I cut my trip in Australia and New Zealand short.
It was 2008, and I’d been traveling for 18 months. I was simply sick of traveling. I was tired of meeting people, tired of moving around, tired of having the same conversations over and over. So I decided one day in Brisbane that it was time to head home. I chucked my flight to New Zealand and was homeward bound the next week.
Two weeks later, I wanted to be back in New Zealand.
The warm glow of being home had worn off. I was listless. It was winter. I had no job, no idea what to do. And life back home was the same as I had left it.
I thought about going back to teaching or doing something with renewable energy. But for the immediate future, I needed a job. Luckily, my cousin had a temp agency and got me a job covering for a woman while she was on maternity leave.
My job was simple. It was nothing a monkey couldn’t do. Not wanting to hand off important tasks to a temp, they had me answering and routing calls. It was incredibly boring. I spent every day on Facebook.
That down time allowed me to realize two things:
First, life hadn’t changed at all. Friends, family, Boston—all of it had stayed in stasis while I was gone. I had changed, but the world around me hadn’t. It was disheartening. And there was no one I knew who could relate to what I was feeling.
Secondly, I now knew I didn’t want to teach. I didn’t want to work in business. I certainly never wanted to see a cubicle ever again. And all that down time on Facebook let me ponder my future. What would I do? What was I passionate about?
Well, I knew I wanted to get out of the cubicle, and I knew I loved travel. I wanted a job that got me out of the cubicle and exploring the world. “Maybe I should become a travel writer,” I thought. “I bet writing guidebooks would be pretty cool and that would get me out of the house!” It sounded perfect.
But how would I get started? I had no idea. I had no established writing resume or any experience. Being the Gen Y-er that I am, I thought—the Internet can solve this problem. I’ll create a website, write for some other websites, and then I can submit to Lonely Planet when I have some experience. It was a foolproof plan. Everyone has a website these days anyways.
So I started this website. I was torn between two names: nomadicmatt.com or mattdoestheworld.com. Polling my friends, they said to go with nomadicmatt, as the other one sounded too sexual. They made a good choice. (Back then, I didn’t give any thought to a brand name.)
In the beginning, it was a simple site. I had some friends teach me basic HTML, and my site looked like this:
Pretty awful, huh? It’s like a bad Windows desktop. And it was a real pain to hand code everything, but it did help me learn HTML, a skill that has come in very handy over the years. Moreover, my original posts were short, poorly written, and sort of all over the place. They were just awful. I’ve actually gone back and edited them a bit to make them better and more detailed.
I guess it’s easy to look back and think, “What the hell was I thinking?!” But when you’re just starting off, you think everything you write is genius. You’re simply finding your way. What works? What doesn’t? What’s your voice? What’s your message?
Over the next few months, I wrote for Matador, Vagabondish, and Hotel Club and guest posted on a few other sites. I was building traffic and getting new readers. I was figuring it all out. Soon, I thought, I would be writing guidebooks. My name would be in Lonely Planet, and all would be right with the universe.
Except that never happened. I logged long, long, long hours in front of my computer (I think I still do) trying to gain exposure and readers. I kept at it, but I often felt I wasn’t getting anywhere. After eight months, I was no closer to success than when I started.
Then one day someone offered me $100 USD to put a text link ad up. I took it. I needed the money. Then a few months later, I got more offers. Then more offers. By the end of 2008, I was making a steady $1,000 per month from my site via text links and Adsense.
Around this same time, I started getting more exposure in traditional media and online circles. I had a few big guest posts. My search traffic was going up. I was getting more readers. It was as though the snowball I was trying to push down the hill suddenly sped up and began going on its own. The stars were aligning and things were happening.
But they weren’t aligning for me to become a guidebook writer. No, Matt Kepnes, Lonely Planet author, was slowly morphing into Nomadic Matt, budget travel blogger.
I harbored dreams of guidebooks for a long time, though, even after the success of my first ebook. But when I went to my first travel conference and everyone called me “Nomadic Matt,” I realized that was who I was and what I was meant to do. I started out on one journey, but ended up somewhere completely different. I couldn’t be happier.
To quote Robert Frost:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”