The Man Who Seems to Have it All

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An Interview with Matt Kepnes – fearfuladventurer.com

Travel, money, internet fame—does Nomadic Matt have it all? Matt Kepnes opens up on travel blogging, dealing with bad press, and whether or not he has it all…

Matt Kepnes’ story is fascinating. If you don’t yet know who he is, I’ll give you a brief introduction:

After finishing his MBA, Matt decided to spend some time seeing the world. Eighteen months later, after returning home to Boston, Matt found himself uninspired at the prospect of returning to his office job. Travel, or working in a nondescript office lit by flickering fluorescent lights and decorated with condescending inspirational posters of kittens overcoming challenge? Hmm. That’s a tough one.

Matt picked travel, and he started a blog to get into travel writing.

This was back in 2008, when dinosaurs roamed the internet and only a tiny number of bloggers had predicted that it would one day become possible to earn a living from this obscure hobby.

Matt was one of them.

Matt_Kepnes_Nomadic_MattFlash forward to 2013: Matt is now earning six figures from his self-made career, while thousands of other digital nomads are working overtime, hoping to mimic his success. While his ex-MBA-classmates sit in cubes and answer to The Man, Nomadic Matt is answering to nobody as he jets off to exotic destinations to roll around on Penthouse waterbeds blanketed with $100 bills.

(Okay, maybe I imagined that last part. I think he’s more likely to be found in cheap hostels, writing up budget-savvy travel advice for his massive readership of 200K per month.)

On top of this, Matt has just become a Penguin-published author with his book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day.

It seems that this man has it all.

But is that the case? I harassed him over email to find out.

Okay, so you finish your M.B.A., but instead of getting a steady job, you take off traveling. Permanently. Your parents and friends must have thought you were throwing away your life? What did your MBA peers think of your plan? How did people react?

I didn’t know anyone in my program. It was a part time program. My parents didn’t want me to leave and tried to talk me out of it. My dad kept showing me job openings. Eventually, they sort of dropped the subject in hopes I would change my mind. I didn’t. My friends didn’t really react much. They were mostly like “oh that’s cool.” … I don’t really remember anyone trying to talk me out of it.

I talk a lot about naysayers on my blog (or ‘assholes,’ as I call them.) Did you get many naysayers? If so, how did you deal with that?

You develop a thick skin. There will always be trolls on the Internet. In some cases, I’ll take their hate and turn it into a good blog post that inspires others to ignore the haters. In many cases, I’ll reply back with a polite but backhanded attack. For the most part, I just ignore it. They are just a fact of life.

Can your achievements be repeated given that when you started, there was only about 10 people doing the same thing, and now there are several thousand?

Yes, they can. To say they can’t is to say that no one can ever open a new restaurant again because there are already so many that exist. If you have a good idea, you can make it work. You need a unique story or angle that hasn’t been done to death. Stand out from the crowd and it doesn’t matter how big the crowd is. People will notice you.

Can you take us though the early stages of inventing your career? When did you know you had something? Did you have a strong vision, or did it morph and take form once you began?

I’ve never really heard that I invented my career before. I like that phrasing. In the beginning, I had no idea what I was doing – I had no plan, no vision, no idea. I was just kind of rolling with what was given to me. I just reacted to events. It didn’t really morph into something with a plan until late 2009, early 2010. It was then I realized I could do something more with the site and started to develop a strategy on how to succeed.

Did you have moments of self-doubt?

All the time. Still do. I think every successful person does.

Did any other bloggers, writers, or entrepreneurs inspire you? Do you have mentors?

Lots. Folks like Tim Ferriss, Ramit Sethi, Chris Guillebeau among others all inspired me to get better at what I do. I get a lot of good feedback from the blogging community – Ramit, Chris, plus folks like Derek Halpern, Corbett Barr, among others. These guys are very good at what they do and very helpful in giving advice. We bat a lot of ideas around.

What’s the worst criticism you’ve ever received? How did you cope with it?

