Matt Kepnes was just 23 in 2004 when he took his first overseas vacation to Costa Rica. For someone else, this would have been a brief break from a corporate job. But to Matt, this trip — followed by a second overseas trip to Thailand — set him on the road to pursuing his newfound passion for travel full time.
In July 2006, Matt set out on an adventure around the world that continued for 10 years. An early travel blogger, he founded Nomadic Matt in 2008 with the goal of helping people “travel better for less.”
Today, Matt has two New York Times best-selling books, “How to Travel the World on $50 a Day” and “Ten Years a Nomad.” He teaches blogging and writing courses, engages with his active online community and runs a charity he founded in 2015.
In a recent interview, we chatted with Matt while he was traveling through Oaxaca, Mexico. He shared how he built Nomadic Matt from the ground up, what he’s working on now and how he manages to enjoy a non-working vacation every once in a while.
Can you give us a breakdown of all your current creative undertakings?
I have the blog, which is NomadicMatt.com, and then I have blogging and writing courses. Then we have a conference called TravelCon, where online creators and media go to learn what's hot in the travel industry.
I had a hostel, which is closed due to COVID-19, and we have our online community, the Nomadic Network, which also used to hold in-person events around the world. And then I have a charity called FLYTE, that raises money to send high-school kids in underserved communities on study-abroad trips.
Why did you decide to become a travel blogger?
I started the website to try to get freelance writing gigs. I naively thought that if I started a website, that people would hire me to write. So I sent out a lot of freelance writing pitches and worked as a copywriter for online ads and websites for a time.
While building up the blog, my mentor said to me, “You have a travel website and expertise. You should just focus on that full-time." And so I did, and it took off.
I brought a lot of SEO knowledge into Nomadic Matt, so I was ranking highly on search, which helped me get media mentions. I got a hit in the New York Times in 2010 and that launched everything. And one day I woke up, and I said to myself, I guess I'm a travel writer.
How much of your SEO knowledge do you use today?
At least two-thirds of the searches on our site have nothing to do with the pandemic, so a considerable amount of our time and effort goes into ensuring we rank highly on these more evergreen topics. I’m also always updating our content and asking, “How can we optimize this page?” and “How is Google ranking our competitors?”
I've identified about 150 pages on my website that I always want to rank highly. So we cycle through those articles and ask ourselves, “Where do we stand?” And if we see we’re down in the rankings, we ask, “What's changed and what can we do better?"
I also do every interview I’m offered, because those interviews link back to my site.
You mentioned your blogging course. Can you tell us about that?
I have a blogging course called Superstar Business Masterclass, and we have one for writing, too. You can buy a monthly, quarterly or yearly subscription, and I am your teacher. I edit your work. We have weekly calls. You have tech support. We have a community forum and a collaboration board so other students can meet each other. I share what I’ve learned over 12 years, so people don't end up making the same mistakes I did. I also help you stick out when there's a million platforms and a seemingly endless number of bloggers.
Why do you still maintain a website when you have all these other platforms? Why is it important to you?
Algorithms change, but my space on the web is something that can't be taken away. It allows me to build an email list and be a reference for people. So rather than constantly having to find new people through search or having to play a social media algorithm game where things are always changing, I have my own place to call home online.
And travel is a research-heavy thing. You don't make a $3,000 vacation purchase because Instagram has a “shop now” button. You have to get time off from work, you have to plan your trip, you're doing a lot of research, buying guidebooks, etc. So people still use text-heavy articles to research, and a blog is the best medium for that.
Does travel writing as a job ever take away from the pleasure of traveling?
Yes, yes it does. When I was traveling for fun, I wasn't taking pictures of menus and walking into grocery stores to write down prices for vegetables. But there's different kinds of travel writing, and I do a lot of what is called service journalism, where knowing how much things cost is important. I have to be a little more attuned to prices, especially because I work on the budget side of things where people are price-sensitive.
Like any job, it's really important to take time off. So, there are many times where I'll just go somewhere, shut down the computer and just enjoy a place without writing. You learn how to balance it.