money. This is more of the why, and the what. Here’s why things happen and here’s why people go on what happens and what you can learn from that. So it’s just more philosophy and stories from the road, which is a lot different from what I normally write. Which is practical guides and how to style.

Debbie: 

Oh, that’s really exciting. I can’t wait to read that once it comes out and we’ll definitely put a link on it on our website.

Matt:

It comes out July 16th, 2019.

Debbie:  

Perfect. If our listeners want to know more about you, where can they find you?

Matt: 

I am well branded everywhere on the Internet as Nomadic mat. So my website is nomadicmatt.com. You can type in Nomadic Matt to every social media network. But Snapchat, I don’t even think Snapchat has a website, but everywhere else you’ll find me.

Debbie: 

Perfect. Thank you so much, Matt, for joining us today. I really appreciate all of the insights that you gave us.

Matt:   

Thanks for having me. 

Listen to Matthew’s extended interview where he shares how to create and market the right digital products for your business.

Listen Below:

What you’ll find:

How to find the right products to sell to their audience. 

  • Ask the audience what your audience wants, create a readers survey, and figure out their pain points. 
  • Once you find out their problems, you can find the solution and create the right products.
  • Become a person they can trust.

Which products do you actually try to sell to your audience?

  • It is again finding out what your audience needs are and how you can solve their issues and what they want. 

How to find the right pricing for your products?

  • Figure out what other people are pricing their products and structure your pricing from there. 

How do you market your products?

  • Get on as many different platforms and talk about your products, talk about it frequently.
  • Be persistent and post as much as possible. 

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