Ramit Sethi from I’ll teach you to be rich just laced into me one day over drinks about my lack of a plan, strategy, and more marketing. It was like 45 minutes of why I suck. It was the best experience ever. I learned a lot and was able to rethink how I planned everything. Too many times travel bloggers take criticism personally when really, most of the time it’s helpful advice. If someone is taking the time to tell you how to get better, even if it’s not in the nicest of tones, listen. They really do care.

You got a bunch of bad press from your piece about Vietnam. How did you feel about that? Do you think that exposure ultimately benefited you?

The world is a giant place and you can’t expect to like 100% of it. I didn’t like Vietnam. I had a bad trip there. It happens. My point was that with such a big world, why would I go back to a place I felt mistreated in when there is so many new places to see? With those kind of articles, people read what they want to read and for the naysayers, they read “I hate Vietnamese people.” When someone says “I didn’t like France” I don’t think “You racist French hater!”

In the end, I got a lot of buzz out of it and you know what they say, all press is good press.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?

Creating a website people actual read, respect, and use. It’s amazing knowing that people listen. Sometimes it’s hard to believe. You think to yourself “Really? You read my site?? You liked it?” It’s humbling.

Your book How to Travel the World on $50 a Day was originally a successful self-published e-book, but you decided to sell the rights to Penguin. Self-publishing is said to be the future of publishing, but your actions don’t align with this rumor. Take us through your decision to self-publish. 

Self-publishing is great. You get 100% of the profits and if you are a big name or are selling your books for 99 cents, you can be pretty successful at it. But eventually you hit a wall and since I wasn’t in the Amazon store, there was a limit to what I could do. A traditional publisher gives you access to media you can only dream about and a print book gives you credibility that can’t come with self-publishing and not every one wants to buy an ebook. Some people still like paper. I don’t regret the decision at all.

Do you have any thoughts on the future of publishing?

Not much. I don’t really think about it but if I had to think about it I would say more first time authors will come from blogs and ebooks are only going to get bigger.

Do you have any advice for the bloggers out there who wish to get a publishing deal?

Torre, you’ll likely agree that having a built-in audience is key. Publishers know that no matter what, you’re going to sell some books for them and there will be built-in word of mouth. If you want to pitch a deal, build up an audience. You’ll have an easier time convincing a publisher to take a chance on you.

A lot of people idealize the traveler’s lifestyle. From the outside, it could seem like you have it all. Is your life as glamorous as it seems? Is there anything you idealize? Is the grass greener elsewhere for you?

The grass is always greener somewhere. I wouldn’t say my life is glamorous. I wish I was around in one place more so I could have steady friendships and relationships, as well as get to a gym more. Even with moving to NYC, I’m only there about ½ the month. Yes, I get to travel a lot but a lot of the times I’m working. I’m not just hanging out at a bar relaxing.

Do you have any regrets? 

I never studied abroad. I was young and naïve and that was a mistake. More recently, I left a girl in Asia. I should have stayed. Leaving effectively ended our relationship. That’s a big regret.

If you could give one piece of advice to the whippersnapper who started nomadicmatt.com in 2008, what would it be?

Put a giant subscribe box on the front of your website for everyone to see so people actually follow your site. I lost thousands of readers by making it hard to find the button to subscribe to my site.

What happens when you’re done with being nomadic, Matt?

The rapture.

And lastly, because it’s the subject of my blog, what’s your greatest fear?

Heights. I hate heights. I’m always afraid I’m going to fall off something or come crashing down and hit the earth. God put us on the ground because our feet are supposed to be planted on the earth – not high in the sky! So yes, in case you were wondering, I am also a really nervous flier.

If you have any more questions for Matt, ask him in the comment section below. 

. . . . . . . . . . . .

How-to-travel-the-worldMatt has turned his last seven years of backpacking and blogging into a resource packed with tips, called How to Travel the World on $50 a Day. According to Matt, you don’t have to be disgustingly rich to see the world.

If you’re plotting out your own grand adventure on a shoestring budget, buy it for yourself, or gift it to an intrepid pal here.

Leave a Comment

  • Vegemitevix March 14, 2013, 8:54 am

    Great interview Torre. I met Matt at the TBU meetup in Porto, and then on a tour into the Douro Valley, and I can attest he hates flying! :-) One thing he said in the interview which resonates is the comment that despite the thousands of travel bloggers you have to do your own thing. It’s marketing 101 – create for yourself a niche and stick with it. Travel blogging is going off like a bomb overseas in Europe and North America so I think this is exceptional advice.

    Reply
  • Cat of Sunshine and Siestas March 14, 2013, 9:19 am

    ooooh, I like the re-design! I’ve been strictly a reader girl for some time (and sad about it’s imminent death).

    I happened to nearly smack Matt in the face at TBU Porto and was too mortified to introduce myself after that. His was the first blog I started reading while thinking of moving abroad, and I still get his updates and have bought a few of his e-books. Needless to say, I was star-struck!

    Reply
  • Charli l Wanderlusters March 14, 2013, 10:00 am

    A great insight into someone who inspires so many in the travel blogging industry. Ourselves included. Matt opened up the world to the ordinary man with his can do attitude and savvy travel tips.

    It’s comforting to hear even the most well traveled still have a bucket list and travel regrets, turns out he’s human after all!

    Reply
  • Jay March 14, 2013, 1:54 pm

    How did you not link his blog in the opening segment. And it’s not even linked until the 8th question by you…. shame.

    Reply
    • Torre DeRoche March 14, 2013, 2:09 pm

      Fixed—thank you for flagging that oversight. The internet needs more great people like you, Jay. The world would be anarchy if not for those who go around attempting to imbed a sense of shame into others for their mistakes. As I always say: Down with kindness, up with shame!

      Reply
      • Matthew Karsten April 25, 2013, 2:47 am

        LOL. Kindness is overrated. Shame is a great motivator. :)

        Reply
  • Tatiana March 14, 2013, 1:58 pm

    This is great. I mostly read a lot of really small travel bloggers versus the super big ones like Nomadic Matt.

    So I really like this interview because I don’t know anything about Matt! I think it’s so awesome that he knows Ramit Sethi – who I’m secretly in love with – and that Ramit sat him down and chatted him up. I’m envious!

    I guess my question for Matt would be “what compelled him to start blogging his adventures?” Now it’s pretty common to start a blog, but back when most people were mostly using the internet to play on myspace or download music, Matt started his travel blog. Why?

    Reply
    • Nomadic Matt March 15, 2013, 10:46 pm

      I was originally simply using my blog as an online resume to start a freelancing career.

      Reply
  • Carmel March 14, 2013, 2:53 pm

    Great interview, Torre. I am happy to see a successful blogger who doesn’t say some version of, “oh, there’s so many blogs, so good luck having the success I’ve had.” The restaurant analogy is a perfect one.

    Reply
  • Sky March 14, 2013, 8:38 pm

    Great interview, Torre! Matt’s blog was the first travel blog I found and many of his posts played a huge part in inspiring me to travel more.

    Reply
  • Katie @ Domestiphobia.net March 14, 2013, 10:03 pm

    This is a timely interview! A Travel Blogger friend of mine mentioned Matt in a conversation recently, and I’d actually never stumbled across is blog in all my time reading travel blogs. Crazy! Or maybe I’ve just been drawn to the more “personal” and less “business” blogs, so I never stuck around on his. He sounds like a pretty incredible guy!

    Reply
  • Michael Hodson March 15, 2013, 8:55 pm

    Go get ‘um, little Mattie. Love my little blogging brother.

    And Torre, nice interview here. Glad you are apparently hitting the interview series now. Well done!

    Reply
  • Ian Rhodes March 17, 2013, 8:10 pm

    Great interview, and a fascinating story. Certainly something to aspire to!

    Reply
  • Mikeachim March 17, 2013, 10:34 pm

    Tell Matt he still owes me that $1500 from that time in London.

    I mean, he actually doesn’t owe me anything. But don’t tell him that. I’m trying to be *entrepreneurial* here. I know other people would call it “scamming” or something life, but I call it entrepreneurship. Just like certain elements of the banking sector in 2009. Anyway, tell Matt I need the money quickly.

    Interesting to see that one of the most well-travelled people I know (I mean you’re travelled a lot, not that you’re worn and threadbare, Matt) is nervous of flying. Me too, so that was heartening to read, since I’d love to travel as much.

    Matt, I need that $1500, man. Do the right thing.

    Reply
  • Ashley March 19, 2013, 10:07 pm

    Great interview!

    Reply
  • Ann March 25, 2013, 1:24 pm

    You cannot imagine how much time I have spent reading your blog. I love that you have just introduced me to someone I had not heard of before. Thanks for this awesome interview.

    Reply
  • Carmen Allan-Petale March 28, 2013, 11:26 am

    Great interview! He’s such an inspiring man!

    Reply
  • Erica March 28, 2013, 10:54 pm

    I loved this interview. Great idea, Torre! I remember when I started reading Matt’s blog back in 2008, I’ve read every post since, and it’s been inspiring to see how the Nomadic Matt blog has developed over the years. I really admire Matt’s dedication to budget travel and giving advice so more people can follow their dreams and see the world. Not least how he shows that travel doesn’t need to be expensive or difficult. With enough preparation/working/saving up a buffer, anyone can do it.

    Reply
  • TammyOnTheMove April 10, 2013, 1:27 pm

    Great interview Torre. Really interesting questions and answers. Matt is a real inspiration. 200k readers? That is incredible. I get about 3k-must be doing something wrong. :-(

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  • Stephen S. April 15, 2013, 12:24 pm

    Loved reading this interview, there are some great insights, like use trolls to fuel your passion for blogging.

    Reply
  • Linda June 5, 2013, 12:32 pm

    I have confessions to make one to you, one to Matt. I stopped subscribed to both your blogs! Which is why I’m only just seeing this post now. Yours first, Torre: I was on the cusp of buying your book when you self-published – then it was whipped off the market for a while when your publisher snapped it up & I stopped reading your blog, waiting for the book, so there would be no spoilers! Correcting that this minute!

    To Matt: In 2010 I lost my job, and having loved travel and read anything travel connected for years & years (books, magazines, latterly blogs) I wondered if I could travel and blog too. To that end I bought some ebooks, including Matt’s – which was the only one worth the money! The advice was specific and relevant, whilst the others (no names, no pack drill!) trolled on about being inspiring, they were boring and the advice was nothing which wasn’t obvious! I stopped subcribing because my inbox was getting overfull, and my time more and more limited, knowing that when I need advice about a particular place or subject I only have to log on. Still follow on social media, of course. As someone else said, my reading tastes tend more to narrative and following journeys, but the snatches on social media over the last few months made me feel that well, excuse me if I sound patronizing (but I’m, like, A LOT older than Matt!), but that he has “matured” for want of a better word. The interview made me feel that too, as if he now has terrific focus. Does he feel that himself, is my question? How has travel affected the maturing process? Does he feel he would be more or less mature had he opted for the cubicle? I don’t confuse “maturity” with “responsibility” btw – I don’t subscribe to the view that a life of travel is irresponsible! Maturity more in the sense of wisdom. And if he does feel that, and obviously he’s learned a great deal from travel, how does he now intend to pass that on to other people, apart from travel advice itself, is there a “state of mind” he would like to share? Admitting to fear of heights is a part of that I guess.

    This is something you’ve done in your book, Torre, and even if travel isn’t the end goal, overcoming fear is a huge, huge thing in life!

    Reply
  • Sofie January 7, 2014, 3:19 pm

    Fear of heights – I sooooo know the feeling!
    As a child I used to get dizzy when I had to stand on the table so my mom could make my trousers shorter.
    It’s THAT bad.

    Nice to know one of the biggest travel writers shares that fear:)

    Reply